Parenting Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum: Double Trouble?

Most experts do a great job of presenting the problems children with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autistic (HFA) face during their adolescent years, yet they offer few solutions. The years from twelve to seventeen may be the saddest and most difficult time for these young people. 

This is not true of every adolescent on the autism spectrum, though. Some do extremely well. Their indifference to what others think makes them indifferent to the intense peer pressure of adolescence. They can flourish within their specialty, and become accomplished musicians, historians, mathematicians, etc.

"Special needs" adolescents typically become more isolated socially during a period when they crave friendships and inclusion more than ever. In the cruel world of middle and high school, AS and HFA teens often face rejection, isolation and bullying. Meanwhile, school becomes more demanding in a period when they have to compete for college placements. Issues of sexuality and a desire for independence from moms and dads create even more problems.

Common issues to consider include:

Criminal Activity— Pain, loneliness and despair can lead to problems with drugs, sex and alcohol. In their overwhelming need to fit in and make friends, some AS and HFA teens fall into the wrong high school crowds. Adolescents who abuse substances will use the AS or HFA teen’s naivety to get him to buy or carry drugs and liquor for their group. If cornered by a police officer, a teenager on the autism spectrum usually does not have the skill to answer the officer’s questions appropriately. For example, if the officer says, “Do you know how fast you were driving?” a teenager on the spectrum may reply bluntly, “Yes,” and thus appears to be a smart-aleck.

Depression and Acting Out— The teenage years are more emotional for everyone. Yet the hormonal changes of adolescence coupled with the problems outlined above might mean that an AS or HFA adolescent becomes emotionally overwhelmed. Childish tantrums reappear. Boys often act up by physically attacking a teacher or peer. They may experience “melt down” at home after another day filled with harassment, bullying, pressure to conform, and rejection. Suicide and drug addiction become real concerns, as the adolescent now has access to cars, drugs and alcohol. The “saddest and most difficult time” can overwhelm not only the AS or HFA adolescent, but also his family.

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

Inability to “Be an Adolescent”— An AS or HFA teen typically does not care about adolescent fads and clothing styles - concerns that obsess everyone else in their peer group. These teens may neglect their hygiene and wear the same haircut for years. Boys forget to shave; girls don't comb their hair or follow fashion. Some remain stuck in a grammar school clothes and hobbies such as unicorns and Legos, instead of moving into adolescent concerns like Facebook and dating. Boys on the autism spectrum often have no motor coordination. This leaves them out of high school sports, typically an essential area of male bonding and friendship.

School Failures— Many AS and HFA teens with their average to above average IQs can sail through grammar school, and yet hit academic problems in middle and high school. They now have to deal with four to six teachers, instead of just one. The likelihood that at least one teacher will be indifferent or even hostile toward making special accommodations is certain. The AS or HFA student now has to face a series of classroom environments with different classmates, odors, distractions and noise levels, and sets of expectations. AS and HFA teens with their distractibility and difficulty organizing materials face similar academic problems as students with Attention Deficit Disorder. A high school term paper or a science fair project becomes impossible to manage because no one has taught the AS or HFA teen how to break it up into a series of small steps. Even though the academic stress on the adolescent can be overwhelming, school administrators may be reluctant to enroll him in special education at this late point in his educational career.

Sexual Issues— Adolescents on the spectrum are not privy to street knowledge of sex and dating behaviors that other adolescents pick up naturally. This leaves them naive and clueless about sex. Boys can become obsessed with Internet pornography and masturbation. They can be overly forward with a girl who is merely being kind, and then later face charges of stalking her. An AS or HFA adolescent may have a fully developed female body and no understanding of flirtation and non-verbal sexual cues, making her susceptible to harassment and even date rape.

Social Isolation— In the teenage world where everyone feels insecure, adolescents that appear different are voted off the island. AS and HFA teens often have odd mannerisms. One adolescent talks in a loud un-modulated voice, avoids eye contact, interrupts others, violates their physical space, and steers the conversation to her favorite odd topic. Another appears willful, selfish and aloof, mostly because he is unable to share his thoughts and feelings with others. Isolated and alone, many are 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 teenage popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting for an AS or HFA teenager, even though she wants it more than anything else. One girl ended a close friendship with this note: “Your expectations exhaust me. The phone calls, the girl talks, all your's just too much for me. I can't take it anymore.”

How Moms and Dads Can Help Adolescents with Asperger’s and High Functioning Autism—

Moms and dads of adolescents on the autism spectrum face many problems that others moms and dads do not. Time is running out for teaching their “special needs” teenager how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, “There's so little time, and so much left to do.” They face issues such as vocational training, teaching independent living, and providing lifetime financial support for their child, if necessary.

Meanwhile, their immature teen is often indifferent or even hostile to these concerns. Once an AS or HFA child enters the teen years, his mom and dad have to use reasoning and negotiation, instead of providing direction. Like all teenagers, he is harder to control and less likely to listen to his moms and dads. He may be tired of parents nagging him to look people in their 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.

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers & High-Functioning Autistic Teens

Here are some ways that moms and dads of adolescents with AS and HFA deal with common issues:

Appearance— Because of their sensitivity to textures, AS and HFA teens 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 help you choose clothes that will enable your child to blend in with other adolescents. Insist that your adolescent practices good hygiene every day.

Driving— Most AS 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, they may have trouble dealing with unexpected situations on the road. Have your child carry a cell phone and give him a printed card that explains AS and HFA. Teach him to give the card to a police officer and phone you in a crisis.

Drugs and Alcohol— Alcoholic drinks or drugs often react adversely with your child’s prescriptions, so you have to teach your child about these dangers. Since most AS and HFA teens are very rule-oriented, try emphasizing that drugs and alcohol are illegal.

Life after High School— If your adolescent is college-bound, you have to prepare her for the experience. You can plan a trip to the campus, and show her where to buy books, where the health services are, and so forth. Teach her how to handle everyday problems such as “Where do you buy deodorant?” “What if you oversleep and miss a class?” As you prepare your adolescent for the workforce, keep in mind that people with AS and HFA 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, these young people are often able to work at high levels as accountants, research scientists, computer programmers, and so forth.

School— If the pressure on your child to conform is too great, if she faces constant harassment and rejection, if your principal and teaching staff do not cooperate with you, it may be time to find another school. The adolescent years are often when many moms and dads decide it is in their child’s best interest to enter special education or a therapeutic boarding school. In a boarding school, professionals guide your child academically and socially on a twenty-four-hour basis. They do not allow boys to isolate themselves with video games - everyone has to participate in social activities. A 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 child should have an Individual Education Plan 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 college board examinations. Teach your child to find a “safe place” at school where he can share emotions with a trusted professional. The safe place may be the offices of school nurse, guidance counselor, or psychologist.

Sex— You absolutely have to teach your “special needs” 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 child to tell you about inappropriate touching by others. Your child 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.

Social Life— When she was little, you could arrange play dates for her. Now you have to teach her how to initiate contact with others. Teach her how to leave phone messages and arrange details of social contacts such as transportation. Encourage her to join high school clubs like chess or drama. It is not necessary to tell her peers that she has a disorder - let her do that herself. Many adolescents on the autism spectrum are enjoying each other's company through Internet chat rooms, forums and message boards.

Summer and Part-Time Jobs— Most of these jobs - 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 the disorder. Some AS and HFA teens 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.

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