Autism Spectrum is challenging at age eight. But at double that age, at 16, the challenges more than double! Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by difficulty with communication, impairment in social skills, understanding how to engage and interact with others, and unusual behaviors and special interests. If you are raising a teen with autism spectrum, you can see the problems of autism will be compounded when a child hits the teens! You will deal with body changes, mood swings, interest in the opposite sex, desire for more freedom, disregard for parental rules, etc. Here are some suggestions to navigate autism spectrum and adolescence more smoothly.
Control what you can. Does your teen have limited insight behind the wheel of a three-thousand-pound vehicle? You don’t have to put yourself into a dangerous position when driving with your pre-licensed teenager. You may not be able to control your son or daughter’s poor behavior behind the wheel, but you can remove the privilege of driving. You can control that part. Take away driving (or all extra-curricular rides) for a time. Maybe your son has to take the bus, or ride his bike, rather than driving for a while. Would that be the end of the world? When behavior improves, privileges can return.
Keep teaching. Every opportunity is a learning situation. Does your teen resist learning new skills? Come along side him and teach. Skills for independent living are money management, food preparation, housekeeping, hygiene, transportation, educational planning, job seeking, job maintenance, social skills, health, housing, safety skills, and knowledge of community resources. And let’s not forget pregnancy prevention and parenting/childcare. If your student will head off to college in a few years, shouldn’t he be able to do his own laundry and prepare his own meals? You can start teaching him now the skills he needs for independent living. It can seem like a big job, but you can accomplish it a little at a time.
Discuss changing expectations. Michelle Garcia Winner, in her Social Thinking program, talks about how students on the autism spectrum often don’t realize that expectations change as they get older. Be sure to discuss your expectations with your teenager. Many don’t have the intuitive skills to guess that expectations increase as you get older, so explain it clearly and calmly. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be calm and controlled (not emotional and yelling) when you discuss important issues with your teens, autistic or neurotypical.
Join you teenager’s team and problem solve with him. Plenty of times, I’ve said to my son “I’m on your team. What can we do to solve this together?” When your teenager knows you’re on his side, he often lowers his defenses and may work with you.
Be a good listener. Keep quiet and listen. I know this step is hard but you have to do it. He has an opinion and he wants to be heard. Would you listen to a guest in your home? Think of your teenager as an adult boarder. Would you talk to a grown-up who rents a room from you the way you talk to your teenager? If not, think about what you can change in your tone of voice and the language you use with your teen.
Keep the conversation flowing. If she’s attending a school with typical teens, she is probably exposed to drugs, drinking, bullying and sexual behavior. I wish I could prevent my teen from experiencing these things, but I cannot. Talk to your teen and observe her. When something seems fishy, speak up. Your teen may need to talk about problems she’s facing. Your input could help her. Make a time to “check in”. We do this in the evening after homework and shower, before my teen goes to bed. Find the time your teen is most receptive and use that time to chat.
Politeness counts. Do you say please and thank you? Your son or daughter needs to see you model good behavior. They can yell, but you should remain calm, (or at least look and sound calm). If you get too worked up, it’s ok to stop a discussion and come back to it after you’ve both calmed down.
Let him individuate. Teenagers are biologically programmed to fight with their parents enough to make “moving out” and moving on with their lives easier for them. Make sure your teen gets opportunities to be with peers, and do normal teenager stuff. And if he has neurotypical friends, that’s all the better for him. If your son or daughter will be remaining in your home, because they are unable to move out due to intellectual or behavior problems, you must find a way to live together with appropriate boundaries. No longer a child, your teen is more like an adult and deserving of more adult treatment. Job, rent, car privileges – decide on what your expectations are and hold your teen accountable.
Laugh about it – Marie Osmond once said “If you’re going to be able to look back on something and laugh about it, you might as well laugh about it now.” Find humor in as many situations as you can. It may relieve stress for all of you. If your teen doesn’t understand why you are smiling or find certain things funny, explain it to him. But don’t expect him to understand every time. Teens with autism spectrum disorder have limited insight into social behavior.
Don’t let “autism” be his only moniker. Your teenager is unique. Autism is not the only thing that describes him. He has strengths and weaknesses like every other teen. Love who he is! Accept him for who he is. If you have never accepted him for who he is, you need to do so now. Encourage him with his talents, the same way you would with any neurotypical teen.