Here are ten tips for helping children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) transition into Adolescence and then Adulthood.
Although children on the spectrum may be delayed in other areas of development, they will experience puberty, adolescence and all that goes with that at the same time as everyone else. This is absolutely normal and should be expected.
2. Start Early
Children with autism can struggle with even minor changes in their lives. Learning in general can also be slow and confusing, especially if it is anything to do with the social skills. Trying to change rules like ‘Where it is okay to get undressed’ during puberty, already a turbulent time, can cause unnecessary confusion. Look at the things the child does now which may seem cute or quirky (e.g. giving every stranger that they meet a hug) and think “Will it be okay when they are a teenager?” If not, start working on it now.
3. Teach What May Seem Obvious
Most children learn things about growing up, relationships and what it is to be a man or a woman from many different places including friends, family and TV. Children with autism tend not to pick up on all of this information, and the information they do take on they find even more difficult to decode, often leading to embarrassing and hurtful experiences. To avoid this, they need things spelled out for them. Also, don’t assume that because they can do things like list the rules of internet safety that they will be able to use this information in real life.
4. Give Information Clearly and Calmly
Use a positive and calm tone. Don’t overload with information or language. Back up information with pictures, whatever works best for the child already. Be concrete and use correct terminology (i.e. not made up names that nobody outside of the family will understand). Teach children with good language skills the correct words to use when talking to teachers or other adults, but also the words that are ok to use with their peers when there are no adults around. Be careful about language being taken literally (e.g. that boys’ voices do not literally ‘break’).
5. Don’t Be Pushy
Push them, but beware of the boundaries they’ve set and slowly edge them out of the bubble. If they are allowed to stay in their comfort zone, they do not grow. Also, remember the ultimate goal is to nurture a child into a self-sustaining adult. Let them fail, and be aware of it, and call them out when you know they aren’t doing their best, its a hard lesson when they hit the real world.
6. Teach the Difference Between Public and Private
All children need to learn the difference between what is public and what is private, including places, body parts, conversations, behaviours and online information. Learning this difference helps children behave in appropriate ways and is a protective factor in abuse. However, be careful about hard and fast rules and remember to teach that rules can change over time and why. For example, it makes sense to teach children that sex is a private topic that they can only discuss with their parents, but what are they to do when all of their peers are talking about it in the yard in school? Avoiding such conversations or worse telling the teacher will be even more isolating for them.
7. Focus on Encouragement
Some adults and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), especially those with high-functioning autism, are able to work successfully in mainstream jobs. Nevertheless, communication and social problems often cause difficulties in many areas of life. They will continue to need encouragement and moral support in their struggle to become independent.
8. Let Them Do Some Things Independently
Often, people get so used to making decisions and doing things for a child with special needs that they start to do so automatically. However, this inevitably leads to the child being less and less able to do things or make decisions for themselves. Instead, set up situations where the child can experience success and constantly push slightly beyond these boundaries. Allow them to do daily tasks independently, even if it takes them longer to complete. Involve them in decisions about their lives. Give them meaningful choices throughout the day. Also allow them a wide range of experiences from which to learn from (even if they find these new experiences uncomfortable at first and need extra support). If they have an IEP, consider them being involved in the process.
9. Allow Them to Develop Friendships
If teenagers are to develop the skills needed to enter adult relationships, they will need practice and support getting there. However, people on the spectrum often need and enjoy spending time alone and may actively avoid social situations. Don’t be mistaken, this does not mean that they do not also need or want friendship in a way that is meaningful for them or that they do not experience intense loneliness. Teach them the social skills involved. Link them in with other similar children. Find socializing events where there is a common focus, e.g. the cinema. The internet can also be great for linking together like-minded people with obscure interests.
10. Help Them to Understand Themselves
Developing a healthy and realistic self-concept means understanding your own personal weaknesses as well as your strengths. Children on the spectrum have many fantastic qualities, including being honest, reliable and having a strong sense of social justice. They need to learn that they are valuable human beings with valuable contributions to make to this world. However, they also need to learn about their diagnosis, the challenges that come with this diagnosis, what they need to overcome these challenges, and how to go about getting them (e.g. being able to tell their teacher “I find it difficult to listen to you when that light is flickering, can we please turn it off?”. This does not have to be done in one big difficult conversation. Start talking about difference early. Read books about autism with them geared for their age and ability level.
Keep it PRIVATE. Talk to them about privacy and boundaries. Talk to them about appropriate people to discuss their experiences about puberty and adulthood.