The teenage years can be a particularly difficult transition to move into, especially as an autistic teenager, write Emily Acraman and Chrissy Frost.
ADOLESCENCE CAN be a particularly vulnerable time for autistics.
They may have a greater sense of the fact that they are ‘different’ to others.
They may feel acutely aware that they experience the world differently to their peers.
It can be exhausting trying to communicate and fit in socially especially if they are being bullied and excluded at school.
High school presents added pressures, including an increased demand for schoolwork, fewer formal supports, and a greater focus on students’ future options.
Hormonal changes and puberty can be a roller coaster and overall, the social and practical demands of the neurotypical world increase.
Autistic teenagers may exhibit challenging behaviour, may respond inappropriately to social cues, be unable to perform skills needed for independence and be at an increased risk of mental health problems (Spectrum, 2021).
Behaviour is communication
The remodelling of the brain during puberty which prompts physical changes, also leads to intensifying emotions and rapid mood changes. For autistic adolescents, this appears to be exaggerated (Spectrum, 2021).
Often parents report an increase in challenging behaviour, or behaviour that is difficult to manage. At home, you may see your teenager let their emotions out in extreme ways and may see an increase in meltdowns. Often for autistic teens, home is the place they have space to or feel safe enough to do so.
Understanding that challenging behaviour or emotional outbursts are a form of communication may make them easier to confront. Physical behavioural outputs can be regarded as form of communication.
For autistic teenagers, these outbursts may be more meaningful than verbal language.
One of our autistic advisors speaks of their teenage years during which they often threatened self-harm. They explain there were not suicidal but were trying to communicate they were having a difficult time and that more support was needed.
It may be helpful to think of these outbursts and meltdowns as though you are both communicating but that you are speaking different languages. Trying to understand what is being communicated through these meltdowns will help you shape your response to them.
During the adolescent years, autistic teens usually have a greater sense of what they might be ‘missing out’ on.
Feeling left out or being socially rejected by peers can have huge consequences for ones’ wellbeing and sense of self. It is generally during this time that bullying accelerates, and autistic teens can experience a lot of ostracism.
For girls, this is particularly apparent. Peer support is of the utmost importance during the teenage years. Only other autistic teenagers or adults can provide true empathy, insight and understanding on what it is like to be an autistic teenager. One of our autistic advisors mentions:
“As much as parents may be trying their best with the knowledge they possess, it can’t really be empathetic support (unless perhaps a parent is neurodivergent) and an impartial peer can have far greater impact than parental support.”
Peer support also offers teenagers the opportunity to feel a sense of identity, belonging and that they are not alone. It allows opportunities for them to see what challenges other teens have overcome, what solutions they found the most useful and what a positive future could look like. Autistic peer groups, groups based around preferred interests (tabletop gaming, sports, art etc), peer led blogs and autistic social media influences can all be helpful supports to join in or follow along with for autistic teens.
It is critical during this time to support autistic teens to develop a sense of belonging and to identify the value they bring to the people around them (Downs & Holden, 2020).
Peer mediation can also be a helpful strategy for navigating the tensions between parents and autistic teenagers. This involves facilitating and translating the point of views, thoughts, and feelings of both the parents and the teens so that they can understand each other. When it feels as though we are speaking different languages to each other it is vital to have someone translating for us.
Encouraging Cooperative Behaviour
It can be tricky navigating behavioural expectations, boundaries and consequences with our teenagers.
Parents need to expect that teenagers will push boundaries, as it is their job to do so.
Autistic teens often like clear routines and structure in their lives and changes in these routines can cause anxiety and challenging behaviour. Giving effective instructions, setting limits and sticking to these, and offering them a choice in what they can do can all help increase cooperative behaviour.
If you start to see a pattern of challenging behaviour from your teen, try to investigate what may be causing it.
They may be feeling overwhelmed, have difficulty understanding what was expected of them, be feeling anxious and stressed or possibly suffering from sensory overload.
When you take some of these causes into consideration, you may be able to change things in the environment that can help your teen cooperate with you.
We all like to feel in control of our life and this is no less true for teenagers. Try to let your teens feel as though they have some control through input and value in the family dynamics. Setting some shared goals, expectations and consequences for behaviors could be an option to explore. When teenagers have choices, they learn to make decisions and think for themselves. This is good for their self-esteem as well as their ability to cooperate.
They may not admit it, but teenagers need their parents now, just as much as they did when they were younger. Aim for regular one on one time with your teenager.
This might be an activity like going for a walk together, cooking dinner together, going to the library, or finding an activity that they enjoy and joining in with them.
Try to find an activity where you are doing something alongside each other without looking directly at each other as this can make it uncomfortable and potentially harder to talk.
Limit your expectations of these sessions, they may not communicate at all. But by spending one on one time, you are letting them know that you are available for them, should they need you.
One of our autistic advisors comments:
“Maintaining the relationship between parents and teenagers is key- as a teenager I had regular one-on-one time with both my Mum and my Dad (supermarket trips with Mum and walking the dog with Dad) and I think that was really important in maintaining a close relationship with both of them. There was no expectation to talk about anything deep, or even to talk at all, but often towards the end of our time together I was ready to open up about the things I was struggling with.”
If your teen is withdrawing themselves from people and their family, you could schedule a weekly family fun time that they could help to organise, such as a regular games night.
- Emily Acraman and Chrissy Frost are researchers for Altogether Autism.
Downs, J., & Holden, R. (2020). Why it is imperative to ask autistic adolescents about bullying. Spectrum News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/opinion/viewpoint/why-it-is-imperative-to-ask-autistic-adolescents-about-bullying/
Spectrum. (2021). Puberty and autism: An unexplored transition. Spectrum News. https://www.spectrumnews.org/features/deep-dive/puberty-and-autism-an-unexplored-transition/