ISO success stories about autism, ADHD and anxiety
June 2, 2023 5:14 AM   Subscribe

My teenager has diagnoses of ADHD, ASD1 and anxiety. He's often too anxious to go to school, and while he is very smart and expects to live independently as an adult, college, work, etc, it's hard for me to imagine how he gets from here to there. I'm not looking for advice as much as your story: if you really struggled with some or all of these as a teen, and your life is good now, how did that happen? What was helpful in your family or environment? What does your good life look like?

My hope is to say to myself "Fantastic Internet Rando #5 had similar struggles, and now they play in a band/teach sixth grade/hold a world championship in yoyo tricks/enjoy their job as xxx" when I'm really worrying and feeling down.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I do okay now at 44. I'm on a lot of medication and have a husband who helps me with stuff.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:43 AM on June 2 [3 favorites]

Getting a handle on my anxiety helped the most. The rest of it I learned to work around, but I wasn't able to really thrive in the workforce until I was able to deal with my anxiety. Meds and therapy, lots of therapy. I'm not 'cured' but it's manageable now.
posted by ananci at 6:09 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]

I'm autistic (not ADHD, and have never had a diagnosis of anxiety). I really struggled with the sensory and social trauma (bullying) in school; my parents addressed it before it got to the point of me being too anxious to go to school by helping me leave 8th grade and transition to full-time university enrolment at age 14. I'm now a tenured physics professor and happily married.

The thing that was most helpful in my family environment was basically having an [unknown at the time] all-autistic family: my parents did not consider my autistic traits, thinking style, value system, and "progression through developmental milestones" to be abnormal or disordered, and fully supported me in pursuing things I was interested in pursuing (and in avoiding things that I considered pointless or distressing, like speech therapy in 4th grade). They also did not subject me to behavioural therapies (which are now known to literally cause PTSD in autistic kids).
posted by heatherlogan at 6:32 AM on June 2 [13 favorites]

I have an old friend, recently turned 60, who never had any diagnosis due to autism, ADHS etc simply not being a thing when and where he grew up, but lets just say he is an unusual and excentric person and if he was a child now would definitely be diagnosed with something.
This friend is now a physicist, at a renowned university and in his specialty field an internationally acknowledged / published expert.

His path was littered with obstacles. at school he was a total failure and kicked out with 15 for behaviour issues, and until his early twenties worked as a delivery guy and odd body at his father's company. Everyone thought what a shame, but can't be helped. His parents wrote him off and scoffed at the thought he might ever move on.
However, in his early twenties he started evening classes, finished what i guess in the US is a high school diploma, all the while working to pay for the education (his parents refused to fund him), went on to university to study physics, on a Grant and working, finished with excellence (not sure how this is translated), and went on to have a very successful academic career today. Complete with the excentric professor image, as he is still definitely an unusual and sometimes demanding person to put it kindly.
I think of his example often when i am worried and anxious about the prospects of my son who is 14 , who has ASD , anxiety and Depression, and has not attended school now for an entire academic year.
Wishing you all the best and much strength,
posted by 15L06 at 7:07 AM on June 2 [6 favorites]

It's not my story, but my son's. He was diagnosed with ADHD as a little kid, has sensory issues, and struggled really hard with anxiety, specifically social anxiety, in high school and college. He kept his college struggles from us his first year but then admitted that he didn't have any friends and he was miserable. We immediately found him a therapist and that started him on the road to where he is now: a 26-year-old IT professional living independently in Chicago, who has a girlfriend and friends and a robust social life.

Therapy. It was therapy. He found a physical activity he absolutely loves and that has made a huge difference for him as well. But I can't say it enough: therapy. He still has mental health check-ins with his therapist maybe once every few months or so. And when things get difficult, he reverts back to once a week.
posted by cooker girl at 7:11 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]

I don’t want to share too many personal details due to their privacy but I have taught secondary school for 16 years and I see so many success stories for students with one or all of these diagnoses. School is hard for all and extra hard for neurodivergent kids, which is unfair and not their fault. We need to update what school looks and feels like!! In any case, I’ve seen so many students blossom at the end of high school and in college or work after graduation. It’s not a specific anecdote but I KNOW many people like your son who have struggled but also are doing great. All that hardwork he’s doing now and support you’re giving him will pay off and lead to a happy/happier life after graduation!<3
posted by smorgasbord at 7:17 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

I struggled with anxiety and ADHD tremendously as a teenager...and a college student...and a law student. I passed the bar exam on my first try (hyperfocus for the win!) and have been succesfully practicing law for 15 years.
posted by notjustthefish at 7:55 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

I am 51 and only recently found out that I am autistic.

I have severe anxiety.

Medication helped me somewhat with my anxiety, but what was by far the most helpful was a neurodivergent affirming therapist, and my own research into autism.

Learning about and accepting my own needs, and crucially, spending time in online autistic spaces where autism is just a normal way to be, a disability, sure, but not something that's "wrong" with you.

I think that neurodivergent people thrive only when we're able to communicate with other neurodivergent people.

But anyway, to answer the question you actually asked, I'm very satisfied with my life despite the challenges I've faced and at times debilitating anxiety. I have a lovely husband that I've been married to since 1996, and I am a good teacher and writer.
posted by Zumbador at 8:30 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

A family member had severe anxiety, OCD, ADHD, not sure what, if any, additional diagnoses. Lots of school refusal, often because clothing would feel wrong. They got therapy, anti-depressants, and some ADA accommodations at high school, maybe college. They are now an architect, own a home, have many friends. It's not easy, but dealing with anxiety improves life vastly, and is possible.
posted by theora55 at 8:35 AM on June 2

My husband is a self identified autistic man who has been successful in his career but I wouldn’t say he is happy and despite great enthusiasm at starting a family hasn’t coped with that. My brother is probably autistic and has had a poor outcome. I have two smaller children and one is autistic (6) and one is adhd (7) and I used to be a teacher and work in supported housing for young people and I follow a lot of autistic people’s Instagram accounts and have read memoirs of autistic women. I wondered if I might be autistic but I think I’m probably not.

The one thing that seems to stick out to me the most in terms of good outcomes is that the person develops a very good self concept (this is a bigger idea than just self esteem or identity- it is those things plus another couple of components… I think you can find it on wiki) and the kids and young people who have a natural rebellious streak somehow can get that and then the kids who stumble a bit can maybe find it with good adult guidance and relationships. And hopefully if they avoid terribly damaging relationships and experiences and if you can protect them from those (while they build and cultivate the self concept) but self concept might be a good framework for you to use to guide yourself as you guide your child. I’ve seen great success and it’s the cornerstone of the program my son is in and mirrors the stuff my friends do with their older kids who are successful adult autistic 20 something’s.
posted by flink at 8:41 AM on June 2 [1 favorite]

I don't know what I have exactly, but I suspect ADHD and maybe sprinkling of anxiety. For the longest time I thought I was on ASD spectrum, but then I had my first kid, and his symptoms are much more inline with ADHD, which made me reconsider what was wrong different about me.

No, I'm not officially diagnosed, as I grew up in a country where this is not common, and as an adult, I developed coping strategies so I didn't feel the need to go seek a diagnosis. I feel that I function more or less 'normally' (although my partner will tell you otherwise!). I do identify as 'Weird' and was a Weird kid growing up, i.e. neurodiverse. I spent a lot of my life passing off as 'Normal' and do an okay job. I struggle at paying attention and following instructions to this day. I interpret very instructions differently to neurotypical people!

I remembered in my pre-puberty years I was bullied and excluded a lot. That hurt. I was good at school thankfully, but bad at making friendships and fitting in. Harder if you are a girl, I think, as there are expections to fit in, and people are casually cruel to those who are different.

What helped was a parent who was supportive of who I was as a Person, who would listen to me, and advocate for me, and go over with me 'social skills' to fit in without making it seem like I was deficient. I also had a lot of my own space to do my own thing, to space out. I found also that large school classes actually helped, as I could just kind of drift and do my own thing, and teachers were too busy to pay attention.

One of my coping strategies in life is to make a lot of schedules, even as a child. . Lots and lots of plans and schedules. I don't always follow them, but it helps to calm me and gives me a sense of direction. Also, I like being in control of my environment.

I really bloomed in my teenage years as I had my own set of Weirdo friends. If I had to pick one aspect of my teenage years that really grounded me as a person, it was that I found my tribe of weird, not conventional people, and I could just be Me. I think those teenage years are so formative to who you are as a person, and to your mental health, and I am so grateful for having found them.

College/ university was hard for me again to fit in. I drifted by with okay grades and one set of friends, but I didn't 'bloom' there. I had poor study habits but managed to turn everything in, mostly on time, mostly average grades. I found creative excuses to professors to explain why I was turning things late in.

Early years of adulthood were hard for me also, as it's a completely different enviornment with different social skills needed. I had a steady job but no friends. I found it hard to get out of bed on weekends. Most weekends, I would wake up at 5pm out of paralysing fear that I wouldn't accomplish anything if I got out of bed earlier. But I learned new set of social rules of adulthood, I scraped through a few friends, I turned out okay.

Now I'm in my later years of adulthood, and things are well. I have a well-paying job. I have found a neurotypical partner, which REALLY helps. I do finances, planning, organising, sorting out stuff, while they do the physical Life Stuff, like laundry, childcare, cooking. Incredibly, we even have kids! We do not have gender-traditional roles for this reason (I'm really bad at anything which is repetitive and needs routine). I have also found an environment that really fits me. As a child, you are not in control of your environment, but as an adult, you have means to seek out the environment that is best fit for you. For me, that is living literally in the heart of a city, so that I could have daily stimulation, but at the same time, I could hide in my cave when it all gets too much. I have Issues (i.e. paralyzing fear) of getting out of the house for even simple tasks like getting milk from the supermarket, but living in the heart of a city, this reduces my excuses and doesn't seem like such a huge step.

I still make lots of plans. I set up commitments with friends which I don't like disappointing, which helps me get out of the house.

I would say that it is important for your child to find the highest paying jobs they are happy to do. Money gives one options! I know money is improtant for everyone, but even more so for neurodiverse kids because you can pay your way through things that other people find easy.

Oh, finally, physical activity!!! Physical activity is SO important in regulating one's mood. I find that making a plan to run a race forces me to get out of the house.

Hope this helps.
posted by moiraine at 11:02 AM on June 2 [2 favorites]

I know money is improtant for everyone, but even more so for neurodiverse kids because you can pay your way through things that other people find easy.

I wanted to add to my earlier statement. So, let's say, a neurotypical person runs out of milk. They look at the fridge, and then go, "I'll just pop out to get some milk." And they go out.

Whereas me, I would think:
- Well, do I need some milk now? How can I optimise getting milk?
- Do I need milk this weekend? How much milk should I get so I don't have to get milk for a while?
- Can I combine this trip with another trip? How about I combine this trip with my later trip to the pharmacy?
- Have I optimised everything? Have I thought of everything?

And then I don't get milk. I just freeze at the thought of not doing these things perfectly and optimally that I just don't do something as simple as getting milk. I end up spending a whole day indoors because I haven't optimised my trip to go outside.

What helped in my life:
- Growing up, my mother did not judge me, she just did practical stuff for me
- Now my partner does the practical stuff, and for most part, does not judge
- I pay a lot of money to live in the city centre, as this means I can live literally across a grocery store so the obstacle of getting out, while still there, is lessened
- I have a regular job which forces me to get out at regular intervals, so I will pass by the grocery store on the way home

I know you are not seeking for advice, but these are some of my coping strategies. Your child will have their own coping strategies. Meanwhile do help them as much as you can and do not judge how different they are. It's a disability.

If you know me, from the outside, I seem very successful. I have a well-paying job and I live in the city centre where most people cannot afford to live. I have a partner who is lovely. But all this is one giant coping strategy and a lot of luck (i.e. finding my partner).
posted by moiraine at 11:23 AM on June 2 [5 favorites]

Your son sounds very much like my cousin. She has the same diagnoses and completed high school online. She is 22 and started a hybrid program at the community college to be a vet tech. She is scheduled to move out of her mom's house once the program is completed and I have no doubt that she will do wonderfully.

She's pretty candid so I know that she's been in therapy since she was about 17 and also recently on zoloft. She has made HUGE strides wrt socializing. She is an introvert and has pretty strict boundaries, but it seems like that has allowed her to actually enjoy socializing. I'm so happy for her.
posted by pintapicasso at 11:47 AM on June 2

I have two of those things and I would be considered successful, though I didn't struggle in school the same way. Though not directly an answer to your question, I wanted to share some thoughts:

1. Teenagerhood is inherently difficult due to the many changes involved including in one's brain and biology, as well as being expected to do well in school, and teenage boys often struggle more due to being developmentally behind teenage girls. (I listened to this Ezra Klein podcast recently with a psychologist who specializes in teen mental health who discussed this well)

2. High schools are a terrible environment for the neurodivergent among us, and differ greatly from both university and from being in the workplace where one has more choice and control. Not succeeding in high school does not mean not succeeding elsewhere, and it may be unreasonable to expect that a given person will achieve highly in high school.

3. Many people (including those described above) struggle for a long time, and still eventually find their footing. Many people find their 20s difficult, especially neurodivergent folks who may have more life skills to learn and may take longer to find the right environment, and end up fine.

4. Parents model to their children how to manage emotions, and a parent treating a set-back as a big deal may frame it as a big deal for their child without intending to. If you are worrying about your son's future, this may be causing him to worry more. Some suffering is normal, and modelling good coping is important. Being understanding and supportive of his challenges without jumping in to always try to solve everything is important.

Sorry if this is still not directly answering your question, but this is the other thing that stands out to me. ASD and ADHD are facts of life and can be managed by learning skills and building scaffolding. Anxiety disorder is a psychiatric condition exacerbated by the struggles of ASD and ADHD, and that makes learning said skills far more difficult. Anxiety disorder is very treatable by counselling and sometimes medication, and for some people either becomes less severe or goes away entirely due to change in strategies (counselling) or changes in circumstances (building accommodations for the ASD and ADHD, not being a teenager, joining the workforce instead of being in high school). I would not treat the anxiety disorder as an immutable fact, in other words and think that might be a high priority to tackle since it can be such a barrier.
posted by lookoutbelow at 12:47 PM on June 2 [3 favorites]

Based on what I know now, I suspect I'm autistic. I wouldn't have been called this as a kid in the eighties. My family's interpretation of my "issues" was that I shared some psychological traits with my mother. Well, that probably wasn't wrong! Instead of a single neurodevelopmental "thing," I was just gifted + extremely high strung + clumsy + socially awkward + weird. The upside to that was that I didn't have to work against anybody's preconceptions, which is a thing that diagnosed kids in today's world have to face, I think. My character is such that if my teachers had told me I was intellectually disabled I think I would have been like, oh, well, okay then. I guess I don't need friends/college/a career. So it's better that I didn't know. I know that this goes against the grain, but I think it takes a certain amount of piss and vinegar to overcome people dehumanizing you, and I just didn't have that.

As an adult, I have a pretty ordinary life, an advanced degree, a just-right job, a husband, a kid. My autism, or whatever you want to call it, is sort of relapsing-remitting in that when things are going well, I don't need much if any support, but I have kind of a weak "emotional immune system" and I think it takes less to knock me out than it does other people. E.g. at times of big transitions I tend to need to go to bed at 8 pm for a while. Therapy at a couple of key points has been helpful, once in adolescence in particular. It helped sort me out socially a bit to have someone smart pushing back on my catastrophic/black-and-white thinking.

It is definitely possible to grow up happy. I have the suspicion that the stats for us may look more grim than the reality because of the change in how such things are counted. I wonder what all the other people who were like me as kids are doing now, and how we will age.
posted by eirias at 3:58 PM on June 2 [1 favorite]

Oh! One other thing I want to say. It’s worth noting that things like “restrictive and repetitive behaviors” don’t appear on my list up there. That’s because when nobody thinks you’re developmentally disabled, nobody is looking at you with that checklist in mind. Instead, those “symptoms” got to be quirks (isn’t it cute how she always flaps her hands when she’s excited? Isn’t it funny how she loves lining up cheerios on her highchair? Isn’t it amusing how she gets so into sorting her stickers that she can do it for hours?) and the things that don’t make the list, the emotional difficulties that actually affect the kid’s happiness, are where the attention goes. So when I would have a tough time, I got a psychiatrist instead of a developmental psychologist or neurologist, and I’d really have a hard time arguing this was a bad thing, almost especially knowing what I know now.
posted by eirias at 4:32 PM on June 2

I was a quiet, academically capable schoolgirl in the 1980s-90s in the UK, so I don't have a diagnosis, but I have lifelong anxiety, a handful of very inconvenient phobias, and some kind of neurodivergence going on. Eirias's litany a couple of comments up of "I was just gifted + ..." sounds a lot like me.

I don't know if this is what's making your son anxious about school, but the very specific kind of unhappiness that comes from being rejected by your peer group is something I only had to cope with in adolescence. I was socially awkward, I didn't make the right clothing and hairstyle choices, and all in all I didn't know how to be a teenage girl; and that was held against me by boys and girls alike. It probably didn't help that I was consistently top of the class, but I stuck out so badly for other reasons that I don't think that was the main driver for their dislike.

In adulthood, not everything has gone smoothly - I don't have a driving licence, or a spouse, or children, and I am never going to be any good at house maintenance - but I have managed to sort myself out with a reasonably good degree from a very good university, a career that's a reasonably good fit for a quiet neurodivergent oddball, a mortgage on a house in a small town I enjoy living in, and a number of very good friends. I've also had a lot of wonderful experiences along the way.

Key to this is that I was raised by parents who didn't see me as odd or broken, and who neither needed nor wanted me to change. (They're probably neurodivergent too.) They couldn't protect me from my peers' dislike, but they could and did provide me with respite and safety from it: home was a happy place, and I never doubted for a moment that my parents both loved and liked me. And I got through it, and as I say, I haven't had to face anything like that since. Teenagers are cruel to people who don't fit in; perhaps adults are as well, but school was the last time I was stuck in a social environment that wasn't of my choosing, and I've chosen places where my quirks don't stand out in bad ways.

Am I happy, as an adult? Sometimes. It's dependent on circumstances - when life throws unpleasant things at me, they tend to hit hard, and I don't have much resilience. But even when I'm at my lowest ebb, usually because I'm in a situation I don't like and can't find a way out of (I do not recommend, for example, buying a house and discovering two days after moving in that it has an infestation), I retain my sense of humour, and I still experience moments of joy and wonder.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 12:07 PM on June 3 [2 favorites]

I agree with a lot of what's been said above. I'll also say, I found school in particular to be one of the most anxiety provoking activities I've ever engaged in. I missed loads of school, dozens of days a year, to the point where they kept threatening to flunk me even though I was doing the work and passing the exams. As an adult, where I get more choice over what my career is and where I live and who I talk to and whether I want to put off Task A until later and do Task B now, or procrastinate all day and do both of them tomorrow, I have a much easier time and much less anxiety than I did in school. So being too anxious to go to school isn't necessarily a predictor that your child will also be too anxious to go to university, or to work to support himself.
posted by decathecting at 12:46 PM on June 7

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