This story appears in the May 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.
“As Gus ages into adulthood, the list of his challenges that worry me grows longer,” Judith Newman writes of her autistic 18-year-old son. “But the two questions that keep me up at night are: Will he find love, and will he find work that means something to him and allows him to at least partially support himself?”
Love and work. Sigmund Freud considered them the cornerstones of our humanity, and they’re the ways most of us come to define our adult lives. Yet as Newman writes in this issue, finding love and work are huge challenges for people with autism spectrum disorder. Some eight in 10 are thought to be under- or unemployed—and about the same number indicate that they’d like a romantic partner. Many don’t have one.
Because the number of people with autism is growing, we asked Newman and photographer Lynn Johnson to shine a light on this little-understood condition. And because much has been written about autistic children, we asked them to focus on autistic adults. As Newman puts it, “I think a great deal about what it will take to make my son independent. Some days, it’s all I think about. I’m not alone. If there are more than an estimated four million autistic people in the U.S., there are surely a great deal more than four million neurotypical people who love them.”
The result of Newman and Johnson’s collaboration, “For autistic youths entering adulthood, a new world of challenges awaits,” is an intimate look at the lives of autistic adults, including Gus. Newman’s text is by turns funny and heartbreaking; Johnson’s photography invites us to seek a deeper understanding of the people in the images.
We paired Newman and Johnson’s story with a report on the latest science around autism, by contributing writer Yudhijit Bhattacharjee. “Since autism was first identified in the 1940s, researchers have struggled to explain it,” he writes. “The cause remains a mystery, but scientists are beginning to learn what happens in the brains” of people with autism. There’s been progress—but there’s a long way to go.
We hope this coverage helps illuminate a complex issue and the lives of people it affects. Too often, we block out those whose behavior we find peculiar or threatening. “We live in fear of people who are socially different,” Newman told me. “What are they going to say? What are they going to do?” Here’s the question Newman wishes we would consider: “Is it the worst thing in the world that there’s a community of adults who will need some help or support … but in many other ways can get along just fine?”
Thank you for reading National Geographic.