Autism and Teens: How Can Therapy Help?

In recent years, there has been much media coverage regarding the rise of autism in young children.

Though a specific cause has not yet been discovered, a variety of theories have run rampant (though they have all been disproven). For quite some time, it was believed that the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine was a contributor. Other scientists and theorists believed that autism was caused by thimerosal, a mercury-based preservative. But really, the mystery remains.

What also remains, however, is an alarmingly high number of people that been diagnosed with autism over the years. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated that one in 59 children had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Statistically, it is believed that boys are more likely than girls to be autistic, it affects all ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and there is no real medical detection.

What exactly is autism?

Autism refers to a broad array of conditions that are characterized by challenges with repetitive behaviors, speech, and social skills challenges, and nonverbal communication issues. And there really isn’t just one type of autism. Rather, there are various subtypes, most of which are influenced by several genetic and environmental factors. Because autism is a disorder on a spectrum (which means there is a wide range of symptoms from mild to severe), each person with autism will present with a distinct set of strengths and challenges. 

The ways in which those with autism think, learn, and problem-solve ranges from severely challenged to highly skilled. Those with ASD may require varying degrees of support in their daily lives, and others may be high-functioning and able to manage their lives with little interference. Some too can live their entire life quite independently. 

There are many factors that can influence the development of autism. These factors are accompanied by medical issues including but not limited to gastrointestinal (GI) disorders, seizures or sleep disorders, sensory sensitivities, and varying health challenges that include anxiety, depression, and attention-deficit issues (ADHD).

In most cases, children present with autism by the age of two or three. Though, in some cases, the associated developmental delays can appear sooner, sometimes as early as 18 months. Early intervention and familial support will usually lead to promising outcomes later in life.

Loving a teen with autism 

Every parent feels some anxiety as they watch their pre-teenager become a teenager. When you add autism to the mix, parents may wonder how the typical hormonal and bodily changes that teen experience at this time in life will impact their particular teenager. As even teens that are not faced with ASD will experience behavioral changes and the typical stresses that come with a changing body and increasing demands in school and from society, these changes can feel like a minefield.

If your autistic teen attends a mainstream high school, they are likely subject to the same pressures as other teens. High school students are expected to move from class to class, keep track of their assignments and ensure everything gets turned in on time, and often follow complex (and confusing) instructions. Teens that are on the spectrum will require additional support that will usually require more frequent parent-school communication. Teachers will need to help check assignments more closely to ensure that they are completed correctly and on time. Students will likely need assistance breaking projects into smaller and more achievable steps.

In most cases, autistic children receive ample support in the elementary years, but this support starts to taper off as the child starts middle school, and later high school. Sadly, it’s just not all that uncommon for educators to reduce or eliminate these additional levels of support. And this often happens just when a student is anticipated and expected to become more self-sufficient.

On the home front, teens need ongoing help and support with their homework and daily activities. This is especially the case for autistic students, especially those who embody similar personality traits to their mainstream peers, demonstrating rebelliousness that can create unique problems for students who need continuance guidance. 

Most parents struggle to let go as their teens demand more and more independence. But for parents with teens on the spectrum, they likely have additional fears about how their child will get through the future years. 

Therapy for your Autistic teen 

Often times, parents will reach out to therapists and professionals that are trained on how to support someone on the spectrum. Treatments can include various therapies that improve speech or to help modify behavior to ensure it is socially acceptable. In some cases, medication is prescribed to help the autistic teen manage the medical conditions related to their autism. Your teen can benefit from these treatments, but which specific treatment that they will need will vary based on their unique systems and needs for learning and development.

  • Applied behavior analysis (ABA) – This method is often used in schools and clinics as well as in rehabilitation centers to help your teen learn positive behaviors, and learn to control those more negative or challenging behaviors. This may mean improving various skills such as how to respond to positive reinforcement, how to respond to various motivations, etc. In the teenage years, the approach to ABS is quite different than it would be in the younger years. ABA is a systematic approach to recommending and aiding socially appropriate behaviors. ABA is based on the belief that behavior is learned and reinforced, and it emphasizes the identification of positive alternative behaviors for those less-appropriate behaviors.
  • Developmental, individual differences, relationship-based approach (DIR) – Most therapists will refer to DIR as floor time, and this is especially important for young children. But even with older children such as your teen, this allows the therapist to get onto neutral ground with your child to see what activities interest them. The approach is intended to support emotional and intellectual growth by helping the teen learn or improve skills such as communication and emotions.
  • Treatment and education of autistic and related communication-handicapped children (TEACCH) – This method of treatment leverages visual cues such as picture cards to help young children learn everyday skills such as getting dressed. Information can be broken down into simple and small steps so that they can learn the task more efficiently. For teens, especially those who are non-verbal, these visual cues will be tied to more age-appropriate needs such as hygiene and grooming, functioning in school, getting ready for bed, etc.
  • The picture exchange communication system (PECS) – Also visual-based like TEACCH, this particular treatment leverage symbols instead of cards and allows your teen to communicate through symbols. 
  • Occupational therapy (OT) – For teens, this will entail those typical life-skills such as how to cook simple meals or use the microwave, how to shave or proactive proper hygiene habits, etc. The skills learned in OT are what will help your teen learn what is needed to live as normal of a life as possible. 
  • Sensory integration therapy – If your teen is overly stimulated or traumatized by loud sounds or bright lights, this therapy can help your child to cope when those stimuli present themselves. 
  • Medications – As there is no cure presently for autism, there is also no medication to help treat it. That said some medicines can be used for related symptoms such as trouble focusing, depression or anxiety, insomnia, and seizures. Studies have shown that medication is the most effective when it is combined with one of the several behavioral therapies mentioned above. In recent years, Risperidone (Risperdal) has been prescribed for children between five and 16 years of age to help with irritability, commonly associated with autism. This drug has been approved by the FDA for this purpose.  

In addition to these approaches above, teen autism therapy addresses the core symptoms of the autism spectrum disorder. These symptoms are generally poor communication skills, repeated routines, obsessive behaviors, and clumsiness. The earlier this therapeutic intervention starts, the better the outcome will be.

How parents can help their autistic teen

Parenting a teenager can be a difficult endeavor for sure. But add autism into the mix and it can be especially trying for parents. Here are some tips that you can follow to support your autistic teen.

  1. Connect with your teen – With autism involved, this can be harder than ever, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. In many cases, this will be much easier said than done. Adults today are busier than ever, and it can be genuinely challenging to spend quality time with those we love. And while it seems obvious that we should try, when those efforts are rebuffed due to challenging social skills in your rebuffed team, it can make it quite hard to try and try again.
  2. Look for great things every day – As parents, we often find that we fixate on what went wrong that day, and this is definitely true when parenting any teen. From constant requests to clean their room, finish their homework, be on time for dinner, do their chores, etc., it can feel like we are order takers or that we are often giving bad or unfortunate news (no one really likes to do chores). So instead of focusing exclusively on all of these requests, look for something positive that you can celebrate. Recognize your child for something that they accomplished that day, and look to share more of those positive observations than the negative ones. In fact, four recognitions for every one chore request or constructive criticism makes for a great equation. 
  3. Empower your teen – Just because your teen is autistic doesn’t mean that you should be that hovering helicopter parent that doesn’t let your child do anything. Rather than making your teen’s decision for them, or keeping them from learning and growing, teach social and coping skills. Much of the stress that comes from being an autistic teenager is related to those social and coping skills, especially when at school. If your child doesn’t learn how to cope (or isn’t taught how to cope) this can mean bigger challenges as they progress through life. Further, understanding and working through disappointment and learning to navigate the real “social” world will require skills that many parents find challenging. Dealing with difficult situations that we have faced ourselves has likely disappointed us along the way, and figuring out what to do in these situations can be extraordinarily complex. 

Help for parents of autistic teens

Connection | Autism | Hillcrest ATC

Parents of autistic teens are often so focused on trying to help their child that they forget to take care of themselves. It’s imperative that parents of an autistic teen have access to a good support system. This will help your teen cope with aspects of their autism and will also help you learn how to manage your own emotions and feelings as you are faced with the ongoing challenges of raising an autistic teen.

Part of this parental support will come from the health care professionals that treat your teen and educate you as the parent of a teen with autism. Although autism can’t be cured as we stated earlier, most autistic children will get through their teenage years just fine (assuming they have the right levels of support) and will go on to a happy and productive life.

Thankfully, there are also several support programs that parents can benefit from, including:

  • Autism Speaks – This organization is nationally recognized and provides information for parents of recently diagnosed children. This information includes reviews and suggestions on apps, resources for children and teens with autism, and more.  
  • Online Asperger Syndrome Information and Support center – The website provides a database of support groups based on the geography where you live. Support groups for parents with autistic children can be located on their website.  
  • The Global and Regional Asperger Syndrome Partnership (GRASP) – This organization was created to improve the lives of adults and teens who are on the autism spectrum. This includes community outreach, online support and education, and advocacy. 
  • Wrong Planet – This internet community offers support to individuals, parents, and professionals with Asperger syndrome, ADHD, and other neurological conditions. Resources include discussion forums, a library of articles, website blogs, and a chat room where other members can provide timely support. 
  • Asperger Syndrome Education Network (ASPEN) – This is a New Jersey-based organization that offers support for families dealing with autism. They also provide a listing of other online support groups.
  • Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism Association – This organization reaches families in the New York City and Long Island, N.Y. area and offers local activities, events, and online support

If you’re a parent looking for therapy that may help your autistic child, you have options beyond what we’ve detailed in this article. Why not reach out to Hillcrest to see how our facility can help your family?