Thriving in Adolescence and Preparing for Adulthood: Help for Teens on the Autism Spectrum

“I have a 17-year-old son with high functioning autism. A big issue is social. He prefers to be alone rather than be with people. He has acquaintances at school that are nice and friendly with him but really no actual friends. He is perfectly content staying in his room playing video games. He is also very anxious and OCD. He likes things perfectly routine and on schedule. Gets very anxious if things aren't exactly on schedule, if something is out of place, or if doors and windows aren't closed and locked before we leave home or at bedtime. Homework is like dragging a horse to water, and short of drowning it, won't take water! Also, he has poor eating habits and problems with taking showers, combing his hair, and other hygiene-related things. I guess my main question is how can I help him cope better as a teenager – and help him get ready for adulthood? We seem to be so far behind schedule. There are so many things he needs to improve on, but I feel time is running out. Suggestions?”

Adolescents with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) have social, emotional and communication skills deficits. They 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. In addition, they 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.

HFA and AS adolescents also have a hard time reading other’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). We need to read non-verbal cues in order to make accurate assessments about what other people are thinking, feeling, and intending. If you can't read non-verbal cues and don’t understand or predict other's thoughts/feelings/intentions, you will repeatedly be “off the page” in interactions with others.

Most teens with HFA and AS experience frequent “social failure” and rejection by peers. Because social encounters are seldom reinforcing (i.e., rewarding), they may avoid social interaction all together. Over time, they can develop a negative attitude about themselves, which fosters poor self-esteem that makes it very difficult to continue attempts to socialize.

So, how can you help your HFA or AS teen to THRIVE during adolescence – as well as prepare for adulthood? Here are some crucial strategies to employ:

1. You and your partner/spouse should have team meetings when your son is absent so you can speak frankly about your concerns without fear that your son may feel a lack of respect for - or faith in - him. Parents should develop and maintain a united front.

2. Most teens become less willing to take a parent’s advice during the adolescent years. So, it would be helpful for you to consider hooking your son up with another trustworthy adult. If you want your son to make better decisions in a certain area (e.g., completing homework in a timely manner), arrange for the encouragement, coaching – or even tutoring – to come from a trusted adult other than you (e.g., a guidance counselor, mentor, uncle, scout leader, youth group leader, a “Big Brother,” social skills group leader, weight room coach, martial arts teacher, etc.).

3. What kind of living situation, employment, and transportation fit your son’s picture of his future at age 18 or 25? Once the goals are set, where can he 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, etc.).

4. Teach your son when to ask for help, from whom, and how. It’s very helpful to have someone (e.g., a trusted guidance counselor) whose door is always open, and who can coach your son in problem-solving.

5. Teach your son laundry and other self-care or home-care skills by small steps over time. Try to get him to take an elective in some of these areas (e.g., cooking or personal finance) at the high school.

6. Don’t attempt to take your son’s “special interest” away from him. Special interests may change, but whatever the current one is, it remains an important source of motivation, pleasure, relaxation, and reassurance for him.

7. When you need to “have a talk” with your son (perhaps something of a serious nature), side-by-side conversations (e.g., walking, in the car) work best and may be more comfortable for your son than talking face-to-face.

8. Seek out activity-based, practical social skills groups designed especially for “special needs” teens. Participating in such a group, being accepted by group leaders and peers, is probably the most powerful way to alleviate your son’s potential despair at not fitting-in socially and not having any friends. The positive social experiences and new skills he will learn will be assets for the rest of his life.

9. Assuming your son has an IEP, schedule regular monthly team meetings to monitor your son’s progress in order to ensure that the plan is being faithfully carried out. Modify it if necessary. Due to the fact that autistic teens can be so unstable or fragile – and because so many important things must be accomplished in 4 short years of high school – these meetings are very important.

10. Most teens on the spectrum are not ready for a residential college experience right after high school. To decide, use the evidence of how your son did at sleep-away camp or similar samplings of independence, and look carefully at executive function skills (i.e., organizational skills). As an alternative, community colleges offer a lot of flexibility (e.g., easy admission, low cost, remedial courses, the option of a light course load, the security of living at home, etc.). Some college disability offices are more successful than others at providing effective, individualized support. However, if your son continues to live at home while attending college, you may be able to sense trouble, step in with help, or secure supports he needs to succeed.

11. 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 in place for the “typical” teen, but may not realize that your “special needs” teen needs that help, too. They may also not know how to adapt existing programs to meet his unique needs.

12. Instill the essential habit of a daily shower, brushed teeth, combed hair, and clean clothes. Let your son know that teachers, future potential employers, and prospective girlfriends are very put off by poor hygiene. If possible, put your son’s clothes on a well-organized shelf in the bathroom near the clothes hamper.

13. Impersonal, written communication is easier for an HFA or AS teen to absorb (e.g., lists of routines and rules, notes, charts, calendars, etc.).

14. If your son seems like a good candidate for college, take him 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 he will prefer. Purchase a large college guide to browse.

15. Have realistic, modest goals for what your son can accomplish in a given time period. You may need to postpone some plans for career and/or college goals.

16. Multiple stressors during the teen years bring on anxiety and moodiness for all teens (e.g., increased academic pressures, social demands at school, peer pressure, increased social awareness, fears of the future, etc.). A teen on the autism spectrum who doesn’t get the supports he needs during this tumultuous time may be at risk for school failure, acting-out, alcohol and substance abuse, or even suicide attempts. Thus, the more supports that are in place for your son – the better! Build and use any support networks you can (e.g., extended family, close friends, church groups, school staff, therapist, etc.). If you don’t have a good network, consider individual or family therapy for some support during this stormy, demanding life passage.

17. Some parents consider delaying high school graduation in order to ensure that transition services are actually provided under DOE. It may be hard to convince your son to accept this route. However, it may be very helpful if he is going to 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.

18. Remember that teens with HFA and AS are relatively immature – both socially and emotionally – as compared to “typical” teens of the same chronological age. Imagine sending a 9-year-old off to high school, or putting a 13-year-old boy behind the wheel of car, or sending that 16-year-old off to college or the army. Adjust your expectations, and make sure your son has appropriate supports.

19. As your teenage son continues to seek independence, be prepared to tolerate and ignore considerable distancing, surliness, or acting out (knowing that it won’t last forever). At the same time, set some firm limits, and pick your battles carefully. Set and enforce only your bottom line rules and expectations (e.g., matters of safety and respect). Write them down. Make sure you and your partner/spouse agree on the rules. Also, give your son choices when possible (but not too many).

20. Having a regular bed time at a reasonable hour is more important than ever. Regular routines of all kinds (e.g., familiar foods, rituals, rules, etc.) are reassuring when your teenage son’s body, biochemistry, and social scene are changing so fast.

21.  Last, but perhaps most importantly, foster the development of self-acceptance. The primary aspect of HFA and AS is the problem of human connectedness (i.e., reciprocity). This refers to the teen’s ability to engage others in a way that makes them feel connected or not. Teens on the spectrum not only seem disconnected, but in some cases, uninterested in being in relationships with others. In some cases, the teenager may wish to connect with others, but simply does not know how. The good news is that you can help your son in these challenges by helping him to develop a set of social skills. The most important skill to possess in this endeavor is called “self-acceptance.” With self-acceptance, your son will be able to capitalize on his strengths rather than trying to “fix” his weaknesses, yet he accepts his weaknesses for what they are.

Your son is probably at the age where he is beginning to realize he is not quite like others his same age. Once he realizes he has some extra challenges as a result of his disorder, he will need to deal with this “life test” – just like dealing with any other life test. We are all going to be tested, and we all have our own unique obstacles to overcome. By using some of the tips listed above, you will help your HFA teen to not only survive – but thrive in adolescence. This, in turn, will boost his self-confidence, which can then lead to possessing the skills needed in becoming a productive, happy adult.

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


•    Anonymous said… Cut back the amount of time he spends engaged with technology including gaming.
•    Anonymous said… Everything you've mentioned is fairly typical of HFA teens. ABA can help tremendously with life skills and social skills, so can a good OT who is skilled at working with high functioning kids. Anxiety can also be helped through therapy and meds if you are interested in going that route. Sometimes, as moms, we can't help them as much as others can. With my kids at least, I'm always the one telling them what to do so I've found that they're more open to hearing suggestions and learning from others. Personally, I think the fact that he locks everything up is a great thing! You know you don't have to worry that he will be mindful of his personal security if he's ever alone! My kids always forget to lock the doors and it drives me nuts! You can try putting limits on gaming but if it quells his anxiety you're likely to get more push back than compliance with that, which won't be good for either of you. As far as homework I just told my son that he can goof off as much as he wants to as long as his work is done (school and chores) and once he started middle school he didn't have issues with that for the most part. You may ask an ABA or therapist to see if they can get out of him what he doesn't like about homework, it may be something that they can help gameplay with him. Good luck to you both, I hope some of this is helpful
•    Anonymous said… I know the feeling. My sons addicted to Xbox. He talks to boys only if they have something in common w him, like a boy from his school gave him game cards, a few everyday. I've never even heard him talk about other kids hardly at all. His school made a 6 person classroom n chose others with similar issues. I really think its becoming an epidemic here. Every person I talk to has a similar child, 16 n under. I don't see many adults but that could just be they weren't diagnosed. I am pretty sure my kids dad has asperger like qualities. Both my biological n non biological nephews are fully autistic.
•    Anonymous said… I never write here just read for support but I can truly relate to this. I thought & felt we were alone. My son is 16. He is very immature for his age (He loves to play with stuffed animals) and is definitely does not mentally have the proper age appropriate skills he needs to move forward into the transitions of becoming an adult. He struggles with multi step directions, impulse control, self advocating, will not communicate with adults he doesn't know, has a terrible anxiety when his routine is messed with and has never had a true "friend" besides his younger brother. I do the best I can to encourage him and educate him about the future but he lives in the now. He doesn't want to drive and struggles to get through a 6 hour school day with breaks. I can't see him working full time for a while he will need to work up to it gradually. My hope is he chooses to go to a technical school but school is not easy for him. But it would get him a little bit farther in life with some kind of degree instead of just a High School Diploma. I know we will be helping and caring for him longer than the average child. There are places that help adults with diagnosis's who test them, find their strengths, train them in that job skill and help them get a job. That is our plan for now. ((Hugs)) I thank you for sharing your fears & know you are not alone in those fears.
•    Anonymous said… I relate with nearly all of this.
•    Anonymous said… I suggest that you just allow the teenage years to extend for longer. Adulthood can come later. We realise now, there is no need to rush and conform. Safety and happiness is the best basis for these lovely kids.
•    Anonymous said… Just here to read suggestions my daughter is the same way, she is 17 with autism that has now progressed to having multiple personality disorder.
•    Anonymous said… Let me know if you find solutions. Our 15 year old boy is the same; poor hygiene, disorganised, thinks he doesn't have to revise because he "knows it all already."
Year 10 exams looming and everyday is a battle with both of us at the end of our tethers
•    Anonymous said… Life is but a race time is only running out of you plan to kick him out. Otherwise continue to challenge offer support and ask him what are his goals. Rule for living with me is have therapist who will help you and have a goal u are working on and contribute as much as you can because I'm disabled too and we are in this together
•    Anonymous said… My 12 yo son is like this. Had genetic testing and OATs testing done. Start with testing, get results, follow the regimen. It's a brain gut connection. Once u Defog the brain the rest will follow. Working on this with my son right now.
•    Anonymous said… My almost 15 year old has been like this for years. Doesn't tick enough boxes for ASC diagnosis but Anxiety, lack of social awareness, hygiene issues and is profoundly deaf so sometimes communication is an issue. I try to limit PC time but he then refuses to go to school. Having just got him back there after a year of refusal, it's hard not to bargain with him. I'm following your post for ideas too. Hope you get some new advice. Xx
•    Anonymous said… My son is 15 and very much like that. He takes medication for his anxiety. It has helped so much. His personal hygiene is terrible. He has no real friends and spends a lot of time gaming. He is into music though and is a wonderful musician who taught himself guitar and piano. He has taken trombone lessons and is so good on it as well. He played in the Colorado Youth Wind Ensemble this year. We take him to cognitive behavioral training and that is helping him on the social side of things. I worry about his future too.
•    Anonymous said… Sounds exactly like my 9 year old son. He has huge blow ups if people touch his things or him. Even if they make him take off his jacket which he wore all through may. I know for a fact most of the Dr.s in my area don't specialize in autism at all. They diagnosed him with just oppositional defiance syndrome.
•    Anonymous said… They tend to develop socially much later than peers... ours is 23 and took off socially around age 19 and 20 but still finds it hard to make friends. I have to say that I see peers not responding to him as much as they could because they can tell he is different or uncomfortable. He is doing much better but still struggles socially. Not all his fault. Still not enough awareness in the public. We tried him in tons of different hobby groups until finally 1 clicked.... his interest in history and Renaissance fairs. Keep seeking either groups or classes that focus on his interests. I have decided to be grateful for his acquaintances in the absence of close friends.
•    Anonymous said… This could be my 11 year old son too x
•    Anonymous said… This is a fantastic link and we have implemented a lot of these strategies, as well as, linking my son up with my friends children, not on the spectrum but with similar interests. This was a positive experience for my son. There have been lots of steps forward and backwards, but by knowing when to push the adolescent and young adult through difficult times, as well as, when you should take a step back, will enable them to take control of their life and themselves.

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