What to do with a thieving adult child?
August 28, 2007 5:39 AM   Subscribe

How do we discipline an adult aspergers son?

Some background: My son has aspergers and a chronic health condition that sometimes becomes dangerously acute. He is now an adult and does some volunteer work, goes to community college and is assisted by a welfare organization in work skills. He receives an allowance from the government for disability. We charge him $100 per fortnight rent and 1/3 of the utilities. I expect him to pay for his own medication but we pay for his health insurance.

I still attend some doctors appointments with him as he doesn't always give the doctors the information they need and can't relay their instruction back to me, which means the instructions are not followed.

I tend to over-parent. I am his mother. He was a very very very sick premmie. Almost two decades ago.

Current ground: I don't know how to parent a 18 year old who is allowed to vote, have sex, look at pornography. I don't know what rules I can or should enforce. And I don't know how to discipline him. He lives with us because it's not safe for him to live away from home with his current set of living skills and income.

This is not always a problem except today, for the millionth time, I found him trying to steal from my husband's wallet. I don't think he'd done it for a long time. I've threatened to throw him out for this transgression in the past, and once did (he had a night at the YMCA). But today he is actually quite unwell and I had to take him to the doctor yesterday. I also had to insist he stay at home today even though he wanted to go to college.

My husband is very very angry and I am very very sad. What do I do to stop this, how do I punish and what rules are reasonable to enforce and if you're in the mood for another part of this question - should I give him complete autonomy with his own money? I had told him to keep $50 in his account at all times and he agreed and now he has reneged on that and has no money till his next pay day.

He states that he was not stealing. I believe he was taking petty change which is his usual modus operandi.

He has never been good with money. He is terrible with boundaries with my property. He helps himself to all my technology that he likes. In spite of dire threats. He doesn't care about many things so I can't take them away as consequences of his actions. He doesn't have any friends.

If I ground him he usually does something "illegal" around the house like steal my ipod for his use or my cell phone to play games or take my cds.

Help me with my current dilemma regarding the wallet and please give any other advice you care to. I hope I have covered it all. I have a throwaway email account which is worriesomeson@hotmail.com .

In advance thank you. And apologies for the ramble.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
There's very little personal advice that I can give, not having Asperger's or being a parent of someone with Asperger's. What I do know is that the best people to decide how to make this work are you and your husband, your son and his healthcare professionals. Transition to independent living can be one of the most difficult periods to deal with.

Your son's doctor can help you find services local to you to help your son with money management, meeting friends, and support and counseling for you and your husband. If you post your state/city/country here, mefites can likely suggest resources as well.
posted by By The Grace of God at 6:05 AM on August 28, 2007

Once a child has reached the age of majority, parenting is at their discretion, not your own. They'll come to you for advice or with a genuine problem, and you'll help them with it. Your son's impairment does not change this equation in the least.

Beyond that, his unhealthy dependency on you is fed in turn by your tolerance of it. There's a point at which the diagnosis or realization of social impairment becomes a convenient excuse, rather than a problem to be wrestled with. Your reluctance to deal with him as harshly as he deserves has led him to that point.

You've got to kick him out, and not in a half-assed night at the local YMCA kind of way. I suggest you consult with his welfare organization regarding long-term housing; they've seen things of this sort before.

Be sure to let the kid know that he's welcome to visit for his favorite meal one or two times a week, so long as he keeps his sticky fingers away from your money and stuff.

Full Disclosure:

I have an undiagnosed social impairment which probably resides somewhere within the autistic spectrum. Lack of eye contact, inability to communicate my points verbally absent significant prior preparation and a hell of a lot of luck, a low threshold for sensory overload, and so on...
posted by The Confessor at 6:38 AM on August 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

my sister in law works extensively with socially impaired college students. have you seen this website?

its a lot more specific to your need than MeFi. sorry if you have, but maybe this question will get a lot more responses there from people who know what you're going through.
posted by uaudio at 6:44 AM on August 28, 2007

Does he respond well to the structures already in place for him -- college, the welfare work skills program, the volunteer work? If so, perhaps he needs more of this. It's usually easier for 18-year-old kids to accept authority and education and advice from anyone other than Mom and Dad.

It sounds like he's playing the child when he needs something and the pseudo-adult when he wants to share the cool technology. This is normal for 18-year-olds regardless of Aspergers. You may want to look up resources for parenting of older teenagers in general!

Is he pilfering change and helping himself to your stuff because he doesn't understand the boundaries involved, or because he's rebelling? If the former, this is something for you to work on with whichever doctor is treating the Aspergers. If the latter...see parenting advice, above.
posted by desuetude at 6:46 AM on August 28, 2007

I get the impression that he knows he could never get away with stealing from a stranger, so it sounds like he's taking advantage of you and your husband while living at home.

Putting him at arm's length, where he knows you are there to help when really needed but aren't there to rely on for things he really could learn to do for himself seems like the best situation.
posted by Space Coyote at 7:03 AM on August 28, 2007

Have you considered easing his financial burden? If he's a college student he probably has some low-paying part-time job. Asking him to pay 200 dollars rent and utilities and medications is a burden. Not to mention tuition. He might not feel the need to steal if he had more money in his pocket.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:43 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's your home and while the kid lives in your home, you get to make the rules. However, your son's disability complicates the matter. He is either (A) an 18 year old who needs to get out on his own and sink or swim, or (B) he's an autistic child who needs more supervision.

If he falls into category A, then I suggest you send him off to his own apartment. If you put him somewhere close, you can still check on him, but you don't have to put up with him relying on you totally. This could also provide him an opportunity to build his confidence and self-reliance.

If he falls into category B, you need to lighten up and realize that he is still a child. I have rarely met an 18 year old who had the sense God gave a goose. An Aspie 18 year old may be even worse given his particular symptoms. In this case, set the rules of the house and expect him to follow them. Have consequences if he screws up. Have rewards when he does well. Don't charge him rent and utilities if he's unable to move out of the house. Help him become more self-sufficient, but realize it may take another 5 years.

On a personal note, it looks like you harbor a lot of anger toward your son. I can understand that, because I know raising disabled kids is very difficult. However, in my opinion, you should go a little easier on him. Aspies don't think the same way "normal" people do and it's hard to get them to draw the same distinctions we do.

Either treat him like an adult or treat him like a kid. This in-between business is just going to cause problems.

BTW, I have a son with Asperger's and one with more severe autism.
posted by CRS at 7:51 AM on August 28, 2007 [2 favorites]

I also had to insist he stay at home today even though he wanted to go to college.

I'm missing something here. Why could he not make this decision on his own? Was he physically ill and unable to make coherent decisions? Was he dangerous to himself or others? Barring these scenarios, I would think the kid should make his own decisions, and receive appropriate consequences for such.

What I really think you need is to talk to people who have been there. I'm sure there is some support group online or nearby; failing that, perhaps his doctor can help you set appropriate boundaries? I'm not sure it even matters that much what they are, just that they're consistent.

I found him trying to steal from my husband's wallet..... He helps himself to all my technology that he likes.

Lockbox with a combination.
posted by desjardins at 8:18 AM on August 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

Stop beating up on yourself. It's a very hard situation, and you're doing your best. He's very lucky to have you. I have a nephew with Aspergers, and a bipolar adult son.

Harden up. The parenting style of reasonableness, negotiation and normal consequences isn't working. At 18, he gets to be in charge of his own money, look at porn, have sex, etc. You have every right to define how he behaves in the rest of your home, but how he behaves in his room is up to him, within the bounds of safety and hygiene. In that sense, he is more of a tenant than a child. Both of you have to make that transition. It's not easy. He will learn from his mistakes, and you have to let him make those mistakes.

No, he may not pilfer change, no, he may not take your things. It's hard to apply consequences with an adult child. You can help him by limiting temptations. Get a lock on the door to your room, keep your stuff there, and use the lock. If there's a shared entertainment system with games, that might be useful as a consequence. Pilfer change and lose rights to the tv & Wii.

If there is a group home available, check it out. Independence would be a very good goal.

It's very painful to see your child make bad decisions, but you must let him learn. He'll make really stupid money decisions, and won't be able to buy lunch at school for a week. But he won't starve, and after this happens 10 times, he'll learn better spending habits. Unless he's so sick that going to classes would endanger him or others, I'd let him make that decision. He has to make his own decisions in order to learn from them. It's not easy. But it's the best thing for him, and ultimately you'll see the results. Second the recommendation for a support group.
posted by theora55 at 8:43 AM on August 28, 2007

I'd suggest contacting a support group...

Asperger's Support Group in the US
Asperger's Support Group in the UK

You're not the first people going through this; you need a support system of people whose experience you can learn from (rather than re-inventing the wheel.)
posted by filmgeek at 8:51 AM on August 28, 2007

Have you considered that all these things might just be normal parts of being a young adult, rather than symptoms of something? I have no experience with Aspergers, so I may be totally wrong with all of this. But I definitely did all these things you're describing. I think childhood creates bad boundaries towards one's parents' stuff. If my parents had gotten mad the first time, I might not have repeated it (or maybe), but the initial impulses certainly sound familiar -- "oh, mom won't care if I grab $1.50 in change from her wallet." I'd borrow the good shampoo from her shower into mine, not realizing she'd be all wet before noticing it wasn't there. My logic was, "she bought all the shampoo in the house, so why would my using one rather than the other make a difference?" The idea that parents are not perfectly selfless and actually like having their stuff was a blindspot to me until they pointed it out.

It sounds like you've tried to communicate that it's not okay, but have you ever just said that it inconveniences you? I have a hard time understanding why you'd call it "stealing." If you buy him food and subsidize his rent, to the tune of hundreds of dollars, why does an additional $3.75 matter? If it's just the principle of the matter, and he can already distinguish the principle (my parents' change vs. that lady's purse), then your whole reason may seem fake. In which case, why should he respect it? He just has to avoid your wrath. Maybe that's the way he sees it. (Maybe not.) And if your wrath comes out of fear or anger around his Aspergers ("what if he never learns?"), I could see that triggering rebelliousness ("I'm sick of trying to prove I'm normal").

Obviously, I'm speculating wildly based on sixteen sentences from you, so forgive me if this is completely wrong. But you might consider turning your attention from his behavior, toward your own feelings and attitudes about him. (For a story about this, check out The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, pp 15-21.) I'm not a parent and haven't had your experiences, but what could it hurt to focus on your own feelings/exhaustions/frustrations for a while, maybe with a support group or some other help?
posted by salvia at 9:04 AM on August 28, 2007


I feel like a lot of these answers approach this as though you were having problems with an ordinary, garden-variety adult child. In that case, perhaps some of the suggestions are appropriate. (Although I can never get behind the nonsense tough-love, kick-em-out theories of parenting.)

But you don't have an ordinary, garden-variety adult child. You have a child who, based on your description, isn't able to direct his life in the same way his "normal" peers are. Are your expectations for his behavior realistic? Are his expectations for what his life is going to look like in the next few years realistic? Is your current set-up open ended? Is he going to live with you until he moves out to live alone? Is he realistically going to be able to live alone, or will he need to transition into some form of assisted living?

To put it another way: most 18-year-olds are terrible with managing their money. But most 18-year-olds also get over it and become responsible adults without much intervention from their parents. Is that something that's going to happen for your son? Or will he always need help managing his finances? You mention that your son doesn't have any friends: what will that look like in the future? Having an independent, adult life isn't just about an apartment and a checking account. It's also about having some kind of social life. Is that something your son is going to be more interested in in the future? What are ways you and his care team can support him in becoming interested in that?

I think these are questions parents of a child with your son's conditions should be able to answer. If you can't (yet), I urge you to contact some sort of social services group that specializes in helping young adults with high-functioning issues. You are far and away not the only family dealing with this exact set of issues, and I encourage you to avail yourselves of the help that's available. If you're not already keyed in to a local support group or similar, you could ask your son's doctor.

Good luck.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:47 AM on August 28, 2007

You mention that you over-parent. Something to think about is that overprotective parenting is not for the child's benefit. It's for the benefit of the parent. It's so the parent can feel secure.

There's nothing wrong with meeting your own needs as long as it's not hampering your son. As you reflect on your options, it's worth considering if your son is benefiting from your over-parenting choices.
posted by 26.2 at 10:01 AM on August 28, 2007

voting, having sex and looking at pornography are things that come naturally to 18 year-olds, asperger's or not. you can't set rules to stop this, and you shouldn't try.
posted by bruce at 10:06 AM on August 28, 2007

You've got to kick him out

Did you not read the question? You're essentially telling her to kill him.

OP: I would also suggest investing in a series of locks. Remove the opportunity, and the crime is less likely to occur. And make no mistake -- he's committing a crime. Y'know, it might not be a bad idea to put the fear of hell into him and get the cops involved. If your local constabulary has any kind of community outreach or school outreach program, they'll have someone there who's done "scare the hell out of the kid" scenarios before.
posted by solid-one-love at 10:42 AM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

It doesn't seem as if your son is stealing your things. It sounds like he is using your things without your permission. If you want your iPod and your CD's to yourself, hide them someplace. Lock them in you vehicle, or your bedroom.

Irresponsibility with money is common among immature teenagers, Asperger's syndrome or not.

Most 18 year-olds still need guidance and parenting, but the reigns should be loosened.
posted by LoriFLA at 12:27 PM on August 28, 2007


Since the OP didn't specify otherwise, I'm assuming she lives in the USA, where the government provides services for the disabled. I even suggested she try to work through those same service providers to find a placement for him...

I read the question; did you bother reading the entirety of my response?
posted by The Confessor at 12:58 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm the mother of a 30 year old man who had a severe head injury when he was 16: after almost completely recovering from the head injury, he became schizophrenic. He is using alcohol, instead of medication, to stop the voices in his head. His problems for daily living are enormous. The best advise I have for you is to learn to let him go: you can not protect him or keep him safe from his own actions. Be there for him, be loving and supporting, but recognize that you are helpless in affecting his behavior. He is probably acting on impulse, without the natural brakes that most of us have. I whish I could give you a hug!
posted by francesca too at 4:23 PM on August 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

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