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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Parenting Adolescents with Autism

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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.

How do we help them? What are the goals when assessing the need of such a diverse group of teens? This is not an easy question to answer. Individuals with autism have very different characteristics. They range from being nonverbal to very expressive. Some struggle with the simplest of social interactions, while others interact readily but inappropriately. Behavioral challenges can range from refusing to make eye contact to physical aggression. Compulsive behavior can be as simple as wanting their desk arranged the same way each day or as complex as body rocking or repeating the same sentence over and over.

There is no single answer, but multiple approaches to consider.

Make It Visual

For teens with autism, it is important to bring predictability to their school and community experience. Often parents have figured out how to make the home environment consistent. When something new is going to happen in the family (e.g., holidays, new furniture, a new pet, landscaping), they understand how to prepare their child. School and community changes often come rapidly and without warning, but there are basic strategies that can help make even these situations more predictable.

People on the autism spectrum are visual learners, and visual supports are often the first step in bringing predictability to any social environment. This may be a schedule of the school day, or a schedule that delineates the sequence of events that will happen in a single classroom. For some students, a new activity that is coming up in a class (e.g. a science experiment) may be explained step by step in an activity schedule. For many on the autistic spectrum, becoming lost in an activity leads to a chain reaction of decompensation. The entire environment can seem threatening, and they retreat within themselves or want to leave.

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