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Autism Spectrum Disorders Health Center

Parenting Adolescents with Autism

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Clinical Resources

Autism Spectrum Therapies (AST) has developed a number of different programs that target social skills and independent living skills. Our agency builds a collaborative team and develops an individualized program that addresses specific learning needs and outcomes. AST relies heavily on the methods of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), which represents the most researched and successful procedures for teaching complex skills. The evidence-base for these methods is expanding rapidly, especially in respect to its effectiveness for individuals on the autism spectrum.

Finding a strong behavior analyst is a good first step. If there is not an agency in your area that employs ABA-based methods with adolescents, you can search for individual consultants online at

Many parents find it helpful to see a general example of a treatment approach, such as one that addresses social skills. The following is a teaching strategy that involves a three pronged approach for supporting social skills:

  • Teach teens various self-management strategies that result in social successes. These strategies work to reduce social anxiety, prompt appropriate social skills, and identify and organize social opportunities. For example, an individual’s self-management program may involve learning to avoid specific social situations that result in negative outcomes, and identifying social opportunities to practice new skills with success. It may also include specific behavioral strategies to reduce anxiety, and self-reward successes. The program may also have individuals record the number of times they remembered to use specific social skills (skills that may have been learned successfully but are not yet generalized for use in all social environments). If there are social behaviors that have proven to be stigmatizing with peers, the program would also support replacing those behaviors with a more appropriate behavior that serves the same social function.
  • Assess all behavioral challenges and find meaningful replacement behaviors. By adolescence, an individual has developed many ways of coping with social confusion and stress. There may be behaviors that are getting them into trouble, or that are getting them teased, or that are isolating and resulting in few opportunities to practice social skills. One approach is to assess the function of each behavior and work with the individual to develop and practice better options. The result is a new set of social skills that are developed strategically to pinpoint existing needs. Apart from basic skills necessary for social success, these strategic skills serve to remove barriers and set the stage for developing broader social skills. For example, if a teen raises his or her voice to an alarming level whenever a conversation becomes difficult, we need to replace that behavior with a more appropriate conversation skill that serves the same function, reduces anxiety, and changes the social exchange. There are limitless ways to avoid difficult topics or social situations (e.g., presenting a new topic, providing a compliment to redirect the conversation, asking a question, excusing oneself appropriately). The goal is to choose the options that best fit the person and the social context.
  • Create social opportunities in which a teen can experience success and have a better chance of developing age-appropriate friendships. Developing and nurturing a friendship takes ongoing assessment, creativity, and planning. As individuals learn skills to better understand the perspective of their peers and how to engage them more affectively, they need opportunities to practice and be appropriately challenged as well. This process can be the most difficult. It involves working closely with the family and anyone in the family’s network who can be involved, as well as school personnel, community contacts, and “good-fit” opportunities within our agency. Every case has different needs, so each child’s social supports represent a new puzzle to solve.

Whatever strategies are used to build social competency, it is important to have a professional on board who is strong in behavior assessment and developing broad programs to support multiple areas of need. These include behavior challenges, stress and coping, social skill development, building age-appropriate recreational skills, community skills, career development, work-related skills, and relationship building. When choosing a professional to lead the team’s efforts, make sure he or she can speak to the individual’s needs across all of these areas, or consults with other professionals to put together an effective plan.

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