How to Support Teenagers With Autism Through Transitions

In recent months, I’ve been approached by more than a few parents seeking to support their autistic children through challenges that come in the teen years. For any kid, the changes that come with this phase of life can be difficult to deal with. For those of us on the autism spectrum, it can be even more so.

Manage Your Expectations

When I’m asked about the topic, there are a few key points that I like to talk about. First, as a parent, it’s important to manage your own expectations. It’s natural for parents to worry about their kids, and the “gloom and doom” messages that often surround autism can amplify this tendency in ways that can become problematic.

Teenagerhood is a particularly vulnerable time, and kids with autism can be more vulnerable than other kids. As you watch that vulnerability in action, you may be tempted to latch onto certain traits or accomplishments you observe in your child that give you hope for the future. That can be a mistake.

What do I mean by that? Am I telling you that it’s wrong to have hope? No, of course not! But, focusing on a single trait, accomplishment or skill as an assurance of future success can be damaging. Responding to fears of your child’s future, you may be tempted to think something like, “Well, as long as he keeps doing well academically, maybe he’ll be okay.” It’s a natural response to anxiety about the future, but it can unintentionally result in additional pressure on your child.

The Problem of Pressure

Why is additional pressure a problem? Well, at a time when you want to be supporting your child to expand his or her scope of control and learn new skills, additional pressure may have the opposite effect. A common expectation among parents and caretakers who aren’t on the spectrum is that once a skill is attained it will remain, and that a profile of skills growth, if mapped on an axis, should point steadily upward. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works for many of us.

Kids on the spectrum tend to develop asynchronously: “later” skills may develop earlier, “earlier” skills may develop later and skill level in one area will often be vastly out of sync with skill level in another. A child may have advanced skills in memorization or certain areas of academics, yet still struggle to cross the street safely or order his or her own meal in a restaurant.

Avoid Overload

Another aspect of this is that skills that have been already attained can be variable as well. Why is this? Well, every person has a finite amount of cognitive resources at any point in time to use for things like problem-solving, navigating barriers and making sense of the input from the senses. In most people, a lot of these tasks, such as managing sensory input, are done almost completely subconsciously. In contrast, those of us on the autism spectrum have to utilize a lot more conscious thought and working memory to deal with such things. Because of that, navigating a new situation can easily tax our resources beyond what we can handle.

It’s like the brain is a bucket that fills with too much water: something winds up going over the side, and what “goes over the side” may vary. In my case, what went “over the side” first were executive processing skills. I had trouble getting organized, I’d get lost in environments that should be familiar and worse, I began to lose things. I didn’t know why. Difficulties with academics soon followed.

As is the case with many mothers in such situations, my mother didn’t understand the dynamics I just described. To her, it appeared that I wasn’t trying.  Clearly, I knew how to “be responsible” and get good grades, so why wasn’t I doing so? Her response was to discipline me and pressure me to “straighten up.” Unfortunately, this had the exact opposite effect from what she desired.

This additional pressure only added to the cognitive load that I was struggling with every day. It was pouring still more water in the bucket, and thus caused more water to go over the side. I didn’t understand why, so I couldn’t explain it to others. Today, I can tell you that I was facing massive sensory overload every day: I was struggling to adapt to the differences in my school environments–the culture, people and rules. Everything was new, and I was on overload nearly all day, every day.

Practical Tips

What do I think can have help in such situations? A few things:

  • Prepare Early: Prepare your child for transitions before they happen, and even before you might think it would be necessary. Help them understand what will happen and what expectations will be, and discuss how to respond to specific challenges.
  • Do a “Dry Run” When You Can: No one learns well when they’re in “fight or flight” mode. Putting your child in a situation in which their only chance for learning skills is when they are under this type of stress sets them up for failure. Instead, try to find ways to allow them to practice skills under less stressful conditions, when the “bucket” is closer to empty and can hold the water that’s being poured into it.
  • Recognize Setbacks in Skills as Warning Signs: Teenagers on the spectrum may not recognize how or when to ask for help. Learn to look for signs of struggle and ask some questions. You may have to be a detective, as they may not make the connections themselves. Are they struggling with sensory issues? Executive skills? Are they being bullied? If you can address these root causes of stress and overload, setbacks often resolve themselves.
  • Learn to Tolerate Vulnerability: It’s natural for teenagers to look for additional autonomy, and teenagers with autism are no exception. Letting go may be scary, and there will be bumps along the way. It’s important to give them the space to learn and the support to grow.
Lynne Soraya

About Author: Lynne Soraya

Lynne Soraya is the author of the Psychology Today blog "Asperger’s Diary" (http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary). Her work has been included in the compilations "Asperger Syndrome (Perspectives on Diseases and Disorders)" and "The Guggenheim Forum Reader," as well on sites such as "The Creativity Post" (http://www.creativitypost.com/), "The Thinking Person's Guide to Autism" (http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/), and "Autism and Empathy" (http://www.autismandempathy.com/). Her book, "Living Independently on the Autism Spectrum," is available in most major booksellers.