Most experts do a great job of presenting the problems children with Autism Spectrum Disorder face during their adolescent years. This two-part article gives parents some important tips and suggestions.
Part 1 presents problems. Part 2 gives suggestions that have worked for parents of teens with ASD. Click here for Part 2 – Solutions
Problems Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder Syndrome Often Face
Diane Kennedy, in her 2002 book The ADHD Autism Connection, writes the years from twelve to seventeen are “the saddest and most difficult time” for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Of course, this is not true of every teen as some do extremely well, typically dependent on the level of acuity on the autism scale as well as intervention techniques used to help the child.
Children with ASD can often be indifferent to what others think allowing them to be ambivalent to the intense peer pressure of adolescence. They can show incredible focus leading them to become accomplished musicians, historians, mathematicians, etc.
Yet, as Kennedy observes, ASD teens typically become more isolated socially during a period when they crave friendships and inclusion more than ever. In the cruel world of middle and high school, children with ASD often face rejection, isolation, and bullying.
Meanwhile, school becomes more demanding in a period when they have to compete for college placements. As education moves from the black and white of right and wrong answers to shades of gray of defending competing views or alternate theories, a high schooler with Autism Spectrum Disorder can struggle to comprehend. Plus, during high school issues of sexuality and a desire for independence from parents create even more problems.
Common Problems of a ASD Teen
Social Isolation: In the teenage world where everyone feels insecure, teens that appear different are ostracized. Children with ASD often have odd mannerisms. One teen talks in a loud unmodulated voice, avoids eye contact, interrupts others, violates physical space, and steers the conversation to her favorite odd topic. Another appears willful, selfish and aloof, mostly because he is unable to share his thoughts and feelings with others. Isolated and alone, many Spectrum children are too anxious to initiate social contact.
Many ASD teens are stiff and rule-oriented and act like little adults, which is a deadly trait in any teenage popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting for a child with ASD–even though she wants it more than anything else.
One girl ended a close friendship with this note: “Your expectations exhaust me. The phone calls, the girl talks, all your feelings…it’s just too much for me. I can’t take it anymore.”
Inability to “Be a Teen”: A Spectrum child typically does not care about teen fads and clothing styles — concerns that obsess everyone else in their peer group. Children with ASD may neglect their hygiene and wear the same haircut for years. Boys forget to shave. Girls don’t comb their hair or follow fashion.
Some Autism Spectrum Children remain stuck in a grammar school clothes and hobbies such as unicorns and Legos instead of moving into adolescent concerns like social media and dating. ASD boys often have no motor coordination. This leaves them out of high school sports, typically an essential area of male bonding and friendship.
Sexual Issues: Teens on the autism spectrum are not privy to street knowledge of sex and dating behaviors that other teens pick up naturally. This leaves them naive and clueless about sex. Boys can become obsessed with Internet pornography and masturbation. They can be overly forward with a girl who is merely being kind, and then later face charges due to stalking her. An ASD teen may have a fully developed female body and no understanding of flirtation and non-verbal sexual cues, making her susceptible to harassment and even sexual abuse.
Criminal Activity: Pain, loneliness and despair can lead to problems with drugs, sex, and alcohol. In their overwhelming need to fit in and make friends, some ASD children fall into the wrong peer group. Teens who abuse substances will use the autistic child’s naivety to get him to buy or carry drugs and liquor for their group.
If cornered by a police officer, for instance, a child on the Autism Spectrum scale often does not have the skill to answer the officer’s questions appropriately. For example, if the officer says, “Do you know how fast you were driving?” a spectrum child may reply bluntly, “Yes,” and thus appears to be a smart-aleck.
School Failures: Many ASD teens with their average to above average IQs sail through grammar school. Unfortunately, they encounter academic problems in middle and high school. They now have to deal with four to six teachers instead of one. The likelihood that a teacher will be indifferent or even hostile toward making special accommodations is certain.
Academic rigor becomes more nuanced: no longer is it only 2+2=4. The older student is now asked to write views that oppose their own or support hypotheses that go against their understanding. The ASD student now has to face a series of classroom environments with different classmates, odors, distractions, noise levels, and sets of expectations.
Autism Spectrum Disorder children, with their distractibility and difficulty organizing materials, face similar academic problems as students with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). A high school term paper or a science fair project becomes impossible to manage because no one has taught the Spectrum child to break the project up into a series of small steps. Even though the academic stress on an ASD teen can be overwhelming, school administrators may be reluctant to enroll him in special education at this late point in his educational career.
Depression and Acting Out: The teenage years are emotional for everyone. The hormonal changes and problems outlined above might mean that an ASD teen becomes emotionally overwhelmed. Childish tantrums reappear. Boys often act up by physically attacking a teacher or peer. They may experience “meltdowns” at home after another day filled with harassment, bullying, pressure to conform, and rejection. Suicide and drug addiction become real concerns, as the teen now has access to cars, drugs and alcohol.
The “saddest and most difficult time” can overwhelm not only the ASD teen, but also his family.