Defiance in Teenagers with High-Functioning Autism

"My son (high functioning autistic) is now 13 ...he was diagnosed at the age of 8. All of a sudden he is acting out, cussing all the time, lying, being disrespectful and verbally abusive, and has an overall grumpy attitude. Are these years the hardest, or is this just the beginning? When he finally hits puberty, will things get better?"

Yes, the teen years are the hardest, whether your son has High Functioning Autism (HFA) or not! He has probably “hit” puberty already, but it’s just beginning.

Raging hormones and frustration with social interactions at school can cause a lot of anger and bad behavior during the teen years, especially for adolescents with "special needs!" Many need counseling to negotiate this time in their lives successfully. Peer-rejection, teasing, bullying, and all other other stressors that your son may have to endure can take a psychological toll, which may in turn influence him to act-out his frustration on a "safe" target at home (i.e., YOU).

Your son is exhibiting rebellious behavior, and this type of behavior fulfills his needs. For example, he may have the need to:
  • Avoid responsibility (e.g., attending school, obeying parents)
  • Get something (e.g., his way in a decision, your attention, control over a situation)
  • Manage pain (e.g., physical and/or emotional stress that must be alleviated)
  • Fulfill sensory needs (e.g., relief from heat, cold, or to satisfy thirst)

Having a developmental disorder such as HFA or Asperger’s is no excuse for being verbally abusive. However, it is important for you to understand that some of the associated symptoms do contribute to defiant behavior. Teens on the autism spectrum may display some - or all - of the following characteristics, many of which contribute to problematic behavior:
  • the teen may be able to talk extensively on a topic of interest, but have difficulty with more practical tasks such as recounting the day’s events, telling a story, or understanding jokes and sarcasm
  • sensitivity to criticism 
  • preference for playing alone or with adults
  • narrow field of interests (e.g., a teen with HFA may focus on learning all there is to know about cars, trains or computers)
  • language may be considered to be very advanced or ‘precocious’ when compared to their peers
  • lack of appreciation that communication involves listening as well as talking (e.g., they may not allow their communication partner an opportunity to engage in the conversation)
  • inability to understand the rules of social behavior or the feelings of others
  • difficulty ‘reading’ body language (e.g., a teen with HFA may not understand that someone is showing that they are unhappy by frowning)
  • having rules and rituals that they insist all family members follow
  • difficulty in forming friendships
  • behavior varies from mildly unusual, eccentric or ‘odd’ to quite aggressive and difficult
  • apparently good language skills, but difficulty with communication
  • anger and aggression when things do not happen as they want

Your son is unlikely to identify with your feelings or comprehend others’ objections to his behavior. The only explanation you should use with him is to specifically state that the objectionable behavior is not permitted. Your son needs to follow rules, and following rules can help to focus and modify his rebellious behavior.

Behavior modification is a therapeutic approach that can change your son’s behavior. You need to determine the need that his rebellion/aggression fulfills and teach him an acceptable replacement behavior. For example, your son can be taught to ask for, point to, or show an emotion card to indicate the need that he is trying to fulfill.

Sometimes, self-stimulating behaviors such as rocking or pacing are taught as replacement behaviors, but it will take time for your son to integrate these behaviors into his daily activities. If your son is severely out of control, he needs to be physically removed from the situation. Granted, this may be easier said than done, and you may need someone to help you; yet, behavior modification can be helpful, and it must be started as soon as possible.

For adolescents on the autism spectrum, the importance of maintaining a daily routine can't be stressed enough. A daily routine produces behavioral stability and psychological comfort. Also, it lessens their need to make demands. When you establish a daily routine, you eliminate some of the situations in which your son’s behavior becomes demanding. For example, by building in regular times to give him attention, he may have less need to show aggression to try to get that attention.

Ideally over time, your son will learn to recognize and communicate the causes of his aggression and get his needs met by using communication. Unfortunately, teens who get their needs met due to aggression or violence are very likely to continue and escalate this defiant behavior.

A behavior therapy program may help; however, an individualized program has to be designed specifically for your son because adolescents on the spectrum vary greatly in their challenges and/or family circumstances. Treatment approaches that work well with other diagnoses may not work with HFA. Consult a psychiatrist who can oversee a treatment plan as well as any medication regimen that your son may be need.

In addition to the suggestions listed above, here are a few simple parenting tips that may help:
  • Take care of yourself. Counseling can provide an outlet for your own mental health concerns that could interfere with the successful management of your son's defiant behavior. If you're depressed or anxious, that could lead to disengagement from your son, which can trigger or worsen oppositional behaviors. Let go of things that you or your son did in the past. Start each day with a fresh outlook and a clean slate. Learn ways to calm yourself, and take time for yourself. Develop outside interests, get some exercise, and spend some time away from your son to restore your energy.
  • Set up a routine. Develop a consistent daily schedule for your son. Asking him to help develop that routine can be helpful.
  • Set limits and enforce consistent reasonable consequences.
  • At first, your son is not likely to be cooperative or appreciate your changed response to his behavior. Setbacks and relapses are normal, so be prepared with a plan to manage those times. 
  • Remind yourself that your son’s defiance is most likely a temporary inconvenience rather than a permanent catastrophe.
  • Recognize and praise your son's positive behaviors. Be as specific as possible (e.g., "I really liked the way you cleaned up your room tonight").
  • Pick your battles carefully. Avoid power struggles. Almost everything can turn into a power struggle — if you let it.
  • Model the behavior you want your son to exhibit.
  • Develop a united front. Work with your partner/spouse to ensure consistent and appropriate discipline procedures.
  • Remember that behavior often temporarily worsens when new limits and expectations are set. However, with persistence and consistency, the initial hard work will pay off with improved behavior.
  • Build in time together. Develop a consistent weekly schedule that involves you and your son being together.
  • Assign your son a household chore that's essential and that won't get done unless he does it. Initially, it's important to set him up for success with tasks that are relatively easy to achieve, then gradually blend in more important and challenging expectations.

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

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


•    Anonymous said... Its so good to not feel alone in this. My son emailed the principle and councilor this week with a page of cuss words, then says "he doesn't remember it". He never talks at home like that. Trying to find alternatives for anger, like using a punching bag. But that day I had no idea he was even upset that is what scares me. Praying lots and lots.
•    Anonymous said... My Son doesnt like going outside at all eather!... Not very nice if he's got a little Sis that does want to go and do nice things tho... But tried to take him out today, but it was Far to Busy! Really made him have a Noise overload in his head till now... We'v been back for 10 hours... Must be horrible for him...
•    Anonymous said... my son like that as well. Does not want to go outside because the kids are making poor choices
•    Anonymous said... Not only does the stew of Aspie issues flare up at new situations and new social expectations. But puberty hits and the hormones kick in like they do in non-Aspie kids. So you get a double dose of Teenage attitude.
•    Anonymous said... Puberty makes them begin to resemble something of aliens. lol Seriously though they do become quite difficult. The acting out, cussing, lying, etc., all are magnified x 3 during this time. Counseling and keeping the schedule has helped us. In the end however not much helps lately. Praying a lot. Good luck.
•    Anonymous said... There may be commorbid conditions. Mine has ODD and ADHD. But, yes, teens will always test limits. Be thankful he's a boy; ) Deep breaths. And approach delicately. Never demand, request. Always give him time to respond, and make a consequence that fits the "crime" and stick to it. Consistency is key to any austism spectrum disorder. Hugs.
•    Anonymous said... We have been through hell with my son since he turned 13 and now he is 16. I try to see the silver lining with him having to deal with ASD - one is that he doesn't want to leave the house because of his heightened social anxiety - so I know where he is at all times! At least he is not out hooning around and making bad choices with other idiot teenage boys. I'm hoping that by the time he is happy to engage again with society he will be dealing with other guys whose frontal lobe has developed (him too).
•    Anonymous said... You have to adjust your responses to the outbursts and also reinforce what good choices look like for your child as well as what bad choices look like. The teen years are rough for everyone, but Aspergers and kids in the Autism Spectrum have it even harder. Pick your battles. You do not always have to win an argument. Actively listening and explaining what is going on is the best win for both you and your family.
*   Anonymous said...My upstairs neighbors (mom) are very uncooperative when it comes to respecting my household! The teenage son stalks me, destroys my plants and flowers.. breaks my patio decor and had almost destroyed my 5ft windmill. He makes a lot of noise constantly and walks in place to make the floor squeak in many areas of their apartment... And, how does he know when I am using my bathroom... It's embarrassing that he lets me know he knows I'm in my bathroom because he will make noise or flush the toilet or run the water in the sink or bathtub... He will run out and sometimes stomp very loud upon exiting.

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