Teenagers With Autism
TEENAGERS WITH AUTISM
Children, teens and adults on the autism spectrum can be very, very different from one individual to the next. The term autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been introduced in order to make clear that there are many degrees of severity. The chief signs of ASD are social isolation, lack of eye contact, poor language skills and difficulty understanding another’s perspective.
Teens with autism, like other teens are often dealing with the unexpected mood shifts. Although this is characteristic of the teen years, teenagers with ASD can have their sensory system and their senses triggered easily, more so than typical peers.
Much like a perfume sales person squirts customers as they walk by, we all notice the aroma of perfume that lingers in our brain. This sometimes unwelcome experience is similar to the visual playback of excessive overhead lighting for an individual with ASD or continuous humming of machines, the light fixtures, and office or kitchen equipment. It can become difficult to focus when processing all this stimulation. It feels, to some teens who have told me years later, “Like I’m swimming the opposite of everyone else.”
For some teens with ASD, communication with other people can be a problem. Many teenagers with autism have difficulty understanding the common use of metaphors. They tend to interpret language very literally. For example, in the statement, “I was trying to do my homework, but I hit a brick wall,” a teenager with autism may hear this statement as if the speaker actually physically hit the brick wall. “Wow! That must have hurt!” concludes the teen. What was meant, and the unexpected literal interpretation, confuses further conversation and leads to difficulty establishing meaningful young adult relationships.
Communication and socializing can be difficult as individuals on the autism spectrum usually have difficulty mimicking other people’s actions. This becomes a real problem in the teen years. Mimicking others is how many of us learn to do new things. The inability for young adults with ASD to watch and learn from others, results in a significant learning challenge in our current educational model.
Most educators develop multi-sensory curriculums to appeal to those learners who acquire knowledge in a different manner. Taking the time to figure out the best way to educate a teen with ASD, helps all students. All of us have unique ways we make sense of the world. Teachers that are good at teaching those with ASD are good at teaching all students. That’s the “take home tip” teachers have told me year in and year out.
Parents have told me the same thing. As they develop skill in guiding their young adult with ASD, they gain wisdom about themselves and can see the world from a new and refreshing perspective. Parents are grateful for the fun and surprising way their young adult with ASD walks through their life. Raising teens in a conscious manner, helps the entire human culture.
HOW DOES AUTISM AFFECT THE BRAIN OF A TEENAGER?
Although we have made great advancements in medical science, we continue to have difficulty studying all portions of the brain accurately, particularly when we are looking at human function. The complexities and the interactions between one part of the brain and another becomes too varied to predict or understand.
This is especially true when we are looking at autistic behavior and overall function. As parents we want to know how functional our teenager with autism can become. Will they be able to live independently?
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) affects the brain by altering the flow of sensory data travelling toward the brain. We look at a sunset and it is the view that is the visual sensory data travelling from the eyes to the brain. What we see is the sensory data.
The data is transferred to the brain by specialized nerves. We see the sunset due to the action of the optic nerves. We hear the waves crash due to the action of the auditory nerves. We process the feeling of gravity and respond with appropriate balance by way of the kinesthetic processing system (our movement system).
How an individual perceives sensory data impacts their understanding of the world around them. Our understanding of what surrounds us, informs our motor system and tells it how to act. Individuals with ASD process the sensory environment in a manner that seems distinct from many of those around them. The perception of sensory data is very individualized. Our ability to focus in and out of various sounds and sights is often taken for granted. That sensory flexibility is not as available to the autistic teen.
Most of us reading this text right now can look at the monitor characters while at the same time filter out background noise. When we need to, we can focus our hearing and tune in on the target, such as the teacher’s voice, or a phone call against background soccer field noise. Older students with autism have difficulty filtering out not-so-distant and not-so-background sounds, like other classmates in the hallway, the wind rattling the windowpanes, or the rattle of the overhead air conditioner.
Attempting to focus-in on the correct target and filter out details about the environment that don’t need your attention, is easy for most individuals. It seems almost everyone can do this without being told and can do so with ease. Teens with ASD, however, find this to be very effortful.
Sometimes adolescents with ASD work very hard to control their sensory system in order to tune into the appropriate target, such as the teacher or their boss, and tune out other sensations such as their scratchy shirt collar. These teens have little additional energy for small mishaps or inconveniences. Sometimes these small mishaps and inconveniences can escalate into not-so-invisible discontent. Adolescence with autism can be moody just like other teens.
In each class, new part-time job and every new environment, the teen with autism must learn to navigate and teach their sensory system what to attend to. Sometimes permission to take a break and to tune out completely can provide a reasonable accommodation and restorative break for these eager unique learners.
As parents, we know that our child can often respond with excellent mannerisms and calmness with the ability to transition easily and return to the task at hand. Alternatively, this same terrific child can be disruptive to themselves and others. Many, many times these adolescents with autism spectrum disorder are able to demonstrate their high intelligence through good math scores, spelling scores, and reading comprehension, but their ability to manage themselves within the structure of the classroom or social home environment seems incredibly immature.
The adolescent with ASD can have a tremendous aptitude for learning. Through necessity they have learned sufficient strategies to gain attention and have their needs met. Sometimes the social and communication strategies have not evolved or developed to age-appropriate expectations. One of my very dear friend’s son was offered a job drawing cartoons for a nature journal, a very mature responsibility. This same teen would also zip down onto his knees and bark for fun when he felt happy. Cute and joyful, but unexpected behavior for a teen.
So, our role as the adults in the lives of these future-makers, is to make space for their uniqueness, provide alternative behavior and strategies, and celebrate risk-taking new social behavior and celebrate positive growth no matter what!
HOW TO DEAL WITH AUTISM IN THE TEEN YEARS
During the teen years, parenting and educating the young adult with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) becomes a different and new developmental stage. The brain is changing during these years. Understanding typical sensory-motor development helps us better understand the autistic brain.
The brain is the central operating station for incoming data from our sensory system. Our sense of sight, vision, hearing and touch all send information to the brain. The brain collaborates these senses with other bits of information regarding our environment, our responses, reactions and movement as well as our memories of past experience.
An infant will quickly learn to turn their head and face the door when footsteps of their parents’ are heard. The auditory input of the parents’ feet on the floor is processed. The auditory data facilitates the visual system to turn the head to look and verify what’s going on in the infant’s immediate environment.
In this way, a cascade of other sensory information will be triggered to mature. Over time, the infant’s expectation of nourishment and their heightened sense of smell and taste bud development will communicate with the infant’s emotional centers to trigger a sense of well-being.
At different stages of development, the child’s maturation will change the emphasis on which part of the sensory system seems most important. For example, as an infant the lips and tongue and entire oral aperture are the most important way for an infant to gain information about their world. During infancy, it seems that everything goes in their mouth!
Once the child’s tactile processing center is developed, sensations in the skin mature, particularly in the fingertips. At this “tactile stage” the child begins to utilize their fingers to touch everything in sight!
In adolescents, the primary sensory system becomes visual. Parents encourage their teenage children to, “Please stop staring!” As compared to the younger child stage of, “Quit touching, please!”
For the teenager with autism, these developmental stages may be skewed. Usually, however, the progression is similar. Oral exploration proceeds tactile, then visual follows. Recognizing how your teen is taking information in either visually, through touch or oral exploration, you can better understand their needs.
The teen that still puts the collar of their shirt in their mouth or their pencil top in their mouth, needs oral facilitation. Allow socially safe time places and methods to have their needs met. Allow chewing on carrot sticks, fruit leather, and designated chewable fidgets. Compliment this developmental need with opportunities to develop the next stage, tactile. Encourage physically interacting with varied textures and materials, games and chores.
Understanding the teen brain and the teen brain of an autistic individual, can help you develop workable strategies. We want to guide and be guided by the actions of teens and their energetic approach to life! Unique learners and teens on the autism spectrum can make great contributions to the world. The world continually awaits the next hero to see a new solution to overcome an old problem.
The answer to how to deal with autism in the teen years is to make way for them, guide them and hope they can patiently deal with us!
HOW DO YOU CURE AUTISM?
Just like many, many people with a lifetime medical condition, an individual with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can learn to live with the symptoms. They learn to maximize the positive and to minimize any negative impact that the symptoms of autism can have on independent functioning.
A person with rheumatoid arthritis will learn to utilize assistive devices to open a jar of pickles versus straining their hand and finger joints causing discomfort later. An individual with autism spectrum disorder with hypersensitivity to sounds, may use noise cancellation headsets when they feel the need to focus on the task at hand and not strain their sensory system and reduce endurance for later mental gymnastics.
The symptoms of autism can be lessened by each one of us developing an understanding of how the environment impacts an individual with ASD. We all perceive our environment through our sensory system. We will change our behavior based on what’s going on around us. Our eyes see traffic congestion up ahead as we drive, for example, and we change our course of action and take side streets to our destination. We sense our environment and alter our behavior accordingly. Our senses collaborate and tell us what to do. But what if your senses collaborate in a different manner?
An individual with autism spectrum disorder will base their decisions on their own way of perceiving their environment. For example, their own sensory system, for example, may hyper‑accentuate the brightness of the lights. The visual brightness may seem so excessive to an individual with autism spectrum disorder that they must shield their eyes or divert their visual attention. They may not be able to continue with the task at hand. Neuro-typical teens not as sensitive to overhead lighting wonder why their peer always squints their eyes or places their hand on their forehead.
In this example, knowing in advance that there is a hyper-responsiveness to bright lights is important. This problem is a symptom of the life-long medical condition of autism. Anticipating what triggers symptoms can help you plan circumstances with more favorable lighting or other environmental considerations.
Less distraction from bright lights and more focus on the task at hand is not the cure for autism, but a manageable solution. Over the years, my friends and students with ASD have re-connected with me. Most recently, I was amazed to hear Leanna’s great idea. It’s like ergonomics for the autistic sensory system. Leanna helped me to realize that it was possible to minimize some of the ‘annoying symptoms’ that individuals with ASD speak of.
Many teens with autism and sensory processing difficulties, can maintain their focus at hand when continuously able to fidget with either their hands or feet. Desk‑friendly fidget objects are kept on the desktop for hand fidgets. Various feet fidgets can be made available underneath the desk. Three-inch diameter foam rollers make great foot fidgets as well as a loop of resistive band or tubing to place around the legs of the chair.
Sometimes the use of essential oils or scented candles can be helpful for those teens that do well with background scents.
By the way, the freedom to stand or to sit but move periodically throughout the school day, is a standard operating procedure for a teen with ASD.
For more ideas on strategies for teen unique learners, see the “Strategies to Try” section at the end of each chapter in my book, Unique Learner Solutions, available to purchase by clicking HERE or Amazon.com.