The Age 25 exercise

by Merryn Affleck

Published by Autism World Magazine


Merryn Affleck was an Executive Officer at Autism Northern Territory. She brings experience as an Autism Advocate/Educational Consultant, and Life Coach which she did professionally from 2001. Prior to that she held the position of parent support person for a number of different non-profit agencies in the San Diego area. Merryn was also President of the North Country Chapter of the Autism Society of America for over nine years.

My son with Autism is now 25-years-old.

Not long after he was diagnosed, at age of six in 1994, a more experienced parent told me about this wonderful exercise and I want to pass it on to you. I have no idea who first came up with this idea, but whoever did, I thank you from the bottom of my heart!

I call it the “Age 25 Exercise.”

Many of my clients over the past 20 years or so will recognise this exercise. It is a “homework” assignment that I like give to each and every family of a school aged child. It can be difficult and heart wrenching to complete, but is also eye opening and extremely fulfilling in the end. So, take a deep breath and here we go…

Firstly, get out a pen and some paper because you will be writing a lot of things down !

I want you to imagine how you would like your child’s life to be at age 25.

Be as detailed as you possibly can. Remember to think about personal help skills, social skills, level of independence, behaviours, friends and other support people, education, travel, love life, driving, etc. Be open to every possibility and DARE TO DREAM!!! Some people like to create a “Dream board” and decorate it with pictures. Depending upon the age of your child and level of functioning, you might want to include him/her in this process.

Now, once you have all that written down, think about your child at Age 21 – what skills need to be in place at that stage to enable your child to reach the Age 25 dream? Write these things down too.

Now, think about your child at age 18, what needs to be in place to reach Age 21?

Keep this process going – at age 16, 14, 12, etc. When you have finally finished, you will have created a life plan for your child and recognised the objectives needed to reach that goal!

There are many reasons why I require all of my clients to complete this exercise. The most important is because from the day we receive the diagnosis, all of the dreams we had for our beloved child disappear. Even the dreams we didn’t even realise we had. Poof!! They are all gone. And we are never encouraged to dream again.

With no dreams to sustain us through the hard times, we struggle just to try and think of how to get through the day, or even the next few minutes. The many professionals we bring into our lives are no help as they think only a few months to one year ahead. Why should they do any different? This is not something that they will have to deal with!

We are never told to start dreaming again; that is a terrible thing for anyone. Humans need to dream. It is how we plan, how we strategise and move forward. These things help us to feel safe and secure in our lives. Without the dreams, we flounder. This negatively affects us and those around us. And that is wrong.

Our kids need us to hold dreams for them in our hearts because they rely on us to guide us to them until they have the skills in place to go after their own dreams. This isn’t just for ASD kids but for all kids. I remember when I was first told this exercise, I instantly started finding excuses not to complete it.

How was I supposed to know what my child was going to be like at age 25? Everyone I had talked to at this stage was very clear that there was no way to be able to know for certain what he was ever going to be able to do in his life. I was angry and scared. I was convinced that this exercise was impossible and designed to do nothing more than make me feel even more pain.

I looked again at the directions. I realised I wasn’t required to know what would be, just to dream of what I wanted. I cried, and it seemed there was no way to stop the tears. I began to understand what the diagnosis of Autism had taken from me and what it had also then taken from my child. I knew I had to find a way to get at least some of this back not only for myself, but also for my son.

Without any effort on my part, I started to dream. I, then, dared to write these dreams down.

Dreaming again for our kids allows parents to begin dreaming again for themselves. We start to see things differently and realise that we can have a life. We begin to see that by giving our kids the gift of an independent life we are also giving ourselves the same gift.

We parents of ASD kids have to think on a scale that is far different from the teachers, psychologists and therapists. We have to think of the lifetime of our child, not simply the next school year. No-one else can create that long-term vision, that dream, let alone work for it. This is the major role that a parent plays in the life of their child – holding the vision of the future.

This vision will change over the years. Every parent has to eventually understand that their dream isn’t always shared by the child. But when we know that we have done our best to create a person who is as independent as possible, then we know that we have done our best.

As I think back on my own experience with the Age 25 Exercise, and then reflect on the many parents I have known who have also completed it, I wonder if the real gift it gives us isn’t the plan, but rather a way to move through the grief and pain. By restoring our ability to dream we are able to hope, to see further than just the next few minutes or today; that brings back a sense of “normalcy” (for want of a better word) because that is indeed the “normal” way of thinking for all people.

Your dream, your vision is a gift you give to your child. Share it with the world, and be prepared to drag the rest of the world along with you – kicking and screaming if necessary. You can do it.

As for Sam and I, our dreams changed over time, as they do for all parents and kids. This exercise isn’t to create a blueprint against which we either pass or fail, but to allow parents to feel more “normal.” Having a dream for your child is something that you take for granted, until it suddenly disappears. And its loss is profound, adding greatly to the grieving of parents. By coming up with a dream, or a plan, parents move out of the stifling and confining world grief and into hope again.

I had dreamed that Sam would be able to be an independent learner by the time he finished middle school, but it was clear that he needed a lot of support to be academically successful, so he continued to be supported by an aide whenever it was needed. And I had hoped he would go to college, but while he was successfully graduated from high school he simply could not cope with the speed of learning expected at college, let alone the large number of people in a classroom. Sam still feels the “loss” of the college dream as so many of his friends went onto college and university. He often asks if I think he should try to go back to college. But my dreams for Sam have continued to evolve. I now see that college was more for me and my husband than for Sam.

So I tell him “No, Sam, you don’t need college to be successful” and his relief at this statement is always palpable.

Sam doesn’t need a degree to be happy and “successful.” He needs routine, a job he enjoys, and friends and family to love. These were things that I thought were just so “normal” that I didn’t even put them into my initial plan for Sam.

But, over time, I’ve come to see that these are vital for HIM so I work to make sure that he has them in abundance. The dream continues to evolve.