Help: Why Has Our Teen with Autism Stopped Talking to Us?

Dear Rob,
I have an 18-year-old teen daughter who has stopped talking to us, her parents, and has become socially isolated. She graduated from high school and is taking a gap year. I feel desperate and we must rely on ourselves to help her because we can’t afford professional help.
— Marlene

Help: Why Has Our Teen with Autism Stopped Talking to Us?

Dear Marlene:

This is an emergency situation. She sounds like a bright kid (having a gap year after high school). Kids like this often have suicidal ideation. This must be taken extremely seriously. Something must be done immediately.

If she’s not talking to anybody, then you must find someone she trusts to do something with her. It doesn’t have to involve talking. Just do some activity with her that she would enjoy. She needs to somehow feel good about herself. It might be something the parents disagree with. For example, I had a client who was obsessed with video games but whose parents hated them. I brought in a video game designer to spend time with the kid and it changed his mood dramatically. Whatever the activity is, this girl needs to do something that will bring her out of her depression.

Sometimes in cases like this, through no fault of theirs, parents may have said or done something that the child misperceived or overreacted to (because of the way teens with autism spectrum disorder [ASD] think) and has been hurt. Kids with ASD tend to just react but don’t have the means to resolve issues with conversations about their feelings or understanding things from their parents’ point of view. They may latch on to something and perseverate on it. Perhaps have a third party the girl likes and trusts come in and ask her what is going on with her. It will be less “loaded” than when her parents ask her. She may feel that her parents think there’s something wrong with her and that they will “blame” her. With someone else asking, she may be able to feel safe and talk about it—she may feel that this person is really listening in a way she thinks her parents can’t. It may turn out to be something that the parents said or did that seemed wholly unimportant, but that was important to the child and triggered the disconnect.

Sometimes for 18-year-olds who have parents who make them feel bad about themselves, I’ll tell them that next year they will be in college and on their own and will need to be strong and have their own lives. So even if this girl doesn’t want to or can’t talk to her parents right now, this might motivate her to talk to people who she feels can help her gain those skills, like a college interviewer. She has to be able to talk to them in order to get what she needs. If she’s really not talking to anyone, then shutting down in this way won’t allow her to move beyond the negatives she feels she’s getting from her parents.

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Look for Rob’s upcoming book entitled Uniquely Normal, written to help parents make a difference with their child on the autism spectrum. The book comes out November 15th.

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If you have a question for Rob, please email [email protected].

Rob Bernstein

Rob Bernstein, an educational therapist specializing in autism spectrum disorders, gives you hands-on suggestions for handling your child’s behavioral issues. Rob uses a cognitive approach to understand what’s underlying the behaviors so that the issues can be resolved. He has over three decades of experience working with individuals with problematic behaviors including tantrums, repetitive behaviors, self-destructive behaviors, hitting, cursing, miscommunication and non-communication, school issues, and difficulties relating to others. If you have a question for Rob, please email [email protected]

  • Avatar Sally says:

    If the daughter is socially isolated, it seems she is unlikely to open up to someone else. I would suggest that, as parents, you need to work on redeveloping that trust. The best way is to stop asking questions, lay off the demands and learn just to be with her, sit alongside, join her in doing an activity she enjoys. As her parents, you are best placed to lay aside your judgments and develop a loving and accepting attitude which can break down that barrier of silence. let her know that she is not required to talk, that you just enjoy being with her. In time I believe she will speak again.

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