Thirteen Things…

Living with your child, you don’t see the changes little by little as they happen. One day, I looked at my son, Jeremy, and realized he was already up to my chin, and that he was growing facial hair. His behaviour started to change as well. He’d always been compliant, but now he started showing those teaching and living with him that he had a different opinion about what we wanted him to do. He started to show his need for more independence and control over
his schedule.

Autism and adolescence can each be interesting to say the least. Together, they form a volatile mix. No matter the functioning level of your pre-teen or teen he or she is changing and growing and needs to be made aware of that in a way he or she can understand.  If you are the parent, here are 13 things you should know before a child on the spectrum becomes an adolescent.

Non-compliance: it may not be autism, it may be adolescence. Something happens when children turn into teenagers. They go from demanding your attention to wanting their independence. For those on the spectrum, it may look like non-compliance; they don’t seem to want to follow through on your requests anymore. As a parent it may be hard to appreciate, but this is a necessary development. Being appropriately non-compliant is a positive step towards self-advocacy. However, it is important to differentiate between appropriate teenage non-compliance, and problem behaviours that must be stopped.   As a parent it’s important to support your teen as he or she struggles to become their own person.

Teenagers need to learn to make their own choices. Giving choices to your growing teen will teach him or her about decision making and taking responsibility for his or her choices, as well as giving him or her practice towards becoming more in control as an adult. Remember, as he or she gets older, they will need to be more involved in planning their future life. By letting them make choices now about their everyday activities (within your parameters to start) you are teaching them a valuable life skill.
Chores teach responsibility. Teens need to learn that living with other people entails responsibilities as well as pleasures. Having to do certain chores teaches the teen to be responsible for himself or herself as well as the importance of taking an active role in the community in which he or she lives. Depending on the ability level of the teen, there are different ways in which he or she can contribute to the household.
Explain to your child about his or her changing body. Imagine how scary it must be to realize your body is going through some strange metamorphosis and you don’t know why, and yet there is nothing you can do about it. This is especially difficult for those who do not like change. Whether or not your child can communicate that he or she understands what you are saying, it is important to explain about the changing male and female body in simple terms and frequently. Otherwise, your teen may be overly anxious and agitated when she starts menstruating or when he has wet dreams.   Using visuals involving drawings, life-like puzzles of the human body and simple words may be helpful, depending on the learning style of your child.

Watch out for seizures. One out of every four teenagers will develop seizures during puberty.  Although the exact reason is not known, this seizure activity may be due to hormonal changes in the body.   For many, the seizures are small and sub-clinical, not typically detected by simple observation. Some signs that a teen   may be experiencing sub-clinical seizures include making little or no academic gains after doing well during childhood and pre-teen years, losing some behavioural and / or cognitive gains, or exhibiting behaviour problems such as self injury, aggression and severe tantrums that do not appear to have an antecedent or pattern.

Masturbation is a fact of life. Let’s face it: this is a normal activity that almost all teenagers engage in. Once discovered, it is hard to stop, especially for those who enjoy self-stimulatory activities and who can be obsessive compulsive. It’s going to take place no matter what you do, so the best approach is to teach your teen that this is an activity to be done in private. Designate a private place in the home (his or her bedroom) as the only place this activity may be allowed. If masturbation is occurring at school, it should not be allowed. The student should be redirected and told he or she can have private time at home. This necessitates good communication between home and school. He or she must learn that his or her private place at home is the only acceptable place for this most private act.

Self-regulation is a needed life skill. An important skill for every teen to learn is the ability to control his or her reactions to emotional feelings and sensory overload. Hopefully, by the time he or she becomes a teenager, they will have learned how to recognise the emotions they are feeling and realise when he or she is getting close to being overwhelmed.  Once he or she is able to recognise that matters are heading towards a meltdown, he or she needs to learn what to do to decompress and be allowed access to those options. In school this could mean signalling to the aide or teacher he or she needs a break and having a ‘safe place’ or quiet room to go to, or be allowed to take a walk. At home, teens should have their own quiet spot to retreat to.

Self-esteem is the foundation for success. Without self-esteem, it is hard to feel confident and reach whatever potential you have. For others to respect you and value your contributions, you must feel valued and worthy.  If your teenager is constantly receiving negative messages about his or her deficits rather than positive feedback about his or her strengths, they will come to believe they are a failure.  Teens need to be told when they are doing something right and how much it is appreciated, and given strategies to help them with their challenges. Teens can be at a high risk for depression, so parents should try to ensure that their teen knows they are accepted, valued and loved.

Self-advocacy is required for independence. No matter his or her level of functioning, learning some self advocacy skills is necessary. Eventually, your teen will be living away from home and will not be under your protection, requiring them to be able to make their needs and desires known. All teenagers need to be involved in planning their future.  A good place to start is to make sure your teen has a sense of awareness of his or her strengths and weaknesses and how he or she is different from others. Using visual lists of words and pictures can be helpful. In this way the teen can have a better understanding of what areas he or she may need to improve in or require assistance, and which areas are his or her strong points to build upon.

Relationships and sexuality are topics that need discussing. Even with our neuro-typical teens, sexuality is a topic that parents are not that fond of discussing.  However, it is necessary to talk to your teen on the spectrum about sex and the many types of relationships that exist between people.  It is naïve to think that because your child is on the spectrum, he or she won’t need this information. Teens talk, and the locker room is not really the best place for your teen to get his or her information on sex. No matter the functioning level of your child, he or she needs to know about appropriate / inappropriate greetings, touch and language.

Bullying is a serious problem and should be treated as such. Bullying at any level is not an individual problem, it is a school and community problem and can range from verbal taunts to physical encounters. Unless the school has a ‘no tolerance’ attitude towards bullying from the top down, your child may be at risk.  Ensuring that your teen learns about the meaning of non-verbal behaviours and the hidden curriculum (i.e. the un-stated rules in social situations) will be helpful. Enlisting the help of a neuro-typical teen or sibling when shopping for clothes or getting a new hairstyle can give your child at least the semblance of fitting in.

The teen years: preparation for real life. After the early intervention years, the teen years are the most important years in your child’s life. When your child leaves the educational system, whether he or she is heading for supported employment,  sheltered employment, self-employment, or post-secondary education, he or she needs to learn as much as they can as a preparation for real life while they are still in the educational system.  Thinking and planning on what he or she hopes to be doing in 5 years or 10 years from now will help determine what goals he or she should be working on and what he or she should be learning in school.

Parents, you need to take time out for yourself. Don’t forget, with all the responsibilities you have as a parent of an adolescent on the spectrum, you need to take some time out for yourself. Whether you take a short break everyday to take a walk, exercise, or engage in a favourite activity, or a weekly evening out at with your significant other, you need to recharge your batteries.  This is also positive modelling for your teen or pre-teen, teaching them that although life can be stressful for all of us, we need to find ways to manage our stress and enjoy life.

Recently, I was looking around the house for Jeremy. I knocked on his bedroom door.  He opened the door a crack, and I could hear ‘Fall Out Boy’ playing and he was holding one of his ‘Guitar World’ magazines.  “Go away, Mom,” he said, and I did.  Jeremy is significantly impacted by his autism, yet moments such as this one are great reminders that he is first and foremost a teenager, with his own personality, his own wants and wishes. It’s all a part of becoming his own person, in preparation for adulthood. Welcome to adolescence!

Chantal Sicile-Kira

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