Autism is a neurological disorder which effects approximately 1 in every 110 children, boys more than girls, in the United States. It is estimated that tens of millions of people worldwide have autism. Because it is a spectrum disorder, symptoms can range from hardly noticeable to severe. Autism impacts a person's ability to communicate, form social relationships and in understanding abstract concepts.
By the time a child with autism reaches the teen years, chances are parents, medical professionals and school personnel have noticed some developmental delays or problems with social interactions. Many children with autism are diagnosed at a young age and those with milder symptoms may be diagnosed once a child enters school and has problems developing social relationships. Some children, however, may have mild enough symptoms that they have not been diagnosed and parents are suddenly wondering why their teen isn't making friends or is having a hard time in school.
The teen years are characterized by deepening social relationships, a new realization and curiosity about sexuality and an emerging self-identity. For some teens with autism, the teen years may be when they begin to realize that they are different from their peers. They may see others in groups, laughing and talking among each other, dating or making plans for life after high school. They may realize that they are not. They may feel as if they don't fit in.
For some, this feeling of being an outsider can motivate them to learn social skills in the hopes of being included in teen age activities. For others, it can drive them further into isolation. This can depend on the severity of autism symptoms as well as what types of treatments your teen has had up to this point. Because social skills do not come naturally, teens need to be taught social norms and the proper way to act in situations. Younger children with autism usually have parents or other adults nearby to help them in social settings. As teens develop independence, they must learn to navigate social situation on their own.
A few ways parents can help teens with autism develop social skills and relationships:
Choose one social "rule" at a time. For example: entering or exiting a conversation, making small talk, choosing friends, hosting get-togethers, etiquette for attending parties or social events, good sportsmanship and handling being teased. Teens with autism can easily become overwhelmed with all the different rules of social conduct. Breaking it down to focus on one rule at a time, explaining and writing down the steps or rules for each situation can help.
Role-play different situations to help your teen find ways to manage the situation. For example, create a scene where someone is introduced to your teen. What would be appropriate to say? What should he do? Acting out the scene, from shaking hands to saying something age appropriate, such as "What's up?" can help make the introduction go more smoothly.
Learn the language of teens. Because individuals with autism have difficulty understanding different meanings and nuances of phrases, it helps if you, as parents, learn how the teens today are talking and translate these phrases for your teen. For example, if a classmate says, "What's up?" to your teen, you don't want him looking up and replying, "The sky." Help your teen learn idioms and slang to better navigate conversations with peers.
Find safe places for your teen to interact with other teens. This could be in a community class on a topic your teen is interested in, in a group made up of teens with autism or Asperger's Syndrome, with a select group of peers that have shown understanding and friendship to your child or in a structured environment with adult supervision aware of and willing to help your teen. You might want to speak with your high school guidance office to find out if there is a group of students with autism or Asperger's Syndrome that can regularly meet to practice social skills with one another.
"Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD), 2010, Staff Writer, Massachusetts General Hospital, School Psychiatry Program
"What is Autism?" 2011, Staff Writer, Autism Speaks