Parenting Adolescents with Autism
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.
Visual supports can provide either a general planning tool, such as a daily schedule, or a step-by step plan to understanding a project or activity from start to finish. A tool that works for one situation may not work for another, as every individual and every stressful situation are different. Just as you depend on your calendar or PDA to help you organize your daily activities and responsibilities, adolescents with autism need tools to help them structure and plan, too.
As a learning tool, visual representations facilitate the acquisition of new skills. Video modeling, for example, has become a very effective tool for teaching individuals on the spectrum. This involves recording examples of the new skill being performed. The video is then used as a model to teach the student how the new skill works. This is a way of having a predictable model that approximates a real-life example. Practicing with the video gives a clear model to the student, and it does so with fewer social demands and stress than responding to a live instructor. This helps launch the new skill, so it can be generalized to true social situations more quickly.