Autistic and Young: Why Does Diego Look So Young?

And what he does to accommodate us “normal” people

 young man's face
Diego at 30

My son Diego (autistic and intellectually disabled) turned 30 on 13 January 2024. Just a week prior, my friend Liz came to visit from California and we went to the Whitney Museum, where the ticket person asked:

“Is he over 18?”

As I reflect on the aging process, it’s struck me how from around ages 25 to 40, we reveal hardly any signs of the passing years. The body’s biological clock stalls and we forget we won’t be forever young.

It’s hard to tell a person’s age during this time. But this doesn’t explain how young Diego looks, how often people can’t tell what side of the 18-year-old cutoff for entry he’s on. Though I could outright lie and say Diego’s 17 whenever it means paying less for stuff, I never do. For one, I suck at lying.

Then there’s the fact that Diego hasn’t caught on to the invention of lying and would expose my deception, lol.

Anyway, returning to Diego’s youthful looks, I have a notion of the factors accounting for it.

Special Parenting and Top-notch Habits

Diego’s health is looked after as if he were in the first year of life, when parents closely monitor weight, vaccination schedules, nutrition, bowel movements, and any little rash.

My husband and I have never ceased to stay on top of Diego’s health needs, from making appointments to applying medicine to his toenail fungus. When your child depends on you in this basic way, you take that responsibility seriously, especially if, like Diego, he’s not a complainer and has a high pain threshold.

Then there are Diego’s top-notch habits. He gets a full ten hours of sleep, eats healthy, drinks only water, brushes his teeth thoroughly (with help), swims three times per week, runs twice weekly, and always single tasks.

Diego’s intrinsically a creature of habit, so we only had to nudge him time and time again toward the good ones and they stuck.

Young in Spirit

Leading up to his 30th birthday, Diego would mention the big day no fewer than 30 times a day.

He couldn’t wait to get calls and texts from friends and relatives who don’t live in the area, and even asked me to tell my friends and acquaintances to call him on January 13.

He wanted a party at Abuela’s house and a Robin action figure for a present. At said party, he wanted to wear a headband like cousin Eu when she turned 30 and for everyone to play musical chairs. Balloons and a gluten-free birthday cake were also musts.

Unlike most people turning 30, he was unfazed by the number and oblivious to any notion of getting older. He knew this birthday to be meaningful, but then again, to Diego, all birthdays are of utmost importance.

A Clear Conscience

Diego doesn’t contend with a bad conscience. His heart is pure.

Owing to his intellectual disability, he doesn’t struggle with what-ifs either.

Diego’s brain stores thousands of facts, especially on animals and Disney, but its ability to arrive at conjectures based on facts is limited.

For instance, Diego knows that whales are mammals and that a beluga is a whale, but he can’t fill in the blank if told: “The beluga is a whale. All whales are mammals. Therefore, a beluga is a _______”

Forget it if you were to substitute “beluga” with A, “whale” with B, and “mammals” with C. He’d look at you as if you were asking him to explain cosmic microwave background radiation.

What-ifs require that a person hold at least two ideas or facts in their head, and deduce hypothetical outcomes, much like, but harder than, the example above.

Diego’s day-to-day decisions are based on routine, experience, a desire to please, and to love and be loved. Just as he doesn’t act on calculations of possible outcomes, he doesn’t second-guess past actions. Instead, he learns from them. They become part of the repertoire of lived experiences that inform how he lives his life.


Diego does not forget. Take the time I was furious (which I regret deeply) because he didn’t leave any brownies for me. Since then, he will not have the last of anything without ensuring it’s OK.

Diego sometimes works out loopholes in a few of his learned rules. For instance, his beloved friend and former therapist became seriously annoyed when Diego increased the frequency of his calls from 4 a day to 14 per minute. We had our talk and settled on one call a day, plus waiting for a callback.

Sometimes he slips and he’ll go into the “Recents” tab and delete the extra call. Solved!

When I see him do this, my heart melts. Diego’s a kind young man who seeks, above all else, to please those he loves and spend time with them. And he’s the one who does the most to accommodate us “normal” people.

▶️ Check out this clip of Diego’s 30th birthday festivities. It’ll put a 😀 on your face.

Sign reading "Diego 30"

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