As they navigate adolescence, teenagers sometimes say they feel uncomfortable or trapped in their own bodies.
But for a certain group of teens, this feeling of entrapment has encompassed their entire lives. For these teens aren't only adjusting to the awkwardness of growing bodies and changing views, but are lacking the ability to communicate these concerns.
A teenager with autism goes through all of the regular difficulties associated with adolescence. Autistic teenagers experience the bodily changes, growing interest in relationships, and frustrations of regular adolescence, but this is all compounded by an inability to relate to others on an emotional and social level.
Teenagers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) find normal communications and social interactions almost impossible, at a time when these interactions are most important.
What is Autism?
Autism impairs the brain's development of both verbal and nonverbal communication skills. For example, they often are unable to maintain eye contact, appearing as if they aren't listening during a conversation.
They also have difficulty picking up on verbal cues, like tone of voice, sarcasm, or jokes, and often take statements literally, causing them confusion with idioms like “get a grip” or “kick the bucket.”
A teenager with autism also might not pick up on nonverbal cues in a conversation, such as smiles, frowns, or gestures.
Autism is often diagnosed at a very young age, and develops differently for each child. While some individuals eventually learn the social and communication skills necessary to attend regular classes, others are homeschooled or placed in special education settings.
Symptoms of Autism
Parents tend to notice the symptoms of autism by the time a child is 18- months to 2- years old. Symptoms might persist and grow stronger or weaker through time. Symptoms of autism include:
- Having difficulties with pretend play
- Overly sensitive to sight, touch, smell, or taste
- Displaying unusual distress if routines are changed
- Performing repetitive body movements
- Showing an unnatural attachment to objects
- Inability to communicate verbally or nonverbally
- Not responding to smiles
- Preferring solitary play instead of social play
- Shows aggression toward others
Source: New York Times Autism Health Guide
Autistic symptoms sometimes change with age and therapy, as parents attempt to get their children to engage correctly in social situations.
In Growing Up on the Spectrum: A Guide to Life, Love, and Learning for Teens and Young Adults with Autism and Asperger's, authors Lynn K. Koegel and Claire LaZebnik write about their personal experiences interacting with autistic teenagers.
Koegel worked with LaZebnik's autistic son, Andrew, at an early age. Now, Andrew is 17 years old, and is dealing with the social pressures of teenage life, while still working to develop the communication techniques necessary to maintain relationships.
Koegel and LaZebnik write that the teenage years become a balancing act of providing support for the autistic teen, while also encouraging independence. Through proper care during childhood, and work with therapists, Andrew tackled many of his autistic symptoms, and now attends a public school with other teens.
Koegel and LaZebnik designate sections of the book to allow Andrew to give personal insights about growing up with autism. Here, Andrew describes the self-management techniques he uses to reduce the symptoms of autism he displays during social settings:
Andrew’s self-management guide
Andrew states that he uses self-management to successfully recognize and reduce certain behaviors, which include talking out loud, finger twisting, biting his nails, and repeating the same word over and over in sentences without noticing.
Andrew makes a list of these behaviors, and records how often they occur.
Each time he catches himself displaying one of these symptoms, he puts a check mark on his list of symptoms. When he recognizes he's doing it, he begins to unconsciously reduce this behavior.
He also rewards himself when he successfully reduces these behaviors, such as buying a new videogame or seeing a movie.
Andrew says reducing these repetitive behaviors makes him feel happier, and makes him feel like he fits in more with the other teenagers.
Social concerns of autistic adolescents
Life as an autistic teen differs in almost every case.
By the time they are teenagers, some individuals with autism might attend regular classes with non-autistic students, while others are still enrolled in special education classes and support services.
Even though teenagers with autism have problems communicating their thoughts and emotions, they still desire friendships with others. Unfortunately, many of their peers are hesitant to interact with them, because of the social and behavioral issues associated with autism.
In “Loneliness and Social Support in Adolescent Boys with Autism Spectrum Disorders,” published in The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers examine how social deficits contribute to loneliness in adolescents with autism.
In this article, researcher Mathias Lasgaard examines 39 teens with autism and compares them to 199 non-autistic teens in a control group. Lasgaard provided the teens with a self-report loneliness scale that asked questions such as, “How often do you feel like part of a group of friends?” and “How often do you feel you lack companionship?”
Lasgaard found autism strongly predicted loneliness, with a full 21% of the 39 teens describing themselves as “always or often lonely.” A further 38% of the autistic teenagers reported they were “sometimes lonely.”
This, compared to 4% of the control group who reported always being lonely, suggests that even though autistic teens lack the communication skills to socialize with peers, they still crave social interaction..
Consider a 14-year-old high school boy with high-functioning autism. The boy attends regular classes with other students, and is able to participate in class.
But the boy's autism still makes him an outcast to the other students. He often prefers to stay alone during free time, because the other boys don't understand how the autism affects his ability to communicate with them. They don't understand why he appears distant when they speak with him, and they make fun of him when he doesn't understand jokes or sarcasm.
Because he hates the ridicule he faces, the boy avoids social situations altogether, but still wishes he had the companionship of a friend.
Lasgaard says that with social skills training, some autistic teens are able to manage some of their autistic symptoms, successfully interacting with their peers.
In “Social Skills Training for Adolescents with Asperger's Syndrome and High-functioning Autism,” published in The Journal of Autism and Development Disorders, researchers examined the effectiveness of skills training exercises in a group of boys with Asperger's and autism. (Asperger's is a form of high-functioning autism associated with social deficits, but not the severe language barriers of other forms of autism.)
In the study, researchers Jeanie Tse and others state that as individuals with autism approach their teenage years, their interest in social interactions increases, but their autism prevents them from forming relationships with others.
Tse sampled 46 autistic teenagers ages 13 to 18 and focused on increasing their abilities to communicate and interact in social situations through role-play exercises.
The group met weekly for 12 weeks, and each meeting started with an examination of the events and problems the autistic teenagers faced that week. The teens identified the social difficulties they faced, and Tse introduced new social skills the teens could practice.
For example, one role-play exercise focused on maintaining eye contact with others during conversation, while another focused on listening to others, and showing interest in their partners' daily activities.
As the teenagers gained confidence, they met together outside of therapy, holding semiformal dinners at restaurants where they practiced social and etiquette skills.
Parents and the teens themselves reported improvements in the teens' social functioning, as well as decreased isolation.
Because adolescence is generally the time when autistic teens become aware of their disorder, participating in activities like eating at restaurants, swimming at the pool, and volunteering makes them feel good about themselves, increasing their self-esteem.
Anxiety and Autism
Anxiety is often a serious concern for many teenagers, and the risk for autistic teenagers is even higher.
In an examination of possible treatments for anxiety in autistic teens, researchers Susan M. White and others state that anxiety is prevalent in between 40% to 45% of autistic teenagers.
The study, “Development of a Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention Program to Treat Anxiety and Social Deficits in Teens with High-Functioning Autism,” published in The Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, states that the social disabilities of autism do not disappear during adolescence, and that growing self-awareness often contributes to the development of anxiety.
White says that anxiety in autistic teenagers often interferes with initial development of social skills.
In order to both tackle anxiety and increase social skills, White developed an intervention treatment program based on cognitive behavioral therapy called Multimodal Anxiety and Social Skills Intervention (MASSI).
MASSI treats anxiety and autism as separate disorders that influence each other. Treated with MASSI, teenagers tackle their anxiety issues first, then work with therapists to develop improved social skills.
During MASSI, teenagers engage in individual, group, and family therapy. During individual therapy, the therapist discusses the concerns of the autistic teen, and explains how anxiety interferes with the teen's ability to develop social skills.
A teenager who associates negative experiences with social interaction would resist increasing social skills, for example. If this teen was bullied in his or her past, and associates social interactions with that experience, he or she might become extremely fearful at the prospect of any interaction.
Working with the teen through this problem, the therapist would suggest the development of anxiety management techniques, and might suggest exposure therapy for overcoming panic attacks and to increase the teen's comfort level when interacting socially.
After tackling anxiety, therapists turn to the development of social skills through role-play exercises and group therapy. In a group setting, autistic teenagers are encouraged to practice the social skills they learned in individual therapy.
Participants in group therapy work to initiate and maintain conversations, and join groups of people in the middle of conversations. Therapists provide a positive environment that encourages the teenagers to look at social situations in a more positive light.
The teenagers also provide feedback to their parents during the therapy, summarizing what they've learned during each session. This helps to reinforce the social skills the teen learned during therapy, and also gives the teen a sense of independence, telling his or her parents what they've learned.
Helping Autistic Teenagers
Therapy and intervention techniques are effective ways for autistic teenagers to improve social skills and integrate into society. To meet this demand, more therapists and psychologists specializing in autism and teenage psychology are needed.
If you're interested in helping autistic teenagers, request information from psychology schools.
Autism in the Classroom
Some people think autistic students typically attend separate schools and classes, but the reality is that students with disabilities make up a significant portion of the public school student population.
According to the National Longitudinal Transition Study 2 (NLTS2), a report from the U.S. Department of Education about special needs students, most autistic students spend at least a portion of their time in a public academic setting.
“Secondary School Experiences of Students with Autism,” a specific section of the NLTS2 report, examined 11,000 students with disabilities, including 1,000 students with autism, who received education in public schools.
Facts from the report show:
- 92% of autistic teens attend at least one regular academic class with other students
- 86% of autistic teens also attend at least one special education class
- Students with autism are less likely to respond orally when asked questions in class (48%) compared to non-autistic teens (66%)
- 49% of autistic teens receive alternative tests
- 25% of autistic teens have tests read to them
- 38% of autistic teens are given shorter or different homework assignments
- 41% of autistic teens receive slower-paced instruction
- 80% of autistic teens receive assistance to enhance their participation in class
- 57% of autistic teens receive instructional support from teacher aids or assistants
- 32% of autistic teens receive more feedback of their work from teachers
Overall, the report shows that with additional help, autistic teenagers are able to participate in general education settings with their peers.