What Happens When My Autistic Son Isn’t Cute Anymore?

Written By Beth Clay

I desperately try not to think about it. I enjoy blissful ignorance whenever I can get away with it. But I’m going to be honest on this. I’m going to fling the cabinet doors wide open and let you see the mess that is inside.

Here it is.

My 15 year old son with autism is no longer a cute little boy.

The loss of that little boy cuteness has resulted in the grownup look of my son — the look that we are currently experiencing, and have been for a while. He physically looks like a young man, yet at times has the behavior and tantrums more typical of a little boy.

And I would like to ignore it.

Long ago when Cooper was little and we were in the middle of a multitude of therapies, we had a college student working for us.  She was great with Cooper.  She also had an older brother with severe disabilities. He had many challenges and often had undesirable behaviors that drew attention in public. There was one piece of information she shared with me that has become very valuable.

Her parents always made sure her brother looked good.

She explained further that her parents felt that when he was in public, strangers often only saw the worst of him: his behavior. Therefore, her parents wanted to give him every possible chance to be looked on favorably by those around him — the people who simply had no clue. So her parents made sure he was always nicely dressed, always clean shaven and his hair was trimmed and neat. They were not trying to hide or change him. They simply wanted to give him a shot at a good first impression, a chance to be liked by others.

It’s what we all want for our children.

At the time when she shared this information, my child was cute and small, and for the most part I just found this interesting. In truth, I suppose I found it interesting with a hint of indignation. I mean, how shallow does that sound? I am generally of the “you are who you are” school of thought. It what’s on the inside that truly matters after all.

Yet, looking back and knowing what I know now, I had a little bit of that naïve “my child is still cute and adorable even when he is throwing a fit” thing going on.  I lacked experience in the real world, the one that I am in now.

That world is not always kind, accepting and tolerant of those that are different — those that are behaving differently.

Yes, people stare and comment when our small humans are throwing fits and acting socially unacceptable in public.  We rail and complain about the injustice of it all. “How dare they judge what they do not know?”  We scoop them up, drag them out, and protect them.

Then they grow into large humans, and we have to accept the realities that accompany that inevitable physical growth: the reality that a large, man-size boy having a meltdown in public draws a lot of attention. People look, they stare, and yes, they still judge. Yet, we can’t scoop them up, drag them out or protect them.

And things begin to shift…

When our children are young, their attention-drawing behavior brings judgment on us – the parents. As parents we are the ones who are critiqued and condemned. However, when our children grow and take on the physical appearance of adults, they are judged; they are the recipients of the harsh comments, the looks and the stares.

We realize our ability to protect them has shrunk proportionately to their growth.

I now have some experience. I have seen people stare and even be afraid of my child– my 6ft tall 270 pound young man.  When his anxiety builds and he starts to get agitated, when he speaks in a loud high-pitched tone while standing on his tip toes and flailing and flapping his hands about (in case you don’t know this is an undesirable behavior that attracts attention in public). It’s an intimidating sight.

Honestly, if all eyes are going to be on him…well then, we want him to look his best. I desperately want to do whatever I can to help him make a good impression, for people to like him and accept him.

Is appearance everything? Of course not.

Do I now see the importance of my child, who is already fighting an uphill battle, looking his best while doing it? Yes. Yes, I do.

We have to face reality…and twice a week, we have to shave it.

About the Author: Beth Clay is currently living in a small town in Arkansas with her husband, four of their five children and their dog Fatcake. She is the mother of one incredible teenage boy, born right in the middle of four girls and diagnosed with Autism at the age of 18 months. She writes about living their lives with Autism at Speaking in Grace.

About The Author


Mary Katherine is a southerner, born and raised. Growing up in Alabama, she developed an affinity for lightning bugs, sweet tea, playing guitar, and having strong opinions. She's happily married with a son (Nugget) and two fur babies. Fun facts: MK is a living kidney donor, speaks a little Thai, and has written two novels.


  1. Thank you Paula. It is so hard not to judge. We all do it, usually with out a second thought. It’s going to take awareness and effort to shift to compassion and kindness. Thank you for reading and your kind comment!

  2. We struggle with this now – my brother has autism and is in his mid 20’s and while he’s high functioning, he also has no awareness of his personal appearance and has a lot of trouble in general with people’s impressions of him, and it also makes him a target for mugging or being taken advantage of by bad people (this has happened a few times). I feel like if he can at least dress and look normal he won’t attract negative attention just walking around in public.

    That said, after all these problems with appearance, he is old enough we can’t control him anymore. He’s also at least 6 ft tall and weighs over 200 lbs. About a year or two ago I saw him getting ready to “go out” and his shirt had a giant gross smear all down the front. I stopped him and said “what happened to your shirt? you need to change it before going out” and he yelled “It’s toothpaste you bitch, you can’t tell me what to do!” and walked out the door.

  3. An answer, although simple is also difficult for many to comprehend. We seem to have more patience and appreciation for those who are highly productive, although different from the rest of us. Autistic individuals need to be educated to be productive, with life-span skills. We are achieving that with our son who is 23. He was never considered high-functioning until we created a home program for him, beyond anything we found in the schools or adult day programs throughout the state…or anywhere. We are now three months into the program, and suddenly we are experiencing an explosion of speech usage and participation in self-reliance activities. I guess it’s very much in how they are taught and trained.

  4. Rebecca, that is a difficult spot to be in, and I know those words hurt. Most people assume that “high functioning” is easier…that’s just not always the case. I think it is just a different set of difficulties…that are every bit as challenging to navigate as those encountered by “lower functioning” individuals and their families.

  5. Michael, I have often thought maybe we should home school Cooper. Even now when he is in an appropriate school program we see progress and new skills…that always makes me wonder…what if we had done it differently. It also gives me great hope that he is learning and making progress. I think I have struggled with keeping him home, honestly, because we have four other children and sometimes I feel spread pretty thin. I’m not complaining it’s hard to make sure we are doing a good job parenting across the board sometimes. It’s never easy and we second guess ourselves a lot. I do feel that we will end up at some point having to develop our own program for him…services here are not abundant. It’s very encouraging to hear how well yours is going!!

  6. i hear you! Our eldest high functioning Aspie is convinced that his long shaggy hair and overgrown beard look so perfect. Our middle Aspie girl also has strong opinions about hair and did dreadlocks for a while then cut it short and pixie and cute but looks 12 without make up which feels yucky on the face. There are worse things. Our 15 yr old just looks, well, 15- it’s not anyone’s best age!
    Well done and great insight momma bear.

  7. Thanks Valerie…parenting is rarely easy, but always interesting! I am thankful Cooper likes his hair really short…for now

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