Teens on the autism spectrum present special challenges. Like their peers, many with autism want independence. They want to fit in with their classmates. They want to plan for college life and dream about their futures. But parents are often hesitant to let go, for years they have talked to teachers, called other parents to arrange play-dates and spent their time focused on their child's needs and moods.
It is hard to know how much to let go - you worry that your child, even though a teen now, still needs you. At this age, teachers are backing off, giving teens more responsibility and expecting more. But you worry - your child needs more assistance than many of his peers. Social life is another story. The teen years are filled with social activities: dances, proms and parties. But your teen spends every Friday and Saturday night at home. While he seems content and doesn't complain, you still worry. You wonder if you should be doing more...or less.
The following tips may help:
Allow for down time after school. The school day is noisy and overwhelming for many on the autism spectrum. Allowing them time to unwind after school for a set amount of time can help calm their mind. One mother, Sarah, went back to work full time when her son Jimmy was in high school and didn't get home for about an hour and a half after he did. She worried about him coming home to an empty house but he explained that he actually liked the alone time because it gave him time to destress from the day. Because Jimmy likes to be organized, he created his own schedule, he would arrive home, have a snack, watch television for a half an hour, then do his homework. This usually gave him a little time to play video games before his mom got home. By the time she came home from work, he was ready to talk about his day. Although it isn't necessary for you to leave the house, it is important to give teens with ASD time to "reset" after the hectic school day.
Follow your teen's lead in deciding how much social activities he needs. As parents, we want to see our teens get along with others and be invited to social activities. But your teen may not want the same thing. Some teens with ASD are very social and want to spend their time with friends while others are quite content to be alone. There is no right or wrong, it is what is best for your teen. If you feel your teen is lonely, ask - but don't push him into activities because you think he should go.
Find structured activities your teen enjoys that can double as social activities. While you don't want to push your teen into attending dances or parties, it is important for him to have some social interactions. Individual sports, such as swimming, track or martial arts can provide a social outlet while not involving "team" sports. Clubs, classes or events surrounding your teen's interests are also good ways to offer social activities.
Let your teen choose his own clothing. His choices may not reflect what everyone else is wearing these days but if he is comfortable, his life will be easier and so will yours. Having your teen wear trendy clothes that make him uncomfortable and irritable all day isn't going to help him fit in with his classmates. If he is more comfortable in jeans and a t-shirt (and the school doesn't have a uniform policy), buy plenty of jeans and t-shirts.
Provide choices for your teen. As often as possible, give your teen choices, and then abide byhis choice. As he becomes an adult, he is going to need to make decisions about his life and his future. Start now by helping him understand decision making.
Find adult mentors your teen can talk to about his concerns. Teens, with and without ASD, don't always want to talk to their parents and are less willing to take your advice. Instead, find some trusted adults your teen can talk to - the guidance counselor, a teacher,a youth leader, an uncle.
Look for signs of anxiety and/or depression. Teens with ASD have a high risk of developing anxiety and/or depression. If your teen has difficulty expressing his emotions, you may not notice warning signs as easily. Pay attention to any changes in behavior, drop in school grades or a disinterest in activities he once enjoyed. If you suspect depression or anxiety, make an appointment with your family doctor.
Continue to talk about appropriate ways to display frustration or anger. Your teen may not have full blown meltdowns any longer, but probably still has trouble with frustration. Elementary school teachers may have been willing to work with your child when upset or frustrated but by the time he reaches high school, teachers expect him to know how to handle his frustrations. Talk about appropriate ways he can manage these emotions at school.
Continue to work with the school to provide appropriate accommodations for your teen. Have your teen be included in the annual meetings and help plan what accommodations he thinks he needs. This is a good step toward teaching self-advocacy skills that he will need in college or in the workplace.
Be patient. Our teens grow up into adults. It happens whether we want it to or not. Teens with ASD may be more immature than their peers, may need more assistance and may not be ready to be as independent as others. But there will also be times you are amazed at how mature your teen has become. Take the time to appreciate each step.
As parents, we worry about each decision we make...is it the right decision? It is a pretty good guess that all of your decisions have not been the best possible one you could have made. But it is also a pretty good guess that all your decisions were made with love and the genuine desire to make sure your teen had the best possible chance to succeed and grow. Stop feeling guilty and remember that love, even when your teen has a hard time showing it back, is the best way to parent.