Autistic teenagers often represent a dark number in the data. We know all about the little boys and girls being diagnosed daily, but often, when researching the outcome for older children there is a dearth of research articles to help you know what to expect and how to best help your teenager on the spectrum.
What we do know, however, is that they face many of the same challenges as their peers – dealing with puberty, working out how to navigate the perils of social interaction and dating, managing the demands of school and going through the natural emotional ups and downs. These concerns are often impacted by the social communication deficits that are symptomatic of the spectrum as well as the executive functioning and behavioural challenges that often walk hand in hand with autism spectrum disorder. And if that isn’t enough, the teen years are often the risk period for onset of seizures and anxiety.
So how do you as a parent help your teen navigate autism and adolescence successfully?
Survival guide for autistic teenagers
- Navigating the dark waters of puberty
Puberty is awkward, diagnosis or not, and helping your tween means arming them with information and practical skills to manage both the hygiene and hormonal outbursts. Your tween will need to learn a new vocabulary to understand and manage these turbulent years successfully. Making use of social stories, visuals and videos is often easier (though no less awkward) than attempting the conversation sans visual aids. Keep the language simple – remember that they may not have been exposed to this language before. Prepare them for the bodily changes. Most individuals on the spectrum prefer sameness and puberty by definition entails change after change – knowing what to expect will decrease some of the anxiety.
- Improving Executive Functioning
Commonly referred to as the CEO of the brain, executive functioning enables you to plan and manage tasks effectively, organise, remember details and manage our behaviour without outside influence.
These are skills that often need to be taught explicitly to individuals on the spectrum and once they have these skills, managing situations like school, interactions and their emotions become much easier.
Most important of these in the transitional years is the ability to self-regulate. Self-regulation is a metacognitive skill and refers to one’s ability to recognise an emotional state and the ability to engage in behaviours to alter that state effectively – this can take many forms such as listening to music when upset, requesting alone time or even deep breathing exercises. Equipping your teen on the spectrum with skills to manage their emotions, and subsequently their behaviour, is an important step in making the teen years more manageable.
In ABA, we have the saying that all behaviour is communication. Making sure that your autistic teen has the ability to communicate their needs and desires in an appropriate manner is essential to ensuring that they are able to advocate for themselves and get their needs met in an appropriate manner. Work with your service provider to identify an appropriate form of communication – this is essential when your child is non-vocal – and work doggedly on teaching effective communication skills. Again, individualization is important here – not everyone will want or need the same things, thus, it is important that the focus is on what your teen needs and how they can get it without having to engage in challenging behaviours.
Although the teen years are necessarily fraught with change, they do not have to be a time of turmoil and fear. Making sure that you have a good service provider who has the ability to consider your teen’s specific needs and is equipped with the necessary skills to teach them appropriately is essential. The other part of the equation is to ensure that you are an active participant in your teen’s treatment – you are, after all, the people who know your autistic teenagers best!