Problems Experienced by Teens with Aspergers and HFA

Adolescents that have Aspergers (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often experience difficulty in several areas, one of which is socialization.  

Some AS and HFA adolescents are very social, though sometimes they may interact in inappropriate ways. Their peers may not understand their methods of communication and avoid them whenever possible. These very social adolescents often do not understand the word "tact". They blurt out statements that are offensive, believing them to be funny. They may act in an embarrassing manner to gain attention, and they may be uncomfortably blunt in their opinions about people or subjects.

On the other end of the spectrum are those adolescents who avoid socialization with others. They would rather sit alone, and they may be quite standoffish to the point of appearing rude as well. These adolescents may be extremely smart in specific areas, such as writing, math, or some form of the arts. Their extreme intelligence may make them act superior to those who are less accomplished in these areas, and this can create tension and destroy relationships. These adolescents may actually crave the friendship and peer interaction that the rest of their classmates have, but they don't know how to go about getting it.

Symptoms of the disorder that occur during the teen years:

Most symptoms persist through the teenage years. And although teenagers with AS and HFA can begin to learn those social skills they lack, communication often remains difficult. They will probably continue to have difficulty "reading" others' behavior.

Your "special needs" teenager (like other teenagers) will want friends, but may feel shy or intimidated when approaching other teenagers. He may feel "different" from others. Although most teenagers place emphasis on being and looking "cool," teenagers on the autism spectrum may find it frustrating and emotionally draining to try to fit in. They may be immature for their age and be naive and too trusting, which can lead to teasing and bullying. All of these difficulties can cause these teens become withdrawn and socially isolated and to have depression or anxiety.

But some teenagers on the spectrum are able to make and keep a few close friends through the school years. Some of the classic autistic traits may also work to the benefit of your teenager. These young people are typically uninterested in following social norms, fads, or conventional thinking, allowing creative thinking and the pursuit of original interests and goals. Their preference for rules and honesty may lead them to excel in the classroom and as citizens.

Coping Methods for AS and HFA Adolescents--

There are several coping methods that should be considered:

Social Networking: There are many social networking sites available on the Internet for adolescents with AS and HFA. A social networking site can be a great coping method. Many of these sites offer support groups where adolescents can interact with others who also have an autism spectrum disorder. There are drawbacks to these sites, however. Adolescents sometimes become so dependent on their virtual friends that they become obsessed with their time on the computer and refuse to interact with those around them. Risks could also include encounters with cyber-bullies and pedophiles, so parents should monitor their youngster's Internet activities carefully.

SPELL: The Structure-Positive-Empathy-Low Arousal-Links method focuses more on intervention methods to help adolescents with AS and HFA cope. Structure emphasizes order in an adolescent's world. Using positive reinforcement build's an adolescent's self-esteem, enabling him to cope more easily with changes in his daily schedule and with social encounters as well. Those who come in contact with an AS or HFA adolescent must be educated in order to gain empathy for his or her situation. Low arousal refers to controlling the environment around the adolescent as much as possible by limiting undue noise and confusion and using relaxation methods, such as massage and music to calm him. The word "links" refers to the connection between all of those involved in the youngster's life.

TEACCH: The Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Kids/Adults focuses on the visual aspects of communication. This is particularly important for those who have little or no verbal skills. One of the simplest methods associated with this plan is to show photos or pictures of whatever behavior or activity is expected while verbalizing that expectation as well. This method can help calm an adolescent with Aspergers and help him cope with any confusion he might be encountering.

Should an adolescent with AS or HFA try to be "normal?"

How do you let your child be who they are while still protecting them so they don't emerge traumatized? I feel what is most important is not to let your child feel ashamed of who they are. If they've got a spark to them, they've got things they're interested in, don't kill it by making them conform. Most people lose that spark naturally when they get older; there's no reason to do it prematurely. Don't take away one of best things your teen has going for herself: her passion for living life, even if it's living life on her own terms. If she wants to fit in, she'll ask you how to fit. It'll come, but let it be when she's ready for it rather than force her into a cookie cutter existence.

Some AS and HFA teens go through middle school so excited about their passions that they barely notice they're the odd ones out, or if they notice, they don't care (probably not a lot, but some). Others are unfortunately bullied quite a bit. There are a few things you can do to try to either prevent this from happening or minimize the effects if it does. First, use her talents and passions to find her a niche in the school where she can succeed. The drama club is a natural place. Many quirky children find refuge in drama clubs; and if she can succeed in school plays, then she has one place where she belongs and can be accorded respect.

If there's a particular subject she's interested in, see if she can start a club and find other children interested in the same thing. Or find if you can a group outside of school interested in that kind of thing. Buffer her so if she does encounter some rejection she will already belong to and have found success in enough other activities that it won't really matter so much. Perhaps you could encourage her to take interest in a particular teacher, especially in a subject she enjoys, so she could have an ally at the school. Teachers were always invaluable support people to me when I was in school.

If she does encounter problems, try to find ways around some of the biggest trouble spots. For example, she could eat lunch in a classroom instead of the lunchroom if the lunchroom is problematic. If bullying does occur, hopefully you can work with her and the school to minimize the amount of places that it occurs. Keep reminding her of how great she is, and let her cry to you if she needs to.

But the most important thing you can do, it seems, is continue to let her be who she is because it's not worth losing yourself for a bunch of junior high children, and give her outlets where she can succeed so she's not as bothered by the junior high children. Also, if she's into it and they're available, a support group for autistic teens may be valuable.

==> My Aspergers Teen: Discipline for Defiant Aspergers and HFA Teens

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