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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

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Parenting Adolescents with Autism

By William Frea, PhD, BDBA-D
WebMD Feature from “Exceptional Parent” Magazine

Adolescents on the autism spectrum have unique challenges that are often hard for their parents, teachers, and peers to understand. While adolescence is a difficult time for most people, it is especially tough for teens who struggle to understand ever-changing social expectations. We all remember the stress of our middle school and high school years. Our bodies were changing, our friends were changing, and all of the rules around us were changing. Since people on the autism spectrum rely on consistency and predictable social environments, they enter this phase of life at an extreme disadvantage. Supporting them during adolescence requires an understanding of the syndrome and knowledge about strategies that will give them the skills they will need to thrive and reach their potential.

Without the right support, adolescents on the autism spectrum retreat into themselves during this period. They express extreme loneliness and confusion, and are at risk for acting out behaviorally. There is an increased risk of depression and suicide during these years as well. As unpredictable as their social world is during adolescence, their response to this stress can be equally unpredictable.

This phenomenon has become a major concern for parents and educators in recent years. The autism epidemic was identified over 15 years ago. Prior to that time, it was believed that autism affected approximately one in every 2500 births. Now it is estimated to be about one in every 110 births. As the epidemic ages, more students with autism enter middle and high school every year. Their struggles are noticeable on every campus.

In the past, many of these students would have been placed in special education classrooms that were separate from the mainstream. As our education system has improved dramatically over the last 20 years, education for students with special needs, both developmental and behavioral, has become more inclusive. Mainstream education teachers are better trained, and supports for students with special needs are much more understood and available. However, students with autism present a different set of challenges than students with other developmental disorders. While most children with special needs are very social and readily express their needs and wants, students on the autism spectrum struggle with communication and social understanding. Their behavior can appear unpredictable to an untrained professional. As they enter adolescence, the volume gets turned up on every aspect of this syndrome.

While educators are struggling to find a way to better serve these students, more parents are struggling to cope with their child’s adolescence as well. This goes well beyond the typical acting out or sullen behavior many teens express. They are not retreating from parent control and wanting more time with friends; they often have no friends. Their school experience is more threatening than ever before. They may not feel safe, and may come home with heightened sensitivity, anger, and sadness. Teens with autism have difficulty expressing how alone and frightened they feel. Many regress into the interests they had when they were younger, or spend their time in repetitive activities, attempting to control their world in the simplest of ways. They are more easily angered, which is common with any form of depression. And as lonely as they report they are, they desperately seem want to be left alone.

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