Coping Skills for Aspergers and HFA Teens: 40 Tips for Parents

Teens with Aspergers and High Functioning Autism (HFA) have core neurologically-based deficits in social-emotional and communication skills. Without specialized help with these skills, even the brightest teenager may end up unable to make and keep friends or hold down a job. I have worked with numerous Aspergers and HFA teens that made really good grades in high school – but simply could not hold down a job (e.g., working in a fast food restaurant, grocery store, etc.).

One of the main reasons for this dilemma is that the teenager has trouble relating to other people on the job. He may say or do things that come across as socially awkward – or downright rude (e.g., ignoring co-workers when they say hello, talking about his own pursuits with no apparent interest in what the other person may have to say, making negative comments about other people's work/appearance/habits, etc.). To make matters worse, after being fired, the Aspergers employee often never understands the real reasons why he lost the job.

Aspergers and HFA teens generally have a lot of trouble understanding the unspoken rules that govern how they must act around other people in order to get along socially. They often end up with no close friends, and with slim chances of finding a girlfriend. This happens because of problems with social-emotional understanding. Aspergers teens can have a great deal of trouble understanding feelings (including their own), and as a result, they may appear to be detached and uncaring – or at the other extreme, out of control of their feelings. So a young man with Aspergers figures that since he told his girlfriend on their first date that he really likes being with her, he doesn't need to say it again. Or he has just won the school math contest, jumps up and down with happiness one minute, and then yells and sobs the next minute, because any kind of strong feelings – positive or negative – overwhelm him.

Aspergers teens also have a hard time reading other people's non-verbal cues (e.g., body language, facial expression, tone of voice, etc.), which make up about 70-80% of what we communicate (words only count for about 20%-30% of what we communicate). People need to read non-verbal cues in order to make accurate assessments about what other people are thinking, feeling, and intending. If one can't read non-verbal cues and doesn’t understand or predict other people's thoughts/feelings/intentions, he will repeatedly be “off the page” in interactions with others.

The Good News—

Aspergers teens typically have many talents that can make them highly valuable as friends, lovers, and employees:
  • many “Aspies” are superior in their loyalty, honesty, and logical thinking
  • many of our major advances in literature, the arts, computer technology, mathematics, and other sciences were achieved by “Aspies”
  • their ability to focus can lead to achievements that help the rest of us enjoy an enriched quality of life and a better understanding of the universe in which we live
  • their memories for facts can be mind-boggling
  • their sense of humor can be magnificent
  • they can have an extraordinary ability to focus on one isolated topic without getting distracted by other, unrelated input into their brains

So, how can you help your Aspergers or HFA teen to survive and THRIVE?

Here are 40 tips for parents:

1. A regular bed time at a reasonable hour is more important than ever, if you can put/keep it in place. Regular routines of all kinds—familiar foods, rituals, vacations—are reassuring when the adolescent’s body, biochemistry, and social scene are changing so fast.

2. Although some adolescents with Aspergers are more docile and youngster-like, be prepared to tolerate/ignore considerable distancing, surliness, or acting out, knowing that it won’t last forever. At the same time, set some firm limits, and keep a close eye on the youngster/adolescent’s welfare.

3. Be patient. Remember that kids and adolescents with Aspergers are relatively immature, socially and emotionally, compared to non-Aspergers kids of the same chronological age. Imagine sending a 10 year old off to high school (even if she has a chronological age of 14), or putting a 14 year old boy behind the wheel of car (even if he has a chronological age of 18)—or sending that 14 year old off to college or the army. We need to adjust our expectations for adolescents with Aspergers -- and make sure they still have appropriate supports.

4. Boys may need to spend increased amounts of time with their fathers, and/or other male role models, as they undertake to become men. If Dad has taken a back seat, let him know his son really needs his attention now. If you are a single mother, look especially hard for male mentors at your son’s school or in the wider community.

5. Build and use any support networks you can: extended family, close friends, church/synagogue groups, and understanding school staff. If you don’t have a good network, consider individual or family therapy for a little support during a stormy, demanding life passage. When you have a demanding adolescent, it’s good to be reminded once a week that your needs and feelings are valid and important, too!

6. Consider delaying graduation in order to ensure that transition services are actually provided under DOE. It may be hard to convince an academically gifted, college bound student to accept this route. However, it may be very helpful for students who will need a lot of help with independent living skills and employment issues. Services need not be delivered within high school walls. Community college courses, adaptive driving lessons, and employment internships are just a few alternatives to consider.

7. A simple, low key, consistent approach is more important than ever, as adolescents become taller and stronger—not that physical restraint was ever very useful with our children. Pick your battles. Set and enforce only your bottom line rules and expectations—matters of safety and respect. Write them down. Make sure both moms and dads/all involved adults agree on the rules. Give choices when possible, but not too many. Engage your adolescent in problem-solving; what does s/he think would work?

8. Encourage your adolescent to carry a wallet disclosure card to show if stopped by a police officer or other first responder. A lot of adolescents with Aspergers like to walk at night to unwind, and police may view their behavior as suspicious. You may want to introduce your adolescent to your local police community relations officer, and explain a little about Aspergers.

9. Establish verbal codes or gestures to convey that one or both parties need a time out: a chance to cool down before continuing a difficult discussion at a later time.

10. Even for a previously well-adjusted youngster, multiple stressors during the adolescent years may bring on anxiety and even depression. Stressors seem to include increased academic/abstract thinking and social demands at school, peer pressure, increased social awareness, and fears of the future. Highly anxious adolescents who do not get help may be at risk for hospitalizations, school failure, acting out (including alcohol and substance abuse), or even suicide attempts.

11. Forgive yourself for being an imperfect parent, and for not loving your youngster “enough.” Forgive yourself for sometimes losing your temper, yelling, or handling a tense situation awkwardly. Forgive yourself for getting your adolescent diagnosed “late”—there are still plenty of years in which to help your youngster. Forgive yourself for not arranging play dates, or sports, or tutoring, the way other moms and dads may be doing.

12. Go with the flow of your youngster’s nature. Simplify schedules and routines, streamline possessions and furnishings. If your adolescent only likes plain T shirts without collars or buttons, buy plain T shirts. If your kid likes familiar foods, or has a favorite restaurant, indulge her.

13. Have realistic, modest goals for what the adolescent or the family can accomplish in a give time period. You may need to postpone some plans for career goals, trips, culture or recreation.

14. If both moms and dads can largely agree about an adolescent’s diagnosis, treatment, and rules, it will save a lot of family wear and tear. To get your partner on the same page, attend Aspergers conferences or classes together. When you hear the same information, you can discuss it and decide what will work best for your adolescent and in your family. As you learn more about Aspergers, you may also come to better appreciate each other’s contributions to your youngster’s welfare. Attend team meetings at the school together, or alternate which parent attends. Seeing your youngster’s therapist together (possibly without the youngster), or seeing a couples or family therapist, may help you weather a tough time together.

15. If you can afford it, you may prefer to pay private school tuition rather than paying a lawyer to negotiate with a financially strapped or resistant school system. However, a private school may not be the best choice. Some families move to a community with a better high school.

16. If you have not talked to your adolescent about Aspergers, you or someone else should do so—to the extent that the adolescent is ready to hear it. It’s tricky for adolescents—they so much want to be “normal” and strong and successful. A diagnosis can seem threatening or even totally unacceptable. In truth, however, the adults with Aspergers who do best are those who know themselves well—both their own strengths, which point them toward finding their niche in the world, and their own blind spots: where they need to learn new skills or seek out specific kinds of help.

17. If you have not yet made a will and set up a special needs trust, do it now. Ask the lawyer about powers of attorney or other documents you may need once your adolescent is no longer a minor. Few moms and dads assume guardianship of a young adult 18 or older, but it may be necessary and appropriate in some situations.

18. If your adolescent seems like a good candidate for college, take him or her to visit colleges during the spring vacation weeks of the junior year of high school, or during the summers before junior and senior year. Visits reveal a lot about what environment the adolescent will prefer. Purchase a large college guide to browse.

19. Impersonal, written communication is easier for the adolescent to absorb: lists of routines and rules, notes, charts, or calendars. E-mail may become a new option.

20. In so far as you can, keep your cool—they can’t handle our upset feelings. Walk away if you need to.

21. Instill the essential habit of a daily shower and clean clothes: peers, teachers, and future potential employers are very put off by poor hygiene. If possible, put your adolescent’s clothes on a well-organized shelf in the bathroom, near the clothes hamper.

22. Children still need structure, down time, soothing activities, and preparation for transitions.

23. Children with Aspergers can be difficult to parent and to love even when they are young. Often, our children neither accept nor express love or other positive feelings in ways a non-Aspergers parent expects or finds most comfortable. Children’ behavior can be trying or embarrassing for us. Adding adolescence to the mix can make this dilemma even more painful.

24. Look for opportunities for a sheltered, successful overnight stay away from home with no parent. Examples: long weekend visits to relatives, a week or two of a carefully chosen sleep-away camp, taking a course on a college campus.

25. Look for volunteer activities or part time jobs at the high school or in the community. Be persistent in asking the school to provide help in the areas of career assessment, job readiness skills, and internships or volunteer opportunities. They probably have such services for intellectually challenged adolescents—but may not realize our children need that help, too. They may also not know how to adapt existing programs to meet our children’ needs.

26. Make sure thorough neuropsych re-evaluations are performed every three years. This information and documentation may be critical in securing appropriate services, alternative school placements, a good transition plan; choosing an appropriate college or other post secondary program; proving eligibility for services and benefits as an adult.

27. Not all adolescents are ready for a residential college experience right after high school. To decide, use the evidence of how the adolescent did at sleep-away camp or similar samplings of independence, and look carefully at executive function skills (organizational skills). As an alternative, community colleges offer a lot of flexibility: easy admission, low cost, remedial courses if necessary, the option of a light course load, and the security of living at home. Some college disability offices are more successful than others at providing effective, individualized support. However, if the adolescent is living at home, you may be able more easily to sense trouble, step in with help, or secure supports your young adult needs to succeed.

28. Residential schools may be worth considering for some. The right fit can build tremendous confidence for the adolescent, give the moms and dads a break, and prepare everyone for the independence of the post high school years.

29. Schedule regular monthly educational team meetings to monitor your adolescent’s progress, to ensure that the IEP is being faithfully carried out, and to modify it if necessary. Because adolescents can be so volatile or fragile, and because so many important things must be accomplished in four short years of high school, these meetings are critical. If an adolescent is doing very well, the team can agree to skip a month—but be sure to reconvene to plan the transition to the following year.

30. Seek out activity-based, practical social skills groups designed especially for adolescents. Participating in such a group, being accepted by group leaders and peers, is probably the most powerful way to allay an adolescent’s potential despair at not fitting in socially and not having any friends. The positive social experiences and new skills they learn will be assets for the rest of their lives.

31. Side by side conversations (walking, in the car) may be more comfortable for the adolescent than talking face to face.

32. Some adolescents adjust o.k. to middle/high school with appropriate supports and accommodations. Others, however, just cannot handle a large, impersonal high school. You may need to hire an advocate or lawyer to negotiate with your school system to pay for an alternative school placement, tuition, and transportation.

33. Special interests may change, but whatever the current one is, it remains an important font of motivation, pleasure, relaxation, and reassurance for the adolescent.

34. Teach laundry and other self-care/home care skills by small steps over time. Try to get the adolescent to take an elective such as cooking or personal finance at the high school.

35. Adolescents need to learn when to ask for help, from whom, and how. It’s very helpful to have someone such as a trusted guidance counselor whose door is always open, and who can coach the adolescent in problem solving.

36. Adolescents with Aspergers are less prepared than non-Aspergers adolescents for the new challenges of sexuality and romance. Some are oblivious; others want a girl or boy friend, but are clueless about how to form and maintain a relationship. Boys especially may be at risk for accusations of harassment, and girls especially at risk for becoming victims. Teach appropriate rules, or see that another adult does. Look for supervised activities in which boys and girls can socialize safely together, supervised by a staff person who know Aspergers and can coach appropriate social skills.

37. What kind of living situation, employment, and transportation fit your adolescent’s picture of his/her future at age 18 or 25? Once the goals are set, where can the adolescent learn the necessary skills? Consider academic courses, electives, extracurricular activities, and additional services within and outside the high school (e.g. community college, adaptive driving school).

38. With or without Aspergers, most adolescents become less willing to take a parent’s word or advice; so we need to hook them up with other trustworthy adults. If you want your adolescent to learn or try or do something, arrange for the suggestion or information to come from a trusted adult other than a parent. E.g.: Handpick your adolescent’s guidance counselor. Look for other good mentors: Uncle? Scout or youth group leader? Psychologist, social worker, peer mentor, “Big Brother,” social skills group leader? Weight room coach or martial arts teacher?

39. Adolescents continue to grow and develop. You may get some nice surprises along the way, as you see the adolescent take an unexpected giant step toward maturity. I think of it as their neurons maturing on the vine! Maybe it’s just that they figure some things out, and get used to the feel of their new body chemistry.

40. You want input and ownership from the adolescent as far as is possible, but moms and dads can and should have input. You may need to have team meetings when the adolescent is absent, so you can speak frankly about your concerns, without fear that the adolescent may feel you lack respect for or faith in her/him.

My Aspergers Teen: Discipline for Defiant Aspergers Teens


Anonymous said...

I should be able to do this, i'm a parent of now grown children, i used charts and rewards with my sons. I have successfully taught preschool, severely developementally challenged children,and years of swimming to alllllll ages. But i need concrete ideas to help me in dealing with my 87 year old parent, whom i care for daily, hence a lot of past baggage, who i sincerely believe meets most , if not all the Asperger criteria, with OCD tendencies thrown in. Can you suggest adult ideas for dealing with the constant criticalness, the obstinate behaviors, the fears, etc
I frequently wear picture cards of emotions around my neck to convey my moods,especially if i am in pain or sad for some reason. I correct and explain inappropriate comments and why they are such, for things that have always hurt my feelings and those of others. He denies his past experiences, though his current experiences indicate this and has for since i was a teenage ( now i am 55). It is still an emotionally draining situation and my only salvation is i do not come and care for him on weekends.

[The clincher to all, is that he hired me years ago with a decent enough salary so he believes he is the all benevolent BOSS " KING"---( as he likes to be treated as such)and i should do everything he says, wants, desires because of this salary!]No friends, no one would stay for any duration of time. if i quit, his net worth is so great that this is a concern to myself and my silbiing that prospective others would take advantage of this..................

thanks for your time and suggestions in advance

Anonymous said...

Everyone here: Listen. If your child has high functioning Asperger's and is a perfectionist - Listen. Our community just experienced a very tragic event last week when a teen in our neighborhood took her life because she could not deal or cope with her struggle with Asperger's and the depression that went along with it! Please learn the warning signs and get help, talk to them, be with them let them know you care and love them up! My son is also Asperger's and it's a hard time...and I am scared as hell for him because the spill-over of that event has hit our community hard. There are other factors that made this situation intense also, like the way she chose to end her life and the clues on the internet and at sites which indicated her state of mind, which seem all too familiar to me and my husband as it relates to our son. I love my son so much but I'm scared at this point and don't want to put any restrictions on him at the present time. It's preservation!

Anonymous said...

HI, in my rural area, we are having a hard time finding anyone who can help coach my son and myself in how to grow with Aspbergers. He is a very intelligent, socially clueless kid, who is both dreading and excited to go back to high school for his junior year. Watching his interractions at an informational night for National Honors Society candidates was so painful, as he blushed to even talk to people, stood off to the side of his ‘friends’..it was gut wrenching. He is sad he won’t even be considered, because of the Leadership criteria demanding that he be a sports, editorial or some other ‘infront, motivational ’ position…he could never do it.

We had tried a local Autusim ‘expert’..who was very specialized in small children, and totally inappropriate for his age. We also check in with a psychiatrist about an hour away for a yearly talk..but she says to follow with the local gp..for celexa prescription for depression and ocd sypmptoms.

He is a great thinker, deeply emotional..deep thinker..should be a philosopher! His biggest issue now is lack of motivation to even begin his AP coursework, which he has procrastinated with all summer, due next week. It is a pattern held over from last year. Still an A student, but crunches all night to get work done. Insomnia does not help..he will sleep the entire day away, and be up all night playing video games..honestly, he outlasts me..I work the entire day and can’t come home and roll him out of bed!

Anonymous said...

I am performing a peculiar experiment. Instead of trying to fit in(as I have in the best, with varying degrees of success), I am attempting a romantic relationship with a woman who is also an aspie.

I wonder, what would happen, if there was a mass social meeting for aspies?

The best way to "coach" your son might just be to let him experience the awkwardness, and let it harden him. If you don't find his guts splattered on the wall, you're doing just fine.

Learning to cope however, is faking it. Have you ever seen Showtime's Dexter? That's pretty much what it's like. Except without the homicidal urges.

Anonymous said...

Hi , Everyone

My name is Stacy , I live in California and have a 14 year old daughter who just started Highschool. I had her diagnosed at age 8 . I was told she had Mild Aspergers , ADHD. She was always happy as child until she hit 6th grade . At this point she changed drastically she dressed all black, listening to screamo , emo music , I tried to control it she would have major meltdowns and this was without medication . She started cutting herself alot , got involved with social chat room guy wanted to set up meeting to meet her at the mall totally crazy stuff . I had to put her on medication now meltdowns are less but still has a lot of anxiety . I have to say I dont what the future holds for her but she is an A student and she cares about her grades but really likes the dark stuff the music she likes to be mischevious and test limits . I have her go to psychiatrist,pyschotherapy,social skills and she still gets crazy and wants to kill herself it depends on the time of the month she will scream and try to grab knives then in the morning wake up like everything is fine. I have noticed big changes after eating sugar looking into changing her diet for sure. I understand how hard it is to raise a child who seems to me most of the time never really happy .

Jett said...

Dear Stacy, as a 14 year old male with Aspergers, you are an idiot.
Music is simply expression ("I never had the words to say, but I can quote them all") no matter the genre.
2 the fact that you stated things like 'emo' and 'screamo' shows nothing but bigoted ignorance.
Your child is coping via music, and non-verbal expression (I assume that you interpret that as visual [i.e. clothing] as well.
How about you back off? It just seems to me that you're over-controlling.

Hissy_Fitts said...

Stacy and Jett...
y thoughts as a Therapist and Asperger's family member...

I'm so sorry for the struggle your daughter is having. I know it is truly difficult to comprehend her feelings as they can be changed by hormones, depression, and any number of other reasons. As long as he is safe, I am assuming you were just adding the music and dress as part of her self expession (because those alone are a part of many teenager's style these days).
Unfortunately as a female, that recurring hormonal issue is going to remain.
As long as the serious depression, cutting, and suicidal thoughts happen, keep her mental health care team in place. Hang in there and know you are not alone.

You are correct about self expression, however, you have to look at the other issues. Cutting oneself and becoming suicidal are not self expression and need special help. Not everyone's story is the same.
As someone with Aspergers, I'm sure you know all too well that it depends where on the spectrum you land, what co-existing factors come into play, and how everything is affected by hormones and depression; even if you don't experience those factors.

C. Morgan, M.S.W.

The Autistic Whisperer said...

Hello there,
I have so much empathy and devotion for youths with Aspergus and Autism. I have a direct line of communication with them, as I have being finding out lately. I am a Psychotherapist but there is also something a very Spiritual connection with these youths that can often be missed or misperceived as being delirious. I feel the main areas that need addressing are Self Esteem, over whelming emotions and the power of positive thinking to help with these emotions, and most of all how to deal with the isolation. Nature, Play and Music are key factors in helping the youths connect with themselves. Diet is also so important as they are so sensitive to toxic foods. I am now over 40 yrs of age and I can now relate to feeling autistic when I was a child. My whole life has helped me to adjust, study, grow and blossom into somebody who can help support Autistic and Aspergus Youths. I am available for counselling and support and empowerment for these youths at my centre in Lucan. Communicaton is the key, to meet them where they are and to unconditionally accept them. 'Normal is just a setting on a dryer' There must be a stop put to the need for these youths to Conform to societies expectations of the norm. My emal ph. no. is 0851262639 if you would like to contact me or if I can be of any help to you. God Bless Caroline

A little late to the conversation said...

I'm a teenage girl, and I was diagnosed at 8 with high functioning Aspergers. I've dealt with anxiety, mood disorders, self harm, 3 overdoses, over a dozen inpatient hospitizations, multiple therapies, counselors,and psychiatrists and over 20 medications. My favorite colors are black and rainbow. I love screamo, punk, rock, and alternative/emo music, it's one of my best coping skills. My mom was hesitant about my music at first but then she realized it helped me alot, now she listens to me talk endlessly about my favorite songs and bands and we listen to classic rock together. I still have bad days and meltdowns, I probably always will, just on a smaller scale hopefully. If your child is going through similar problems talk to them, you both want to control everything because it feels like you don't have any. You will have to learn to cope with that together. If they exhibit signs of self harm or threaten it make sharps (knives, accord, razors, etc) in accessible to them for some time or during meltdowns. Talk to your child's Dr, therapist, and psychiatrist about it, and make sure to include your child. Don't shame them for the behaviors it only makes it worse. I used to pretend nothing happened because I was ashamed and mad at myself for messing up again. When you feel your child is calm gently bring up the meltdown and concerning behaviour, if they become upset or agitated again redirect their them to something good like a special interest of theirs and help use their coping skills. If you feel your child can handle it continue the conversation after they're calmer, maybe talking about a different behavioral concern or treatment. If they become upset again stop the upsetting conversation and maybe try again some other time. If you're worried about their health, eating, body, etc talk with your child. Do not shame, guilt them, or force them,they might already have negative feelings about these things too. Talk with their doctors and therapist about these concerns and develop a plan (include your child.) Do some of these changes with your child encourage them positively. If you don't approve of your child's friends try to get to know them better. try to have an open mind, and see them through your child's eyes. People with aspergers can see the world differently. Again talk with your child's therapist/doctors. Don't be afraid to change treatments if you or your child feels they aren't beneficial. Untraditional treatments can help slot. I'm currently not on medication, though I do use essential oils, I go to counseling once month (after not going for over a year.) I also take karate and ride horses. these have probably helped meore than any counselor or medication ever has. I've developed my first real friendships through these activities, and gained many social and life skills. I'm now in a pretty good place with my aspergers and other issues. Also talk to your child's school (this can be a very stressful thing/ environment) if you or your child feels it is causing severe problems make changes. If the school isn't accommodating your child properly you might need to consider different options. If your child goes to public school you should discuss changing classes/teachers, getting an aid, special education, or changing schools/homeschooling. If they struggle socially consider smaller classes or smaller school. Talk to your child, their teachers and counselor about changes to workload , schedule, or school. There are many options with treatment and school.i be been homeschooled for about 4 years and it's helped me alot, I'm actually more social now. Love and support your child together you will find what works eventually. The road will be rocky and and crazy in places but you'll the destination together if you have patience and support.

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