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Expert Advice on How to Help Your Teenager with Autism Thrive

September 26, 2023

As the years have progressed in my career working with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and their families, I have had the privilege to work with more and more teenagers.

Expert Advice on How to Help Your Teenager with Autism Thrive

I have met some remarkable young men and women with autism who have taught me a lot, and I have had the honor of supporting them in some of what they and their families report to be the most difficult times in their lives. The teenage years are not the easiest for most people, and when you throw in an autism diagnosis, it becomes even more complicated.

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Here are some tips on ways you as a parent can help your teenager with autism thrive:

1. Connect with your teenager

The first and most important thing you can do is try to connect in a meaningful way with your teenager. This is oftentimes much easier said than done. We all have such busy lives and it can sometimes be difficult to spend quality time with those we love and respect the most. As much as this sounds like common sense, it is not something that everyone prioritizes with everything else going on in our daily lives. This may be particularly difficult if you notice your teenager starting to isolate himself/herself more and more, which is often what parents will tell me. For example, one 15-year-old I worked with spent most of his free time in his room on his computer, and it was very difficult for his parents to get him to leave it. Setting boundaries on the amount of screen time or alone time is a good idea from a very young age. One way to mitigate this would be to establish family relationship-building time when there is something fun to do together—creating an expectation that we all participate in something enjoyable on a regular basis (e.g., once a week at the same time). For example, a family game night is a great way to connect. A game is a great way to have fun, but you might also find out things that your teenager is dealing with during this time that you might not have otherwise figured out. It can be a relaxed time with no pressure or expectation, aside from being in the moment having a good time with those we love. Include your teenager with autism in the selection of the theme or activity that you will do every week and make it as enjoyable as possible. This will be unique to each and every family, but for my family, we love to play a board game or card game that is relaxed with lots of laughter and sometimes special treats as snacks. It is very casual and calm but we go with the flow. Following our children’s leads is key to making sure that it is fun for them. The consistent feature about it is the day of the week—everyone knows we are all going to be together that day every week. If you have any family traditions or activities that work with your family, please share them on the Facebook page for others to see.

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2. Find the extraordinary in every ordinary day

Sometimes it is an extraordinary day if we can just get through it. As parents, and out of necessity, we are often the bearers of bad news, like “Get your homework done, clean your room, finish your supper,” as opposed to finding the things that our children and teenagers are doing well. I teach all the families that I work with about something called the 4:1 rule. This means that for everything that we have had to notice that they are not doing so well, we need to notice four things that they are doing well. These do not need to be extraordinary things, but you will find that once you start, you will notice more and more things to praise. The delivery of these messages needs to be genuine and heartfelt. For example, I will tell my children on a daily basis how I am grateful for them. When I say it I really get into a state where I can feel it so I can tell them in a way that seems genuine to them. It is not just said in passing; I get down to their levels and I tell them how thankful I am for them, and I will describe specific examples of things they did that day. For example, I might say, “I am so grateful to have you in my life—do you know how lucky I am? You are such an amazing person when you helped me by holding the door for me; that meant so much to me. You are so helpful. How did I get so lucky?” This may seem a bit over the top, and you need to find the way that works best for you. You might also be thinking it may be hard to find four good things for each thing not being done well. This may be true when you start out, but remember there is always something to be grateful for, and add more to those things as every day passes. Start with the things he/she can do well and build upon them. For example, notice the things that he/she does well already and then find the things that are emerging. He/She might not do well with big changes in routines (e.g., the computer stops working because Internet connection is lost and won’t be fixed for an entire day), but he/she can be flexible when the change is not so large (e.g., have eggs instead of toast for breakfast). The scenarios that apply to your teenager will be unique to him/her.

3. Empower your teenager with social and coping skills

A lot of the stress of being a teenager with autism may be related to social and coping skill deficits. Dealing with disappointment and navigating the real “social” world requires some skills that many of us find difficult. Dealing with difficult situations that may have disappointed us and figuring out what to do in different social situations can be quite complex. One of the ways that I help the teenagers with autism that I work with is with a program that I refer to as the “things I can say and do.” It involves working with specific scenarios that may come up in our day-to-day interactions and the things we can say and do in those contexts. For example, what do we do if someone is using our computer that we wanted to use and have been using consistently?  Or, what do we do if something does not go our way (e.g., the Internet doesn’t work or the girl we wanted to go to prom with said no). The key is to come up with strategies that he/she can do in those moments and compile a list. Once we have an appropriate list, then we can practice choosing one of those strategies. For example, one of the teenagers that I work with has compiled a list of things he can say or do when his Internet connection does not work. In the past he would have put a hole in the wall; however, now he will stop what he is doing and think of strategies that are available to him.

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Autism in Teens: Puberty, Expectations, Symptoms, and Treatments

Once he has selected a strategy he can implement it. In order to work on this with him, we had to rehearse it when he was not upset, and then over time, he learned to use it when he needed it the most. Now, when his Internet connection stops working, he can stop what he is doing and count to 20, do some breathing exercises (e.g., square breathing), do something else (e.g., go for a walk), or ask for help. The most important part of this type of skill-building program is to contrive opportunities to practice it in the most realistic scenario. As we have been working on the “things I can say and do the program” we have also simultaneously been working on building up his ability to be flexible in novel situations. We need to be flexible in order to be able to adapt to new and novel situations that arise that are out of our control. Focusing on being flexible is a skill I encourage all of the families that I work with to work on with his/her child.

These are just some of the strategies that I will encourage families to work on with their child or teenager with autism that could help him/her thrive in the real world. If you are worried about your child or teenager with autism, the best thing you can do is contact your doctor and get a referral to the appropriate expert that will be able to help you and your teenager with autism thrive.

This article was featured in Issue 67 – Preparing for Adulthood With Autism

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