As a mum of teenage boys, one with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), I know the anxiety parents often feel as the high school years get closer.
It is a time when we see our offspring leave primary school and begin the road into adulthood. So many parent workshops, training videos, social media and resources focus on the younger years when looking at children with Autism, but once these children hit puberty, many parents find the literature and strategies for supporting them are limited.
High school for your average teenager can be an exciting, but also a challenging time. They are navigating social relationships, learning firsthand the positives and negatives of social media, dealing with puberty and the rush of hormones.
On top of this they are trying to cope with the day to day engagement with the education system, learn the requirements for each of their classes, and understand and follow the school’s expectation of behaviour. For a teenager with ASD, it can create a complex situation where challenges and upsets become a part of the daily routine.
Below are a few tips and strategies that I hope will assist with minimising some of the stressors that can occur during this period.
High school is for many a time of building new friendships and developing new skills for engaging with others. We see teens hanging out at the local shops after school, crowding in at the movies or at the local park. They are often on their phones or social media, after spending hours with the friends at school.
Building friendships remains difficult for teenagers on the spectrum. The ability to just ‘hang’ with others does not come naturally, and teenagers tend to be more tuned in to young people not being the same as them – which can lead the teen with ASD to be left out or ostracized if they aren’t ‘acting normally’, in a way the peer group expects.
Research shows that generally teens with Autism are invited less to parties or social events, leading them to feeling socially isolated.
Even when they begin to ‘rote learn’ the skills needed to mix in a way that is accepted, they may experience increased anxiety and often still a ‘label’, by kids who have known them before.
Building opportunities to develop friendships is important:
Continue to encourage them to practise the skills they learnt in primary school – for example, giving eye contact and responding when asked questions, showing interest in what the other person is doing, asking them about their weekend etc.
Using real life examples can be helpful in building an understanding of how to cope with some of the unwritten rules. For example watching people at a park, and pointing out what you notice and see if they can spot some of the body language themselves; even using television as a way to help them see it. Remember most often they are concrete thinkers so just ‘telling them’ won’t work.
Practice scenarios and help them to identify ‘new endings’ by getting them to change their responses to people. It might be where something has occurred at school that didn’t end so well, or something with a sibling. Replaying that and explaining what has happened can help them try it differently next time.
At many high schools there are opportunities to excel in things that interest them, such as different sporting groups. There are often also hobby groups such as chess, or the library. Attending school lately I saw about 15 boys in grade 7 all sitting on their phones gaming – there is something for everyone! It allows for people with the same interest to hang together in a way that is not so threatening, and they can build their social skills in a more comfortable space.
Planning for the Rigours of High School
If you have a teenager that is organised, structured and enjoys routine, then they may not find the demands of high school as difficult.
If however, like my son, being organised and planned is not first and foremost for them, they are going to need a lot of support from you to help them develop and manage a system.
Make contact with the teachers. Remember teachers can change each semester, so it does mean making contact with new teachers every 11 weeks. The benefit is that they are more likely to notice your child and to pay attention to their needs. Introduce yourself with an email – a small paragraph about what you have learnt about your teenager’s support needs ie “David may ask a lot of questions in class, this can often be because he is anxious about missing some content”. It means that the teacher will be aware and not just tell them to stop asking questions, but make some time after class to make sure they are clear.
A key step in this is visuals. Once you can see the timetable for the week as well as who the teachers are, you can build the weekly timetable around them. My tip is that every week, make a set time, maybe a Sunday afternoon, to sit down with them so you can see what they have on, what is due and then help them put it into their calendar or on their whiteboard. This allows them to notice their week and begin to become more independent in managing their load, but also for you to be able to see what they have going to on each day. When it comes to assessment time, be sure to get the dates because suddenly it will be upon you!
If you think your teenager will not be taking great notes in class, ask for any handouts or power points. Many teachers are more than happy for a picture to be taken of what’s on the board, to help them with their revision. Again this would be something you would put in your email if you thought it would be helpful. Our son’s teacher actually in grade 7 and 8 would pop the PowerPoints on his USB at the end of class!
Attend parent teacher interviews. Go prepared. Check for their understanding of your teen’s needs in class and identify what are the supports that you can be doing at home to assist them. Over the years I have found teachers really want to connect and understand how they can support your teenager, and are willing to tell you what help you can do at home.
Self-Care for You and Your Teen
With high school comes homework, assignments and exams – are you ready?! Teaching your son to structure his study time, as discussed early, will lead to less stress and hours of sitting with possible meltdowns and threats to quit.
You may not be able to avoid the hours of weekend study so make sure you are taking breaks and letting them work at their speed. I found the more I am calm and relaxed I was, the more he was.
This level of study can be quite daunting, so making sure you structure plenty of quiet time on the weekends that assessments and exam prep needs to happen, will help keep things calm. To manage the anxiety use some of the similar calming techniques that may have worked when he was younger eg chewing on crunchy food, having his favourite shirt on, having rewards such as gaming time after each hour etc.
As with many teenagers with Autism, getting the information out of the head onto paper can be the biggest obstacle and taker of time, it also can be the source of their anxiety if they are sitting for hours and nothing is making it to the paper.
A technique I used in the earlier grades of high school was that I would be the scribe and he would just tell me what to write. It was all his work, but allowed him to learn to verbalise his thoughts. We later worked on him doing the writing as well, but verbalizing it was the first step. Does it help in exams when I can’t do the writing? No, but it allowed him to build his confidence in the early days.
Teaching them to breathe! Things will come up in the day that will not be something you have thought of. It can result in them becoming extremely stressed and possibly inappropriate reactions.
A simple strategy which may be something they have on their phone screen is: “Just remember to breathe”.
If they can learn some key statements such as “it’s out of my control”, “I have done the best I could”, “I will do better next time”, it will help them to learn to have a more positive mindset when things occur.
Download the Smiling Mind App on their phone, as it will give them a quick relaxation strategy that no one else will even know they are listening to. I will often get a text message from my grade 11 son when there has been some conflict with a teacher. It’s an opportunity for me to remind him of these things, sometimes that’s just all they need to keep going.
Parenting high school kids at the best of times can be challenging but also rewarding as you watch them grow and develop. It is not different for teens on the Spectrum. Watching them grow and build their confidence at a time that they are still figuring out who they are is rewarding. They just need to know you are in their corner!