Parenting Difficult Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum

If you are a mother or father of a teenager with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), you undoubtedly have bigger challenges to overcome than you ever thought possible. There may be days where you feel all alone in your trials and tribulations. Maybe you've been so busy taking care of your teen's needs that you have not had the opportunity to seek support from those who have traveled a similar road.

As a parent of a teen on the autism spectrum, you are most likely aware that he somehow always finds a way to get under your skin.  There are so many changes going on with your teen – emotionally, psychologically, and biologically – that it’s almost impossible to understand him at times. Furthermore, his meltdowns, unpredictable temper, and natural instinct of reclusiveness may make communication nearly impossible.  If this is a challenge that you are facing, the tips listed below will help you positively parent your “special needs” adolescent. Good luck on your journey!

Tips for Parenting Difficult Teens with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism:

1. Accept that your AS or HFA adolescent will spend more time alone and away from family members compared to a “typical” teen.

2. Allow your adolescent to express her frustration. It’s hard enough just getting through adolescence – but for AS and HFA teens, the job is even more difficult.

3. Ask for advice from other parents of teens on the autism spectrum.

4. Assign tasks that your teen is capable of doing on his own. In this way, he will feel like he is a contributing member of the family, which is a great morale booster.

5. Be consistent with discipline. If you are not consistent with consequences, your AS or HFA adolescent will become confused about what is - and is not - acceptable. Also, when you're angry, it can be easy to make rash judgments and get carried away with loud demands or threats. Instead, wait until you are calm to set a consequence (e.g., count to 10 before responding to rude or annoying teen-behavior).

==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's and HFA Teens

6. Don't go overboard with consequences or try to ground for weeks. If you do, your discipline will lose its effectiveness and your adolescent will look for ways to get around it.

7. Focus on the behavior, not your child’s personality. For example, say things like "It's not acceptable to lie about where you've been" instead of "You're a liar." Also, disregard the attitude and focus on the actions.

8. Be exceedingly patient. Parenting an AS or HFA teen takes extra patience with a strong dose of inner strength.  Problematic situations require a deep breath and that extra ounce of strength you really didn’t think you had. Sometimes you can find your patience and strength in a quick memory, a supporting hand, friendly advice, or even just sharing the difficult moments. 

9. Be realistic about “completion time” of chores and homework. Many AS and HFA teens need to do things “step-wise.” In other words, they have to finish what they’re currently doing before they can comfortably move on to the next task. Also, praise efforts – not just results.

10. Be your teen’s parent – not her “buddy.” Your responsibility is to ensure the well-being and safety of your “special needs” teenager. Intervening in a dangerous situation (e.g., involving drugs, abuse or truancy) might make your teenager dislike you, but it will also save her life. Don't just “go along just to get along.”


11. Pick your battles carefully. Your adolescent will feel more resistant to what you have to say if you lecture him about every perceived transgression. Decide what's really important, and focus your efforts on those behaviors. Just address one issue at a time!

12. Encourage friendships. Loneliness is one of the main causes for challenging behavior among AS and HFA teenagers. Try to encourage opportunities for socializing and making friends.

13. Establish clear rules and guidelines for your adolescent to help her understand what behavior is acceptable. Don't just wait until she does something you don't like and then discipline her. Make sure the rules are clear from the start. Also, involve your adolescent in establishing the house rules so that if she breaks the rules, you can remind her that she played a role in setting them. Furthermore, be very specific and keep the rules simple (e.g., "In this house, we speak kindly to one another" or "Everyone must pitch in by completing their assigned house chores").

14. Look at your teen’s history. Negative events that happened during the pre-school and elementary school years help to shape a teen’s personality. By the time these kids become adolescents, many have been living with the resulting pain for most of their lives (e.g., due to peer-rejection, teasing, bullying, etc.). AS and HFA teens may feel pain and anger, but they lack the ability to act on those emotions. However, they are able to act on those emotions with more lasting and harmful consequences.

15. Expect gradual improvement, not immediate results. Your AS or HFA teen is emotionally immature compared to her same-age peers.

16. Foster independence. It’s so easy to do everything for your “special needs” teen (e.g., making all the decisions for her).  Give her the chance to do more herself and to make decisions on her own.

17. Get a dog. According to research, owning a dog can transform an AS or HFA teen’s life. Bringing a pet into your home is great for all teenagers, but can become a real friend for those with developmental disabilities. Having a pet reduces stress, can help your teen learn responsibility, improve social skills, and reduce feelings of isolation. Research has shown that dogs can calm and comfort “special needs” teenagers and help them develop the confidence to try new tasks.

18. Get a punching bag and some boxing gloves. My grandson’s behavior became very problematic when he started middle school. I found that a punching bag helped him to unwind. He used to scream at it while punching it! It was also great exercise to get rid of some of the stress and anger that accrued through his school day. Using the punching bag was his “home from school” routine each day through the week.

19. Record your moments of success and failure in a journal. Keeping a journal and recording incidents can help you to look back and see if there are any patterns or contributing factors to problematic behavior. The journal may be a good thing to look through with your teen, talking about both the positives and negatives. Also, be sure to log and monitor medications (don’t forget, medications can have side-effects that contribute to problematic behavior).

20. Try to look at your adolescent’s situation from a different perspective. In this shift of perspective, answers are often revealed and insight into what is triggering your adolescents' behavior comes into focus. Sometimes moms and dads can get un-stuck simply by looking at a situation with new eyes, which is usually followed by acting or thinking about things differently. When the parent responds in different ways, there is no choice for the adolescent but to act differently too.

==> Discipline for Defiant Asperger's and HFA Teens

21. Provide lots of structure. Write down routines as sequences of tasks (2-5 items only), and post where easily visible. AS and HFA teenagers respond well to structure and routines because it helps to nurture self-discipline and provides a sense of security.  These “special needs” teens are typically afraid of the “unknown” – and as a mother or father, it is your job to guide your teenager through his many “unknowns.”  Growth and change are unavoidable, and these teens need the security of routines to counteract their constantly changing worlds. Structure and routines help them grow to understand and learn to positively control change and their surroundings. The security of small routines actually enables them to handle change and growth with less fear and more independence.

22. When confronting misbehavior, relax your facial muscles and keep your voice down. When faced with an angry teen who is aggressive and shouting, keep your face neutral and lower the volume and pitch of your own voice. Nine times out of ten, your teen will quieten down to hear what you are saying. Also, stay calm – but be assertive. Take some deep breaths if you feel yourself beginning to get aggravated. Calm, assertive instructions and body language are important assets when dealing with challenging behavior.  Any more emotion into an already emotional situation only clouds judgments, causes greater confusion, and launches your teen closer to meltdown.

23. Try to be prepared. If you know you are going to do something with your teenager or ask him to do something that may trigger a tantrum or meltdown, anticipate and prepare for his response. Preparation often relieves some of the stress that rings your “patience buzzer.” Also, always visualize your response before acting on it.

24. Understand when professional help is needed. Most AS and HFA adolescents benefit from some type of professional help in identifying the underlying reasons for their problems and assistance in dealing with them. Getting help for your “special needs” adolescent when she first starts having difficulties is usually far more successful than waiting until problems get worse. For some moms and dads, this can be a difficult step to take. Many parents fear that “reaching out for help” is a sign of weakness – but nothing could be further from the truth. The advantages of seeking professional help for your adolescent include: (a) experienced help in figuring out the reasons your adolescent is acting out, (b) expertise in identifying what clinical interventions are most likely to be effective, and (c) support in helping your adolescent, yourself and your family get through challenging times.

25. AS and HFA adolescents may not know how to express themselves well, causing them to act out – and parents may take the behavior to heart, causing them to lose patience and to speak in anger. Thus, talk with your adolescent about how to express himself in a more appropriate way, helping him to better handle his anger and frustration. Role-play specific situations. Play your adolescent first so you can model appropriate responses, and then let your adolescent give it a try.

Why Your Teen with Asperger's or High-Functioning Autism Prefers To Be Alone 

Additional ideas for parenting your “special needs” adolescent include the following:
  • Compliment your AS or HFA adolescent and celebrate his efforts and accomplishments.
  • Encourage your adolescent to develop solutions to problems or conflicts. Help her learn to make good decisions. Create opportunities for her to use her own judgment, and be available for advice and support.
  • Encourage your adolescent to get enough sleep and exercise, and to eat healthy, balanced meals.
  • Encourage your adolescent to volunteer and become involved in civic activities in her community.
  • If your adolescent engages in interactive internet media (e.g., games, chat rooms, and instant messaging), encourage him to make good decisions about what he posts and the amount of time he spends on these activities.
  • Respect your adolescent’s need for privacy.
  • Respect your adolescent’s opinion. Listen to her without playing down her concerns.
  • Show affection for your adolescent. Spend time together doing things you enjoy.
  • Show interest in your adolescent’s school and extracurricular interests and activities and encourage him to become involved in various activities (e.g., sports, music, theater, and art).
  • Talk with your adolescent about her concerns, and pay attention to any changes in her behavior. Ask her if she has had suicidal thoughts, particularly if she seems sad or depressed. Asking about suicidal thoughts will not cause her to have these thoughts, but it will let her know that you care about how she feels. Seek professional help if necessary.
  • Talk with your adolescent and help him plan ahead for difficult or uncomfortable situations. Discuss what he can do if he is in a group and someone is using drugs or under pressure to have sex, or is offered a ride by someone who has been drinking.

Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism are “developmental disabilities,” which are some of the most overwhelming for parents to deal with, changing visions of the future and providing immediate difficulties in caring for and educating their teen. AS and HFA teens with behavioral issues don't respond well to traditional discipline. Instead, they require specialized techniques that are tailored to their specific abilities and challenges. If those techniques are not developed and used, these young people often throw their families into chaos – and are seriously at risk for school-related problems. Thus, parents will do well to take most of the ideas listed above to heart. Use them wisely and frequently.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

No comments:

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...