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Helping Teens on the Autism Spectrum to Cope with the Loss of Normalcy

“I have a 16 y.o. teen with high functioning autism who seems to be down in the dumps a lot lately. He has stated he knows he is ‘different’ than his friends and classmates, and may be feeling a sense of shame about that (IDK?). How can I help him to not feel so alienated from his peer group?”

Regardless of the individual developmental route, most young people with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger’s (AS) start realizing that they are not quite like others at some point during their adolescence. Around that age, they have a higher level of interest in others, but don’t have the skills to connect in socially-accepted ways. Also, they’re at the age where they have a higher level of insight into their difficulties with social interaction.

Signs that your HFA or AS teen is feeling depressed about his dilemma include:
  • Withdrawing himself from the rest of the family
  • Refusing to participate in group activities
  • Putting himself down (e.g., saying he is ‘stupid’)
  • Not being able to fall asleep
  • Waking up in the middle of the night and having difficulty falling back to sleep
  • Making remarks such as he hates life, he hates you, nobody loves him, or wishing he was dead
  • Losing interest in activities he usually enjoys
  • Eating less or more than usual
  • Complaining that he is tired all the time and wanting to take naps during the day
  • Blaming himself unfairly for anything that goes wrong
  • Becoming irritable and angry with the drop of a hat so that parents start walking on egg shells
  • Appearing sad for most of the time

Once the HFA or AS teenager realizes that he has significant difficulties effectively engaging in social relationships as compared to his peers, he needs deal with this loss, just like dealing with any other loss. Understanding the thoughts, feelings and behavior of your son is the necessary first step in helping him and being there for him. Considering this coping process in a few stages may make your job easier:
  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Depression
  4. Acceptance
  5. Adaptation

Most commonly, the teen will not go through these stages one after another, but rather display a larger or smaller aspect of each at any given time. This is a painful process for not only the teen, but for parents as well. Moms and dads may find themselves compelled to forget the whole thing and act as if nothing is happening (we are all tempted to avoid pain – and denial is an excellent pain-killer).

The good news is, as much as the denial is contagious, seeing his parents dealing with the pain calmly and matter-of-factly will encourage the teen to talk about his anger and frustration. This will in turn help him get closer to acceptance and adaptation.

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

How parents can help:
  • You don’t have to bring up the fact that your teen feels alienated from the peer group, but when he does, give him a good listening ear and be patient.
  • When your teen starts to bemoan his circumstances, don’t try to change the subject (unless he does so).
  • Sometimes you have to be very political trying to sell an idea to any teenager. The mere fact that the idea is coming from you, his parent, may make him refuse it. Let the idea come from a family friend, teacher, or a neighbor he trusts. Give him time to think about it. He may come back to the suggestion when he feels he is ready.
  • Offer the option of counseling, because sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger; however, try not to push the idea directly, even if you feel that your teenager clearly needs professional help.
  • Most teenagers with HFA and AS excel in one or two subjects. They tend to accumulate a lot of information on the subject and love to talk about it over and over. Unfortunately, family members eventually end up losing interest and start getting bored with the same topic over and over again. Rather than avoiding the subject, try finding out new ways to engage your teen in the subject. Structure the topic in a different way. Find a way to challenge him. Be creative and let sky be the limit! Your interest will make him feel better about himself, and realizing his mastery on the subject will boost his self-esteem.
  • Help your HFA or AS teen to resolve his sense of loss by turning the issue upside down. In other words, rather than clinging to depression and despair, help him to find his identity in his disorder. Help him get in touch with other young people on the spectrum. Encourage him to educate his peers about the disorder at school. Your “special needs” teenager could also set up a web site, chat room, and even write a book about it. Encouraging your teen to focus on the strengths associated with the disorder, and providing him means to this end and removing the obstacles in front of him may turn out to be the best anti-depressant treatment ever. 
  • Don’t try to minimize his difficulties – but also don’t let him exaggerate, providing gentle “reality testing.”

All of this may seem remote and you may not know where to start. Consider the following tips:
  • Leave brochures, leaflets and other information about teen groups around to catch the attention of your teenager.
  • Invite your friends and acquaintances to your house and encourage them to bring their adolescents (e.g., for a pizza party and movie).
  • Get in touch with the organizations like the Autism Society of America or Asperger Syndrome Coalition of the U.S. and contact their local chapters.
  • Attend support groups for parents and make acquaintances.
  • If your attempts to reconcile this issue of alienation don’t work right away, don’t get discouraged and keep trying, always letting your teen make the first move in showing an interest in processing and resolving his challenges.

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

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