Students with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger’s: Crucial Strategies for Teachers and Home-Schoolers

Kids with High Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) exhibit difficulty in appropriately processing in-coming information. Their brain's ability to take in, store, and use information is significantly different than other developing kids.

HFA and AS students can present a challenge for the most experienced teacher. But on a positive note, they can contribute significantly to the classroom, because they are often extremely creative and provide a different perspective to the subject matter in question.

Although HFA and AS differ from classic autism with respect to language acquisition and early cognitive development, they do have similarities (e.g., in the areas of social impairment, impairment in reading social non-verbal language, inflexibility, persistent preoccupation, etc.). Problematic behavior in HFA and AS students is essentially the result of (a) failure to learn necessary adaptive behaviors (e.g., how to establish satisfying personal relationships), and (b) the learning of ineffective responses (e.g., discovering that one can avoid unwanted tasks by acting-out behaviorally).

These “special needs” students are impaired socially, and often do not detect social clues. They are frequently unaware that a peer is irritated if the only clue is a frustrated facial expression. If they miss a social clue, then they miss the lesson associated with the experience. Thus, they will likely repeat the irritating behavior because they are unaware of its effects.

==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

In the classroom, HFA and AS may manifest in behaviors which include, but are not limited to:
  • Lack of empathy for others
  • Lack of common sense and/or "street smarts"
  • Inability to usually socially appropriate tone and/or volume of speech
  • Conversations and activities only center around themselves
  • Clumsy walk
  • Average to excellent memorization skills
  • Talking about only one subject/topic and missing the cues that others are bored 
  • Poor eye contact
  • Often very verbal
  • May excel in areas (e.g., math or spelling)
  • May be teased, bullied or isolated by peers
  • Lack of facial expressions

Many of the traits of HFA and AS can be "masked" by average to above average IQ scores, which can result in the student being misunderstood by teachers. Teachers often assume that the autistic student is capable of more than is being produced. Lack of understanding of the child in this way can significantly impede the desire of the teacher to search for techniques useful in overcoming the hindrances caused by the disorder.

Another misunderstanding is the relationship between curriculum and social education. For instance, a youngster with AS or HFA may find a social setting overwhelming and distracting. If the students are placed in a small group for project work, this may predominantly become a social setting to an AS or HFA child. It is possible that she would be so over-stimulated by the social aspect that it would be extremely challenging to focus on the curriculum aspect of the group.

Whether you have a special education class, or just a few students on the autism spectrum, the chances are you could use some help. Below are some crucial points to consider:

1. Work with the parents to learn the warning signs that the HFA or AS student is becoming frustrated and about to experience a “meltdown” (i.e., sensory and emotional overload).

2. Work with the other students to develop an environment of tolerance and acceptance for the HFA or AS student. Some students can be educated about autism spectrum disorders and helped to understand what to expect from their “special needs” peer. Classmates of the HFA or AS child should be told about the unique learning and behavioral mannerisms associated with the disorder (note: parent permission must always be given prior to such peer -training).

3. Using a visual calendar will give the HFA or AS student information regarding up-coming events. When the student asks when a particular event will occur, he can easily be referred to the visual calendar, which presents the information through the visual mode that he can more readily understand (e.g., class field trip, swimming lessons, etc.).

4. Although a young person on the autism spectrum has difficulty figuring out most principles of human interaction, she is usually good at picking up on cause-and-effect principles. This suggests that although she may be unaware of others’ desires or emotions, she is aware of hers. This can be useful in education if the teacher takes the time to determine what is pleasing to the youngster. Once this pleasure has been discovered, the teacher can request the desired behavior and reinforce the behavior with the object of desire.

5. Use the student’s “limited range of interest” to his advantage. Often times, these young people focus all their attention on just one particular object or subject; therefore, they may fail to focus on what information the teacher is presenting. Thus, the teacher may want to try to establish some connection between the child’s subject of interest and the area of study (e.g., if a child is interested in guns, he can learn reading and writing skills through researching and writing a report on weapons used during WWII). The possibilities for instruction are endless. Taking some time to devise a creative lesson-plan will go far in establishing and keeping the “special needs” student’s interest in new subject matter.

==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

6. Use of an "Assignments to be Completed" folder as well as a "Completed Assignments" folder is recommended. Also, use of a "Finish Later" folder or box may be helpful. Even though the HFA or AS student may be verbally reminded that he can finish his math worksheet after recess, this information will not be processed as readily as through the use of a visual strategy.

7. Use color-coded notebooks to match academic books.

8. Try to seat the “special needs” student at the front of the class so you can instruct her directly and continuously. Since concentration is often a problem for HFA and AS students, a system of “nonverbal reminders” to pay attention is important (e.g., a pat on the shoulder, a hand signal, etc.).

9. Teachers should receive training on the characteristics and educational needs of students on the spectrum. It is critical to understand the unique features associated with this disorder. Understand that these children have a developmental disability, which causes them to respond and behave in a way that is different from other students. The behaviors exhibited should not be misinterpreted as purposeful or manipulative behaviors. Also, uncover the student’s strengths and needs prior to actually working with him.

10. Teach the student a few relaxation techniques that he can use to decrease anxiety levels (e.g., "Take a big breath and count to ten"). These steps can be written down as visual "cue" cards for the student to carry with him and refer to as needed.

11. Teach social skills. The HFA or AS student can exhibit the need to take control and direct social situations according to his own limited social rules and social understanding. Although he may be able to initiate interactions with other students, these interactions are typically considered to be "on his own terms" and appear to be very egocentric (i.e., they relate primarily to the child's specific wants, needs, desires and interests and do not constitute a truly interactive, give-and-take social relation with his peers). Thus, teach appropriate social interactions.

12. Simplify lessons to ensure that the student understands what is being said. It is common for autistic students to simply repeat what is being taught without any understanding of the concept.

13. Provide an “escape route” for the student whenever he is beginning to “meltdown” (e.g., he is allowed to take a time-out in an unoccupied room or a quiet corner).

14. Positive reinforcement works well for HFA and AS students. When they accomplish a desired behavior, compliment and praise them. Even simple social interactions should be praised.

15. Many HFA and AS students are overwhelmed by even the smallest of changes and are highly sensitive to their environments and rituals. When these are thrown off, they can become very anxious and worry obsessively about changes in routine. Unpredictability may occur during less structured activities or times of the day (e.g., recess, lunch, free time, PE, bus rides, music class, art class, assemblies, field trips, substitute teachers, delayed start, early dismissal, etc.). Thus, develop a structured classroom with routines and write down the daily routine for the student.

16. Make allowances for sensory issues. Kids on the spectrum are often distracted by things in the environment that limit their ability to focus (e.g., breeze from an open window feels like a gust of wind, bright sunshine pouring through the window is blinding, smell of food from the cafeteria makes them feel sick, ticking of a clock seems like the beating of a drum, etc.). This sensory overload can be overwhelming and often results in an inability to focus. The inability to focus can result in a level of frustration, and to cope with such frustration, the child may choose to engage in some form of self-soothing behavior (e.g., repeatedly tapping a pencil on the desk, tapping both feet on the floor like a drum, etc.). What appears disruptive to everyone else may actually be the HFA or AS student’s way of trying to re-establish focus and concentration on the subject at hand. Take time to evaluate the classroom in terms of sensory stimulation and how the environment affects the student. Modify the classroom as needed. In addition, teach the student some self-soothing techniques that are not as disruptive to the classroom (e.g., squeezing a squishy ball, taking a time-out to get a drink of water, and so on).

17. Limit obsessive behavior about topics by setting a specific time in which the student can ask the focused questions. Do not allow her to keep asking questions or discussing a particular topic after the allotted time. Provide a written answer to repetitive questions asked by the student. When she repeats the question, she can be referred to the written answer, which may assist in comprehension, and thus decrease the occurrence of the repetitive question asking.

18. If the student becomes overwhelmed with frustration and experiences a "meltdown," remain calm and use a normal tone of voice to help him deal with his stress.

19. HFA and AS students can "blurt out" their thoughts as statements of fact, resulting in an appearance of insensitivity and lack of tact. However, these kids typically do not understand that some thoughts and ideas can - and should - be represented internally, and thus should not be spoken out loud. Thus, encourage the “special needs” student to whisper, rather than speak his thoughts out loud. Encourage him to "think it – don't say it." Role playing, audio/video taping, and social scripting can be used to teach the student how to initially identify what thoughts should be represented internally, versus externally.

20. Help with transitions. Kids on the spectrum have difficulty moving from one activity to the next. If a typical school day is loaded with many transitions, the student’s anxiety level will likely increase. Thus, he may need to be coached through the transition. Use visual schedules and/or role-playing to help the child prepare for moving on to the next task. Keep transitions the same for as many activities as possible.

==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

21. Give the HFA or AS student enough time to respond in order to allow for possible auditory processing difficulties before repeating or rephrasing the question or directive. The student can be taught appropriate phrases to indicate the need for additional processing time, (e.g., "Just a minute please”).

22. Give the student an outlet for his “fixations” (e.g., allow him to turn-in work on his topic of interest for extra credit).

23. Get permission to speak with any mental health practitioner who is involved with your HFA or AS student. This professional can help you gain a better understanding of the disorder and work with you to develop effective classroom interventions. In turn, provide the mental health professional beneficial insight into how the student acts in an academic setting, which can help the professional treat the child in a more holistic manner.

24. Teach the child about social cues and help her to make friends. Most children on the spectrum DO want to have friends, but do not know how to make them. Teachers can help by teaching the student what social cues mean. The use of “social stories” and “social scripts” can provide the child with visual information and strategies that will improve her understanding of various social situations. Comic strip conversations can be used as a tool to visually clarify communicative social interactions and emotional relations through the use of simple line drawings. Also, a “buddy system” can be helpful. In social situations, the buddy can help the autistic student handle certain situations.

25. For class lectures, “peer buddies” may be needed to take notes. NCR paper can be used, or the buddy's notes could be copied on a copy machine.

26. Ensure the environment is safe and as predictable as possible. Enforce bullying rules and minimize teasing.

27. Due to physical coordination problems, ensure that the “special needs” student is in an adaptive educational program rather than a general PE class.

28. Don't assume that when the HFA or AS student “looks off into space” that he is not listening. What appears to the teacher to be “lack of attention” may not be that at all. In fact, the “special needs” student who is doodling or staring off may actually be trying to focus and may be unaware that he is conveying to the teacher that he’s not listening. Simply ask the student a question related to the topic in question to check if he is actually listening.

29. Don’t require the student to “show” her work. Many teachers require students to show their work (e.g., to illustrate how they got the answer to a math problem). Since young people with an autism spectrum disorder are visual learners, they picture how to solve the problem in their heads. The requirement of showing work does not make sense to them, and as a result, is quite difficult because it involves language skills that the student may not have.

30. Avoid demanding that the student maintain eye contact with you. Autistic children experience difficulty with eye contact. Limited eye contact is a part of the disorder and should not be confused with “inattention.”

31. Accommodate the student’s “visual learning” style. Much of the information presented in class is oral, but HFA and AS children have difficulty with processing oral language quickly. Thus, presenting information visually may be more helpful. Use of visual methods of teaching, as well as visual support strategies, should always be incorporated to help the child better understand his environment.

32. Show the student how her words and actions impact others. Most children on the spectrum do not understand some of the common social interactions and social contacts. It is important as a teacher to realize that the child may not understand some jokes and may be unable to interpret body language.

HFA and AS students, while on the higher end of the autism scale, have special needs that must be addressed. Although the disorder is quite challenging, a curriculum designed to assist these students will go a long way to allowing them to cope with various limitations. By employing some of the suggestions listed above, teachers can help these students thrive in the academic setting.

==> The Complete Guide to Teaching Students with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

The Challenges of Adolescence for Young People on the Autism Spectrum

The years from 12 to 18 are the most difficult time for teenagers with Autism Spectrum Disorder - Level 1 (ASD). These young people typically become more socially isolated during a period when they crave friendships and inclusion more than ever. In the cruel world of middle and high school, they often face rejection, isolation and bullying.

Meanwhile, school becomes more demanding in a period when they have to compete for college placements. In addition, issues of sexuality and a desire for independence from parents create even more problems.

In the teenage world where everyone feels insecure, adolescents that appear different are voted off the island. ASD teenagers often have odd mannerisms. For example, one adolescent talks in a loud un-modulated voice, avoids eye contact, interrupts others, violates their physical space, and steers the conversation to his favorite odd topic. Another appears willful, selfish and aloof, mostly because he is unable to share his thoughts and feelings with others.

Isolated and alone, many ASD teenagers are too anxious to initiate social contact. Many are stiff and rule-oriented, which is a deadly trait in any teenage popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting, even though the teen wants it more than anything else.

These adolescents are not privy to street knowledge of sex and dating behaviors that other adolescents pick up naturally. This leaves them clueless about sex. Boys can become obsessed with Internet pornography and masturbation. They can be overly forward with a girl who is merely being kind, and then later face charges of stalking her. The ASD S female may have a fully developed body, but no understanding of flirtation and non-verbal sexual cues, making her susceptible to harassment and even date rape.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Many autistic teenagers, with their average to above average IQs, can sail through grammar school, but hit academic problems in middle and high school. They now have to deal with four to six teachers, instead of just one. The likelihood that at least one teacher will be indifferent - or even hostile - toward making special accommodations is certain. The “special needs” student now has to face a series of classroom environments with different classmates, odors, distractions, noise levels, and sets of expectations.

These teens, with their distractibility and difficulty organizing materials, face similar academic problems as students with Attention Deficit Disorder. For example, a high school term paper or a science fair project becomes impossible to manage because no one has taught the “special needs” teen how to break it up into a series of small steps. Even though the academic stress on the adolescent can be overwhelming, school administrators may be reluctant to enroll him in special education at this late point in his educational career.

Teenagers on the spectrum typically do not care about adolescent fads and clothing styles (concerns that obsess everyone else in their peer group). They may neglect their hygiene and wear the same haircut for years. Boys forget to shave. Girls don't comb their hair or follow fashion. Some remain stuck in a grammar school clothes and hobbies (e.g., unicorns and Legos) instead of moving into adolescent concerns like Facebook and dating. Boys on the autism spectrum often have no motor coordination. This leaves them out of high school sports, typically an essential area of male bonding and friendship.

The teenage years are more emotional for everyone. Yet the hormonal changes of adolescence, coupled with the problems associated with autism, can mean that the adolescent becomes emotionally overwhelmed. Childish tantrums reappear. Boys may act up by physically attacking a teacher or peer. They may experience “meltdowns” at home after another day filled with harassment, bullying, pressure to conform, and rejection. Suicide and drug addiction become real concerns, as the adolescent now has access to a car, drugs and alcohol. The teenage years can overwhelm not only the “special needs” adolescent, but also his or her parents.

Pain, loneliness and despair can lead to problems with drugs, sex and alcohol. In their overwhelming need to fit in and make friends, some ASD teenagers fall into the wrong high school crowds. Adolescents who abuse substances will use the autistic teen’s naivety to get him to buy or carry drugs and liquor for their group. If cornered by a police officer, the autistic teen usually does not have the skills to answer the officer’s questions appropriately. For example, if the officer says, “Do you know how fast you were driving?” the teen may reply bluntly, “Yes,” and thus appears to be a smart-aleck.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

Here are a few things that parents can do to help their teen through the tough teenage years:

Most of the jobs that a teenager would be able to get (e.g., movie usher, fast food worker, store clerk, grocery sacker, etc.) involve interaction with the public. This means they are not always a good fit for an adolescent with ASD. However, some of these “special needs” teens can find work in their field of special interest, or in jobs that have little interpersonal interaction. Thus, parents should help their teen to find work that it is alignment with these special concerns.

When your child was little, you could arrange play dates for her. Now as an adolescent, you may have to teach her how to initiate contact with others. For example, you could teach her how to leave phone messages and arrange details of social contacts (e.g., transportation), and encourage her to join high school clubs (e.g., chess or drama). Also, many adolescents with ASD are enjoying each other's company through Internet chat rooms, forums and message boards. On a side note, it isn’t necessary to tell your child’s peers that she has an autism spectrum disorder – let her do that herself if she wants to.

You absolutely have to teach your adolescent about sex. You will not be able to “talk around” the issue. Be specific and detailed about safe sex, and teach your adolescent to tell you about inappropriate touching by others. Your child may need remedial “sex education.” For example, a girl needs to understand she is too old to sit on laps or give hugs to strangers. A boy may have to learn to close toilet stall doors or masturbate only in private.

In the school setting, if the pressure on your child to conform is too great, or if she faces constant harassment and rejection, or if the principal and teaching staff do not cooperate with you as the parent, it may be time to find another school. The adolescent years are a time when many moms and dads decide it is in their child’s best interest to enter special education or a therapeutic boarding school. In a boarding school, professionals will guide your child academically and socially on a 24-hour basis. They do not allow boys to isolate themselves with video games – everyone has to participate in social activities. Also, counseling staff helps with college placements.

If you decide to work within a public school system, you may have to hire a lawyer to get needed services. Your child should have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and accommodations for the learning disabled. This may mean placement in small classes, using tutors, and providing special arrangements for gym and lunchtime. Your child should receive extra time for college-board examinations. Also, teach your child to find a “safe place” at school where he can share emotions with a trusted adult. The safe place may be the office of the school nurse, guidance counselor, or psychologist.

If your adolescent is college-bound, you have to prepare her for the experience. You can plan a trip to the campus, show her where to buy books, where the health services are, and so on. Also, teach her how to handle everyday problems (e.g., “Where do you buy deodorant?” … “What if you oversleep and miss a class?” … etc.).

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

As you prepare your adolescent for the workforce, keep in mind that people with ASD often do not understand “office politics.” They have problems with the basics (e.g., handling criticism, controlling emotions, showing up on time, working with the public, etc.). This does not mean they can’t hold down a job. Once they master certain aspects of employment, autistic teenagers are often able to work at high levels as accountants, research scientists, computer programmers, just to name a few.

Alcohol and drugs often react adversely with a child’s prescriptions (if he or she is on any), so you should teach your child about these dangers. Since most ASD teenagers are very rule-oriented, try emphasizing that drugs and alcohol are illegal.

Most teenagers on the spectrum can learn to drive, but their process may take longer because of their poor motor coordination. Once they learn a set of rules, they are likely to follow them to the letter (a trait that helps in driving). However, they may have trouble dealing with unexpected situations on the road. Thus, have your child carry a cell phone and give him a printed card that explains autism. Then teach him to give the card to a police officer and phone you in a crisis.

Because of their sensitivity to textures, ASD teenagers often wear the same clothes day in and day out. This is unacceptable in middle or high school. One idea that has worked for some moms and dads is to find an adolescent of the same age and sex as yours, and then enlist that person to help you choose clothes that will enable your child to blend in with other adolescents. Also, insist that your teen practices good hygiene every day.

In conclusion, parents of an adolescent with ASD face many problems that other parents don’t. The autistic teen is emotionally more immature than his “typical” peers. He may be indifferent - or even hostile - to his parents’ concerns. Like all teenagers, the autistic teen is harder to control and less likely to listen to his mom or dad.

He may be tired of his parents “nagging” him to look people in their eyes, brush his teeth, wake up in time for school, and so on. Also, he may hate school with a passion because he is dealing with social ostracism or academic failure. However, by implementing some of the suggestions listed above, parents can help their “special needs” teen to weather the storm of adolescence, and prepare him or her for the challenges of adulthood.

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

Routines, Rituals and Obsessions in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

“My 5 year old son is high functioning autistic and has an obsession for fans, and it’s been going on almost 6 months now. He talks and even draws a table fan constantly. He calls anything round a fan (even though he knows the real name of the object), but he imagines it to be a fan and moves those objects like a top. He can spend hours playing with them. He will collect all the fans in the house and line them up like toy soldiers. I am concerned that his passion for fans has turned into an obsession. In fact, now he knows more about them, the hand fan, ceiling fan, table fan, exhaust fan, and so on. This is the only ‘peculiar’ issue I have with him (for the moment anyway). What does all this mean? Should I be concerned? Should I do something about it? If so, what?!”

Rituals and obsessions are one of the hallmarks of High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS). In order to cope with the anxieties and stresses about the chaotic world around them, these children often obsess and ritualize their behaviors to comfort themselves. While some may spend their time intensely studying one area, others may be compulsive about cleaning, lining up items, or even doing things which put them or others in danger.

Some kids with HFA develop a resistance to (or fear of) change, that then involves being rigid in their approach to their environment. Insistence on sameness, routines and rituals begin. For example, certain items must be placed in particular places and not moved, certain routes must be followed to and from familiar places, objects may be stacked or lined up in a repetitive manner, or particular silverware and plates must be used - or the youngster refuses to eat or drink.
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Confusion about coping in a world that is overwhelming influences this behavior, so the youngster with HFA responds to this uncertainty by being in control of their immediate environment, the objects in that environment, and the people in it. Repetitive motor mannerisms may occur when autistic kids are excited, anxious, or worried. For others, sensory sensitivities and the physical enjoyment may drive repetitive jumping, arm flapping, twiddling of fingers in front of their eyes, and covering ears and eyes with their hands.

The memory of a youngster with HFA is no better than that of “typical” children, but the huge collection of facts he knows (in this case, about fans) usually represents the amount of time and effort that has gone into accumulating knowledge on the subject to the exclusion of much else. The obsessions are not necessarily characterized by memorization of data alone.

The term “systemizing” applies to the “fascination with data” that has inherent networks (e.g., maps, weather patterns, airline schedules, etc.). Although it is commonly thought that obsessions can be strengths that can be utilized in the educational process, these obsessions can interfere significantly with other important daily functions. Children with HFA are more interested in systems that can be described as “folk physics” (i.e., an interest in how things work) versus “folk psychology” (i.e., an interest in how people work).

Repetitive behaviors and mannerisms in HFA children is a somewhat neglected area of research. In the past, these behaviors were associated with lower levels of functioning, because repetitive motor mannerisms are also seen in kids with intellectual disability who do not have an autism spectrum disorder. These behaviors were also thought to increase during the preschool years. There is now some evidence that repetitive motor mannerisms develop differently to “insistence on sameness,” and these behaviors follow different paths over time.

Restricted and repetitive behaviors show different patterns of stability in HFA kids based partly on the ‘subtype’ they belong to. Young kids with low NVIQ (i.e., non-verbal IQ) scores often have persistent motor mannerisms. However, these behaviors often improve in kids with higher nonverbal IQ scores. Many autistic kids who do not have “insistence-on-sameness behaviors” at a young age acquire them as they got older, and some who had these behaviors sometimes loss them.

Obsessions aren't always so bad, especially if they have some educational or healthful value. But, when mixed with the mental makeup of a child on the autism spectrum, problems may arise. Kids with HFA and AS have trouble with social and emotional development and understanding the nonverbal cues in a conversation. While they are more than happy to start discussing their subject of obsession to another person, they won’t notice whether or not the other person is interested.  They may not get the hint of a person's disinterest or lack of time to talk. They may instead proceed to follow another person around continuing to talk on and on about their area of fascination. They may go right up to someone else already engaged in conversation and interrupt them to begin associating their topic of interest with their obsession, or they may take over a conversation and talk endlessly not leaving much time or room for any feedback from the other person.

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

Kids with HFA and AS may become so obsessed with a particular item, toy, game, or subject, that they may push friends away unknowingly. They may leave little time for anything else, thus homework and chore assignments often suffer. Also, they may become too easily distracted, always thinking back to their obsession and unable to stay on task.

Examples of obsessive, ritualistic behaviors include:
  • cleaning rituals
  • compulsion to make lists and/or schedules
  • counting rituals
  • feelings of excessive doubt and caution
  • hoarding and collecting things
  • obsessive need for cleanliness
  • ordering or arranging objects
  • perfectionism (that may sometimes interfere with task-completion)
  • preoccupation with order and organization
  • preoccupation with remembering and paying attention to minute details and facts
  • repeating rituals (e.g., going in and out of doorways, needing to move through spaces in a special way, rereading, erasing, rewriting)
  • rigid following of rules and regulations
  • rigidity or inflexibility of beliefs
  • rituals to prevent harming self or others
  • rituals to undo contact with a "contaminated" person or object
  • stubbornness
  • touching rituals
  • unreasonable insistence that others submit to his way of doing things

How parents can deal with rituals and obsessions in their HFA:

1. Promote social skills— A youngster with HFA does not learn the social norms and common sense ideas the same way “typical” kids do. He may never completely understand the reasons why things matter socially. He may not see any reason why he shouldn't devote all his time to his one major fascination. Moms and dads can take consideration for their child’s passion, but also help him become a more socially rounded person. It is important, however, if a child fixates on a particularly bad habit or inappropriate subject matter, that the parent put an end to it immediately.

2. Choose battles wisely— Breaking an obsession or ritual is like running a war campaign. If not planned wisely, or if parents attempt to fight on many fronts, they are guaranteed to fail. Not only is it time consuming and tiring, it means the parent can't devote 100% to each particular area. So, for example, if you have a youngster with (1) a game obsession, (2) a phobia of brushing his teeth, AND (3) bedtime troubles, choose only one to deal with. Deal with the worst problem first!

3. Consider multiple therapies— Many children can do well with behavioral therapy alone, while others will need a combination of behavioral therapy and medication. Therapy can help your youngster and family learn strategies to manage the ebb and flow of symptoms, while medication often can reduce the impulse to perform rituals. Behavioral therapy, also known as cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy (CBT), helps children learn to change thoughts and feelings by first changing behavior. It involves gradually exposing children to their fears, with the agreement that they will not perform rituals, to help them recognize that their anxiety will eventually decrease, and that no disastrous outcome will occur.
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

4. Limit special interests— Moms and dads need to take care to allow their HFA youngster to be passionate about certain subjects, but to not let it entirely rule his life. If, for example, he is overly obsessed with playing video games, it is appropriate to give him some time to play, but the time should be limited. Even if the subject of fascination is reading books or doing science experiments, it is still important that time be given to other subjects, or just to get out to get some exercise.

5. Use the “special interest” as a learning tool— Moms and dads should take some time (emphasis on “some”) to listen to their child as he talks about his special interest, and even learn about what is so fascinating. For example, a parent who will take the extra initiative to go visit a planetarium for their child interested in space, or take a trip to a dinosaur museum for the child obsessed with dinosaurs, will give their child the extra support and assurance he needs.

6. Weigh the pros and cons— Parents should ask themselves the questions “How much of a problem is it?” …and “Who for?” The answer is often that these behaviors are a problem for parents and teachers rather than the youngster himself (who is very happy to be preoccupied with his favorite activity). Thus, it is unlikely that the youngster will want to change his behavior. The rules of thumb when making decisions about whether or not to intervene or change routines and rituals are to ask yourself the following:  Does the behavior endanger the youngster or others? Does the behavior increase the likelihood of social rejection or isolation? Does the behavior interfere with or preclude participation in other enjoyable activities and an education program? If the answers to these questions are “yes,” then an intervention is highly recommended.

7. Find the right therapist— Repetitive rituals and routines can sometimes worsen if it's not treated in a consistent, logical and supportive manner. So, it's important to find a therapist who has training and experience in treating this issue. Just talking about the rituals and fears has not been shown to help repetitive rituals, and may actually make it worse by reinforcing the fears and prompting extra rituals. Family support and cooperation also go a long way toward helping a youngster cope with repetitive rituals.

8. Teach self-talk methods— Some treatment plans involve having the youngster "bossing back" the repetitive rituals, giving it a nasty nickname, and visualizing it as something he can control. Over time, the anxiety provoked by certain unwanted stimuli in the environment and the urge to perform rituals gradually disappear. The youngster also gains confidence that he can "fight" repetitive rituals.

9. Remain calm— When tackling any problem with your youngster, it's always best to remain calm at all times. “Special needs” children will feed off the parent’s anger, frustration and anxiety. So, keeping a level head at all times is essential. If you feel a situation is escalating and elevating your blood pressure, take a step back and collect yourself.

10. Provide predictability— If your HFA youngster has trouble managing his mood and behavior when changes in his daily routine occur, try to provide him with as much predictability as possible. This can be accomplished by creating a highly structured environment where daily tasks take place in a certain order, and things are physically in order. For example, (a) warning your child ahead of time of upcoming changes in order to help prevent upset, or minimize it; (b) providing lists, charts and calendars on the wall to help your youngster see what will happen each day; and (c) using bulletin boards with individual cards for each task that you can move around with pins, calendars you make on your computer, or dry-erase boards that will make it easy for you to post the changes without having to recreate the list every time there is a change.

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

While many young people with an autism spectrum disorder display inflexibility and rigidity, sometimes the symptoms are extreme and may warrant an additional diagnosis of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). If your child’s obsessions negatively affect daily functioning (i.e., interferes with school work or personal hygiene, compromises social interactions, produces a sedentary lifestyle, etc.), then consider seeking advice from a professional who is an expert in autism spectrum disorders.

So, when is a “special interest” simply a “special interest,” and when is it legitimate OCD?

OCD is a chronic illness, a type of anxiety disorder characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsive behavior. Unlike other anxiety disorders, the youngster knows that such thoughts and behaviors are irrational and silly, but can’t prevent himself from having them.

With OCD, there are obsessions. Obsessions are defined as “distressing ideas, images or impulses that repeatedly intrude into the child’s awareness.” These thoughts are typically experienced as inappropriate, anxiety-arousing, and contrary to the child’s will or desires. Common obsessions include (a) the need to have things “just so”; (b) the need to tell, ask, or confess; (c) contamination (e.g., fear of germs, dirt, etc.); (d) excessive religious or moral doubt; (e) forbidden thoughts; (f) imagining having harmed self or others; (g) imagining losing control of aggressive urges; and (h) intrusive sexual thoughts or urges.

However, obsessions are not the only telltale sign for OCD. Another symptom of OCD is compulsions. Compulsions are "repetitive behaviors or rituals that the youngster performs to counteract the anxiety and distress produced by obsessive thoughts." Common compulsions include checking, counting, hoarding, ordering/arranging, praying, repeating, touching and washing.
==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Some of these compulsions are easily witnessed, but this is not always true. Not all compulsions are obvious; many are mental processes (e.g., counting, praying) and harder – if not impossible – to notice. Typically, the compulsions correspond to the obsessions. For example, (a) aggressive, sexual, religious and somatic anxieties result in checking; (b) an obsession with hoarding leads to collecting; (c) fears of contamination are accompanied by hand washing and cleaning; and (d) the need for symmetry produces ordering, arranging, counting and repeating rituals.

If your HFA youngster really has OCD, he will recognize that the obsessions or compulsions are excessive or unreasonable – he knows that what he is doing makes no sense. Many people who developed OCD did so as a child, and report knowing that there was something different (or wrong) about them in comparison to other kids.

Bottom line: If you have your child tested for OCD, and the professional has ruled that out, then you can "rule in" the fact that your child's "obsession" is likely to be a temporary phenomenon.

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:


•    Anonymous said… It will change. Unless he's going to stick his fingers in it I would worry to much. My son is now 15. His obsessions changed, I find that with are kids you really need to pick and choose you battles.
•    Anonymous said… It's multi-sensory. That's so interesting. I love fans too and used to think it was so much fun to talk into them!
•    Anonymous said… My 12 year old son has been obsessed with Apple products, cars and now his new obsession is music. Chances are his interest will change and in the meantime he is learning. My sons obsession with music has lead to a desire to learn the guitar.
•    Anonymous said… My son has a similar "obsession" but his collections are small electrical that he takes apart and puts back together and most recently rubiks cubes. I love it. Sounds silly maybe but I love watching him focus so intensely. He lines up his rubiks cubes also and plays with them one at a time. He can solve every one of them and it just amazes me the way his brain works.
•    Anonymous said… My son has been obsessed with fire alarms for several years. It began after a fire drill at his preschool and I'm guessing its his way to cope with the fear.
•    Anonymous said… my son too- how good it feels to know there is another boy out there that is the same- my son is 13 and collects them and knows all about them and even has his own fire alarm panels, alarm and strobes!
•    Anonymous said… Oliver is 6 and has a growing collection as well  🙂 I had no idea there were so many different kinds and systems. We have friends in the fire department who are arranging for him to go on one of their inspections.
•    Anonymous said… With my grandson, we went through Thomas and all things train, weather/storms, and now as a teen he's settled on WWll and history. These things change over time.
•    Anonymous said… Wow I had almost forgotten about my AS daughter's similar obsession with fans! Good article.
•    Anonymous said… Your son has a creative and scientific mind- he may change his interests but will likely still only ever like similar electrical items. My son started off with plugs and cables and taking things apart when he was 3. he is now 13 and has collections of all kinds of things electrical and has enough knowledge to go into the electrical business now. Encourage it, don't take it away, just be sure to set limits as it does take over. Objects are as important to him as you are, you might not like that, but it will be part of his life and you have to respect it too. Best wishes.
*   Bev said... Thank you so much for sharing these experiences. My grandson is 2 years 6 months now and has been obsessed with fans since he was about 6 months old..... He's so different to other toddlers, so advanced - his intellect and vocabulary is on another level and he is just brilliant and observant, and yet we worry about the social negativities associated with As. To us he is incredibly special and wonderful, but the world can be so cruel. Thank you all very much for sharing about your unique children too, it helps to know that my grandson isn't alone in being different. 
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High-Functioning Autistic Teens and Emotional Dysregulation

“My teenage son with ASD (high functioning) is out of control, don't know what to do? I tried every option available to me with the exception of bootcamp. I just can't afford to put him in a bootcamp or military school. But that's the only solution that I see. He’s 17 and is on pot every day. He has a hair trigger and will go off big time whenever he is the least bit irritated over something… fits of rage over little things that most people would just ignore. Has threatened to kill himself when he’s upset. Please help!!!”

Emotional Dysregulation (ED) is often found in young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA), and is a term used in the mental health profession to refer to mood swings and emotional reactions that are significantly “out-of-control.” Examples of ED include destroying or throwing objects, angry outbursts, aggression towards self or others, a decreased ability to regulate emotions, an inability to express emotions in a positive way, smoking, drug and/or alcohol abuse, eating disorders, self-harm, and even threats to kill oneself or others.

These reactions usually occur in seconds to minutes – or hours. ED often leads to behavioral problems for the individual, which can interfere with his or her relationships at home, in school, or at place of employment.

ED in AS/HFA teens can be associated with “internalizing” behaviors, for example:
  • becoming avoidant or aggressive when dealing with negative emotions
  • being less able to calm themselves
  • difficulty calming down when upset
  • difficulty decreasing negative emotions
  • difficulty understanding emotional experiences
  • exhibiting emotions too intense for a situation
  • experiencing more negative emotions

ED can also be associated with “externalizing” behaviors, for example:
  • being impulsive
  • difficulty calming down when upset
  • difficulty controlling their attention
  • difficulty decreasing their negative emotions
  • difficulty identifying emotional cues
  • difficulty recognizing their own emotions
  • exhibiting more extreme emotions
  • focusing on the negative

ED in adolescents with AS and HFA can be made worse by difficulty in communicating feelings of annoyance, anxiety, depression, or worry. ED may be a common reaction experienced when coming to terms with problems in relationships, friendships, school, employment, and other areas in life affected by autism spectrum disorders.

There can be an “on-off” quality to these strong emotional reactions, where the affected individual is calm minutes later, while those around are stunned and may feel hurt or shocked for hours – if not days – afterward. Moms and dads struggle to understand the out-of-control behavior of their “special needs” teenager, with disappointment and resentment often building up over time. Once they understand that their teen has trouble controlling his emotions or understanding its effects on others, they can begin to respond in ways that will help manage these flare-ups.

In some cases, AS/HFA adolescents may not acknowledge they have trouble controlling their negative emotions, and will blame others for provoking them. Again, this can create enormous conflict within the family. It may take carefully phrased feedback and plenty of time for these adolescents to gradually realize they have a problem with how they express themselves.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

AS/HFA Teenagers and Their Struggles—

As previously mentioned, many individuals with ED have an autism spectrum disorder. But, when the typical problems associated with adolescence are added to the equation, parents have a real challenge on their hands. Here are just a few of the struggles associated with being a teen on the spectrum:

• The teen years are more emotional for everyone. Yet the hormonal changes of adolescence, coupled with the problems associated with AS and HFA, might mean that the adolescent becomes emotionally overwhelmed. Childish tantrums reappear. Males may act out by physically attacking a peer or teacher. They may experience "meltdowns" at home after another day filled with harassment, bullying, pressure to conform, and rejection. Drug addiction becomes a real concern at this age (most notably, marijuana use).

• Teens with AS and HFA - with their distractibility and difficulty organizing materials - face similar academic problems as students with ADHD. A high school term paper or a science fair project becomes impossible to manage, because no one has taught the AS or HFA teenager how to break it up into a series of small steps. Even though the academic stress on an AS/HFA adolescent can be overwhelming, school administrators may be reluctant to enroll him in special education at this late point in his educational career.

• Some teens with AS and HFA remain stuck in grammar school clothes and hobbies instead of moving into adolescent concerns (e.g., dating). AS/HFA males often have no motor coordination. This leaves them out of high school sports (typically an essential area of male bonding and friendship).

• Many teens with AS and HFA - with their average to above average IQs - can sail through grammar school, and yet hit academic problems in middle and high school. They now have to deal with 4 to 6 teachers, instead of just 1. The likelihood that at least one teacher will be indifferent - or even hostile - toward making special accommodations is certain. The AS/HFA student now has to face a series of classroom environments with different classmates, odors, distractions, noise levels, and sets of expectations.

• Many AS/HFA adolescents are stiff and rule-oriented and act like little adults, which is a deadly trait in any teen popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting for an AS or HFA teenager, even though she wants it more than anything else.

• In their overwhelming need to fit in and make friends, some teens on the spectrum fall into the wrong high school crowds. Adolescents who abuse substances may use the AS or HFA teen’s naivety to get him to buy or carry drugs and liquor for their group.

• In the teen world where everyone feels insecure, adolescents that appear different are voted off the island. Teens with AS and HFA often have odd mannerisms. One adolescent talks in a loud un-modulated voice, avoids eye contact, interrupts others, violates others’ physical space, and steers the conversation to his favorite odd topic. Another appears willful, selfish and aloof, mostly because he is unable to share his thoughts and feelings with others. Isolated and alone, many autistic teens are too anxious to initiate social contact.

• AS/HFA is characterized by poor social skills. These include a lack of eye contact during conversation and body language that conveys a lack of interest. The teen years revolve around social interaction, and an adolescent on the spectrum may be ostracized and mocked by his class mates because of his lack of social skills.

• AS and HFA adolescents are often more immature than their peers and may be naive when it comes to puberty and sexuality. If they have not been taught about sex, they may pick up information from pornographic material. This can lead to inappropriate behavior and touching that could land them in trouble.

• Fashion is important to “typical” teens (especially girls), but teens with AS and HFA have little dress sense. If they do not attempt to conform to their peers' standards, they will often be mocked and left out of social events.

• Depression often results from the social skills deficits that adolescents with AS and HFA commonly experience. They may feel worthless, and in extreme cases, may consider suicide as an option.

• Bullying is a big challenge in the lives of many autistic teens. Because of their unusual behavior, they tend to attract bullies and are less likely to report this than their peers. In some cases, the AS or HFA teen may respond with violence and end up in trouble at school.

Common causes of ED in autistic adolescents include other people’s behavior (e.g., teasing, bullying, insensitive comments, being ignored, etc.), intolerance of imperfections in others, having routines and order disrupted, difficulties with academics despite being intelligent in many areas, peer-relationship problems, a build-up of stress, and being swamped with sensory stimulation or multiple tasks.

Identifying the cause of ED can be a challenge.  It is important for parents and teachers to consider all possible influences relating to the environment (e.g., too much stimulation, lack of structure, change of routine, etc.), the adolescent’s physical state (e.g., pain, tiredness, etc.), his or her mental state (e.g., existing frustration, confusion, etc.), and how well he or she is treated by peers.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

How Parents and Teachers Can Help—

The first step is for the AS or HFA adolescent to learn emotion-management skills. A good place to start is identifying a pattern in how the strong reactions are related to specific frustrations. Such triggers may originate from the environment, specific individuals, or internal thoughts.

Steps to successful emotion-management include the following:

• Self-awareness— The AS/HFA adolescent can be instructed to become more aware of personal thoughts, behaviors, and physical states which are associated with ED. This awareness is important for the adolescent in order for him to notice the early signs of losing control of his emotions. He should be encouraged to write down a list of changes he notices as he begins to feel the need to over-react to something.

• Levels of anger and coping strategies— As the adolescent becomes more aware of situations associated with ED, she can be instructed to keep a record of events, triggers, and associated levels of frustration. Different levels of disturbance can be explored (e.g. mildly annoyed, irritated, very frustrated, angry, a sense of rage).

• Develop an emotion-management record— The adolescent may keep a diary or chart of situations that trigger strong reactions. List the situation, the level of frustration on a scale of 1 to 10, and the coping strategies that help to overcome or reduce feelings of frustration.

• Becoming motivated— Parents and teachers can help the AS or HFA adolescent to identify why he would like to manage his emotions more successfully. He identifies what benefits he expects in everyday living from improving his coping skills.

• Awareness of situations— The adolescent is taught to become more aware of the situations that are associated with outbursts. She may want to ask other people who know her to describe situations and behaviors they have noticed.

Self-Help Strategies—

The “stop – think” technique:

As the adolescent notices the troubling thoughts running through his mind, he can learn to (a)  stop and think before reacting to the situation (e.g., “Are these thoughts accurate or helpful?”), (b) challenge the inaccurate or unhelpful thoughts, and (c) create a new thought.

The personal safety plan:

A personal safety plan can also be developed to help the adolescent avoid becoming upset when she plans to enter into a situation that has a history of triggering strong reactions. Here is a real life example of a plan used by a 17-year-old girl with Asperger’s for using the “stop – think” technique when approaching a shopping center situation that is known to trigger frustration:
  • My goal: To improve my ability to cope with frustration when I am waiting in long lines.
  • Typical angry thoughts: “The service here is so slow. Why can’t they hurry it up? I'm going to lose my mind any moment now.” – Stop thinking this! 
  • New calmer and helpful thoughts: “Everyone is probably frustrated by the long line – even the person serving us. I could come back another time, or I can wait here and think about pleasant things such as going to see a movie.”

Possible steps in a personal plan can include the following:
  • Plan ways to become distracted from the stressful situation (e.g., watch a YouTube video or read an e-book on my cell phone, carry a magazine)
  • Phone my friend to talk about the cause of frustration
  • Make changes to routines and surroundings (e.g., avoid certain people that are prone to teasing me)
  • Leave the situation if possible
  • Explain to another person how he or she can help me solve the problem
  • Avoid situations that are associated with a high risk of becoming frustrated

Other possible components to a personal plan can include the following:
  • Use visual imagery (e.g., jumping into a cool stream takes the heat of anger away)
  • Self-talk methods
  • Relaxation techniques
  • Anger-control classes in my area
  • Creative destruction or physical activity techniques to reduce anger

Dealing with the emotional problems in teens with AS and HFA is not easy for parents, and it can be hard to trace back the original causes of problematic behaviors. If parents are concerned about their child’s anger, rage or aggression, they should seek advice from a professional. Oftentimes, young people on the autism spectrum who demonstrate emotional problems simply need help developing some coping, social and communicating skills.

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...