The goal of every parent is to help a child with autism cope with social difficulties and achieve independence. Many people on the spectrum can find jobs, build families, and live independently.
Autistic Spectrum Disorder is a condition that manifests as early as nine months old and has to be managed throughout adulthood. We know that the teenage years are a pivotal point in a child's development, which is why it is crucial to address the needs and behaviors of children and adolescents with autism. The good news is that early intervention is associated with better life outcomes.
Parenting with Autism
There are no words to describe the struggle of parenting kids with developmental disorders, which can be a challenge for both the child and the entire family.
The challenge begins when you notice your kid lagging behind other kids. After a diagnosis of autism is made, it can seem overwhelming at first as we want the best for our children. Although it can be challenging to accept, your child is going to be okay.
The next few years are a struggle from constantly mustering the energy to encourage your kid to be understanding, staying calm when the tantrums come, and getting a call from school about your child's behavior or challenges learning.
The situation can be especially challenging for moms, who exert more energy in giving special attention to their kids. Sometimes, one of the parents may choose to work from home or not at all, as they have to devote time to therapy appointments and their child's exceptional needs. Giving more time to a special needs kid may mean little time for self-care. It may also affect intimacy between the parents, as managing behaviors and appointments can take its toll.
What is Autism?
Autism is diagnosed within the first two years of a child's life after showing an inability to develop socially and interact. Autistic children avoid eye contact, do not respond to their names or show facial expressions, do not play with other children, and may throw tantrums in a noisy environment.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder characterized by difficulties with social skills, repetitive behaviors, limited interests, speech, and nonverbal communication.
Parenting a Teen with Autism
The Netflix series “Atypical” starts when an Autistic kid named Sam decides that he wants to have a girlfriend.
Sam was diagnosed with autism as a young boy, and every family member has a way of coping with his behavior.
His mom Elsa entirely dedicated herself to her son, setting aside her love for dancing and spending more time at home.
His younger sister Casey became very independent and mature and helped Sam in school. Casey is very protective of her brother, who has been bullied several times. As a result, Casey despised bullying in all forms and ended up punching a girl when she saw her bullying another girl.
Their father, police officer Doug, had difficulty accepting his son's diagnosis. He left home for a while, although he returned within months to become a better father.
This show represents the many facets of loving someone with a neurodevelopmental disorder. It brings its joys but can also be very challenging for the child and their loved ones.
Love Sick Sam
Throughout the series, we see Sam struggle with autism as a teen and being helped by his sister Casey and friend Sahid.
As Sam cannot interpret social signals, Casey and Sahid taught him basic behaviors such as when to tell if someone is interested, how to smile, and how to dress up.
The series intensifies as Elsa, who has dedicated the past 16 years closely caring for Sam, struggles to let go when it's time for Sam to be more independent. As Sam was uncomfortable in public places as a child, Elsa struggled to accept Sam's decision to go to the mall and select his clothes from now on.
The story continues with Sam struggling to meet girls initially because he can be selfish and easily misunderstood. However, with tips from Casey and Sahid, he was able to move forward and get someone interested in him.
Sam's therapist assures him that people within the Autism spectrum can find jobs, get married, and establish happy families. And in a world with increasingly more neurodiverse individuals, we know this to be true.
Autism in Young Adults
As a parent, it's natural to feel a little anxious when your child becomes a teenager. But if your child has Autism, you may wonder how adolescence's physical and hormonal changes affect them.
High school, a world of confusing and contradictory adolescent social interaction, can be a minefield for someone with inflexible thinking and social anxiety. The world is so much more than black and white and those with autism may struggle to see the nuances of grey.
Children on the autism spectrum vary greatly and will be affected differently by adolescence. However, parents can generally expect some of the following:
- Autistic adults tend to be less hyperactive than children and have fewer repetitive and maladaptive behaviors.
- With structure and routine, may become more independent.
- They are developing better skills for everyday life – like getting dressed, handling money, or making a sandwich.
- Few teens with autism experience the onset of seizures, although most do not develop epilepsy.
- Sleep problems in childhood can carry over into adolescence when insomnia and excessive daytime sleepiness become the most significant concerns.
- Anxiety is common.
- The gap between students with Autism and their typical peers grows wider during the teenage years as teens with Autism may struggle with Executive Functioning.
What is Executive Functioning?
Executive function is a cognitive ability to reason, plan and remember. We rely on it daily as we complete tasks, think flexibly, and control our emotions.
They skills are different than attention but we need an alert brain to be able to plan and prioritize for a future event.
Executive function skills can be impaired by conditions such as ADHD, depression, anxiety, etc. These difficulties can present themselves in many ways, such as problems with focus, following directions, and managing emotions.
Executive Functions include:
- Adaptable Thinking
- Working Memory
- Time Management
Something as mundane as food shopping requires multiple executive skills.
Teens with autism often mature more slowly than their peers in terms of executive skills. This can manifest in difficulties with flexibility, organization, starting new activities, and working memory.
Their restricted interests especially get in the way transitioning and starting new tasks. This affects children on the spectrum at home and school.
Children with Autism in High School
High school students have a lot on their plate. They are expected to juggle multiple classes, keep track of assignments and books, follow complex directions, and complete multi-phase projects while meeting deadlines. Teens on the autism spectrum will likely need more family and school support to manage these demands.
While elementary schools are more sensitive to students' varying emotional and mental health needs, high school educators are often more detached and focused on academics. Students are expected to be more self-sufficient. In these instances, the teen may benefit from working with a psychologist.
Explaining Puberty to a Teen with Autism
Tweens and teens on the spectrum may need more guidance in understanding puberty and sexual development due to their tendency to miss “grey areas.” Sex education isn't black or white, so patience and care to help teens learn about human development is needed . Parents may help them learn about puberty and the different ways the body can change naturally.
Children with ASD must be taught about the biological underpinnings of reproduction and how it relates to social and dating behavior in a way that taps into their logical and visual brain.
Extra time and attention around the unspoken rules in dating is always a good idea, as these things can be confusing even for the most socially savvy teen.
Grooming and Personal Hygiene
Help your teen keep their self-esteem and avoid social rejection by teaching them the importance of grooming and personal hygiene, including showers, deodorant use and shaving.
Some adjustments may be needed along the way. If they're uncomfortable due to sensory needs. This is an opportunity to learn about perspective taking and helping a teen in the spectrum understand how others view grooming and hygiene.
Best Ways to Find Friends
A large national study of teens receiving special education services found that students with ASD are less likely to join social activities. More than 40 percent never saw friends outside of school. Half never received an invite to activities. For 54 percent, friends never called.
Having worked with kids on the spectrum for 30 years, finding a good friend or two when you have autism can be a challenge.
A smaller study found that social withdrawal worsened between ages 9 and 18, regardless of IQ. The hardest part of adolescence is not having friends to share the ups and downs of adolescence.
Instead, these highly introverted teens may turn their attention to what is called restricted interests. These are areas where individuals with ASD show a high level of interest and knowledge. For example, trains, sports or some other focused interest.k When channeled well, these special interests may encourage them to join hobby groups and find a connection.
In Sam's case, he found a girlfriend who shares his interest in studying. They started their friendship as study partners.
Just as kids need friends, parents also need friends who understand the autism struggle. We need a tribe who accepts and understands the unique challenges of autism. A local autism society can help connect one to others who face the same gifts and struggles.
Common Myths About Autism
Some Tests Easily Diagnose Autism
Autism can be observed in kids between 9 months old to 4 years old as social communication and interaction skills can be challenging for kids with ASD.
Here are signs of autism in early childhood:
- Avoids eye contact
- Do not respond to their name by nine months old
- Does not show emotions by nine months old
- Does not play simple interactive games
- Uses few gestures by age 1
- Does not point to show fascination by 18 months old
- Does not notice when others are hurt or upset by age 2
- Does not play with other children by age 3
- Does not pretend to be something else, like a teacher or superhero, during play by four years old
- Does not sing, dance, or act by five years of age
ASD is diagnosed based on defined clinical symptoms. However, it may be hard to detect early on.
Due to lack of information and a misunderstanding of what autism looks like along the spectrum, Autism is usually diagnosed at age 4 or later, although it could have been diagnosed reliably at age 2. An early ASD diagnosis can give parents and healthcare providers more time to take steps to improve brain and behavioral development. It is all about that extra time to reinforce desired behaviors that help kids with ASD more immediately but with future social and behavioral outcomes too.
Only Boys Have Autism
There is a prevalence of the neurological disorder in boys than in girls. This skewed sex ratio has been recognized since the first cases of Autism in the 1940s. The exact reasons for the imbalance remain unclear. It could be rooted in biological differences between the sexes.
With that being said, girls are often missed and diagnosed later than boys. One theory as to why this occurs is that girls tend to have less coordination and behavioral issues.
People with Autism are Antisocial
People with Autism take time to adapt to their surroundings and understand other people's behavior. They may be bothered if people touch their things or make noise due to sensory issues. However, they may open up with someone once trust is established and do well with predictable routines that lower their anxiety.
Autism is a Childhood Condition
Autism starts in childhood, manifesting in the slow development of social and communication skills but isn't something one outgrows. .
The condition can be managed by coaching to foster development and constant encouragement to become independent.
People with Autism Don't Feel Emotions
People with autism can feel emotions. However, they are not adept at communicating feelings with strangers and getting social cues. They need time and practice with understanding the emotions of others.
If You Can't Make Eye Contact, You Might Have Autism
There are many reasons why some people can't make eye contact and autism is only one of them. Difficulty with sensory processing, shyness, and anxiety could be other reasons why maintaining eye contact could be a challenge. On the flip side, some with autism can easily maintain eye contact, so it shouldn't exclude a diagnosis either,
Gastrointestinal Issues Aren't a Common Issue for Those with Autism
Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) tend to have more medical issues, including gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as abdominal pain, constipation, and diarrhea, than their peers. These issues are often seen early in life and co-occur with other behaviors.
Autism Results From Bad Parenting
Autism isn't a parenting problem but rather results from several risk factors, including genetics, metabolic imbalances, exposure to heavy metals and environmental toxins, and a maternal history of viral infections.
It is best addressed by taking a multi-pronged approach to diet, calming the brain, and addressing social skills, behavior and learning as early as possible.
All Autistics Are Like Rain Man
Children with autism fall into different parts of the spectrum and have different manifestations. Some kids have very high IQ’s and others cognitive skills fall in the intellectually disabled range. While all kids with ASD display restricted interests, not all individuals show the same abilities as Dustin Hoffman did in the movie Rain Man.
People with Autism Can't Form Relationships
Children with autism mature at a slower pace than their peers but are very capable of friendships and bonds with others. However, if the condition is managed early, they can cope well in school, grow past puberty, find a job, succeed in romantic and social relationships, and build a family.
Autism is a Disease
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that affects how autistic individuals interact with others, communicate, learn, and behave. However, it can be managed so the child can cope, learn, and achieve independence.
People with Autism Are Either Gensusis or Intellectually Disabled
Autism occurs along a spectrum, with some individuals' cognitive skills falling below an IQ of 70, intellectually disabled, or intellectually gifted with an IQ above 130. Each person with ASD have unique cognitive skills with the majority falling in the moderate level of global functioning.
Children with Autism Are Typically Diagnosed by Age Two
While early detection can go a long way for those with Autism, it can be very challenging to diagnose young children with more subtle signs. That means most aren't diagnosed until age four or later.
There is a Medication For Autism
There isn't a single medication that is curative for autism. Developmental delays are best addressed by helping an autistic person understand social situations through coaching, diet changes, and specific therapies such as PR, OT, speech and neurofeedback.
Integrative Therapies Can't Help Autism
Some components of Integrative Therapies, such as nutrition, present the best ways to nurture and calm the brain to improve focus and boost positive emotions in children and teens with autism. Seeing a therapist may help the teen process changes in his environment. In some cases, speech therapy, OT and PT also considered.
There are many Integrative Therapies options such as neurofeedback and many are backed by scientific evidence. They also come with no side effects and serve to calm the brain naturally.
Interactive Autism Network (2022), Autism in Teen Years
Always remember… “Calm Brain, Happy Family™”
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