Your guide to raising an autistic teen

by Laurel Pretorius
The teen phase is challenging enough for parent and child but is it even more so when navigating with an autistic teen?
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The teen phase is challenging enough for parent and child but is it even more so when navigating an autistic teen? By Laurel Pretorius.

Parenting is a journey filled with various stages, each presenting its own set of challenges and joys. As your child enters the teenage years, it’s quite natural to feel apprehensive. Teens have a reputation for being rebellious, moody, experimental and having a distinct , some might call, selfish attitude.

So, when your teen is autistic it is understandable that your apprehension quadruples because along with the usual teen stuff comes many other unique considerations.

Autistic teen: factors to consider 

Karen Sparks, whose 15-year-old son, Alexander, has autism reveals what to expect when your neurodivergent child is on the brink of teendom.

  1. Teen hormones

When teens experience hormonal changes, this can influence their emotions, behaviour, and overall well-being. However, these changes may manifest differently if your teen is autistic. For example, it can affect sensory sensitivities, emotional regulation, and social interactions in unique ways compared to neurotypical peers.

It’s crucial for parents to be aware of potential challenges related to hormonal shifts and to approach these changes with patience and understanding.

  1. Communication challenges

Neurodivergent teens can face very different communication challenges from those experienced by neurotypical teens. There may be difficulty with social cues, expressive language, and non-verbal communication can impact their ability to navigate relationships.

Karen’s son Alexander is non-verbal, and has only recently started communicating more effectively using AAC (Augmentative and Alternative Communication) via an app called Grid3 on his iPad. She says when your autistic child enters their teens, “you need to focus on effective communication (verbal or non-verbal) to prevent their frustration while building confidence. Work constantly on getting them out there in the world.”

Basically, encourage open communication and provide alternative means of expression, if necessary, to help your teen articulate their thoughts and feelings.

  1. Sensory overload

People with autism may have heightened sensory sensitivities. The teenage years can exacerbate these sensitivities, making certain environments or activities overwhelming.

Be attentive to your teen’s sensory needs, create a safe space where they can retreat if necessary, and work together to find coping mechanisms that help manage sensory overload.

  1. Behavioural changes

While neurotypical teens can typically push boundaries and behave unacceptably at times, the difference is that autistic teens may exhibit behaviours that are considered atypical or challenging. It’s therefore important to distinguish between typical teenage behaviour and behaviours related to their neurodivergence.

Establishing clear and consistent boundaries while recognising and respecting their individual needs can help strike a balance between fostering independence and providing necessary support. “Also, remember to not suddenly expect so much more of them in terms of behaviour just because they look so grown up,” says Karen.

  1. Unique support

Every neurodivergent teen is unique, and so their needs will vary. It’s essential to tailor your approach based on your teen’s strengths, challenges, and preferences. Collaborate with educators, therapists, and other support professionals to develop a plan that addresses your teen’s individual academic, social, and emotional needs.

Also read: Parenting a child with Down’s Syndrome

  1. The social scene

Building and maintaining friendships can be particularly challenging for autistic teens because of the differences in social communication and interaction. It’s important then to foster inclusive environments for your teen that promote understanding and acceptance among peers.

Karen says, “So many kids, not only autistic, were held back socially during the Pandemic years. Now, I am trying to get Alexander out there and experiencing the world. It is not easy for the teen or the parents, but it is important so that they can learn to be part of society and enjoy outings like anyone else.”

Check out: Unleash your child’s potential

Independence is everything for autistic teens

“Because of Alexander’s autism, I showered him with affection and was very overprotective when he was small. Now, he is very close to me and possibly too reliant on me. So, while I have achieved my goal for him to be happy and confident, I now need to work on his independence,” explains Karen, who instinctively knows how important it is for her son to become self-reliant now that he is a teen.

Self -advocacy

It is vital that you help your autistic teen develop self-advocacy skills and find independence in their teenage years because this is the most natural time for them to be learning about how they fit into life on their own.

Encourage your teen to articulate their needs, preferences, and goals. Empower them to navigate the challenges of adolescence with confidence.

Karen says that parents of autistic teens should also focus on physical activity as “it helps with everything!”.

Be sure to have good resources. Here are Karen’s recommendations:

https://specialkids.co.za

https://jozi4autism.org.za/

https://www.autismresources.co.za/

https://playon.co.za/

https://joyjozi.co.za/

https://www.elsforautismsouthafrica.org/

Also read: ASD- all signs and symptoms

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