5 Tips for Parenting Teens with Aspergers
Yes, you can survive the teen years. Even if your child is diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum, Level 1. This was previously referred to as Aspergers Syndrome or Pervasive Developmental Disorder. We will be using the term, Aspergers, as a comfort and not formality. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders, PDD is a diagnosis of a group of disorders characterized by the delays in developmental socialization and communication skills. Symptoms may include repetitive perseveration (narrowed topics, food, or objects of interest), significant deficit with social skills, heightened intellectual abilities, physical clumsiness, and unusual use of language. (www.ninds.nih.gov)
There are many challenges that come along with raising a child with Aspergers because often times their meltdowns and strong-willed personalities can dominate the appearance of a developmental disability. However, I would like to identify 5 tips for parenting these adolescents that I have found helpful in my own parenting journey:
1. Listen and stay calm. Listen, listen, and listen some more. I can't express to you how important this skill is to have when dealing with any teenager. By this age, many teens with Aspergers have been muted, shewed away, or bullied by other people. Try not to add your name to that list. And if you are already on that list, acknowledge it and move on by showing your teen that you are here, you are on their side, and you are listening.
Don't get me wrong, there are times when you must continue to stand firm. Your teen is going to try to bait you into an argument at any chance they get. Usually, it will be due to their adamant need to be right and show off the fact that they know many complicated, never before thought of ideas and encyclopedic words that you don't know. They use these words in their everyday language whether it is done so in the right context or not. I was impressed with my son's interest in reading the dictionary and sharing what different words meant, however, he would throw those words out every now and then when speaking to adults as a way to discredit them. I, eventually, learned not to react to these antics the hard way. Any reaction would result in a back and forth between us which would only add fuel to teenage rebellion. The power struggle was real. But once I learned to tame my own emotional responses, I found that his energy began to match mine. If I snapped, he would snap. If I was slow to react, he was able to slow down as well.
2. Teach them self-advocacy skills. These are young adults we are talking about here. Which means, they will soon be in spaces on their own without us by their side. They will need to learn how to advocate on their own behalf.
Children learn from us. We can model advocacy for them. If your teen struggles with academic achievement due to a learning disability or emotional issues, ask their school for a special education evaluation (if they do not have these services already). Continue to be present at each and every one of the Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) meetings to make sure their needs are being met with services provided. If you are not receiving the level of service you desire for your child, check out the special education procedural safeguards handbook (the one you probably toss or use as a notepad for other things) they provide at each meeting for more assistance.
Advocacy isn't just about receiving services, it is also about helping them to recognize when they need help and who to ask. For instance, if they are in class and they are experiencing anxiety about an assignment or about working with peers in a small group, encourage your teen to talk to the teacher about this. Maybe the solution would be as simple as being allowed to work alone on an assignment to eliminate social pressure. Also, if the teacher is not receptive to what they are sharing, help them learn to keep talking with trusted adults at school until someone understands (i.e. the school counselor, school social worker, or a paraprofessional).
3. Encourage them to pursue their interests. Many teens with Aspergers have unique interests that they have pretty much mastered. The lists of interests include but not limited to art, music, chess, technology, etc. With a diagnostic label, it would be easy to live up to negative outcomes such as a lack of independence, lack of employment, and the inability to have a healthy mental status. However, with supportive parents and guidance, these teens have amazing opportunities to make a living with income and learn how to develop social skills as adults with those who have similar interests.
Consider agency case management to address specific concerns that your teenager may experience. These supports allow the possibility that they can stay connected to similar services once they become an adult to help with financial management, employment training and placement, as well as housing options.
Even more awesome is the fact that, teens with Aspergers have a great potential to pursue post-secondary education and attend 2-4 year colleges or Universities with ease. Most of these institutions have supports and staff who are available to assist students with an IEP and/or ASD diagnosis. Check what area of study your teen is interested in and research which institutions provide this level of support.
4. Encourage their self-esteem. Growing up is rough, we know. Adolescents are trying to figure out who they are and what their purpose is. Even more so when you have difficulty making friends and its becoming more evident that you don't know how to make friends, let along keep them. Trying to be "normal" or neurotypical but now "awkward" or "quirky" is difficult for them. Spend time helping your child see what their positive characteristics are and help them learn how to focus on that. Maybe even embrace their quirkiness.
Have you ever shared a suggestion for your teen to improve their coping skills and they knock it down over and over again? Then as soon as someone else suggests it, its like a light bulb went off and they are more willing to follow through with it. Sometimes, encouragement and affirmation from family is not enough. Many teens with Aspergers will experience some level of anxiety or depression. This is a reality we know far too well. Don't hesitate to seek therapy intervention for your teen this includes talk therapy, group therapy, Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), or other behavior therapy. It might even be a good idea to find a mentor for your teen, someone they can talk to who is willing to listen and understand.
5. Teach them how to develop and maintain interpersonal relationships. Because of their amazing talents, our teens with Aspergers easily attract the attention of others. However, keeping these relationships has proven to be difficult due to strange/odd behaviors or habits. Poor hygiene, interrupting others, talking over people, only talking about their interests, lack of interest in others, poor eye contact, stimming, sensory sensitivity, and poor executive functioning interfere with development of steady interpersonal relationships.
As parents, it is hard to witness the social isolation of your teen due to the lack of friendships over the years. Even the one person you can identify as their friend is truly someone that stays connected more so by your effort and not that of the teens themselves.
There is good news! Organic and structured opportunities are available in most cities for teens to build a network of friends:
Organic: joining extracurricular activities (such as Robotics, art club, technology club, etc.); getting a job where other teenagers work (such as fast food, library, or store), volunteer activities, and/or church youth groups.
Structured: Peer support groups, organized outings for teenagers with Autism or the like, coordinated by local mental health agencies who are aware of the need. The YMCA also hosts nights for teens with Aspergers, check your local branch for this opportunity.
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but more of a starting point. If you unsuccessfully tried many of these when your teen was young, try to introduce them again. There may be some maturity and increased curiosity at this age. While they can be rigid thinkers, their interest changes constantly and you may find that they are now willing to learn how to roller skate or take a class on photography.
Tell us about your teen or your parenting experience: Your Journey, Your Positive Steps.