How Parents Can Help Their Aspergers and HFA Teenagers: 25 Crucial Tips

Bottom line: Mothers and fathers of adolescents with Aspergers and high-functioning autism (HFA) face many problems that other parents don’t – and never will ...period!

Time is running out for teaching their Aspergers or HFA teen how to become an independent grown-up. As one mom stated, "There's so little time, and so much left to do." Parents with teens on the autism spectrum are getting ready to face issues like vocational training, teaching adult social skills and independent living, and providing lifetime financial support for their youngster (if needed). In the meantime, their childlike (and sometimes childish) teen is often indifferent – and even hostile – to the parent’s concerns for the future.

Once an Aspergers or HFA teen enters the teenage years, his mother/father has to use reasoning and negotiation, instead of providing direction. Like all teens, the teen on the spectrum is harder to control and less likely to listen to his parents. He may be tired of mom nagging him to “look people in the eyes,” brush his teeth, and wake up in time for school. He may hate school because he is dealing with social ostracism or academic failure there. So what is a parent to do? Can it get any more difficult for crying out loud!?

O.K. Take a deep breath and relax for a moment. Here are some ways that parents with Aspergers and HFA adolescents can deal effectively with some common, everyday issues:

1. Alcoholic drinks or drugs often react adversely with your youngster's prescriptions, so you have to teach your youngster about these dangers. Since most teens o the spectrum are very rule-oriented, try emphasizing that drugs and alcohol are illegal.

2. As you prepare your adolescent for the workforce, keep in mind that people with Aspergers and HA often do not understand office politics. They have problems with the basics, such as handling criticism, controlling emotions, showing up on time, and working with the public. This does not mean they cannot hold down a job. Once they master certain aspects of employment, Aspergers and HFA teens are often able to work at high levels as accountants, research scientists, computer programmers, and so forth.

3. Because of their sensitivity to textures, teens on the spectrum 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 yours, and then enlist that person to help you choose clothes that will enable your youngster to blend in with other adolescents. Insist that your adolescent practice good hygiene every day.

4. Celebrate your teen’s humor, creativity, and passion.

5. Do you want to understand the Aspergers or HFA teen`s actions? Just ask yourself: What behavior would make sense if you only had 10 seconds to live?

6. Don’t argue or nag. Instead, either (a) decide that the issue is aggravating but not significant enough to warrant intervention, or (b) make an appointment with your teen to discuss the issue.

7. Forgive your teen and yourself nightly. You didn’t ask to live with the effects of the disorder any more your teen did.

8. If it is working, keep doing it. If not, do something else.

9. If the pressure on your youngster to conform is too great, if he faces constant harassment and rejection, and if your principal and teaching staff do not cooperate with you, then it may be time to find another school. The teenage years are often when many moms and dads decide it is in their youngster’s best interest to enter a special education setting. If you decide to work within a public school system, you may have to hire a lawyer to get needed services. Your youngster should have an Individual Education Plan (IEP) and accommodations for the learning disabled. This may mean placement in small classes, tutors, and special arrangements for gym and lunchtime. He should receive extra time for tests and examinations. Teach your youngster to find a "safe place" at school where he can share emotions with a trusted staff member. The safe place may be the school nurse, guidance counselor, or psychologist.

10. If your adolescent is college-bound, you have to prepare him for the experience. You can plan a trip to the campus, and show him where to buy books, where the health services are, and so forth. Teach him how to handle everyday problems such as "Where do you buy deodorant?" and "What if you oversleep and miss a class?" 

11. Instead of punishing wrong behavior, set a reward for the correct behavior you would rather replace it with. Rewards should be immediate, frequent, powerful, clearly defined, and consistent.

12. Keep a sense of humor!!!

13. Know that teens on the spectrum are emotionally younger than their chronological age. So if your 15-year-old is still acting like a 10-year-old, things are going as expected.

14. Know that teenagers with the disorder have only 2 “time frames”: (a) Now and (b) Now. There is no future. There is only now. The past is non-negotiable.

15. Most Aspergers and HFA teens can learn to drive, but their process may take longer because of their poor motor coordination. Once they learn a set of rules, they are likely to follow them to the letter – a trait that helps in driving. However, these teens may have trouble dealing with unexpected situations on the road. Have your youngster carry a cell phone and give him a printed card that explains the disorder. Teach him to give the card to a police officer and phone you in a crisis.

16. Most summer and part-time jobs (e.g., movie usher, fast food worker, store clerk, etc.) involve interaction with the public. This means they are not always a good fit for an adolescent with Aspergers or HFA. Some teens on the spectrum can find work in their field of special interest, or in jobs that have little interpersonal interaction. Other adolescents have spent joyful summers at camps designed for adolescents like them.

17. Negotiate, negotiate, and negotiate. Moms and dads need to model negotiation, not inflexibility. Don’t worry about losing control. The mother and/or father always gets to decide when negotiation is over and which compromise is accepted.

18. Pick your fights carefully. Is the issue at hand worth chipping away at your relationship with your teen? Can your teen really control the offending behavior at this moment?

19. Plan ahead. Give warnings before transitions. Discuss in advance what is expected, and what the results might be. Have the teen repeat out loud the terms he just agreed to.

20. The teenage years are tough enough for every adolescent – but throw Aspergers or HFA in the mix, and you got a real challenge!

21. When your teenager was little, you could arrange play dates for him. Now you have to teach him how to initiate contact with others. Teach him how to leave phone messages and arrange details of social contacts such as transportation. Encourage him to join high school clubs like chess or drama. It is not necessary to tell his peers that he has a disorder – let him do that himself. Many adolescents with Aspergers and HFA are enjoying each other's company through Internet chat rooms, forums and message boards.

22. When tempers flare, allow everyone to cool off. Problem solving can only occur during times of composure. 

23. You absolutely have to teach your adolescent about sex. You will not be able to "talk around" the issue. You will have to be specific and detailed about safe sex, and teach your youngster to tell you about inappropriate touching by others. Your youngster may need remedial "sex education". For example, a girl needs to understand she is too old to sit on laps or give hugs to strangers. A boy might have to learn to close toilet stall doors (and masturbate only in private).

24. You do not have a standard teen. You can view the issue as a disability, or you can view it as wonderful uniqueness – or you can view it as both! The "disability” viewpoint will help because it eliminates blame, sets reasonable expectations thereby minimizing anger, and points the way for moms and dads and educators to see themselves as "therapists" – not victims. The “wonderful uniqueness” viewpoint will help because you really are in for a special – and often quite enjoyable – experience as a parent of a child on the autism spectrum.

25. You will make it through this – you have no choice. Always keep the following ideas in the back of your mind:
  • a teen with Aspergers or HFA is still a child with thoughts and feelings – you are the adult this youngster looks to for support and guidance
  • negative behaviors usually occur because the teen is spinning out of control, not because he is evil
  • the client in “Aspergers” is the whole family
  • the teenager who needs love and understanding the most will always ask for it in the most unloving ways
  • this is hard work – and it is also hard work for your teen

Resist your impulse to strive and struggle to CHANGE your teenager …don’t strain to get desired results. Instead, enjoy the process of the work you are doing in raising him or her. The results you so desperately desire will come independently of your striving for them. Why? Because (a) you are doing a great job of parenting in spite of your opinion about your “parenting-skills” and (b) teens on the spectrum are late-bloomers. They “get it” eventually.

Take heart. Good luck. And don’t forget to take care of yourself!!!
More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:    

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