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Helping Autistic Children Through the Teen Years

written by: Debbie Roome • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 5/27/2011

Teenage years are stormy at the best of times and autism can add to the raft of problems. Read on to find out more about autistic teenagers and how they can cope with the challenges they face.

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    The Challenges of Life as a Teen with Autism

    Autism is characterized by difficulties with communication and social skills. Because the teenage years are socially oriented, this can cause a problem with autistic adolescents. School life is largely a social event and cliques and groups are part of daily life. This can cause heartache to any teen but is exacerbated in those with autism. Here are some of the ways the lives of autistic teenagers may be affected:

    • Communication is weak and language skills may be poor. This will set them apart from their peers and they will often be excluded from conversations. In extreme cases of autism, the person may be non-verbal which makes things even more difficult.
    • Social skills are clumsy and in a teenage environment where personality and charm are important, an autistic person will be on the fringe. They often find it hard to make friends and there for spend considerable periods of time alone.
    • Fashion sense does not come easily to autistic teens and this may set them apart as being odd or weird.
    • Bullying is common as an autistic teen stands out as being different and 'odd'. They may be mocked and teased or the bullying may develop into physical abuse.
    • Sexuality surfaces during adolescence and the autistic teen has to learn how to deal with a changing body and fluctuating hormones.
    • In some autistic youngsters, seizures begin in their teens and become an ongoing problem. Although they may not be noticeable they can affect academic progress and behavior patterns. In some cases the seizures develop into convulsions.
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    Dealing with the Challenges of Autism in Teens

    There is no magic solution that can remove the challenges facing autistic teenagers but there are ways to help them through these difficult years. Here are some suggestions that have been proved effective:

    • Communication and social skills can be taught. There are classes available where autistic children are taught the basics of body language, conversation and language. Role play is part of this and among other things they are taught how to respond to teasing, how to join in a conversation and how to put warmth and inflection into their voice.
    • If an autistic teen has a special interest or hobby, this may provide a starting point for friendship. Provide opportunities for them to mix with like-minded teens at clubs or groups and it may be the beginning of a good social life.
    • Fashion is extremely important to teens and a youngster who wears outdated, frumpy clothing will have a problem with acceptance. A teenage sibling can help them choose some up-to-date clothing or a teen fashion store can discuss a clothes makeover.
    • Bullying is common, and adults and teachers need to look out for this when an autistic child is in their care. Autistic teens may keep quiet if they are being bullied as often they don’t know how to handle it. Teaching them to say 'no' to things that they don't want to do and to ask for help are essential. Role playing where possible bullying scenarios are acted out can give a teen confidence to say 'no' when confronted with the reality.
    • Sex education is important for all teens but autistic adolescents may need some extra help. In some cases inappropriate touching is a problem and masturbating in public may be an issue. Parents can offer guidance although they may find this embarrassing. Using a book or video can reduce the awkwardness of the situation or a specially trained educator can answer questions and set boundaries.
    • It is estimated that about 25% of autistic children develop seizures in their teenage years. It is believed this is caused by the dramatic change in hormone levels. Anti-seizure medication can be helpful and the teen should have ongoing medical supervision as long as they continue.
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    References

    Disability Resource Directory, http://www.disability-resource.com/Autism/autism-and-the-teenage-years.html

    Science Daily, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/04/090407174813.htm