Kids, teens, and adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have a different way of looking at the world. They may find it difficult to express their feelings, relate to others, read social clues, know how to behave in a situation, handle new routines, master personal hygiene habits, and manage sensory stimuli. A common trait among people with autism is their heightened sensitivity. Loud noises, bright lights, strong scents, or large crowds may be bothersome and cause “sensory overload.”
While the condition of autism is typically characterized by communication and behavior problems, as well as obsessions and repetitive movements, no two people with ASD will have the exact same symptoms. Since autism is a broad spectrum disorder, it can range from mild or hardly noticeable, to severe and debilitating. This disorder is about four times more common in boys than girls.
Nearly a quarter century ago, the Autism Society launched a nationwide effort to promote autism awareness, inclusion and self-determination, and assure that each person with ASD is provided the opportunity to achieve the highest possible quality of life. Since its inception, autism awareness and acceptance have increased and a better understanding of neurodiversity has arisen – but there is still more work to do!
Autism and Teenagers
Although it’s called a “developmental disorder” because symptoms generally appear in the first two years of life, autism can be diagnosed at any age. But research into autism in the teen years and beyond is still in its infancy. “Very little is known about the course of ASD through adolescence and into young adulthood,” states one study.
Parents will tell you that when tweens with autism go through puberty, they have the same hormonal activity taking place as neurotypical teens do. As a result, they may become even more non-communicative, moody, and unpredictable. Besides the behavioral and social challenges, individuals on the autism spectrum are likely to have co-occurring mental health issues such as depression and anxiety, as one autistic young adult explained in a first-person article on mental health and autism.
Many higher-functioning teens with autism have above-average intelligence and can participate in grade level classes and activities. However, they still may need help with homework and daily activities. They often struggle with planning, organization, and other executive skills. That’s why the personalized attention of homeschooling can be beneficial for autistic teens.
“Teens on the spectrum will require a greater level of external supports [such as] checking assignment books to make sure they’re filled out correctly, and … helping students break down projects into smaller steps, with due dates for each step,” said Amy Keefer, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the Kennedy Krieger Institute.
Like all teenagers, autistic teens may want greater independence, and there are ways parents can help. “If your child needs schedules, for example, give him more control over his schedule. That gives him a way to be ‘noncompliant'” – to have his own way sometimes, said Ms. Sicile-Kira, author of Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum.
Unfortunately, many teens with ASD have trouble making friends and struggle with social isolation. They may be teased, bullied, or left out because they’re different. If you want to help them, please be patient and kind. It’s important to be understanding and show acceptance when interacting with autistic teens. You should also be very clear and factual when communicating with someone who has ASD, because they often take everything literally and don’t understand playful jokes or sarcasm.
Look at the Bright Side
Don’t dwell on the negatives, but concentrate on the positives. For example, autistic teens are rarely good at team sports, but they can devote their energy to solitary activities such as hiking, walking, bird watching, train spotting, or star gazing. And most people on the autism spectrum excel at visual spatial skills (“Thinking in Pictures“) even while performing poorly at verbal skills.
That’s why many autistic kids, even those who are non-verbal, have a tremendous knack for solving jigsaws and other puzzles. Likewise, autistic people are very good at taking apart and building devices ranging from alarm clocks to small engines. This skill is highly prized within the “Maker” community.
Autistic teens often get super-focused on a single topic or hobby (Lego, anime, sci-fi), some of which may be unusual (apple varieties, World War I). The special interests common to autism can be an escape from social interaction if a teen occupies himself solely with his favorite topic. “But, if used correctly, those special interests can be a way to connect with other people. An interest in gaming, for instance, is often a way for teenage boys to connect with one another,” Dr. Keefer said.
Autism Success Stories
- Mark Macluskie, a homeschool math whiz and winner of a Flinn Scholarship to Arizona State University, overcame his autism saying “autism is not my identity.”
- Jessica Ball, a young woman with an autistic condition called Asperger Syndrome, became an IT apprentice and “accomplished things that I’d never thought I could achieve.”
- Spencer Kelly, another teen with Asperger’s, became an entrepreneur and a spokesperson for how homeschooling can help struggling students excel.
- Temple Grandin, one of the world’s most well known and accomplished autistic adults, is an inspiring role model to millions. Her book, The Way I See It: A Personal Look at Autism and Asperger’s, offers a unique perspective on autism, with numerous concrete suggestions for handling different kinds of behavior. There is even a highly acclaimed HBO movie based on her life.
Although April was Autism Awareness Month, it’s never too late to learn more. Here are some autism resources that will help to increase understanding and acceptance…
- Advocating for Students on the Autism Spectrum
- Guide to Better Sleep for Kids with Autism
- Autism Resource Center
- Creating an Autism Friendly Home
- Necessary Life Skills for Teens with Autism
- Autism Support Network Resources
- Planning a Move with Autism
- Autism and Travel
- Teenagers with Autism: Symptoms, Treatment, & Help