Guiding Your Child with High Functioning Autism Through the Teenage Years

 

Bill Murray Walking on Water, Artist Jason Jones

Bill Murray Walking on Water, Artist Jason Jones

As a parent or carer of a child on the autism spectrum, these typical approaches to social life will be familiar to you:

No interest

Some with ASD will show no interest in socializing with others. When friends or family are around, they may ignore them, preferring to play or work by themselves. They may even appear irritated or frustrated when others interact with them. It's good to know, however, that interest in others usually increases over time. 

Avoidance

Many with ASD do have an interest in others and have a desire to connect and interact with them. Unfortunately, this can prove such a difficult task to navigate that the anxiety it triggers causes them to avoid others. Rather than risk humiliation and rejection, these kids simply avoid others.

Clumsy interaction

For those without anxiety, their desire to interact with others can lead to clumsy interactions. Although they want to fit in and have friends, they can't quite understand the intricacies of social interaction that are required. They may come across as boring, standoffish or even insulting. In turn, they'll be unable to read the reactions of others, such as sarcasm or criticism, which might otherwise give them clues to the behaviors of theirs that others find objectionable.

Realization

When kids with ASD get to teenage stage, they start to realize they are not quite like others. This can be a big surprise and quite a deep shock. Kids need to deal with and process this loss psychologically and may go through a stage of what is almost like grieving. 

Similar to when someone is grieving, teens on the autism spectrum tend to go through a series of stages while trying to process their loss. These stages might happen in order or your teen might dip in and out of different stages at different times.

Denial

During this stage, the teen might fight her diagnosis, insisting they are just the same as everyone else. They won't want to talk about anything ASD related and just wish that it would all go away.

Anger

Your teen may become very angry, blaming themselves, you, God or anyone else that they are not neurotypical. Their frustration might cause destructive behavior.

Bargaining

Sometimes, teens on the autism spectrum might think that they will make themselves like the other teens around them by finding a medication or miracle cure. They believe that ASD might just disappear overnight if they could only find out how.

Depression

Adolescents are already known to suffer from depression, but those on the autism spectrum dealing with the realization of their differences are dealt an extra blow. They may feel down about themselves, their situation and their ability to make friends. They might give up on social activity, unable to face their differences.

Acceptance

Eventually, teens will be able to accept themselves, even though their strengths and challenges may be different from others'. Once they've reached this stage, they will then be much more successful in working towards gaining social skills.

7 ways you can help

Making sure that we do our best to deal with difficult issues calmly, without trying to minimize or avoid painful experiences or expressions, can work wonders for our teen's development. 

If we try to jolly them along or suppress difficult feelings, we slow down ther path to acceptance and growth. Trying to understand and empathize and encourage honest talk will improve your relationship with your child in the long term and help him to accept himself as he is.

Try these tips for opening up communication and helping your teen:

Find a local support group for parents

It can be very difficult to go through parenting an ASD teen alone. Joining a group will not only give you a community that can help you through the difficult times, it may help you to improve your knowledge about what your child is going through and thus become better equipped to help them.

Listen

Though it can be tempting to change the subject and skirt round difficult issues, listening to our teen without judging, criticizing or offering our own opinion can be very powerful. When we respect our child's choice to confide in us by listening respectfully and not taking it personally, we are rewarded with more communication and a strengthened relationship. Our teen will feel more relaxed in the house as they will feel more understood and supported.

Remind them of reality

Teens have the tendency to exaggerate, due to the strength of the emotions that overwhelm them. Though we don't want to dismiss our child's feelings, we can remind them of reality if they make over-dramatic statements. For example, 'I always fail at everything,' might prompt, 'I know you feel things are difficult now, but there are lots of times you have succeeded, such as ....'

This will give your teen the confidence that you can offer them a sense of stability.

Offer counseling

Some teens would prefer to speak to someone outside their family to express their feelings. This is perfectly normal. Offer to arrange counseling for them if they feel they want someone independent to talk to.

Use their special interest

Though, in all honesty, you are probably bored to tears by now by their collections or interests that have kept them going for years, you can use these interests to help them. Finding new ways to engage her in the subject, stretch her and challenge her 

will give her a necessary confidence boost at this difficult time.

If your teen begins to spend more time working on their interest at this time, be aware that this might be their response to the difficult feelings that they are dealing with. Retreating into their collections helps them feel safe and may help them process their loss more effectively.

Talk about sex

Teens on the autism spectrum can find sexuality very difficult territory to navigate. Failure to help them in this area can meet with consequences such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, social exclusion or even imprisonment.

Setting out clear boundaries of what normal sexual behavior is will help your teen to steer clear of inappropriate sexual behaviors. Talking freely about sex and sexual feelings will let your teen know that these feelings are normal and acceptable - it is just the expression of them that they have to control. Encourage them to ask you questions regarding anything they are unsure about.

Embrace autism

Some adolescents on the autism spectrum decide to educate themselves about the particular strengths and challenges ASD brings into their lives. They may even choose to educate others through the use of leaflets, websites or conversation. Taking a pro-active approach can be extremely helpful to combat depression in teens going through the realization of their differences.

Finding networks of ASD teens, making new friends on the spectrum or getting involved in other autism-related activities can help teens to become more aware of who they are and how they can empower themselves.

 

Finishing Strong

Many of the kids are counting down the last days of school. This is exciting but can also be a source of uncertainty and anxiety that spills into school work and relationships. This week in group we will be talking about how to ride that wave of excited energy into the summer without dropping the ball (sorry for mixing metaphors) on important relationships and assignments. 

Here are some tips for home:

1. Have a plan: create a plan with your child for the summer that balance your goals for consistency and structure with their goals for relaxation. 

2. Set short term goals with logical rewards: Your child's timeframe has shortened and so should yours. setting short term goals around maintaining grades or keeping up with chores around the house can keep your kiddo moving forward.

3. Maintain consistency: to a young person, summer vacation feels like a major life transition. Make sure to telegraph to them that expectations about behavior are staying consistent.

 

 

Altruism

Last week we started the Happiness Challenge around learning self care habits, this week we will start a new challenge around altruism.

The mesolimbic pathway is active when you behave in an altruistic way. This is what is known as the brain's reward centre, which generates the "dopamine-mediated euphoria associated with food and drugs." When we do good deeds not only are we happier, but studies also show our stress is reduced. When we're stressed, hormones are released, which increases our blood and respiration levels: it activates our "fight or flight" mode. Therefore doing good allows you to lead a healthier, longer life.

 

2nd Annual Happiness Challenge

This past week in group we discussed the value of developing good habits around self-care.  We came up with a list of self care items that will be part of our "Happiness Challenge". Kids get a point for the group by practicing one of the self care items and when we have a collective 30 points we will have the reward that the children selected.

Your child can get a point by:

Doing something active
Practicing a hobby
Playing with a pet
Reading
Playing a game
Spending time outside
Getting a good nights sleep
Have a conversation
Eating a healthy snack.

In order to get points kids should have an example of how they met the happiness challenge goal

In order to get points kids should have an example of how they met the happiness challenge goal 

What do you think?

A big thank you to everyone who emailed me or shared your feedback in the hallway about our new curriculum unit "What do you think". From what I gather two of the biggest concerns for parents are rigid, inflexible thinking and peer pressure. 

Last week we introduced the conversation we will be having by exploring the factors that cause people with similar brain anatomy in the same situation to perceive things so differently. In other words, what creates an experience. The kids came up with great things like experience, family beliefs, memories and culture.

This week we will begin to examine our own biases. Self awareness is an important step on the road to developing the qualities we hope for our children to have such as thoughtful listening, nuanced thinking, comfort with ambiguity, tolerance, and patience. Here is a quote about confronting our own biases by the wonderful science fiction author Terry Pratchett who just passed away:

"Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren't what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don't want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true."

"Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things…well, new things aren't what they expect. They like to know that, say, a dog will bite a man. That is what dogs do. They don't want to know that man bites a dog, because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds…Not news but olds, telling people that what they think they already know is true." 

Electrophysiology

Good morning Friends,

This week we get into the electrophysiology of the brain, the part of our strange anatomy that sounds like a super hero origin story. It even has a super hero name... "action potential!" The release of the neurotransmitters that we talked about last week is regulated by a reaction of electrical signals. It's a complicated but beautiful mess of electrical and chemical reactions that regulate our reactions and responses. It's enough to make your head hurt to think about, or is that just a cascade of chemicals released by an electrical jolt?

If you want a deeper understanding of what we are discussing, here is a good video below. 

 

Neurocurriculum

This week begins one of the most popular portions of our curriculum arc, "A Users Guide to the Brain". We learn the basic biology of the brain, how the nervous system produces behavior, and how to "hack" the mind to get outcomes that leave us feeling in control and joyful. 

This week we will be discussing neurons and neural networks, the structures where everything we feel, remember, and dream is written. All of our complex sensory preceptors and nerves send their signals back to the neurons to be parsed and interpreted. 

There are heroes and explorers along the way. This week we will meet Santiago Ramon Cajal, a pioneering investigator of the structures of the brain, and Camillo Golgi, an Italian scientist who showed us the first images of neurons and originated Reticular Theory (which turned out to be not quite right).

Exciting stuff, see you in group! 

E

Honest Valentines

Tonight in T group we made honest valentines. we talked about how typical valentines cards are superficial, and decided to make an effort to express an honest authentic emotion, either positive or negative. We processed how it feels good to get an honest emotion out into the world. We also spent some time discussing the value of optimistic thinking. Eric shared some take aways from a book he is reading on the topic and we discussed the health benefits of positive thinking.

 

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Weathering the Storm

No group tomorrow, Tuesday the 27th because the rec center is closed in anticipation of the blizzard. Here are some great tips for helping your child to cope with the storm from one of our Kids Cooperate parents.

1. glow sticks  - Awesome for those who have rising anxiety with darkness.  It's their personal light.  They are fun. They can pick their own color.  Heck, everyone in the house could have their own color.  They actually produce more light than you would think.   Hang one around your neck and you have light everywhere you go.  They have a long life time so that helps save on batteries that parents would rather not waste in case needed for more important items.  It also cuts down on kids accidentally shining flashlights in other peoples eyes which then leads to arguing.  Over night, they make great night lights!

 

2. During power outages, it's a great time to play "camping" or what I like to call "Little House on the Prairie".  Basically, we play roughing it.  We may assign "jobs" and talk a lot about how things were done years ago.

 

3. Information without overload.  With Ben we need to walk a fine line with anxiety and weather.  The unknown really drives up that anxiety however following the news on tv or radio can drive everyone's anxiety through the roof with all the "doom and gloom" talk.  So that leaves us in a pickle.  What works with Ben is monitor how he gets his information.  Being a computer kid, he will look up the weather on radar.  It actually works fairly well.   By watching the radar he gets information that helps with the unknown but does so in a way that avoids all of the sensationalism.   He can see what is happening in the moment and when he needs to prepare himself for the scariest part but it also allows him to see that the worst parts won't last forever.  He can say ok this is going to be bad but it's only going to be bad during this set block of time.

Vulnerability

This week we will start a segment of group with the elementary and preschoolers that is a staple of the intermediate, middle and high school groups. Each child will share something positive from their week, a recommendation of something they enjoyed and would suggest others try, and have the opportunity to share something challenging that they would like advice or support on. Here is why this is such a powerful tool for social emotional growth.

Sharing something positive:  In order to avoid danger, our brains have developed to notice and remember negative things easier and more persistently than positive ones. That means that we must make a conscious effort to focus on positive things in our lives, in fact science tells us a 5:1 ration is needed to feel happier.  What happens when we make a concerted effort to notice the things that make us happy is that we notice them more often. Neuroscientists say that "the neurons that fire together, wire together" meaning that when we make something a habit, the brain forms neural networks around the task. 

Recommendations: Sharing a recommendation with a friend is a profoundly pro-social act. It requires the use of social-emotional intelligence to process an experience that you've had through your layers of social knowledge to decide whether it is something your friends might also enjoy.

Challenges: To share a challenge requires trust and emotional vulnerability but the payoffs are immense. The earlier we learn to lean on our support network the better. When kids share challenges that they are having at home or with peers there is almost always someone with a connection or some valuable experience to share. Even if there is no "magic solution" discovered for resolving the issue it is helpful to get an empathetic response. It is also valuable for the other group members to have an opportunity to practice empathy. The trick, which is hard for adults too, is to make an empathetic connection without "rubbernecking" or shifting attention away from the person and on to yourself. So here are Aarons two rules for empathetic responses.

1. Make a general empathetic response. "I'm sorry to hear that" "is there anything I can do?" "I hope you feel better soon".

2. IF you have a DIRECT experience or connection to the challenge you may share IF...

Your connection will give them helpful information
OR
Your connection will make them feel better.

The Empathy Code

Each group we share 1. Something positive that happened over their week. 2. A recommendation. 3. A challenge that they would like support with or advice on. We had a great discussion tonight about how to offer appropriate empathetic responses when someone shares a challenge. The trick, which is hard for adults too, is to make an empathetic connection without "rubbernecking" or shifting attention away from the person and on to yourself. So here are Aarons two rules for empathetic responses.

1. Make a general empathetic response. "I'm sorry to hear that" "is there anything I can do?" "I hope you feel better soon".

2. IF you have a DIRECT experience or connection to the challenge you may share IF...

Your connection will give them helpful information
OR
Your connection will make them feel better.

Great job everyone on learning and practicing a difficult skill.

Great job everyone on learning and practicing a difficult skill.