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Coping with Divorce: Help for Kids on the Autism Spectrum

"Any tips for helping my son with high functioning autism to cope with my recent divorce. He's taking this really hard to say the least."

For all kids, divorce is often stressful, sad, and confusing. But for children with Asperger’s (AS) and High Functioning Autism (HFA), divorce is especially problematic due to their difficulty with transitions and dislike for routine changes. Unfortunately, divorce may be the most disruptive event in a "special needs" child’s life.

Research on divorce shows the following:
  • stresses resulting from the life changes surrounding the divorce make kids more vulnerable to physical and emotional illnesses, especially when moms and dads continue to fight over custody issues
  • kids of divorced parents are more likely to have health problems, to participate in more risky and antisocial behavior, and to be at higher than average risk of school failure than are young people from two-parent, non-divorced families
  • kids of divorced couples are more likely to live in families experiencing poverty or difficult financial circumstances after the divorce

Studies are showing that there is more confusion and disruption during a divorce – and the effects can last much longer – than previously thought. Some research suggests that AS and HFA kids of divorced parents have more difficulty establishing mature emotional relationships when they become grown-ups.

Parents usually feel uncertain about how to give their “special needs” kids the right support through a divorce or separation. It may be uncharted territory, but you can successfully navigate this unsettling time – and help your child emerge from it feeling loved, confident, and strong. It is very possible to make the divorce process and its effects less painful.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Helping your youngster cope with divorce means providing stability in your home and attending to his or her needs with a reassuring, positive attitude. It won't be a seamless process, but the tips below will help:

1. Acknowledge your kids’ feelings. You may not be able to fix their problems or change their sadness to happiness, but it is important for you to acknowledge their feelings rather than dismissing them. Also, inspire trust by showing that you understand.

2. Although strong feelings can be tough on children, some reactions can be considered normal. Sadness about the family’s new situation is normal, and sadness coupled with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness is likely to become a mild form of depression. It’s natural for kids to feel anxious when faced with big changes in their lives. Your children may express their anger, rage, and resentment toward you and your ex-spouse for destroying their sense of normalcy.

3. Be age-aware. In general, younger kids need fewer details about a divorce and will do better with a simple explanation, while older children may need more information.

4. Kids have a remarkable ability to heal when given the support and love they need. Your words, actions, and ability to remain consistent are all important tools to reassure your kids of your unchanging love.

5.  Conflict between moms and dads (separated or not) can be very damaging for children. It’s crucial to avoid putting your kids in the middle of your fights, or making them feel like they have to choose between parents.

6. Choose to focus on the strengths of all family members, and encourage your kids to do the same.

7. By providing structure and routine that your AS or HFA child can rely on, you remind her that she can count on you for stability, structure, and care.

8. Be polite in your interactions with your ex-spouse. This not only sets a good example for your children, but can also influence your ex to be gracious in response.

9. Be patient. AS and HFA children struggling with divorce may seem to “get it” one day – but be unsure the next. Treat your youngster’s confusion or misunderstandings with patience.

10. For all children, divorce can feel like loss (e.g., loss of a parent, loss of the life they know, etc.). You can help your AS or HFA child grieve and adjust to new circumstances by creating social stories around “dealing with change.”

11. Especially at the beginning of your separation or divorce, you may need to pick and choose how much to tell your kids. Think carefully about how certain information will affect them.

12. Help your children find words for their anger and sadness. It’s normal for AS and HFA kids to have difficulty expressing their emotions. You can help them by noticing their moods and encouraging them to talk.

13. Let your children know that, even though the physical circumstances of the family unit will change, they can continue to have healthy, loving relationships with both mom and dad.

14. Let them be honest. Some AS and HFA kids might be reluctant to share their true feelings for fear of hurting you. Let them know that whatever they say is okay. If they aren’t able to share their honest feelings, they will have a harder time working through them.

15. Don’t be critical of your ex-spouse. This can be especially difficult when there have been hurtful events (e.g., infidelity), but with a little diplomacy, you can avoid playing the “blame game.”

16. If you often find yourself locked in battle with your ex over the details of parenting, try to step back and remember the bigger purpose at hand – raising a happy, healthy child.

17. If you can keep the long-term goals in mind (e.g., your kid’s physical and mental health, education, etc.), you may be able to avoid disagreements with your ex about daily details. Think ahead in order to stay calm.

18. If things get worse rather than better after a few months, it may be a sign that your youngster is stuck in depression, anxiety, or anger and could use some additional support. Watch for warning signs of divorce-related depression or anxiety (e.g., frequent angry or violent outbursts, poor concentration, refusal to participate in favorite activities, self-injury, eating disorders, sleep problems, trouble at school, withdrawal from loved ones, etc.).

19. However simple it may sound, letting your kids know that your love for them hasn’t changed is a powerful message. Tell them you’ll still be caring for them in every way just as before, from fixing their breakfast to helping with homework. 

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

20. Maintaining a “working relationship” with your ex can help your children avoid the stress that comes with watching their mom and dad in conflict. Such a transitional time can’t be without some measure of hardship, but you can powerfully reduce your kids’ pain by making their well-being your top priority.

21. Many children believe that they had something to do with the divorce, recalling times they argued with their mom or dad, received poor grades, or got in trouble. You can help your children let go of this misconception.

22. Never argue in front of your kids, whether it’s in person or over the phone. Ask your ex to talk another time, or drop the conversation altogether.

23. Resist the temptation to spoil your children during a divorce by not enforcing limits or by allowing them to break rules without consequences.

24. Physical closeness (e.g., kisses, hugs, pats on the back, etc.) has a powerful way of reassuring your youngster of your love.

25. Share logistical information. Tell your children about changes in their living arrangements, school activities, etc., but don’t overwhelm them with too many details.

26. Refrain from talking with your kids about details of their other parent’s “bad” behavior. It’s the oldest rule in the book: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

27. Preempt your kids’ questions about changes in their lives by acknowledging that some things will be different now, and other things won’t. Let them know that together you can deal with each detail as you go. Let them know that things won’t always be easy, but that they will work out. Knowing it’ll be all right can provide incentive for your children to give a new situation a chance.

28. The benefit of schedules and organization for AS and HFA kids is widely recognized. These children feel safer and more secure when they know what to expect next. For example, knowing that even when they switch homes, dinnertime is followed by a bath and then homework can set a youngster’s mind at ease. Maintaining a set schedule also means continuing to observe rules, rewards and discipline.

29. When it comes to telling your children about your divorce, many moms and dads freeze up. Make the conversation a little easier on both yourself and your kids by preparing significantly before you sit down to talk. If you can anticipate tough questions, deal with your own anxieties ahead of time, and plan carefully what you’ll be telling them, you will be better equipped to help your kids handle the news.

30. While it’s good for AS and HFA children to learn to be flexible, adjusting to many new things at once can be very difficult. Help your children adjust to change by providing as much stability as possible in their daily lives. Remember that establishing continuity doesn’t mean that you have to be excessively rigid, but creating some regular routines at both households and consistently communicating to your kids what to expect will provide them with a sense of calm and stability.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> 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

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Mood Disorders in Children with High-Functioning Autism

Mood disorders are mental health problems (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder, dysthymic disorder, anxiety disorder) that can occur in anyone, including young kids and teenagers. The cause of mood disorders is not fully understood, but an imbalance in brain chemicals play a role.

It is normal for a child’s mood to change, and most kids go through times of feeling sad. However, when these feelings last for a very long time or interfere with daily functioning, he or she may have a mood disorder.

Symptoms of mood disorders include:
  • an elevated mood (i.e., mania) that is accompanied by feelings of grandiosity, extreme energy, and heightened arousal
  • changes in appetite
  • difficulty concentrating
  • fatigue
  • feelings of inadequacy 
  • feelings of sadness
  • guilt
  • helplessness
  • hopelessness
  • irritability
  • suicidal thoughts
  • trouble engaging in daily tasks
  • trouble in relationships

When considering the diagnostic criteria for Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) – and the effects of the disorder on a child's adaptive functioning in a social context – we can expect such children to be vulnerable to the development of secondary mood disorders. Research suggests that about 65% of adolescents with AS and HFA have a mood disorder that includes depression and anxiety. There is also evidence to suggest an association with conduct disorders, delusional disorders, and paranoia. It appears that comorbid mood disorders in adolescents with AS and HFA are the rule rather than the exception. Thus, a good question to ask is: “Why is this population more prone to mood disorders”?

Research has been conducted on the family histories of young people with Autism, AS, and HFA and has identified a higher than expected incidence of mood disorders. Children with AS and HFA may be vulnerable to a genetic predisposition to mood disorders. However, when we consider their difficulties with regard to empathy, profile of cognitive skills, sensory perception, social reasoning, and verbal communication, they are clearly prone to considerable stress as a result of their attempts at social inclusion. Chronic levels of stress can contribute to a mood disorder. Therefore, there may be circumstantial factors that explain the higher incidence of mood disorders in this population.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's
Theoretic models of Autism developed within cognitive psychology and research in neuropsychology also provide some explanation as to why these children and teens are prone to secondary mood disorders. The extensive research on “Theory of Mind” skills confirms that young people with AS and HFA have considerable difficulty identifying and conceptualizing the thoughts and feelings of others – and themselves. The interpersonal and inner world of emotions seems to be uncharted territory for these kids.

Research on executive function in individuals with AS and HFA suggests characteristics of being disinhibited and impulsive, with a relative lack of insight that affects general functioning. Impaired executive function also can affect the cognitive control of emotions. Among young people on the autism spectrum, clinical experience suggests that there is a tendency to react to emotional cues without cognitive reflection. Research on individuals with Autism using new neuroimaging technology also has identified structural and functional abnormalities of the amygdala, which is known to regulate a range of emotions (e.g., anger, fear, sadness, etc.). Therefore, we also have neuroanatomic evidence that suggests there will be problems with the perception and regulation of the emotions.

Treatment for mood disorders depends on the evaluation of a professional. Behavioral therapy, cognitive therapy, lifestyle modification, and medication may all be used. It is crucial to get early treatment for a mood disorder to reduce the severity of symptoms and manage any complications.

Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is the primary treatment for mood disorders. CBT has been designed and refined over several decades and has proven to be effective in changing the way an individual thinks about and responds to uncomfortable emotions (e.g., anxiety, sadness, anger, etc.)  This therapy focuses on aspects of cognitive deficiency in terms of the maturity, complexity, and efficacy of thinking, and cognitive distortion in terms of dysfunctional thinking and incorrect assumptions. Therefore, it has direct applicability to young people on the autism spectrum who are known to have deficits and distortions in thinking.

CBT has several components:
  • an assessment of the nature and degree of mood disorder using self-report scales and a clinical interview
  • mood education with discussion and exercises on the connection between cognition, affect and behavior, and the way in which people conceptualize emotions and construe various situations
  • cognitive restructuring (cognitive restructuring corrects distorted conceptualizations and dysfunctional beliefs; the child or teen is encouraged to establish and examine the evidence for – or against – his thoughts and build a new perception of specific events)
  • stress management (stress management and cue-controlled relaxation programs are used to promote responses incompatible with anxiety or anger)
  • self-reflection (self-reflection activities help the child recognize her internal state, monitor and reflect on her thoughts, and construct a new self-image)
  • a schedule of activities to practice new cognitive skills (a graded schedule of activities is developed to allow the child to practice new abilities that are monitored by the clinician)

The neurology of AS and HFA makes life more demanding. Young people with the disorder are often disconnected from what they themselves feel, leaving them ill-equipped to make sense of their daily experiences. In addition, the nature of their social and communication deficits creates its own challenges. These kids are often deprived of the social rewards, support, and validation that “typical” kids know and take for granted – leading to even greater frustration. Many AS and HFA kids know constant criticism and rejection, which can result in a harsh self-judgment that they are failing others.

Here a few tips for parents of AS and HFA children with mood disorders:

1. All children have bad moods sometimes. That’s nothing to be worried about. However, a mood disorder deals with problematic behavior caused by chemical imbalances in the brain. Many moms and dads are in denial that their AS or HFA youngster may have a mood disorder. They don’t want anything to be “wrong” with their youngster, so they chalk up bad behavior to an artistic temperament. A Surgeon General’s report found that 75-80% of kids in need of mental health services don’t get it because of the stigma. So, make sure “denial” is not a factor in your case.

2. An AS or HFA youngster’s dark mood, negative words, and problematic behaviors can be frightening to parents. But, the reality is what it is. Living with AS or HFA is stressful and can invite feelings of despair, hopelessness, and self-disregard. Don’t let your fear keep you at bay or leave your youngster alone with her suffering. Do not shy away from the outside world, isolating yourself as your youngster isolates herself. If her mood concerns you, seek professional help (e.g., counseling, assessment, medication, etc.).

3. AS and HFA kids crave the steady, quiet, self-regulated, unthreatening control of their computer, books, bedroom, etc. They deserve a place of respite that they can count on. Don’t ignore your youngster’s true need for “down time,” maybe even preemptively suggesting at times that she run off to her preferred retreat.

4. Be careful not to take words or behaviors that you don’t understand as being empty and meaningless. Try to discover what your youngster is attempting to convey or express. This teaches her the inherent value of communication and empowers her being an agent in being understood by others. The more clearly and directly your youngster can share what she feels, the less in the dark you will be, and the more information you will have to guide your interventions and actions.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

5. Don’t cling to traditional parenting strategies. Traditional techniques will tell you that when your youngster misbehaves, the consequence should be immediate. That’s good advice for “typical” kids. But for an AS or HFA child with a mood disorder – it is bad advice. If a youngster with a mood disorder is acting-out, that may mean he is experiencing a meltdown rather than a temper tantrum (two distinctly different behaviors). And if parents try to impose disciplinary action at that point, it only escalates the meltdown. Therefore, delay the consequences, and don’t engage in the fight. When it’s calm, sit down with your youngster and explain the repercussions of his behavior.

6. Kids with AS and HFA tend to worry a lot. Try not to criticize or show your own frustration over this excessive worrying. Don’t try to rationalize away your youngster’s worry. Invite his expressions of hurt and worry with open arms. This will show him how good and comforting human connection can feel, and how it can alleviate an anxious or depressed mood.

7. Nothing truly comforts an AS or HFA youngster more than being in the presence of parents who feel genuinely at ease, especially when in the presence of his distress. If what you are doing is stressing your youngster excessively, try to back off and speak more quietly, more slowly – or not at all. You can’t shield your youngster from all the stresses of life, but you can be a calming influence from a world that moves too fast and too insensitively.

8. Parents of an AS or HFA youngster with a mood disorder must endure incredible stress – stress that affects the family, the marriage, and siblings. They’re constantly living in an unpredictable atmosphere and walking on eggshells, since they never know what may to set their youngster off. And, there are so many unanswered questions (e.g., Am I doing the right thing? Will my child be able to function as an adult? Will she hurt herself? Will she live a full life? …and so on). Furthermore, emotions like anxiety, despair, fear, hopelessness, and second-guessing yourself are all very common – especially when it seems like everyone around you is judging your parenting skills. Thus, it’s important for moms and dads to talk to a professional who is compassionate and non-judgmental and who provides a safe place to talk honestly and openly. Don’t be too proud to seek counseling for yourself!

9. Raising a youngster with AS or HFA is a lifelong endeavor. Helping him deal with depression and anxiety is a process that can proceed in a positive direction. Stay connected in whatever way you and he can muster and bear. Every molecule of connection parents establish with their youngster helps to protect him from anxiety, depression, self-hatred, despair, and the toxicity of isolation.

10. Lastly, watch for frustration and irritability that can’t be alleviated, that rises fast and frequent. A youngster’s losing interest in – or going deeper into – an obsession can signal depression and/or anxiety. Notice self-derogatory remarks and self-injury. Anxiety can intensify tics and body tension, or cause behaviors to grow more driven and rigid. When these signs reveal themselves, it’s time to reach out to a professional for assistance.

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

Aspergers and Lack of Empathy

Aspergers is an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and is now referred to as "high-functioning autism" in the U.S. It is distinguished by a pattern of symptoms rather than a single symptom, and is characterized by (a) qualitative impairment in social interaction, (b) stereotyped and restricted patterns of behavior, activities and interests, and (c) no clinically significant delay in cognitive development or general delay in language. Intense preoccupation with a narrow subject, one-sided verbosity, restricted prosody, and physical clumsiness are typical of the condition, but are not required for diagnosis.

The lack of demonstrated empathy is possibly the most dysfunctional aspect of Aspergers. People with Aspergers experience difficulties in basic elements of social interaction, which may include a failure to develop friendships or to seek shared enjoyments or achievements with others, a lack of social or emotional reciprocity, and impaired nonverbal behaviors in areas such as eye contact, facial expression, posture, and gesture.

A mother of an Aspergers child tells her story of a son who seemed to lack empathy:

“The realization that my child was lacking the feeling of empathy gradually came to me when he was between the ages of 2 and 4. I had a vague idea someplace in the back of my mind that a part of my child's difficulties with coping in the world around him had something to do with the reality that he did not seem to really feel his emotions apart from experiencing anger and sadness. Even if I said that he was happy, he could not agree with me proclaiming that just because he was poking fun at something did not mean that he was happy. 

As a young child, he totally couldn't cope with his 8 month old sibling crying whenever he fell down, bumped his head or pinched a finger. My child asked the most perplexing questions like "why is that baby shouting?" …"why is he doing that?" …and, my personal favorite …"can't we take that loud baby back to the store and get a new one?" I patiently spelled out many times that after an infant injures himself, he or she whines until the discomfort stops but my child continued to be convinced that this infant made that racket simply to irritate him.

When my child was 4, it started to be clear to me that he was not able to empathize. I had come down with an especially awful flu virus and passed out on the family room floor in the center of a game that I was playing with the children. When I came to, my younger child was patting my cheek and saying "Mommy, what's wrong?", while my older child had a meltdown because I had stopped playing! Actually, after my hubby raced me to the hospital, children in tow, my Aspergers child continued to be upset with me for interrupting "his" game. 

Soon after that, I had a summary of feelings stuck on the refrigerator in big letters and spent part of everyday hoping to get him to comprehend his emotions and the emotions of other people. He came to hate the "face game" when I put a collection of catalogues in front of him and asked him to cut out all of the faces that matched up the list of feelings. Since I did not know back then that he had Aspergers, I'm not completely sure I approached this issue in the best way. 

As he grew older and began school, we experimented with numerous discussions around the issue of emotions, how they may control us, or we can control them. We talked about how to be warm and friendly to other children, how they would feel if he treated them all like insects, and how to recognize his own emotions. Honestly, I don't know that we really succeeded in this area. I believe he has learned not to say what he truly believes in certain circumstances due to parental disapproval. It is really an issue that we will most likely focus on for a long time.”

Aspergers individuals have difficult reading body language (i.e., non-verbal communication). This reduced ability to read body language means less displays of empathy; however, in this case, "empathy" is used in the sense of mimicry of emotions.

There is a natural tendency of people to mimic others in their behavior. So if one person laughs, it is more likely that other people within earshot will laugh too. The same occurs with sadness. Empathy comes to play because sadness is not just tears but an entire set of circumstances.

So what happens is that the Aspergers individual is seen as responding inappropriately to other’s emotions. That's because he/she is not connecting through body language. So in a very real sense, the person with Aspergers is less empathetic. One would not expect an Aspie to respond to body language just as you would not expect a deaf person to respond to your voice.

Does this mean that people with Aspergers have no feelings? No. In the commonly understood sense, Aspies have feelings like anyone else. If you don't know about an event, you have no feelings about it. So to use a rather strange example here, you would have no worries about running over an invisible man. There are people and events we know about only by reading about them or by hearing the stories. Just like people without Aspergers, Aspies have empathy with people they read about.

Many people with Aspergers have the ability to feel empathy (some more so than others, some maybe not so much). Aspergers is not the same for each and every person who has it. However, the blanket statement that people with Aspergers lack empathy is not all that accurate. It is a statement without explanation –a statement, black-and-white as it is, that doesn’t take into account each person’s individuality, and the reality that others can feel more than you can know. This is especially true when much that can be felt by those with Aspergers is not met with the same need for expression as it is for those without Aspergers.

A groundbreaking study suggests people with Aspergers do not lack empathy – rather, they feel other’s emotions too intensely to cope. Thus, the “lack of empathy issue” may have more to do with “sensitivity to stimuli” than an inability to put oneself in someone else’s shoes.

More resources for parents of children and teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism:

Bereavement Problems in Children on the Autism Spectrum

"We lost my father-in-law 2 years ago due to a virus. My 12-year-old son with autism [high functioning] was totally devastated. It is not helped by the fact that, before the schools closed, he was spending the time before school and after school at his Grandma’s house and is reminded of Granddad’s absence by his empty chair. Due to the fact that I have to work full time, my sons have spent much of their time from Monday to Friday with their grandparents, so it is like their second home - they even have their own bedrooms there! I am finding it very difficult to help him come to terms with Granddad’s death. He is OK most of the time, but will then fall into a black mood and will overreact to the slightest incident and go into a meltdown. Do you have any advice on what I can do to help him?"

As you know, High-Functioning Autism (Asperger's) is a neurobiological disorder. Kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulties with transitions, social interaction, and responses to social situations. With regard to the emotional aspects of death and grief, your son may react, as you have seen, by getting upset or angry. These reactions occur because he doesn’t fully understand what has happened and why it happened, and due to his ASD, doesn’t know how to ask for help in handling the death of his grandfather. Many people without the disorder react to a death with anger and despair, too.

Many kids with ASD feel that if a beloved relative dies, a “rule” has been broken (i.e., good people should not die), and they feel very hurt. So, when it happens, the child feels betrayed. This can lead to anger and outbursts. In addition, any unexpected event is particularly difficult. You son finds it hard to grieve and doesn’t know how to handle his feelings of despair and sadness. He may not be able to express his grief through tears or talking.

Even if your son can’t ask for help, it is definitely called for in this situation. Patience, understanding, and support on your part are required. Be sensitive to his need to talk if he exhibits one, and don’t put up barriers to it, such as telling him he’s too young to understand what happened. If he doesn’t show a need to discuss the death, you should open a discussion anyway. It may be wise to ask a counselor or psychologist to talk with him, too.

Kids and teens with ASD have average or higher levels of intelligence and will appreciate honest, simple explanations about death and grief. Explain that birth is the beginning of life, and death is the end of life, and that when someone dies, we feel bad because we loved the person, didn’t want him to die, and we will miss him. Don’t tell him his grandfather “went to sleep,” “went away,” “got sick,” that only old people die, or that the death was “God’s will.” All of these are open to misinterpretations, such as “If I go to sleep when I’m sick, will I die?” Or, “Will God make me die?” At his age, your son is able to understand that death is irreversible and that he will die eventually, but he needs reassurance that he will most likely live a long time.

Some questions your son asks may seem insensitive, for example, “Are you going to die, Mom?” He may show curiosity about dead animals or ask about what happens physically to dead things. These questions may seem gruesome, but they are a way of learning about death. Children should not be made to feel guilty or embarrassed about their curiosity.

Your son may feel that the death of his grandfather, who was a good person, was unfair. This is the time to gently explain that many things that happen in life are not fair and that we should try to help each other cope when unfair things happen. Perhaps, discussing some nice things to do for his grandmother would help him feel needed. Many of the kids respond very well to being needed by others.

Your son will need a lot of time to accept this death and may react with anger at unexpected times. Be understanding. Time will help ease the pain. Use books to help him understand and provide a good model of acceptable behavior for him. Also, keeping a journal of his thoughts about his grandfather may help.

Moms and dads should be aware of normal childhood responses to a death in the family, as well as signs when a youngster is having difficulty coping with grief. It is normal during the weeks following the death for some kids to feel immediate grief or persist in the belief that the family member may “come back” someday. However, long-term denial of the death or avoidance of grief can be emotionally unhealthy and can later lead to more severe problems.

Once kids accept the death, they are likely to display their feelings of sadness on and off over a long period of time, and often at unexpected moments. The surviving relatives should spend as much time as possible with the youngster, making it clear that the youngster has permission to show his feelings openly or freely.

The person who has died was essential to the stability of the youngster's world, and anger is a natural reaction. The anger may be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, irritability, or a variety of other behaviors. Often the youngster will show anger towards the surviving family members.

Kids who are having serious problems with grief and loss may show one or more of these signs:
  • acting much younger for an extended period
  • an extended period of depression in which the youngster loses interest in daily activities and events
  • excessively imitating the dead person
  • inability to sleep
  • loss of appetite
  • prolonged fear of being alone
  • repeated statements of wanting to join the dead person
  • sharp drop in school performance
  • refusal to attend school
  • withdrawal from friends

If these signs persist, professional help may be needed. A child and adolescent psychiatrist or other qualified mental health professional that specializes in ASD can help children accept the death of a loved one and assist parents in helping children through the mourning process. 


==> Has your child on the autism spectrum been experiencing a lot of sadness lately? If so, here are a bunch of suggestions to assist in the matter...
Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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

College Depression in Older Teens and Young Adults with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism

"The emotional transition to college has really been a challenge for our young adult child with HFA. He has struggled with depression even more than in the past during high school. He is having a lot of trouble dealing with this new stage of life — how you we help?!"

College depression is a common problem among older teens and young adults with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). In this post, we will look at why the transition to college makes these “special needs” individuals vulnerable to depression — and what moms and dads can do about it.

College depression isn't a clinical diagnosis, rather it is depression that begins during college. AS and HFA students face many challenges, pressures and anxieties that can cause them to feel overwhelmed. For example:
  • Due to their “quirky” or odd behavior, they may experience ostracism from the peer group, teasing, or bullying.
  • Money and intimate relationships may serve as major sources of stress.
  • They are adapting to a new schedule and workload.
  • They are adjusting to life with roommates.
  • They may be living on their own for the first time and feeling homesick.
  • They are trying to figure out how to “fit-in.”

Dealing with these changes during the transition from the teenage years to adulthood can trigger depression during college in these individuals. College depression has been linked to:
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug abuse
  • Risky behaviors related to drug and alcohol abuse
  • Smoking
  • Impaired academic performance
  • Preferring to isolate rather than socialize
  • Returning home after a failed attempt to adjust to college life

Many “typical” college students occasionally feel sad or anxious, but these emotions usually pass within a few days or weeks. However, with students on the autism spectrum, feelings of sadness or anxiety may persist and interfere with normal activities. This is often due to the fact that their emotional age is much younger than their chronological age. Thus, they are emotionally and socially unprepared to “mix” with peers who are developmentally advanced by comparison.

Signs that an AS or HFA student may be experiencing depression during college include:
  • Agitation or restlessness
  • Angry outbursts
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Crying spells for no apparent reason
  • Distractibility and decreased concentration
  • Fatigue, tiredness and loss of energy
  • Feelings of sadness or unhappiness
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Fixation on past failures
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide
  • Indecisiveness
  • Insomnia or excessive sleeping
  • Irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities
  • Self-blame when things aren't going right
  • Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Unexplained physical problems (e.g., back pain, headaches, stomachaches, etc.)

Symptoms of depression can be difficult to notice if your teenager is no longer living at home. Also, AS and HFA students may have difficulty seeking help for depression out of embarrassment or fear of not “fitting-in.”

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

What should parents do if they suspect that their older teen or young adult is experiencing college depression?

1. Helping your AS or HFA teenager become accustomed to the college campus before the start of the school year may prevent him from feeling overwhelmed later in the semester. Encourage him to visit the campus and talk to other classmates, peer counselors, and faculty about what to expect and where to turn for support.

2. Encourage your teenager to avoid making major decisions (e.g., changing majors, doing too many things at once, etc.). Instead, help her to break up large tasks into small ones.

3. Encourage your teenager to get to know people in her dorm and classes. Caring classmates can help her to feel more comfortable in a new environment.

4. If you suspect that your teenager is struggling with depression, talk to him about what's going on – and listen. Encourage him to talk about his feelings. Also, ask him to make an appointment with a therapist as soon as possible. Most colleges offer mental health services.

5. If your teenager has risk factors for - or a history of - depression, talk to her doctor about what kind of counseling options might best help her with the transition to college. Also, help her become familiar with campus counseling resources.

6. Remember, depression may not get better on its own. In fact, it often gets worse if it isn't treated. Feelings of depression can also increase the likelihood of substance abuse and the risk of suicide. So, parents must intervene! Untreated depression can lead to other mental and physical health issues in other areas of life.

7. Urge your teenager to get involved in activities that he enjoys, which can help to shift the focus away from his negative feelings. Physical activity can be particularly helpful as well.

Helping your AS or HFA teenager make the emotional transition to college can be a major undertaking. Know how to identify whether he or she is having trouble dealing with this new stage of life — and what you can do to help. Remember, getting treatment at the earliest sign of a problem can relieve symptoms, prevent depression from returning, and help “special needs” students succeed in college.

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

The Extraordinary Demands Placed on Parents Raising Kids on the Spectrum

"Is it normal (or selfish of me) to feel a sense of sadness and disappointment now that we have learned our son has autism (high functioning)? How do you cope effectively with these demands - and the stress - of raising a special needs child? I need a big dose of strength right now... been a bad day :( "

Moms and dads of kids with Asperger’s Syndrome (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) play multiple roles. Often, they are the first adults to recognize a developmental problem, and they should pursue their concern until they receive a diagnosis and find services for their youngster.

Once they become involved in a treatment program, moms and dads should be active partners in their youngster’s treatment process to ensure that skills learned in therapy transfer to the home-setting, school, and community at large. As members of the individualized education plan (IEP) team, moms and dads should also be active advocates for the youngster, ensuring that the educational process goes forward smoothly.

These many demands on moms and dads occur in the context of family life, including the needs of siblings, parents as individuals and as a couple, and family needs as a whole. In addition, the parents of AS and HFA  kids may experience sadness, anger, disappointment, or other complex emotions that can accompany the initial discovery that their youngster has a developmental problem and the ongoing need to make sacrifices to serve the needs of their youngster. Most families cope effectively with these demands, but some may encounter significant stress as they raise their AS and HFA youngster.

Specific knowledge, skills, and scientifically-based information about Autism Spectrum Disorders and their treatment are needed. The mastery of specific teaching strategies that enable parents to help their youngster acquire new behaviors and an understanding of the nature of AS and HFA and how it influences their youngster’s learning patterns and behavior is paramount. Moms and dads also need to be familiar with special education law and regulations, available services, and how to negotiate on behalf of their youngster. Furthermore, some parents need help coping with the emotional stress that can follow from having a special needs youngster.

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

The fact that parents serve a key role in effective treatment for their youngster is not without costs, and the implications for family life are considerable. Many moms and dads face multiple, demanding roles. Research suggests that while many families cope well with these demands, the education of a youngster with AS and HFA can be a source of considerable stress for some families. In general, moms report more stress than do dads, often describing issues related to time demands and personal sacrifice. Among specific concerns expressed by moms are:
  • the community’s acceptance of their youngster
  • the youngster’s ability to function independently
  • worry about their youngster’s welfare in the years ahead

Moms of kids on the spectrum also report more stress in their lives than do moms of kids with other disabilities (e.g., ADHD).

Dads of kids on the spectrum report more disruption of planning family events and a greater demand on family finances than do dads whose kids are developing typically. These three groups of males do not differ, however, on measures of perceived competence as a father, marital satisfaction, or social support.

In a study of families who had a boy on the spectrum under the age of 6 referred to the TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and Related Communication Handicapped Kids) program, studies found that, while dads assumed some role in the youngster’s care, moms carried a much greater burden. This difference was not due solely to employment outside of the home. Moms who worked in jobs outside of the home still had greater childcare burdens than their employed spouses. The study also found that meaningful support from one’s spouse was an important predictor of the quality of parenting in the home.

The time spent working with a youngster with AS and HFA is sometimes stressful and demanding, but it also has the potential to reduce family distress and enhance the quality of life for the entire family – including the youngster on the spectrum. Techniques like individualized problem solving, in-home observations and training, and didactic sessions have been employed with families. Moms who learned skills based on the TEACCH model of education for their youngster showed a decrease in depressive symptoms over time in comparison with a group of moms not given this training.

One study found that teaching moms and dads how to use pivotal response training as part of their applied behavioral analysis instruction resulted in happier parent-child interactions, more interest by the moms and dads in the interaction, less stress, and a more positive communication style. The use of effective teaching methods for a youngster with AS and HFA can have a measurable positive impact on family stress. As the youngster’s behavior improves and his skills become more adaptive, families have a wider range of leisure options and more time for one another. To realize these gains, the mother and father must continue to learn specialized skills enabling them to meet their youngster’s needs.

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism
Many moms and dads can learn to cope with the demands of parenting a youngster with AS and HFA once they learn about the emotions with which they are dealing with – and how to address them. Not all moms and dads experience these feelings. However, it is helpful for them to be aware of the various emotions involved – and to realize that their experiences and feelings are normal.

  • Hopes and plans for youngster's future
  • Lifestyle prior to youngster's birth or diagnosis
  • Loss of the "perfect youngster" that was anticipated prior to the birth or diagnosis

  • Toward the educational system
  • Medical system
  • Religious belief system
  • Themselves, spouse, youngster
  • Treatment team

  • Youngster's suffering
  • Less attention toward other kids
  • Less focus on self
  • Relationship with spouse
  • Unable to protect youngster

Feelings of Loneliness:
  • No one else understands what they are going through
  • Avoid having to explain youngster's conditions and answer questions
  • Can sense that others are uncomfortable around youngster
  • Depressed
  • Difficulty meeting youngster's needs outside of home
  • Financially unable to do activities
  • Lack of accommodations
  • Not wanting to interact with others
  • Resentment toward others with "typical kids"
  • Unable to leave home

Low Sense of Self-Worth:
  • Right parenting decisions under normal circumstances may not work for youngster due to AS/HFA
  • Interactions with many therapists who assign various labels and diagnoses of youngster

  • Youngster's future
  • Educational needs
  • Ability to live independently when older
  • Safety
  • Stable relationship with spouse
  • Own mental health
  • Next crisis

  • Advocating for accommodations
  • Attempting to meet needs of other family members
  • Balancing career and family
  • Dealing with insurance coverage and financial concerns
  • Dealing with other's reactions and opinions
  • Decrease in support system
  • Lack of accommodations for youngster
  • Lack of exercise
  • Lack of prior medical or advocacy experiences
  • Learning details of youngster's disorder and about related treatment
  • Making choices regarding youngster's treatment
  • Managing appointments for various professionals
  • Managing time
  • Poor eating habits
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Some parents may become forgetful, miss appointments, and experience other symptoms of stress
  • The youngster's Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Feeling Isolated:
  • Detachment in other areas of life due to focus on youngster's needs
  • Feelings of despair and hopelessness
  • Over-involvement in work or other activities

 ==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

How can moms and dads care for themselves and move forward?

Find a support system:
  • Locate a counselor to address feelings
  • Locate a support group
  • Meet and interact with other families of kids with AS/HFA
  • Re-establish relationship with spouse
  • Seek discussion boards on the internet
  • Surround self with nurturing individuals that are accepting of youngster and parenting choices
  • Utilize a treatment team that is supportive and empowers moms and dads to make choices that are right for their family

Find Balance:
  • Alone time with spouse
  • Exercise
  • Find enjoyable social activities
  • Fun activities as a family
  • Meditate
  • Use a baby sitter
  • Work outside of home

  • Enjoyable books/magazines
  • Books by other moms and dads of kids with AS/HFA

Recognize Positive Features of Youngster and Life:
  • Involvement in other kid's lives
  • Realize own wisdom and strength
  • Recognize that the youngster is a fighter
  • See gains the youngster has made

Love the Youngster for the Person He Is:
  • Acknowledge youngster as an individual who may have different life goals
  • Identify what youngster has instead of what she does not have
  • Learn to accept youngster for who she is

Other Ideas:
  • When feelings of crisis have passed, attempt to focus on things that can be controlled instead of those that can't be controlled
  • Use religious/spiritual resources and beliefs
  • Remember that taking care of yourself is important to you and your youngster
  • Remember that it is the journey that counts – not the destination
  • Recognize that different treatment options work for different kids and different families
  • Practice assertiveness skills with treatment team, family, friends, and people in the community
  • Gain understanding that life is about change
  • Attempt to focus on the present instead of the future

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

Helping Your Child Come to Terms with his "Diagnosis"

"How do I help my 12 year old son to come to terms with his diagnosis and help him understand that it is not the end of the world?"

ASD Level 1 (High-Functioning Autism) is a "spectrum" disorder; those who have it experience various symptoms, exhibiting a range of behaviors. People with the disorder have a different way of thinking, concentrating on special interests. Many can speak eloquently and have extraordinary abilities in engineering, computer science, and systematic thinking, yet have serious difficulties with social interaction and functioning in the world.

However, the disorder is not the end of world; it is treatable. It is very normal for your son (and you) to react with sadness, self pity, anger, or depression when you receive the diagnosis. You are mourning the life you thought you were going to have. But that does not mean that you won’t have a good life; it will just be different.

If your son is willing, discuss with him his diagnosis and your plans to help him. Reassure him that he will do fine. If he can't get over his sadness and anger, get him into counseling. Once properly diagnosed, reassured, and treated, he will feel much happier and more optimistic.

Start now to educate yourself and your son. There are tons of books available for adults, children, and teens that explain High-Functioning Autism and provide information and help. Read a book and discuss it together. Then, get online and start researching symptoms and treatments. There is a wealth of information on this site!

Become involved in the forum on this site. Also find a support group in your area. Other parents will provide moral support and comfort. Your son may enjoy talking with other children with the disorder online. Be sure to monitor the sites he visits to make sure they are appropriate for him.

I want your son to know that having this disorder is not the end of the world. It creates difficulties in the social sphere, yes. But special interests can lead to career skills, and, in some cases, to career success.

Good social skills can be learned over time. With reinforcement and guidance from loving people; progress is possible. With knowledge and support from parents, teachers, mentors, medical professionals, and peers, the inner strengths of these special people shine, adding uniqueness to our world.
Have your son watch this video:

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

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

Anonymous said... help him to see himself for his abilities and not his dis-ability! He is himself and not his dx. His dx is just a tool that he can use on his road to success : )

Anonymous said... The diagnosis was the best thing that's ever happened in our family! It flooded us with so much understanding and the ability to identify and work on those areas which are troublesome. It opened up so many doors to a world of resources; books, support groups, online connections - so that we don't feel a bit alone. Help is just a keystroke or a mouse click away. I slapped an "I LOVE AN ASPIE" bumper sticker on my car and we embrace the dx with humor and hope. I know my own son felt a lot better once we met some others his own age who shared his diagnosis, and maybe that would help your boy? If he would like my son to contact him, message me and I'll put you in touch:) Enjoy the journey, you're on the right track, Mom!:)

Depressed Aspergers/HFA Teens and Drug/Alcohol Abuse

Parents often assume that their teenager with Asperger's (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) tries alcohol and/or drugs to rebel or to "fit in" with his peer group. However, teens with undiagnosed depression often use drugs and alcohol as a way to relieve their frustrations. A depressed teen on the autism spectrum may self-medicate with alcohol to escape the terrible sense of hopelessness. Unfortunately, alcohol only exacerbates the problem.

Some drugs may even make him feel "normal," when for weeks he has felt miserable. The impact of such drugs on serotonin, dopamine and endorphins (i.e., chemicals in the brain that regulate mood) can be devastating for these teenagers. The damage they do to receptors in the brain can make the road back from depression even harder.

Often parents approach the issue of drug and alcohol use as simply a discipline issue for a teen who is "bad." However, your "special needs" teen may be sick. He may be unable to express to you exactly how he feels. If your adolescent is self-medicating to treat depression, anxiety, or other emotional or behavioral disorders, simply applying more discipline and creating more rules will not impact the underlying problem that led to substance abuse in the first place.

While some teens on the spectrum self-medicate to treat depression, others end up with a serious mental disorder due to abuse of drugs or alcohol. Abusive drinking or drug use can seriously undermine your teen's physical, emotional, and psychological health. Some drugs, such as methamphetamines, can seriously affect the neurotransmitters, which are known as the "messengers of the brain." Recent studies suggest this damage can be long-lasting and even permanent.

Many AS and HFA teens have the mistaken notion that club drugs are benign. In fact, while they might feel "good" while taking them, they can make it difficult for the teenager to feel good naturally for a long time to come. The longer teens use these drugs, the more difficult treatment and the higher rate of relapse due to their inability to "feel good" or even "normal" because of the damage to their neurotransmitters.

Is your teen depressed? Answer these questions to find out:

1. Does your teen have little interest in his future?

2. Does your teen drink alcohol?

3. Does your teen smoke cigarettes?

4. Does your teen use drugs?

5. Has your teen quit activities he used to enjoy?

6. Does your teen seem to cry easily?

7. Does your teen seem like he is filled with guilt and remorse?

8. Has your teen been denying food saying he is not hungry?

9. Has your teen been easily agitated?

10. Has your teen been having a difficult time making decisions?

11. Has your teen seemed to have lost his energy?

12. Has your teen withdrawn from you or other family members?

13. Has your teen had recurrent thoughts of death or suicide?

14. Has your teen been falling asleep in class?

15. Has your teen felt hopeless?

16. Has your teen had problems sleeping at night?

17. Has your teen not been focused on what is going on in front of him, and is he often lost in his own thoughts?

18. Has your teen had a dramatic change in personality such as extreme irritability or sadness?

19. Has your teen had a hard time focusing on homework or reading?

20. Has your teen had an overwhelming feeling of sadness for no known reason?

21. Has your teen often feel fatigued, even when he has gotten enough rest?

22. Has your teen spent too much time in his room alone?

23. Has your teen withdrawn from his friends?

24. Has your teenager been over-eating?

25. Have you heard your teen put himself down, making derogatory comments and being overly critical?

If you answered yes to 5 or more of these, then your teen is likely suffering with depression.

AS and HFA teenagers have a difficult time relating their true feelings to others. The world is quite different today, and these young people face so many obstacles. If your teenager becomes withdrawn and disinterested, it is critical that you intervene in an attempt to see what the trouble may be. Many times a teen will open up to a close friend or family member that they are able to trust. Once a teen gains a comfort level, they will pretty much open up about anything.

Recognizing teen depression can be difficult at times, but it is important to intervene in an attempt to save a life. Teen suicide among teens wth an autism spectrum disorder is nothing new. Sometimes just talking things out will help the teenager immensely. However, sometimes it may take more than just a one on one conversation. In severe cases, the teen may benefit from psychological counseling with a professional.

==> Help for Parents of Teens on the Autism Spectrum

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

Click here to read the full article…

How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

Click here for the full article...

Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

Click here to read the full article…

Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

Click here to read the full article…

Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

Click here
to read the full article...

Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

Click here for the full article...