Adolescence is full of challenges for any teen. The change is fast, everywhere, and hard to keep up with: The body changes in response to increasing levels of sex hormones; the thinking process changes as the teen is able to think more broadly and in an abstract way; the social life changes as new people and peers come into scope. Yet the teen needs to deal with every single one of these changes, all at the same time! With their willingness to help, that’s where the moms and dads come in, who have "been there", with the life experience, maturity and resources. So, how can moms and dads help? Recognizing the complex and sometimes conflicting needs of an adolescent would be a good point to start.
Teens yearn to develop a unique and independent identity, separate from their moms and dads’. Yes, they love their moms and dads, but they don’t simply want to follow their footsteps. They challenge their moms and dads in any way they can. They disobey their rules; criticize their "old fashioned" values; they discard their suggestions. Experienced moms and dads know that sometimes they have to be very "political" approaching their adolescent teens, if they are going to get their point across. On the other hand, teens give a lot of credit to their peers. They yearn to belong to a peer group, which would define and support their identity. They may attempt to do things very much out of character just to gain the approval and acceptance of their peers. They tend to hide their weaknesses and exaggerate their strengths. Of course, what teens consider as "weakness" or "strength" may sometimes shock their moms and dads.
Teens with Aspergers bring their special flavor to the adolescence, essentially determined by the levels of three ingredients: interest, avoidance and insight.
Level of interest: Since all forms of Aspergers have an impact on social development by definition, most teens with moderate to severe Aspergers will show little or no interest in others. They may seem to be totally unaware of their peers’ presence or they may appear indifferent when peers try to interact. As Aspergers gets less severe, the level of interest in peers usually increases. For these teens, the quality of social interactions mostly depends on the levels of avoidance and insight.
Level of avoidance: In the social development of teens who show some interest in peer interactions, social anxiety and resultant avoidance play an important role. Some teens get very nervous just with the thought of approaching others and may choose to avoid it at all costs. Their avoidance may appear as if they are not interested in others. It is important to differentiate this since anxiety can be treated much more easily than genuine lack of interest.
Most frequently, interaction with peers will create more anxiety than interaction with younger or older people: Younger teens are safer to approach since they would be more likely to accept the dominance of an adolescent with Aspergers and less likely to be critical. Older teens and adults are safer because they will be more likely to understand and tolerate. Moms and dads therefore commonly observe that their teens with Aspergers prefer to interact with younger teens or adults over their peers.
For teens with Aspergers who show interest in peers and do not avoid contact, the quality of social interactions will depend on the level of insight.
Level of insight: Yet some teens with Aspergers will not avoid interacting with others younger, older or similar age. Rather, they are eager to communicate, though, often in a clumsy, in-your-face way. The level of their insight into their social disability will then become the determining factor of their social success. If they are unaware of their shortcomings in gauging the social atmosphere and reading social cues, they may inadvertently come across as rude, insulting or boring. They may miss subtle criticism, sarcasm or tease. As they develop better insight, they become more motivated to learn which had not come naturally and intuitively. They also have a better chance to work through a sense of loss, common to all disabilities.
Coping with the Loss of Normalcy
Regardless of the individual developmental route, most teens with Aspergers start realizing that they are not quite like others at some point during their adolescence. A few factors seem to facilitate the process:
· A higher IQ
· A higher level insight into difficulties in social interaction
· A higher level of interest in others
Once the adolescent realizes that he has significant difficulties in conducting social relationships compared to his peers, he needs deal with this loss, just like dealing with another loss. Understanding the thoughts, feelings and behavior of an adolescent with Aspergers is the necessary first step in helping him out and being there for him. Considering this coping process in a few stages may make the caregivers’ job easier:
Most commonly, the adolescent will not go through these stages one after another, but rather display a larger or smaller aspect of each at any given time. This is a painful process for not only the adolescent but for others who care for him as well. Moms and dads may find themselves compelled to forget the whole thing and act as if nothing is happening. Well, we are all tempted to avoid pain and denial is an excellent painkiller. The good news is, as much as the denial is contagious, the courage and strength, too, and seeing his moms and dads dealing with the pain calmly and matter-of-factly will encourage the adolescent talk about his anger and frustration. This will in turn help the adolescent get closer to the acceptance and adaptation:
· Don’t try to change the subject, unless your teen does so.
· Don’t try to minimize his difficulties, but also don’t let him exaggerate, providing gentle reality testing.
· Offer the option of counseling, since sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger. However, try not to push the idea directly even if you feel that your teen clearly needs professional help.
· You don’t have to bring it up, but when he does, give them a good listening ear and be patient.
Sometimes you have to be very political trying to sell an idea to a teenager. The mere fact that the idea is coming from his moms and dads may make him refuse it. Let the idea come from a family friend, teacher, or a neighbor he trusts. Give him time to think about it. He may come back to the suggestion when he feels he is ready.
Consider trying an antidepressant medication if he doesn’t seem to be able to move on. Look for the following common symptoms of clinical depression. If five or more of these are present week after week, put your foot down:
· Appearing sad for most of the time
· Becoming irritable and angry with the drop of a hat so that family members start walking on egg shells
· Complaining that he is tired all the time and wanting to take naps during the day
· Eating less or more than usual
· Losing interest in activities he usually enjoys
· Making remarks like he hates life, he hates you, nobody loves him, or wishing he was dead
· Not being able to fall asleep, waking up in the middle of the night and having difficulty falling back to sleep
· Putting himself down, saying he is stupid
· Withdrawing himself from the rest of the family, refusing to participate in group activities
· Blaming himself unfairly for anything that goes wrong
Most teens with Aspergers excel in one or two subjects. They tend to accumulate a lot of information on the subject and love to talk about it over and over. Unfortunately, after one point family members end up losing interest and start getting bored to death. Rather than avoiding the subject, try finding out new ways to engage the youngster in the subject. Structure the topic in a different way. Find a way to challenge him. Be creative and let sky be the limit! Your interest will make your teen feel better about himself, realizing his mastery on the subject will boost his self-esteem.
Many teens with Aspergers resolve their sense of loss by turning the issue upside down: Rather than clinging to depression and despair, they find their identity in Aspergers. They get in touch with other youth with Aspergers. They take on themselves educating their peers about Aspergers at school. They set up web sites, chat rooms and even write books about it. They gather support for a better understanding and treatment of Aspergers. Encouraging your teen, providing him means to this end and removing the obstacles in front of him may turn out to be the best antidepressant treatment ever. All this may seem remote and you may not know where to start. Consider the following tips:
· Attend support groups for moms and dads and make acquaintances
· If it doesn’t work right away, don’t get discouraged and keep trying, always letting your teen make the first move in showing interest
· Invite your new acquaintances to your house and encourage them to bring their teens
· Leave brochures, leaflets and other information about teen groups around to catch the attention of your teenager
In contrast with their rather slow social development and maturation, teens with Aspergers develop physiologically and sexually at the same pace as their peers. As their sons and daughters with Aspergers grow older and display sexualized behavior, many patents find themselves worrying that
· their daughter will get pregnant or their son will impregnate someone else’s daughter
· their teen will be taken advantage of
· their teen will contract sexually transmitted diseases
· their teen will not have the opportunity of enjoying sexual relationships
· their teen’s behavior will be misunderstood
While some moms and dads get concerned that their teens show no interest in sexual matters, others have to deal with behaviors like:
· masturbating in public
· staring at others inappropriately
· stripping in public
· talking about inappropriate subjects
· touching others inappropriately
· touching private parts of own in public
Talking about sex, especially the sexuality of our teens makes us feel uncomfortable. Even though we all wish that our teens have safe and fulfilling sexual lives, we hope the issue just gets resolved by itself, or at least somebody else takes the responsibility of resolving it. We may find ourselves lost trying to imagine our teens, who have significant problems carrying a simple conversation, building relationships that may lead to healthy sexuality. We may find it comforting to believe that our teens don’t have sexual needs and feelings, and avoid bringing up the subject in any shape or form. We may feel uneasy about sex education, believing that ignorance will prevent sexual activity.
How can we make sure that our teens with Aspergers express sexuality in socially acceptable and legally permissible ways, avoiding harm to themselves and others?
The key is making your mind that you will address the issue, rather than avoid it. Set up a time with your teen to talk about sexuality, rather than making a few comments about it when the issue is hot, right after an incident, when everybody feels quite emotional about what just has happened. Ask direct questions about what your teen knows about sex. Ask about his desires and worries. Tell him what you think should be his first step. After inquiring and talking about the normal behavior, set realistic but firm limits about inappropriate behavior. Seeing your level of comfort around the issue, your teen will get the message that it is OK to have sexual feelings and it is OK to talk about them. Getting this message alone will bring the tension around sexuality a few notches down. If this approach fails, please do not be shy about asking for help. Other moms and dads with adolescent teens would be a good starting point. Your teen’s school may also be able to help. Finally, you may inquire about professional help, which should provide:
· an individualized sexuality assessment and
· sex education based on individual needs, while
· utilizing behavioral modification techniques to discourage inappropriate sexual behavior and promote appropriate sexual behavior.