The Age Gap and Autism

I want to talk to you about something I personally struggle with on a daily basis. I guess that’s kinda vague because, let’s be honest, I struggle with quite a bit.  I’ll be a bit more specific and focus on just one issue in particular. Let me start by asking you a question. Do you think that there can be a difference between a persons chronological age (think number of birthdays) and their emotional age? Anyone? If you said answered “yes” give yourself a shiny gold star because you are 100% correct.

I refer to the difference between chronological and emotional age as the age gap. Many kids with Autism will present with this age gap as part of the developmental delay. The Lost and Tired family is no exception. For the purposes of this post I will be sharing Gavin’s story because his is a really good example and it’s a situation that I personally struggle with.

What is the age gap?

Gavin is 11 years old. He has had 11 birthdays so far in his young life. However, while Gavin has experienced 11 birthday’s he remains about 3 or 4 years old emotionally.  What does this mean and how does this happen? Basically, this means that while Gavin is physically a pre-teen pubescent young man, deep down inside is still a toddler. As to why  or how this happened, I don’t have the answer. My best guess is that this is simply a part of the developmental delay that is a huge part of Autism.

Symbolic of who Gavin is on the outside, standing next to who he is on the inside.

Here’s a really bad analogy but I think it makes the most sense. Gavin is in many ways like the Incredible Hulk.  Remember, I did say it was a bad analogy but it will make sense.

Gavin is very intelligent and many times acts like he is 11 years old. However, when he get’s anxious, upset, angry, scared or even overly excited, he responds to these situations as though he is 3 or 4 years old.  This is why I choose the Incredible Hulk analogy for this. It’s a crude example but when Bruce Banner gets angry or upset he turns into the Incredible Hulk. For Gavin in particular, this is where many of the meltdowns come into play.  In other words,  Gavin is, in many ways, a toddler trapped inside the body of an 11 year old boy. Gavin’s the poster child for “Looks can be deceiving“.

Keep in mind that every child and adult with Autism is different and unique. Not every person will present with the exact same scenario but many do. The age gap is something many people are not aware of but should be.

Looks can be deceiving, especially with the age gap

We have all heard the phrases, looks can be deceiving or never judge a book by its cover. Those phrases are absolutely a perfect fit for this situation. One of the reasons I wanted to share this is because of my personal struggle with this very challenging situation. When Gavin is in the middle of a meltdown, I often struggle to see the situation for what it really is.  While I firmly believe that Gavin has at least some control over these meltdowns, there is much more going on beneath the surface then meets the eye.

I often forget that Gavin is quite prone to these behaviors because he is, in fact, only 3 or 4 years old emotionally. When I see Gavin having a meltdown, many assumptions are made because he’s 11 years old and should know better. However, if I could truly see Gavin for who he is at that very moment, I would see a much different picture. The picture I would see is that of a very small child, overwhelmed, upset, angry or scared. You would see that same small child responding in the only way they know how to at that age. This is where I struggle. I all to often forget who Gavin really is or rather how old he really is on the inside. In all honesty, it’s very difficult to remember this because Gavin is physically much bigger and stronger then the 3 or 4 year old little boy he is on the inside.

If who Gavin is on the outside matched who he is on the inside then the behavior wouldn’t appear so inappropriate. The problem, at least for us, is that Gavin is much bigger and stronger than a 3 or 4 year old little boy is. When he has a meltdown they are very dangerous. He can do quite a bit of damage to his environment during one of these meltdowns as well. I have to concern myself with the safety issues at that moment and often times the root cause is overlooked.

I know that I have to ensure everyone’s safety during on of these meltdowns but I don’ always know how to actually handle Gavin. I mean, how accountable for his actions is he? If he’s 3 or 4 years old on the inside and 11 years old on the outside how do I handle discipline? This is something we have struggled with for years. No one has the answers for us and Gavin certainly didn’t come with a set of instructions. Basically, Gavin and Emmett are on the same level as far as emotional maturity is concerned. Can we honestly hold Gavin any more accountable then we would Emmett? If Emmett were melting down or having a temper tantrum, no one would think that was out of place because they see a 3 year old little boy.  However, because Gavin is much older on the outside then he is on the inside and is in truth much more dangerous, everything is different.

The age gap complicates many things that are already complicated enough on their own. In Gavin’s case the age gap is pretty wide and doesn’t appear to be closing. In fact, with each passing year the age gap is widening. This is largely the reason why we are looking at childhood disintegrative disorderGavin’s situation is not typical but it very clearly illustrates a very common issue with ASD kids.  While most Autistic children won’t have such a dramatic difference between their chronological age and their emotional age, the age gap can be present none the less.

We as parents, must keep these things in mind. I know it’s very difficult to do much of the time, especially in the heat of the moment. However, if we are to be fair and understanding, we must take this age gap into account, if indeed it is present.

Your psychologist, psychiatrist or developmental neurologist may be able to help you identify whether or not the age gap is present and what the ages are. This knowledge can help you to better understand your child’s behavior.

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Rob Gorski
Father to 3 boys with #Autism, 1 with Fragile Health. Award winning blogger, techy and advocate. #AutismDad @GuardianLocate
Rob Gorski

Rob Gorski

Father to 3 boys with #Autism, 1 with Fragile Health. Award winning blogger, techy and advocate. #AutismDad @GuardianLocate

0 thoughts on “The Age Gap and Autism

  • October 8, 2012 at 10:21 am

    I am about to turn 51.  I have Asperger’s, but of course no one knew that back then.  I was a known screamer growing up, easily freaked out over unknown situations, have spent my adult life with some pretty hefty anxiety issues.  People who have never experienced a ‘meltdown’ during anxiety (you don’t have to be on the spectrum to experience this) have no clue.  Turns out I wind up being the one who is now most empathetic to people with post traumatic stress disorder, depression, personality disorders, bipolar, etc.  I *get* it when other people don’t.  Doesn’t mean I put up with it.  I myself know that I don’t like it when other people shrink back from me, and I’m thankful when other people stand their ground and make me stay inside my boundaries.  I’m not a horrible person, but during emotional flareups that I don’t understand and take days afterward for me to process, I literally ‘asplode’, my world in my head makes no sense, and I have to struggle with controlling myself on top of all my challenges, plus I have to sift through it all to make some sense.  I’m very smart and logical- until I have a meltdown.  Thanks to some very stern parents and extended family, I learned a long time ago NOT to take my stuff out on other people.  I don’t appreciate it when other people have meltdowns all over me when it’s not my stuff, so vice versa.  Sometimes the only way to truly demonstrate this is to have your own meltdown and be freaky so experience can go the other way.  The best way I learned stuff was ~through experience~.  Once I had that experience, I could connect the dots between the way I felt and the way other people must feel.  It’s very important for people on the spectrum to learn to get an inkling of how we must look from the outside.  We are not pretty, sexy people when we are being ugly.  No one is, actually.  Sometimes people have bad days, but sharing it too much makes other people’s days worse, too.  We have to learn to understand that our actions and reactions have consequences, and that caring for other people’s feelings can be one of the things that helps us learn self control.  I know it’s frustrating.  My mother was so very frustrated with me, too.  But I grew up into a nice person, and even though it’s still really hard sometimes, I have the tools to create myself in the way I want to be because other people taught me solid boundaries with my behavior.  Try not to take it personally.  If you watch animals in nature, they ‘practice’ on each other before the big challenges come so they’ll be ready.

  • September 30, 2012 at 1:13 pm

    Great post, not too many people talk about the Age Gap, aka E.Q. = Emotional Quotient.

    However, there is a ray of hope. 
    I went through the same issues that you talk about with your son Gavin, meltdowns, temper tantrums, and basically the problem of the Age Gap with kids on the spectrum.
    Since you mention that Gavin is rather intelligent, I suspect his I.Q. is above normal, possibly way above normal.
    Consequently as he approaches adulthood, the Age Gap should stay the same, + or – 8 years, and he will ultimately have an E.Q. of a teenager, i.e. a 13 year old. And very likely that’s where it will remain throughout his life.
    If this scenario does occur, he will still have a rather fulfilled and functional life, and with help, be able to manage the meltdowns or eradicate them altogether as an adult.
    This is what happened to me. 
    I just turned 60 earlier this year, but inside emotionally I never matured past a pubescent male. It is a slight handicap, but understanding it has made it easier for me.
    And when I was a child growing up, the only word they used was Autistic, not Asperger’s nor Autistic Spectrum, and neither were there the services, knowledge, and support that is available today.
    So I think Gavin will make it, and with the help of a parent like yourself, he has a significant advantage. 

  • September 29, 2012 at 1:30 pm

    my 16-almost-17-year old brother with autism is probably around 12 or 13 emotionally. that’s why he and my 13-year-old brother relate so well…and why they fight so much! 

    praying for your little man: that you will get answers and the help you need.

  • September 28, 2012 at 12:57 pm

    I sometimes wondered if acting younger than you are when you were in trouble is in fact a learned behavior for defending yourself or it was a way to comfort yourself, like rocking back and forth.

    I know one time I picked up a wild kitten from outside and brought him inside to show my Dad and the cat was frozen in place. Absolutely scared – and yet – he was purring.

    I asked my Dad about that and he said he’s purring because he’s scared. It’s his way of comforting himself. We both went outside and found the Mother’s litter and put him back with the others.

    So – perhaps when someone who is 11-years old gets in trouble they act like a 3-year old, not necessarily because it will get them out of trouble, but because they know this comforts them in a moment of distress.

    I’m not sure. Autism is still widely not understood and there’s a fine line between it and Asperger’s Syndrome, which I was diagnosed myself with years ago, and I still don’t know everything about it. Φ

  • September 28, 2012 at 2:39 am

    It may be hard for you to imagine that this is an insulting way of referring to a person, but it’s so common I guess it’s only to be expected in psychiatric circles.  But it’s also a thoroughly irresponsible way of referring to what happens to an autistic person during a meltdown.  I don’t know if you have ever been so overloaded and exhausted that you lost conscious control of your actions, but to refer to it as merely “emotional immaturity” is both insulting and frighteningly inaccurate.  This is something that can happen to everybody, but because we tend to be more sensitive than other people to more or less everything, it happens more frequently to us.  This is not something any of us chose to have happen to us, and we don’t deserve to be insulted for it. 

  • September 28, 2012 at 12:13 am

    It’s so weird that you posted about this because I was just saying this to my neighbor upstairs. We both have kids on the spectrum. It’s so hard to deal with things when you forget that their chronological age may be different than their emotional age. My son has great anxiety and attachment issues. He wants to be walked down the hall in our house to the bathroom. We get mad because he is 8yrs old and our house is very small so he should have no problem by himself. Emotionally however he is very much like a toddler and has a lot of fears and is very clingy. We are also having trouble with him going number 2 by himself. I am glad I have my neighbor to talk to because her daughter has aspergers and went thru the same thing. She just turned 11 and just recently gave in to wiping herself. I worry about others judging him because he is tall and looks a lot older than his age and he gets picked on a lot due to drooling. Being emotionally behind does not help the situation either.

    thanks so much for posting about this subject.


    p.s People say I am emotionally behind my age too and I am 38.


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