Isolation and Loneliness in Teens on the Autism Spectrum

"What can we do as parents to get our teenager with high functioning autism to broaden his areas of interest and not hibernate in his room playing video games ALL DAY. He has very little contact with us and has virtually no friends?!"

Having little contact with family and peers is not uncommon among teenagers with Asperger’s (AS) or High Functioning Autism (HFA), but if your adolescent's isolation is becoming an issue and advancing into a troubling stage, you will want to quickly solve the problem in any way you can.

The adolescent years come with a host of issues for teens on the autism spectrum – much more so than for “typical” teens. Moms and dads often feel at a loss for how to help their “special needs” adolescent when he or she seems lonely, anxious, depressed or out of sorts.

Adolescents with AS and HFA may choose to isolate themselves, or it may happen as a result of bullying or exclusion by their peers. Other common reasons for isolation include the following:
  • Isolation can be caused by the way these teens look, dress, act, or a combination thereof.
  • Moodiness and erratic or volatile behavior can drive AS and HFA adolescents away from their peer group.
  • Shyness can be a cause of social isolation.
  • Some AS and HFA adolescents may be ostracized by peers due to their excelling academically or underachieving. “Fitting-in” is important to teens, and those that stand out may be pushed to the fringes of social groups.
  • The AS or HFA adolescent may spend too much time on the internet or playing video games, and as a result, lose touch with their friends. They may replace genuine social interaction with online gaming where they converse with strangers.
  • Depression is another prime cause of isolation for these young people. A depressed AS or HFA adolescent loses interest in everyday activities and drops out of social groups at school.

Of the reasons listed above, I have found that the biggest reason AS and HFA teens isolate is because they have been bullied, teased and rejected by their peers. Due to their “odd” behavior, these young people are misunderstood and not heard by their peers. They are trying hard to be accepted, but they simply don’t know how to do it. When trying to cope with this rejection, their brain actually goes into survival mode, and they will either become hypo-aroused or hyper-aroused, which means that they will either hide (hypo) or act-out (hyper). These behaviors then can scare peers and parents. This is why it is so terribly important to look beneath the behavior and empathize with the adolescent's emotional state – and then listen to what he or she is saying.

Adolescents with AS and HFA may end up in a situation where they struggle to help themselves. If moms and dads see this happening, they should get involved and encourage their youngster to take positive action to overcome their social problems. Luckily, there are a few ways to encourage your adolescent to become a part of things once again.

==>  Discipline for Defiant Aspergers Teens

What moms and dads can do to help their AS and HFA teens to improve self-esteem, be more socially engaged, and experience less loneliness and depression:

1. Assist your adolescent with setting short-term and long-term goals for herself. Short-term goals (e.g., completing homework each day for a week, filling out two job applications per week, etc.) will help keep her focused. Long-term goals (e.g., getting a driver's license, saving up enough money to purchase a car, etc.) will give her something to look forward to. Reaching goals provides a sense of accomplishment and improves self-esteem.

2. Consider the treatment options for your adolescent's depression or anxiety if those have been diagnosed. Getting proper treatment for these conditions will help your adolescent to stop isolating himself so much from family and peers. Possible treatments may include counseling and/or medications.

3. Create opportunities for your adolescent to volunteer and help others. Providing assistance to others helps improve feelings of self-worth. There are many volunteer opportunities available for adolescents (e.g., visiting people in a nursing home, caring for animals at a local shelter, etc.).

4. Discuss your concerns with your child when she seems more relaxed. Be honest, telling her that you have noticed that she is spending more and more time on her own. Ask her if there is something troubling her. Be tactful and patient. Do not pressure her to talk, but encourage her by speaking softly and gently and by showing relaxed body language.

5. Encourage social activity by signing your teenager up for community sports, arts and crafts classes, or any other activities that he may enjoy that will help him to meet new friends and explore hobbies and other special interests.

6. Encourage your teenager to get some kind of exercise at least 3 to 4 times a week. Staying active can help improve mood.

7. Even if it doesn't always seem like it, your “special needs” adolescent craves your attention and approval. Spend time together doing an activity that you both enjoy, or let your adolescent choose how you spend your time together. Whether it's shopping, watching movies, or going for a hike, the most important thing is to be there and to get your adolescent out of her bedroom for a while.

8. Explore all aspects of your teen’s attempts to isolate himself by keeping a journal. A journal will contain valuable information for a therapist if your child receives counseling at some point in the future. The length of time “isolating behavior” has been going on is relevant. Also, look at your child’s personality. He may always have been a loner, or he may have previously been quite outgoing. Also, note any signs of a lowering or flattening in mood.

9. Get your support team together. There are school counselors and peer-support groups. There is also individual and family psychotherapy that is provided through local mental health agencies. You may also want to have your doctor check out the possibility of any medical conditions as a possibility for isolation or depression. If your teen is physically healthy, the next step will be to bring him or her to a mental health professional who specializes in autism spectrum disorders. The therapist will give your adolescent a screening for depression and guide you through treatment options. In addition, you can contact your local clergy for support. But always keep in mind that the most important relationship is the one between you and your teenager. The professionals can assist and guide, but you can influence your son or daughter in a positive way that will have a life-long impact on that parent-child relationship.

==>  Discipline for Defiant Aspergers Teens

10. Help your adolescent to find her talents. Encourage her to join a sport, play a musical instrument, or join a club until she finds something where she excels. Also, teach her that she does not have to be good at everything, but what she settles on should be enjoyable.

11. Help your teenager to stick to his usual sleep schedule and eat regular and healthy meals and snacks.

12. Increase your adolescent's self-esteem. Sadness and isolation can sometimes be linked to low self-esteem. Give your youngster lots of compliments and positive reinforcement for the things she does well, whether that's a good grade on a test, helping out with a younger sibling without being asked, or a beautiful drawing she created. Look for the good things about your adolescent and the positive things she does, and make a big deal about them! An adolescent who feels good about herself is more likely to want to get out of the house and enjoy life.

13. Intervene if you feel your child’s behavior is troubling. He may, for example, be spending increasing periods of time in his room with the door shut and locked. He may even be neglecting his diet, appearance or studies. The best way to intervene may be to sign your child up for a social-skills training group.

14. Model healthy self-esteem. Show your adolescent the importance of self-praise, and avoid becoming self-critical in his or her presence.

15. Open the line of communication. Without being overly pushy, let your teen know you are there if he needs to talk – no matter what the problem is. This may help you to find out if there are any reasons for his isolation (e.g., school-related stress).

16. Praise your adolescent for her efforts – even if she doesn’t reach her goals (e.g., acknowledgment of hard work in her sports attempts or academic efforts). Praise positive behaviors (e.g., making healthy choices, solving tough problems). Also, teach your adolescent how to respond to failure with a healthy attitude.

17. Stay in touch with their child’s teachers and coaches. Being aware of what she is doing and who she is friends with is very important. It also lets her know that she is important to you. Sure, she may complain about you being over-protective, but so what – you are the parent.

18. Suggest that your teenager keep a journal. Writing about her feelings, drawing, and writing poetry are some of the ways she can express herself. Sometimes she may be asked to do this by her therapist as well, and maybe share some of the entries. Often being able to identify and express feelings will improve how your teenager feels.

19. Teach your adolescent to recognize cognitive distortions and replace them with more realistic thoughts. AS and HFA teens with low self-esteem tend to have a distorted view of themselves and the world. Frequently, they expect things to turn out negatively (e.g., "Everyone is going to laugh at me when I give my presentation tomorrow in class”). Other distortions may include self-blame and becoming overly-critical of anything less than perfection.

20. While some moodiness and isolation is normal, it's important to be aware of signs of more serious problems (e.g., depression, suicidal thoughts). Symptoms of depression include frequent sulking, a change in eating or sleeping habits, lack of energy, and talking about death or suicide. If your adolescent shows any of these symptoms, seek help immediately. Call a therapist or your physician right away for instructions on what to do next if you suspect a serious problem.

Isolation increases an AS or HFA teen's risk of developing mental health problems (e.g., depression, chemical dependency). Thus, parents of these teens need to help them improve their self-esteem and social skills by encouraging them to change the way they think – and how they spend their time. This can be accomplished by using the steps listed above.

==>  Discipline for Defiant Aspergers Teens


Steve Borgman said... What a great article. I liked the suggestion of getting one's teen in a volunteer activity, particularly in an activity s/he enjoys, such as something related to animals, if s/he loves animals. Also, I appreciate the suggestion of connecting with one's child when s/he is more relaxed.

D Marcotte said... Nice article. I would like to add a couple of suggestions. 1. If your teen is interacting with others online that should count as social interaction - i.e. chat rooms, websites or whatever. My daughter who is high functioning does very well online and has friends all around the world. 2. Introduce your teen to other teens on the spectrum - we have found this to be very helpful. They seem to really understand each other in a way NT people just don't. Their friendship may not look like what you expect, but that doesn't make it any less real. I would also like to mention a great website for families impacted by autism, www.asd-dr.com is designed to help families find the treatments, therapists and services they need in the local area. It also has a lot of links to online support through links to organizations, forums and other references.

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