Teens on the Autism Spectrum Who "Hate Life": Tips for Parents

"My 17 y.o. son with high functioning autism is an emotional mess. He hibernates in his room playing video games, refuses to eat with the family, seems very depressed, doesn't talk to us even when he is out of his bedroom, has no friends that we are aware of. We are worried that he may even be suicidal, as he has mentioned that he 'hates life'. Where do we go from here?"

Teens with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) and Asperger's (AS) often struggle through their teenage years. The years from 12 to 17 are often the saddest and most difficult time for these teens. 

Here are just a few of the challenges faced by these young people:

1. A teen with HFA or AS typically does not care about adolescent fads and clothing styles (concerns that obsess everyone else in their peer group). They may neglect their hygiene and wear the same haircut for years. Males forget to shave; females don't comb their hair or follow fashion.

2. These adolescents are often more immature than their peers and may be naive when it comes to puberty and sexuality. If they have not been taught about sex, they may pick up information from pornographic material. This can lead to inappropriate behavior and touching that could land them in trouble.

3. The disorder is characterized by poor social skills. These include a lack of eye contact during conversation and body language that conveys a lack of interest. The teen years revolve around social interaction and an adolescent on the autism spectrum may be ostracized and mocked by their class mates because of their lack of social skills.

4. Young people with HFA and AS 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. Males 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 adolescent on the autism spectrum 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.

5. Bullying is a big challenge in the lives of many teens with the disorder. Because of their unusual behavior, they tend to attract bullies and are less likely to report this than their peers. Moms and dads should watch out for physical signs that an adolescent is being bullied. These may include bruising and cuts. In some cases, the teen with HFA or AS may respond with violence and end up in trouble at school.

6. Depression may result from the social issues and bullying that adolescents on the spectrum commonly experience. They may feel worthless and in extreme cases, may consider suicide as an option.

7. Fashion is important to adolescents, and many of these young people have little dress sense. If they do not attempt to conform to their peers' standards, they will often be mocked and left out of social events.

8. In the teen world where everyone feels insecure, adolescents that appear different are voted off the island. Teens on the spectrum 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 teens with HFA and AS are too anxious to initiate social contact.

9. Many of these adolescents are stiff and rule-oriented and act like little adults, which is a deadly trait in any teen popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting for an HFA or AS teenager, even though she wants it more than anything else.

10. Many teens with the disorder 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 "special needs" student now has to face a series of classroom environments with different classmates, odors, distractions and noise levels, and sets of expectations.

11. Pain, loneliness and despair can lead to problems with drugs, sex and alcohol. In their overwhelming need to fit in and make friends, some teens on the spectrum fall into the wrong high school crowds. Adolescents who abuse substances will use the HFA or AS teen’s naivety to get him to buy or carry drugs and liquor for their group.

12. Some teens on the spectrum remain stuck in a grammar school clothes and hobbies instead of moving into adolescent concerns like dating. Males with the disorder often have no motor coordination. This leaves them out of high school sports, typically an essential area of male bonding and friendship.

13. Teens with an autism spectrum disorder, with their distractibility and difficulty organizing materials, face similar academic problems as students with ADD. A high school term paper or a science fair project becomes impossible to manage because no one has taught the teenager how to break it up into a series of small steps. Even though the academic stress on an HFA or AS adolescent can be overwhelming, school administrators may be reluctant to enroll him in special education at this late point in his educational career.

14. The teen years are more emotional for everyone. Yet the hormonal changes of adolescence coupled with the problems outlined above might mean that the adolescent becomes emotionally overwhelmed. Childish tantrums reappear. Males 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.
If moms and dads are aware of potential problems, they can help their teenager by providing solutions that will help him to cope. Many of these can be implemented in pre-adolescent years and will prepare the adolescent to manage better during their adolescent years.

Here are some suggestions:

• Adolescent fashion sense can be improved by taking the adolescent into a store for a makeover. Alternatively, look for a group of females at school that would be willing to teach the adolescent how to dress, groom themselves and mix and match clothing and accessories. Although people should not be judged by what they wear, it helps an adolescent to find acceptance if they have the right clothing and labels in their wardrobes.

• Specialized drama classes can help adolescents with HFA and AS to learn appropriate body language and understand how to listen, speak and act.

• Pets can become a valued companion to these adolescents. Dogs in particular are accepting and loving and are generally relaxed around people with the disorder. While it is important for adolescents to work on human relationships, a pet can be a source of comfort and love.

• Internet friends can be good so long as the situation is monitored by parents. Adolescents on the spectrum are often naive and vulnerable to inappropriate advances. Internet interaction, however, has a number of benefits if it is handled properly. The adolescent is not hampered by their body language and lack of eye contact when chatting online and they can build some strong friendships.

• Alternative friends groups can be of great benefit to these adolescents, and can often be arranged by their school. The basis of this idea is to assemble a group of like-minded adolescents who have a common interest such as computers, astronomy or electronics. These adolescents can function as a club or simply spend time together enjoying their hobby.

If your son shows the following symptoms, it's safe to say he is indeed depressed:
  • Eating or sleeping habits have changed
  • Grades have dropped, or is he finding it difficult to concentrate
  • Has been sad or irritable most of the day, most days in a week for at least two weeks
  • Has had thoughts of suicide
  • Has lost interest in things that he used to really enjoy
  • Has very little energy, very little motivation to do much of anything
  • Is feeling worthless, hopeless about the  future, or guilty about things that aren’t his fault

If this sounds like your son, it’s important you have him evaluated by a mental health professional.

Adolescent years can be trying for parents and teens. This is especially so when adolescents with an autism spectrum disorder are struggling with the extra issues that are part of their condition. While the disorder can't be cured, there are a number of effective ways to improve the life of an adolescent who is suffering at the hands of their peers.

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