Parenting adolescents brings many challenges – hormonal changes, self-identity, and the pressure of being socially acceptable, just to name a few. When you add Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism (HFA) to the equation, the element of difficulty increases significantly. Parents can help their “special needs” adolescents, but this begins with becoming knowledgeable about what they face. Parents should learn as much about the disorder as possible and how they can support and help these young people face their challenges.
The “typical” teenager is really into his or her friends. The tools for developing social skills as an adolescent are shared experiences and conversation with peers. But, for the teenager who has poor social skills or struggles to communicate, the idea of conversation and interaction with peers is not appealing. For many teens with Asperger’s and HFA, they literally can’t think of anything they would enjoy less than “having” to be social. And who blames them? Nobody enjoys doing things they are not naturally good at.
Teens with Asperger’s and HFA are easily misunderstood. For example, one teenager might be unfiltered, blurting out the first thought that pops into his head, while another may struggle to form and express complete sentences. Both scenarios create tension for the teen with Asperger’s or HFA – as well as his peers, who may be attempting to interact. Typically developing teens sometimes react harshly in these awkward moments.
In general, adolescents don’t exactly have the market cornered on emotional maturity. They’re still developing. So, odds are high that a young person on the autism spectrum has already had a number of uncomfortable peer-encounters by the time he reaches adolescence (e.g., teasing, bullying, peer-rejection, etc.). You can see why the critically important skill (i.e., the ability to engage in age-appropriate social interaction) needed in adolescence may be the one thing that a teen with Asperger’s or HFA associates with failure.
15 crucial strategies that parents and teachers can employ in an effort to assist teens with Asperger's and HFA:
1. Adolescents with Asperger’s and HFA are challenged with self-esteem issues. Thus, it is important to help them feel important in matters that involve them. Get them to participate by giving them the choices available, as well as understanding of the consequences behind those choices.
2. Alternate preferred activities (e.g., computer games, TV viewing) and less-preferred activities (e.g., homework, chores). Teens on the spectrum are likely to put more intense – and more sustained – effort into challenging/non-preferred tasks when they know that they can take part in a fun or interesting activity at the end of it.
3. As the mother or father facing the often overwhelming task of parenting and disciplining an adolescent with Asperger’s or HFA, it may seem that you don’t have the time or patience for allowing her to have input into decisions that concern her. And it may even seem downright scary to consider allowing her to make her own decisions. Doing so would take more time and would definitely involve some risk. But, it becomes a significant issue when adolescents feel they are disregarded in matters that directly affect them. Adolescents with Asperger’s and HFA are no different in this regard. It’s a big deal when they are made to feel important despite their disorder. An important proactive step is letting the “special needs” adolescent know that, although her needs may be a challenge, there is nothing that can’t be overcome or managed more effectively.
4. Challenged by a particular developmental disorder or not, teens want to know they are loved, supported and have encouragement when needed. This is even more important for young people on the autism spectrum. When the disorder is allowed to overshadow the significance of a teenager, it hinders him or her greatly.
5. Check to be sure that you have your teen’s attention before giving directions. However, understand that young people on the spectrum may not always make eye contact, even when they are paying attention to you. Be on the lookout for other signs of attending (e.g., alert posture, orientation toward you, stopping other activities, verbalizations, etc.). Also, include essential information in your directions that will answer these four questions for your teen: When do I do the work? What is my payoff for doing the work? What exactly am I supposed to do? How much work is there to do in this task?
6. Create a plan to help your teen to generalize his learned social skills across settings and situations. Teens on the autism spectrum are likely to need explicit programming to generalize skills that they have learned in a particular setting to other settings or situations. Teach only a small number of “key” skills (e.g., how to start a conversation, how to ask for help) at one time so that you will have enough time to work with your child on generalizing each mastered skill. After he has mastered a skill in one setting, list other settings or situations in which you would like him to show the skill. Then create a training plan to help your teen to use the skill in these novel settings. If he has mastered the task of delivering appropriate social greetings at school, for example, you might take him to a church youth group, prompt him to greet his peers, and provide praise or rewards for his successful performance. This is an example of “hands-on” social skills training, which is greatly needed with these young people. Parents and teachers should “go the extra mile” like this.
7. Create structured opportunities for your teen to participate in social interactions (e.g., allow him to invite a friend or two over for a movie or pizza party). Asperger’s and HFA teens are often excluded from social interactions with their typical peers at school, so parents can make up for this by providing social opportunities at home.
8. Help build your “special needs” teen’s self-esteem. List-making can be an effective method for accomplishing this goal. To begin, your adolescent can make a list of at least 5 things he admires or appreciates about himself. This list can include simple things (e.g., has a nice smile), or more significant things (e.g., earning good grades in school). Each day thereafter, he continues to make a new list. These lists can include his 5 greatest strengths, 5 greatest life achievements, 5 people who love and care about him, and his 5 favorite memories. Your adolescent can keep these lists in a special place and refer to them any time negative thoughts enter his mind.
9. Helping your Asperger’s of HFA adolescent will be challenging at times, because with mood swings, meltdowns and hyperactivity, it seems you have no control – but neither does she! However, take a moment to realize that you can help her by controlling yourself. You really do your teen a great service by maintaining control, and by not allowing difficult situations to overwhelm you. Stress is contagious, so don’t spread it to your teenager.
10. Minimizing the disorder is NOT the point. Helping your adolescent to understand that he can accomplish things in spite of his disorder IS the point. Not only does this encourage self-esteem, it also provides motivation and hope.
11. Offer meaningful choices that give your teen some autonomy and control. For example, you may encourage her to select a few chores, and then allow her to decide what chore she will work on first. Also, you could allow her to choose when and where she will do her homework. Make an effort to build choices into home activities whenever possible.
12. Post a clear and predictable daily schedule. Children and teens with Asperger’s and HFA crave structure and predictability. But know that young people on the spectrum can sometimes react more strongly than their “typical” peers when faced with any unexpected change in their daily schedule. Thus, be as consistent as possible with the schedule.
13. Provide your teenager with simple strategies to engage others in social interactions. Demonstrate and model these strategies. Then give her an opportunity to try them out, and give her feedback and encouragement (e.g., role play how to approach a group and ask to join a game or other activity).
14. Use verbal prompts (i.e., pre-correction) before your teen engages in a task to promote success. Phrase your prompt to reflect what you would like to see your teen do (e.g., “Michael, please do your homework before dinner”), rather than what you would like him to stop doing (“Michael, you need to stop playing video games and get busy with your homework, because we are going to eat dinner soon”).
15. When a problem arises and you must confront your teen, keep your tone of voice calm and relaxed in spite of how you may be feeling. This “gentle” approach can diffuse a lot of situations that may otherwise be lost to conflict and anger. While every situation may not be diffused, disciplining in a gentle fashion is something that should be practice diligently with children and teens who are prone to meltdowns and feelings of frustration or anxiety.
Your adolescent with Asperger's or HFA will want friends, but may feel shy or intimidated when approaching his peers. He probably feels "different" from others. Although most “typical” adolescents place emphasis on being and looking "cool," young people on the autism spectrum may find it frustrating and emotionally draining to try to “fit in.” They may be immature for their age, and they may be naive and too trusting, which can lead to teasing and bullying. All of these difficulties can cause these adolescents to become withdrawn and socially isolated – and to have depression or anxiety. However, with a little assistance from parents and other caring adults, even an Asperger’s or HFA teen can thrive and live a productive, happy life.
Discipline for Defiant Aspergers and HFA Teens