Rebuilding Self-Esteem in Discouraged ASD Teens: Tips for Parents

“Dustin, my son with high functioning autism, recently turned 13. He started back to school this week (8th grade) and we are already having some issues. He still has a hard time engaging with other classmates, his personal hygiene is lacking (e.g. hates to shower or comb his hair), and he’s simply not interested in the current fads or topics of conversation among his peer-group. Now he tells us that he’s being teased by a few kids in his class. Last school year, he 'failed' socially and became completely ostracized from his peer-group and felt a sense of general isolation from everybody. It appears that we are going to have a repeat performance of these issues again this time around. He mostly just stays to himself (playing his digital piano and video games in his room). How can I help my son in this situation? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.”

Due to the fact that the adolescent with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) tends to be a loner, develops odd mannerisms, and has poor people skills in general, he can be shunned from the peer-group and be the focus of teasing, thus resulting in low self-esteem – and even depression.

Here are some symptoms to look for in your HFA son’s behavior when he is “failing” socially:
  • Frequent stomach aches, headaches, etc.
  • Appears depressed
  • Preference for isolation at home or school 
  • Poor academic performance
  • Starts refusing to go to school or skips classes
  • Increase in anger and frustration
  • Disengagement from peers
  • Conflicts at school with peers or teachers

Young people on the autism spectrum possess certain traits - and face certain obstacles - that “typical” adolescents don’t. For example, they: 
(a) don’t understand the importance of eye contact – and may avoid it altogether; 
(b) have trouble understanding jokes or sarcasm; 
(c) seem insensitive or look unemotional, but often they just don't know how to express how they're feeling; 
(d) don’t understand socially acceptable ways to express frustration and may become aggressive or throw tantrums; 
(e) feel "sensory overload" (e.g., have heightened senses that can make noises seem louder and more startling); 
(f) are socially awkward since they have difficulty processing social cues (e.g., body language, sarcasm, humor, figurative language, emotional responses, facial expressions); 
(g) have trouble coping with change and may not react well to changes in routine; and 
(h) prefer to be alone and may not show an interest in making friends.

Your son, Dustin, needs to decide for himself when he will work on his poor people skills. I’m sure it’s tough for you to sit back and watch him struggle in the social arena, but you should try to let things play out on their own time. To charge-in and assert that Dustin “needs to work harder on developing some friendship skills” will only add to his low self-esteem and sense of being an “odd ball.”

==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder 

Possibly, your son is simply not in a head-space where he is ready to make changes (but when he gets older, he may start to feel differently). Some of the reasons why Dustin may not be up for addressing his social skills deficits may include the following:
  • He may be particularly put-off about the idea of accepting help or criticism from you, the parent
  • He may not think there is any hope of improving
  • He may not see himself as awkward, just different
  • He may realize he has some things he needs to work on, but doesn't feel they are a priority at the moment
  • He may recognize he has some social problems, but is ashamed of them
  • He may be perfectly content to stay at home all the time and play video games
  • His lack of social skills may not have cost him enough yet (e.g., the teenager who doesn't need a lot of friends and who is content to spend his free time on the computer is not losing much by being ostracized from the peer-group)

In any event, here are a few ideas that you can use to help your HFA son deal with his social skills deficits:

1. While Dustin may have some real social weaknesses, in other ways, he may be different from the norm in a way that is perfectly valid. Those differences may be tied to social skills deficits, but you need to distinguish between true deficits and normal variations in personality. For instance, there's nothing wrong with being a bit reserved, being uncomfortable in certain social situations, having a unique hobby, having an odd sense of humor, or preferring to spend time alone. Thus, it would be helpful to not come across like you are rejecting Dustin’s core self.

2. Try to avoid feeling disappointed in your son. Maybe you were somewhat popular in school and can't really understand how Dustin seems to be having the opposite experience you did. Maybe you always hoped he would be a great saxophone player or football player, and you can't help but roll your eyes when he spends all Sunday afternoon playing “childish” video games in his bedroom (i.e., games that much younger children might play).

3. Try not to get angry with your son for not realizing he has a problem, or not wanting to do anything about it. True, the problem seems so obvious to you, but Dustin probably doesn’t see things the same way. For instance, he may tell you that it is impossible for him to make friends. His logic and explanations may not make sense to you, but he still seems to believe them.

4. Point your son to some resources (e.g., books, videos, CDs, etc.) that discuss self-help strategies for people looking to develop interpersonal skills.

5. Don’t feel that you have “failed” somehow as a parent because your “special needs” teenager is awkward, or because you didn't step in earlier. You may be prone to feeling guilty or blaming yourself if your son is going through a tough time. The fact is that most HFA adolescents are simply emotionally immature compared to their “typical” peers. After all, they have a “developmental disorder.”

6. Dustin may fare best with one or two close friends with whom he can practice teen social skills and "adult" behaviors. Even one relatively close relationship can make the difference between a depressed, awkward teen -- and one who is beginning to learn valuable social skills with a select few others.

7. It takes time for adolescents on the autism spectrum to improve their social skills. If your son does start working through his issues, don't feel like he is dragging his feet or not working hard enough if he doesn't transform over a period of a few months. In addition, give him space to change at his own pace. Maybe he will be eager about making some changes for a few months, but then get distracted by other things for a while.

8. Don't make your son feel monitored, or that your approval is connected to his rate of progress. For instance, you go to a family cookout and Dustin doesn’t feel like mingling with other family members, but you watch him to see if his ability to socialize has improved. Give Dustin the impression that you accept him for who he is – unconditionally! Of course, you will be delighted for him and share in his success if he makes some positive changes. But if he doesn't, you're O.K. with that too.

==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder 

9. If you were socially awkward as a teenager, some of your own baggage may come up as you witness your son struggling. You may frantically want to help him avoid some of the social blunders you made. But, he will need to learn from his own mistakes rather than from yours.

10. If you have already tried to help your son with his social awkwardness, but he shot you down, try to avoid feeling slighted or resentful. Don’t take it personally. He will take a hard look at himself and the changes that may need to happen when the timing is right.

11. If there is a relative or family friend your son may be more open to talking to, mention that person’s name. For example, maybe he will be more open to chatting with his uncle who he looks up to.

12. Pick a moment when you have time to talk and your son is in a decent mood. Tactfully mention that you've noticed that he seems to be having some trouble with __________ (fill in the blank with the problem in question), and that if there is anything you can do to help, you are there for him. He may deny that there is a problem or want the conversation to be over. But even if he gives that response, you can still lay out some options for him.

13. Try to engage your son in an activity or program where there are adult mentors to help him increase his self-esteem and build self-confidence. Research reveals that having just one activity in a teen’s life where he feels successful will result in a higher sense of self-esteem and a greater ability to negotiate a variety of social situations.

14. Don’t fall into the trap of feeling sorry for your son. It's only natural that you want to make his pain go away, but that attitude often results in over-protective parenting that tends to make a bad problem worse (e.g., doing too much for your son to the point where he never learns to do things for himself).

15. Young people on the autism spectrum need extra time to learn and practice adult life-skills, because their “emotional age” is much younger than their “chronological age.” In other words, your son is 13-years-old chronologically, but emotionally, he is probably more like a 9-year-old. So, the earlier you begin helping out in the area of social skills training – the better!

Children with HFA eventually go through adolescence on their way toward becoming strong, focused adults -- regardless of the misinformation you may have been fed. While adolescence is a difficult time for all teenagers, it can easily be much worse for those dealing with an autism spectrum disorder. However, with the right education and support, most HFA adolescents go on to graduate from high school.


As the years go by, are you seeing your HFA or AS child rapidly becoming reduced to a person who is surviving on: anger, being a mistake, depression, hate, isolation, low self-esteem, resentment, sadness and self-hate. Have you heard your  teenager say things like: I'm a mistake. I'm dumb. I'm useless. I hate myself. I wish I was dead. What is wrong with me? Why was I born? If so, then alarm bells should be going off. You know changes need to happen! Low self-esteem and behavioral problems go hand-in-hand! 

==> CLICK HERE for help on the matter...


•    Anonymous said… I have a 12 year son with HF autism , it has been so difficult to have conversation the past year.
•    Anonymous said… I think online school is the best option. Grooming is tough but my son is Ten and we use a reward system that includes play dates with friends. We also have a support group of 5 boys that also have Asperger's. We get together once a month. It's great to have parents to talk to about the issues that come up. My advice look for local support. Ask him what you can do to help him with his hygiene. Look into online school. Lastly find a career option that he is already obsessed with. Start classes in that. My son is obsessed with video games and he spent the summer in coding camps. You can do this dig deep they need our help!
•    Anonymous said… I wish there were more social groups for kids with special needs to get together. The school tries to offer social skills but it really is no contender for real life relations.
•    Anonymous said… My 15 YO son started 10th grade last week. We moved and changed school districts over the summer and he has decided that he wants to "reinvent himself". I am still having to remind him of showers/deodorant/shave/etc, but it is not he fight it has been in the past. He is conscientious of his clothing and has even shown interest in keeping his backpack more organized. I know it has only been 2 days but I consider it a step in the right direction. I think it helps that he is only doing 3 classes at the high school and then has an hour and a half break before going to 2 classes at the tech school for engineering. He says those are "his people". He came home Friday and a girl at the tech school came up and asked to sit w him during lunch. They talked for a long time before they both agreed that they should say their names and introduce themselves. He was so stimmy and excited when he got home. He said they both laughed when they were talking about how awkward they each were. He got invited into a group text about a class project. It all seems so simple but very few understand how big of a deal this is. Last year, he spent a ton of time in his resource classroom. That was his safe space. I think it gave him some confidence to be around other students like him. I also think that he is simply just ready this year. He has aged a bit and is talking about getting a job. It isn't that has happened in the past by trying to force it, so I am just going with it. He is just finally ready and has loads of resources and copying skills to help him along the way. I hope this gives you a bit of hope that it can get may be on his schedule but that is ok.
•    Anonymous said… my son became suicidal because of school so I took him out and quit my job. we are poor, but he is alive. I do not think children with autism should be forced to conform to neurotypical environments. it becomes a form of child abuse. I am also aware that many parents have no choice, but find an alternative to school for the child's sake. think about it this way, how would you feel being forced to spend all day in an environment where everyone speaks a different language than you, but you were told to Buck up and blend in or bullied. you would leave right? learning the new language would help, but that is like asking a blind person to learn to see so that everyone else feels better when they are around.
•    Anonymous said… Same here....doing home school....showering clothing choices ect...starting high school the diningroom
•    Anonymous said… School. Ugh!
•    Anonymous said… So hard. I engage with my son as much as I can, fortunate enough to be self employed and live close to school so pop in at morning tea and lunch times to check in
He's usually by himself but chooses too. We have family friends whose children also attend and they come up to me to say hi and whether they've hung out with him which is amazing and nice. I dont do it every day, maybe once or twice a week . Really helps keep him focused and I can deal/ chat with teachers anytime too. Communication and participation are vital i think
•    Anonymous said… This is what I am totally afraid of this year. It's going to be a tough one.
•    Anonymous said… This might sound INSANE to other people but the best I have done for my son is find a church with a good kids program. Generally the children in church are just taught to accept differences. They work out the differences easily and don't just toss other kids to the side.... hang in there mama you are doing amazing.
•    Anonymous said… Very similar situation, with a daughter (gr 7). I've got no advice, I'm sorry. But am interested in the advice .
*    Rita said... Acknowledge to yourself and your son that he is wired differently from most people. Stop expecting him to behave and react like them. The book "Look Me in the Eye" by John Elder Robison was helpful to my son at age 14. It showed him that Aspies also have some positive differences. Focusing on finding what your son is good at and promoting it will help with the self-esteem. We were fortunate to be able to send ours to computer camp to start learning some marketable skills beyond playing games.

Post your comment below…

Popular posts from this blog

List of Symptoms for High-Functioning Autism

The Telltale Signs of ASD Level 1 [High-Functioning Autism]: A Comprehensive Checklist

Traits of Partners/Spouses with Aspergers