High-Functioning Autism and Struggles in Adolescence

“I have a very lonely and depressed 17 year old son with high functioning autism that spends all of his time (except for going to school) in his bedroom playing video games. I don’t totally understand why he is always so down in the dumps. I wish there was something I could do to help him find some friends and start enjoying life. Any suggestions?”

Adolescence is probably the most miserable and complicated years for many young people with ASD level 1, or High-Functioning Autism (HFA). This is not true of everyone – some do extremely well. Their indifference to what peers think makes them indifferent to the intense peer pressure of adolescence. They can flourish within their specialty and become accomplished in their area of interest (e.g., music, history, etc.).

Unfortunately, many HFA adolescents become more socially isolated during a period when they crave friendships and inclusion more than ever. In the rough-and-tough world of middle and high school, these adolescents often face rejection, isolation and bullying. To make matters worse, school becomes more demanding in a period when these young people have to compete for college placements. Issues of sexuality and a desire for independence from moms and dads create even more problems.

In the adolescent world where everyone feels insecure, young people that appear different or “odd” are voted out of “the group.” HFA teens often have strange mannerisms (e.g., talk in a loud un-modulated voice, avoid eye contact, interrupt others, violate others physical space, steer the conversation to their favorite “odd” topic, etc.). Many of these young people appear willful, selfish and aloof, mostly because they are unable to share their thoughts and feelings with others. Isolated and alone, these adolescents are simply too anxious to initiate social contact.

Many adolescents on the spectrum are stiff and rule-oriented and act like little adults, which is a deadly trait in any adolescent popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting for these teenagers, even though they want it more than anything else.

HFA teenagers typically don’t care about current fads and clothing styles (concerns that obsess everyone else in their peer group). Also, these adolescents may neglect their hygiene and wear the same haircut for years. Some autistic teens remain stuck in grammar school clothes and hobbies (e.g., unicorns, Legos, dolls, etc.) instead of moving into adolescent concerns like FaceBook and dating. HFA males often have little motor coordination, which leaves them out of high school sports (typically an essential area of male bonding and friendship).

Adolescents on the autism spectrum are not privy to street knowledge of sex and dating behaviors that other adolescents pick up naturally. This leaves them naive and clueless. HFA males can become obsessed with Internet pornography and masturbation. They can be overly forward with a female peer who is simply being kind, and then they can get accused of stalking the girl. HFA girls may have fully developed bodies, but no understanding of flirtation and non-verbal sexual cues, thus making them susceptible to harassment – and even date rape.

Loneliness and depression can lead to problems with drugs, sex and alcohol. In their overwhelming need to “fit in” and make friends, some adolescents on the spectrum fall into the wrong crowd. Typical adolescents who abuse drugs and alcohol may use the autistic teen's naivety to get him or her to buy/carry drugs and alcohol for their group.

Many adolescents on the spectrum, with their average to above average IQs, can sail through elementary school, and yet hit academic problems in middle and high school. They now have to deal with 5 to 7 different teachers instead of just 1 or 2. The likelihood that at least one teacher will be indifferent - or even hostile - toward making special accommodations is almost certain. The HFA teenager now has to face a series of classroom environments with different classmates, odors, distractions, noise levels, and sets of expectations.

HFA adolescents, with their distractibility and difficulty organizing materials, face similar academic problems as young people with ADHD. A high school term paper or a science project becomes impossible to manage, because no one has taught the youngster how to break it up into a series of small steps. Even though the academic stress on autistic students can be overwhelming, school administrators may be reluctant to enroll them in special education at this late point in their educational career.

Adolescence is an emotional rollercoaster for all teens. But, the hormonal changes of adolescence coupled with the problems associated with having an autism spectrum disorder mean that HFA adolescents can easily become emotionally overwhelmed. Childish tantrums can reappear. Males often act-out by physically attacking the teacher or a schoolmate. They may experience "meltdowns" at home after another day filled with harassment, bullying, pressure to conform, and rejection. Depression and drug/alcohol abuse become real concerns, as the adolescent now has access to a vehicle, drugs and alcohol.

The parent of an adolescent with HFA often faces many problems that others parents don’t. As the teen approaches adulthood, time is quickly running out for teaching him or her how to become an independent adult. The parent may face issues like vocational training, teaching independent living, and providing lifetime financial support. Meanwhile, the immature autistic teen is often indifferent – and even hostile – to the parent’s concerns.

Once HFA youngsters enter the adolescent years, they are harder to control and less likely to listen to their parents. They may be tired of parents nagging them to “pay attention to people when they’re talking to you” … “comb your hair” … “you need a shower” … “get up, it’s time to get ready for school” …and so on. They may hate school because they are dealing with so much anxiety, social isolation and academic failure.
==> 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

Here are some ways moms and dads of HFA adolescents can help:

1. Because of their sensitivity to textures, HFA adolescents often wear the same clothes day in and day out. This is unacceptable in middle or high school. One idea that has worked for some moms and dads is to find an adolescent of the same age and sex as your teen, and then enlist that person’s help in choosing clothes that will enable your teen to blend in with his or her peers.

2. Most adolescents with ASD level 1 can learn to drive, but their learning process may take longer because of poor motor coordination. Once they learn a set of rules, they are likely to follow them to the letter. However, these teens may have trouble dealing with unexpected situations on the road. Have your teen carry a cell phone, and give him or her a printed card that explains autism spectrum disorders. Teach him or her to give the card to a police officer and phone you in a crisis.

3. Alcoholic and drugs often react adversely with a person’s prescriptions, so you have to teach your teenager about these dangers in the event he or she is taking any medications. Also, since most HFA adolescents are very rule-oriented, try emphasizing that drugs and alcohol are illegal.

4. If your adolescent is college-bound, you have to prepare him or her for the experience. You can plan a trip to the campus and show your adolescent where to buy books, where the health services are, and so on. Teach your adolescent how to handle everyday problems, like where to buy deodorant, what to do if you oversleep and miss a class, etc.

5. If the pressure on your adolescent to conform is too great, if she or he faces constant harassment and rejection, if the principal and teachers do not cooperate with you, then it may be time to find another school. The adolescent years are often when many moms and dads decide it is in their adolescent’s best interest to enter special education or a therapeutic boarding school. In a boarding school, professionals will guide your son or daughter academically and socially on a twenty-four hour basis. They do not allow males to isolate themselves with video games. Everyone has to participate in social activities. Also, counseling staff helps with college placements. 

If you decide to work within a public school system, you may have to hire a lawyer to get needed services. Your HFA adolescent should have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and accommodations for the learning disabled. This may mean placement in smaller classes, having a tutor, and obtaining special arrangements for gym and lunchtime. Teach your adolescent to find a safe place at school where he or she can share emotions with a trusted professional. The safe place may be the offices of the school nurse, guidance counselor, or a psychologist.

6. You MUST teach your adolescent about sex. You should NOT "talk around" the issue. You will have to be specific and detailed about safe sex and teach your adolescent to tell you about inappropriate touching by others. He or she may need remedial “sex education” (e.g., females need to understand that they are too old to sit on laps or give hugs to strangers, and males may have to learn to close toilet stall doors and masturbate only in private).

7. Teach your adolescent how to initiate contact with others. Teach how to leave phone messages and arrange details of social contacts (e.g., finding transportation to a school event). Encourage your adolescent to join high school clubs (e.g., chess or drama). It is not necessary for you to tell your teen’s peers that he or she has an autism spectrum disorder – let your teen do that. Many adolescents with HFA are enjoying each other's company through Internet chat rooms, forums and message boards.

8. Most summer and part-time jobs involve interaction with the public (e.g., movie usher, fast food worker, store clerk, etc.). This means they are not always a good fit for an adolescent with HFA. Some of these young people can find work in their field of special interest or in jobs that have little interpersonal interaction. Others have spent joyful summers at camps designed for “special needs” individuals like them.

As you prepare your adolescent for the workforce, keep in mind that individuals with HFA often do not understand office politics. They have problems with the basics (e.g., handling criticism, controlling emotions, showing up on time, working with the public, etc.). This does not mean they can’t hold down a job. Once they master certain aspects of employment, Adolescents and young adults on the spectrum are often able to work at high levels as accountants, research scientists, computer programmers, and so on.

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

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


•    Anonymous said... an instrument could help -my boy plays drums and loves it ...more confidence anyway...
•    Anonymous said... Aspies have a VERY hard time finding, making and keeping friends. When I was a teen I lost ALL of my friends my 9th grade year. Every last one. I was depressed and suicidal. I couldn't understand what I was doing wrong and why no one liked me!!! I do now though and today I know that I have Aspergers and so do two of my four children. We also believe my husband has it as well.  Computers/games/electronics allows us to focus on something else other that ourselves (Aspies are also VERY egocentric) and to escape. It helps us turn off our brains. It is comfort and it is release. The world of books is also comparable. For me, when I wasn't on the computer (I spent a lot of time programming - taught myself to do it when I was 8 yrs old), on my nintendo or my atari, I was reading. Those were probably the only things that kept me alive. If I'd had nowhere to escape to, I probably would have killed myself back then just to get that escape! Anyway, that's just my insight based on my own experiences. My two aspie kids also do this as well, especially my son, who also seems "mopey" all the time. He deals with being understimulated and a total lack of an ability to display emotion. So he might be REALLY excited about something but you would never know it based on his body language and facial expression. Hope this all helps!!!
•    Anonymous said... Attending church & going to youth group functions is a tremendous blessing for my 15 yr. Old.
•    Anonymous said... Certified Classical Homeopath
•    Anonymous said... Find your state's autism society or advocacy organization and see if there are support/social groups for his age. If there aren't then start one! These nonprofit agencies offer wonderful support. I have found church and sports organizations that aren't affiliated with special needs groups specifically to be a mine field. You never know how accepting they can be but there are plenty of people out there in your position and you just need to connect with them! Also, look into letting him start community college. My son it only 10 but I have friends who have older Aspergers kids and they find their niche in community college where people tend to be more mature about accepting people into their groups. I live in Washington state and I came from Colorado where I had a wonderful resource outlet! If you are anywhere near me or would like some help finding some resources you can PM me! I don't mind helping anyone find support!
•    Anonymous said... get him some professional help asap - find a therapist who specializes in adolescents on the spectrum, or a social skills group. Homeopathy can work wonders; find a CCH and get him treated asap. Do not take this lightly.
•    Anonymous said... Good suggestions so far. I would also suggest encouraging more social interaction online. My husband is an Aspie who was not diagnosed until in his 30's but when he was a teenager he struggled immensely with in person interactions and relationships but was able to connect much easier online and this was back before the internet It may seem counterintuitive but for those with asperger's it can provide a place to belong, access to friends, and socialization in a way that is more comfortable for them which may help with the lonely depressed feeling. I also strongly agree with the suggestion to find him a therapist who works specifically with Aspies and look for a social skills group. Most importantly, remember that his way of interacting with the world may be different than yours and that there is nothing wrong with that. Make sure you are not trying to make him into the version of him you want for him - support him being who he is and what he needs to be happy. Hope that helps!
•    Anonymous said... I would agree with Tristan. My son is 5 and if he gets too much screen time (ie. computer,tv, even Leapster) his behavior is much worse. We are working online with a Biomedical Dr named Dr. Woeller. He has given us great advice on all natural supplements for balanced behavior!
•    Anonymous said... My 8 year old spends every available minute glued to a computer, or game console. We did not want to stop him from his one interest but were concerned that it was not healthy. He is now learning HTML programming so he can make his own web pages and hopefully he will go on to game programming later. We take him to all the conventions (comic con, Supa nova etc) as he loves to dress up as his fav game/anime characters and he even did Cosplay in front of a couple thousand people this year. I don't think taking the computer away is the answer. Sometimes they are ok but my son just gets angry, frustrated and depressed. Try engaging with them. We play games with my son online now. We play League of Legends with him and have our own mine craft server
•    Anonymous said... My aspie son helped his depression and anxiety with working out. Specifically LA Boxing workouts. Also list out his favorite non computer activities and find events related. For example my son liked yu gi oh cards so i started taking him to tournaments. Also when i limited computer time to weekends his depression and behavior improved. Best of luck. Address issues as early as you can.
•    Anonymous said... Really my son is exactly the same, as been put down to asperges and been a teenager, he asnt been certified anything
•    Anonymous said... similiar situation here too
•    Anonymous said... Sounds like my son
•    Anonymous said... This is an awesome article. It is helpful to hear someone put into words what you continue to observe but can't really understand. Thanks for posting.
•    Anonymous said... very helpful thank you.
•    Anonymous said... Depressed aspies need counseling. I've found that to be the best solution
•    Anonymous said... Hi my newly diagnosed daughter is 14 years old. She also plays "Sims" most of her free time for hrs. She has managed to keep one close friend from Primary School who she meets now & again. They play computer games all day when they meet up. I was just thinking whilst standing washing up a minute ago....the word isolation came in my mind. That's what I feel like as a caring parent so heaven knows how she feels. Just had an hr & half of calming her down after 2 and half hrs at her short stay medical school. She is staying there until age 16 as no other provision available at her age as starting GSCE's. She has been put on Prozac as her depression was getting so bad. It has helped lots. It enables her to socialise for about 3 hrs without meltdown or fatigue. I feel for you.....it is so hard. I am researching, reading all the time about Asperger's. My daughter has started blogging her experiences, passions etc. I hope for her to connect with othet teens with Aspergers over the internet to widen her friend base? Good luck with you son.
•    Anonymous said... I know it's not the answer for most people, or even possbile, but just over a year ago I began to home educate my daughter and the change is marked now she is not using all her 'spoons' to deal with copng with large numbers of people she can and does want to socilaize - on her own terms. she is more likely to chat on line with friends that she also meets up or has round now than play the same computer games or just watch her DVDs (and has had two major meltdowns in one year since I took her out of school), She didn't have any firends or want any and rejected fgirls that tried to befriend her while at school. Try to remember your teen is surrounded by too many noisy NTs all day and once removed from the situation will find and make friends on their own terms, so things will improve once they are older. I would also recommend 'Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers' by an Aspie teen Luke Jackson. And don't ever expect a teen with autism to ever socialize as much as NT one, they just won't want to, however many social skills workshops and classes they may have attended, their brain is just wired up differently. If they are unhappy with the situation a club or on line chat room around an interst will give then a shaed interest as a beginning to make friends.
•    Anonymous said... Like minded kids help as they're all into similar stuff like minecraft and strategy games or top trumps etc. My lad has 1 firm friend and that's enough. When I was younger I had a few friends -and that's all I wanted. The depression came from deep thought (usually depressing and confusing when you start to wonder how you were born without your own say-so ) or getting worn down with constant punishment for untidy/careless work, arguing with teachers as if you are their peer or forgetting homework/equipment (anything you think is unimportant to you rly) My own insights usually help me deal with my son apart from when I'm in the moment picking at details in an argument - Then I'm just as bad as he is ! I wonder if this rings true with anyone else.. if so maybe I should write my own book Hehe.
•    Anonymous said... Mine same but 17yr son. He only has one year of school. I'm trying to get every day filled with at least one outdoor activity. He only has a 3 day week @ school so the other days he has voluntary work for a few hours a day,
•    Anonymous said... my daughter does sims all day!!! Also depressed, nearly 13 now, very similar from what you write, we are going through tough times right now...
•    Anonymous said... My daughter is depressed.... No enthusiasm for living, for doing things or making contact with others; she must be very self critical whilst comparing herself to other girls of her age who seem to be living without a care... at times she stays in her bed playing on ipad.. just like the other Aspies. So sad to watch.   

•    Anonymous said... Do your research and find a social skill activity program. Have him volunteer. Limit the video time, offer comic books or graphic novels as an alternative.
•    Anonymous said... Find a HFA support group where he can connect with kids like him. My 8 year old has the same issue. If we let him he would play video games all day but we have him in sports. He is a diver. He still struggles with social aspects but he is learning! Get him out and sooner the better
•    Anonymous said... I have the exact same issue with my 16 year old son. He doesn't accept his diagnosis, never has, and there is no way he would let me take him to a social group of similar kids..ughh
•    Anonymous said... My almost 16yr old is/was exactly the same (except now works instead of school).. Went through months of deep depression , is only coming out of it now.. I think backing off too much pressure helped my son ALOT, he also did not want to join social groups/outings still doesn't. It breaks your heart as a mum to watch them sit in their room or on computer with no friends, but to be honest, he tells me he is happier doing that than being forced out being made to be sociable. I think they all eventually find their feet, grow into their own skin, however you want to put it.. But by me always showing I was there for him and as said previously, taking the pressure off him, he is beginning to show signs of being happy once again . If you ever need a chat, please message me, I completely understand your concern and heartbreak xx
•    Anonymous said... My son is thirteen, doesn't like sports and he also doesn't accept a label. It's a daily challenge coaxing him away from screens. In order to keep screen time, he is required to have a daily set amount of social time with the family. My son says has made many friendly connections through his video games.

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