Parents' Problem-Solving Skills for Hostile Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

“My wife and I are struggling dealing with our angry, increasingly aggressive 14 yr old son with high functioning autism. He's now refusing to hand over his electronics at night and shouting occurs. He is testing the boundaries, of course, but physical confrontation is something we don't know how to cope with.”

Addressing hostility and aggressiveness in teens with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can be a frustrating and demanding process. The challenge for parents and teachers is to address the behavior in a constructive manner, rather than simply reacting to it.

When AS and HFA teens are exhibiting hostile behaviors, it is often a sign that they are not receiving adequate support in mastering their environments, both at home and school. In addition, their aggressiveness does not necessarily reflect willfulness, rather they lack the social skills needed to “fit-in” and to be accepted by others – especially their peers.

What makes AS and HFA teens act-out may lie in the way they process social information, including what aspects of the social environment they pay attention to, and how they interpret what they perceive. These “special needs” teens need help in altering the way they process social information so that they do not view hostility as justified or useful.

The development of an “emotions vocabulary” is an important component in addressing aggressive behaviors so that feelings can be put into words leading to social skills development, identifying feelings, fostering cooperation, emphasis on empathy, discussions of future desires, conflict resolution, and assertive communication.

If the AS or HFA adolescent is acting-out, it is irrational for parents and teachers to assume that he knows more favorable alternatives. If adults are always telling this adolescent what NOT to do, when are they telling him what he SHOULD be doing and helping him to learn how?

Why Teens with Asperger's and HFA Can Be Moody and Depressed--

 ==> Disciplinary Strategies for Asperger's and HFA Teens

Teaching Problem-Solving Skills—

Developmental deficits in cognitive processes are often associated with aggressive behavior, and social development requires mastery of cognitive and behavioral skills for communicating with others, assessing social circumstances, and resolving conflicts without aggressiveness. These skills empower AS and HFA teens to make friends and flourish socially.

Teaching problem-solving skills is useful in addressing hostility and aggressiveness in these adolescents. Below are 6 effective steps to teaching problem-solving skills. Each step requires different approaches to discovering - and linking - the missing skills in social situations.

Step 1: Help the teen to attend to social cues that are often missed or misinterpreted.

  • Help the teen identify his own feeling states through self-report and observation.
  • Enhance sensitivity to verbal and nonverbal social cues through games and role play, teaching the teen to identify social cues in body language and pitch of voice.
  • Have the teen make a video of his own nonverbal cues, and then have him explain his feelings on the basis of cues demonstrated in the video (e.g., hand gestures, facial expressions, voice intonation, and other indicators of social intent).

Step 2: Help the teen to assign meaning to social cues. This step is necessary because hostile teens commonly interpret neutral interactions as threatening – and then respond defensively. Unlike “typical” teenagers, AS and HFA teens do not intuitively know how to exhibit socially acceptable behavior, and the level of their required assistance depends on the social supports they have previously encountered.

  • With the help of videotapes of social encounters, the teen should be taught to identify the sources of the problems and the feelings of participants with emphasis on correctly identifying friendly and neutral – as well as hostile – intent on the part of others.
  • The teen should learn to identify and classify social cues by friendly, neutral, and hostile categories of intent. The teen can practice by assuming the roles of his peers in disputes.

Step 3: Help the teen to define goals that enhance social relationships with an awareness of the consequences of behavior.

  • Brainstorming example: The teen is rewarded for having ideas about goals for various situations. Goals can be rated as to whether they are likely to enhance or damage interpersonal relationships with peers.
  • The teen should be given opportunities to practice identifying and fitting pro-social goals to various situations.

 ==> Disciplinary Strategies for Asperger's and HFA Teens

Step 4: Help the teen to develop ideas about how to respond to each social circumstance he encounters. This step is necessary because compared with “typical” teens, AS and HFA teens identify fewer alternatives and seem unaware of the various options that may be open to them when confronted by a social problem. These “special needs” teens need help identifying their options and possible outcomes (this is why constantly telling them what they are doing wrong does not increase the likelihood of improved future performance).

  • Help the teen to develop skills to control arousal and to generate behavioral responses in which anger and use of force are only two of many response possibilities.
  • Help to increase the teen’s skill in identifying alternatives to the use of force to solve social problems.

Step 5: Help the teen to assess likely outcomes of potential responses and to select a response that can be initiated given the limitations of the situation. Compared to non-hostile teens, hostile ones tend to evaluate pro-social responses less favorably. Thus, they are not behaving a certain way to purposely hurt those around them, rather they are simply making decisions based on social skills deficits.

  • Evaluation of each alternative: The teen should be given opportunities to discuss likely gains and losses associated with each identified alternative in specific social situations.
  • Like goals, gains may be described as short and long term, material and social, or affective and concrete.
  • In addition to benefits, look at costs (i.e., negative outcomes) of each alternative.

Step 6: Help the teen to implement a response. This step is where a teen with hostile tendencies joins a group, negotiates deals, offers and/or receives positive feedback, and bargains for the exchange of social opportunities by implementing a strategy from previous steps. Practicing this step will be intimidating and challenging for the AS or HFA teen. Any attempts – successful or not – should be praised and reviewed to identify areas of strength as well as need for improvement.

The development of problem-solving skills includes the AS or HFA teen as a contributor in planning and execution. Thus, be sure to include his input in all the steps listed above. The methods described are something you are doing WITH the teen, rather than TO him. Addressing hostility in these “special needs” young people demands an understanding of their perspective. Any approach to correcting hostility that does not include the teen himself is not going to have long-term benefits.

Behind every behavioral problem is a skill deficit – and a need to acquire that skill. Identifying with whom, over what, where and when behavioral problems occur will highlight specific circumstances so that appropriate problem-solving skills can be taught. Including the teen in the plan to address his aggression and hostility is allowing him to be assertive in a positive way; it gives him a sense of control that is often craved when he is lacking a skill and acting-out aggressively.


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