Raising and educating adolescents with ASD and other disabilities offers many joys and gifts. They can be affectionate, inquisitive, fun, and loving. But, adolescents with ASD and other disabilities can also face additional challenges associated with puberty as compared to their typically developing peers. They may face challenges including fewer friends, fewer opportunities for friendships and lower participation in social and recreational activities. The Tips of the Month for 2021-2022 will help support the social and emotional well-being of adolescents with ASD and other disabilities.
The OCALI Lending Library has many resources to support adolescents on these various topics. Here are a few to explore:
- Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty & Personal Curriculum for Young People by Wrobel, M.
- What's Happening to Tom?: A Book About Puberty for Boys and Young Men with Autism and Related Conditions by Reynolds, Kate E.
- What's Happening to Ellie?: A Book About Puberty for Girls and Young Women with Autism and Related Conditions by Reynolds, Kate E.
- Autism, Asperger's, and Sexuality: Puberty and Beyond by Newport, J., & Newport, M.
- Lucky Dogs, Lost Hats, and Dating Don'ts: Hi-Lo Stories about Real Life by Fish, Thomas R.
- The Facts of Life....and More: Sexuality and Intimacy for People with Intellectual Disabilities by Walker-Hirsch, L., ed.
Additional materials available in the OCALI Lending Library.
Check out these additional OCALI resources to learn more about supporting adolescence.
- Third Thursday: Learn Strategies for Addressing Puberty and Sexuality
- Know More Do More: Supporting Independence from Adolescence to Adulthood
- Girls and Women on the Autism Spectrum
- Autism Internet Modules: Girls on the Autism Spectrum
Understanding and Communicating with Adolescents
Adolescents with ASD and other disabilities are often excellent communicators both verbally and non-verbally. But, these communications may present challenges for both families and professionals as compared to typical peers A wide range of challenges can include limited language to excessive talking, limited eye contact and poor reciprocal conversation, as well as limited conversation topics, which can prevent the individual from having successful social interactions with both adults and peers. The following tips provide ideas on how to interact with adolescents with ASD and other disabilities.
- Focus on strengths, not challenges. It is easy to identify the challenges of an adolescent or young adult. However, focusing on their strengths creates a foundation to build skills and confidence.
- Learn to listen. Although we can speak at a rate of 125 words per minute, we can listen at a rate of 400 words per minute. Before responding when your adolescent or young adult is talking, listen to all their words. Instead of making judgments, try asking questions. Questions will help to clarify their thoughts and give you the opportunity to respond accurately and appropriately.
- Think before reacting. Adolescents and young adults often will say things for shock value. They may carefully watch your reactions and then respond to your reactions, often in an inappropriate manner. Keeping calm can defuse a potentially heightened reaction. To help think before reacting, provide wait time after asking a question to allow the individual to process the information, and then come up with a response.
- Be positive and reinforce. Positive communication and reinforcement can be an effective way to interact with adolescents and young adults. Instead of asking questions like “What is wrong with you?” or “I can’t believe you did (or said) that”, find out what is driving the behavior. When redirecting the individual, use ‘what to do’ words (paired with visual supports) to be sure the individual understands what to do.
Promoting and Supporting Hygiene
Good hygiene for teens supports self confidence and positive social interactions.. Adolescents often have varying attitudes about personal hygiene, and trying to emphasize its importance in maintaining optimal health can be difficult. Beyond health, hygiene affects social relationships, dating, and vocational opportunities. Here are some tips to help adolescents understand the importance of personal hygiene:
- Talk about it! Discuss the importance of good hygiene and how it relates to wellness by presenting information in small chunks. Use visuals to support a clearer understanding and always be ready to answer questions honestly.
- Break it down! Prioritize which hygiene skills to prioritize. For example, brushing teeth may be the first skill to teach. Practice the steps for brushing teeth until the adolescent masters how to brush their teeth. Then follow up with bathing, followed by washing hair, etc.
- Use modeling! Be sure that good hygiene is modeled by peers, siblings, and adults in-person or using video modeling. Invite your adolescent into the bathroom when you are brushing your teeth, washing your hair, etc.
- Provide choices! Create a hygiene kit. Involve the adolescent in picking out toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, etc. The kit is labeled and is only used the by the adolescent. If needed, provide a visual support on how to access the items in the hygiene kit.
- Use visuals! Utilize social narratives to prepare the adolescent on why it is important to maintain good personal hygiene.
Learning to focus on your own needs, especially emotional ones, is a great life skill. Adolescents with ASD and other disabilities may experience stress, anxiousness, depression, and/or isolation. They may focus on specific events in their life and not understand what to do when they are feeling uncomfortable. Providing the following tips will help the adolescent learn to manage the events in their life that affect their mental health:
- Carve out time every day to engage in self-care activities.
- Download an app with short meditations for teens.
- Engage in yoga activities that involve stretching, flexibility, and breathing exercises.
- Provide some form of exercise. Daily walks, preferably outside, will improve strength, endurance, and some aerobic activity. Being outside also provides fresh air and a change of scenery.
- Create a consistent sleep schedule, ‘unplug’ the bedroom, and create some wind down routines prior to bedtime.
- Engage in activities that are of interest to the adolescent. For example, if the individual loves to draw, paint, read, listen to music, or write in a journal, utilize time daily to engage in those activities.
- For at least part of the day, turn off cell phones and other devices. Prepare the adolescent both verbally and/or visually when it is time to turn off their cell phone and other devices. Provide ‘what to do’ activities (walking, exercise, yoga etc.) during the time their cell phone/other devices are turned off.
Addressing Issues of Sexuality
It is important to keep an open mind about the social and emotional development of adolescents during puberty. As a family member or a professional, you may notice changes in the way the adolescent interacts with family, friends, and peers. These changes are crucial for developing independence and preparing for adulthood. With these changes may come issues with monitoring and expressing feelings, mood swings, increased arguments, and even antisocial and risk-taking behavior. Tips to help support your adolescent are as follows:
- Use teachable moments that arise in daily life, such as marriage or pregnancy, to explain what is happening. Don’t be afraid or feel uncomfortable when a question comes up about sexuality.
- Prepare for puberty by using the correct names of body parts and physical changes (ex: menstruation)
- Teach the adolescent how to take care of basic body needs (ex: showering/bathing, shampooing hair, brushing teeth etc.)
- Teach that there are private and public behaviors. Certain private behaviors are only done at home in the adolescent’s bedroom and never done in public.
- Honestly answer their questions. Acknowledge and value the adolescent’s feelings and experience.
- If needed, provide visual supports and review and repeat information more than once.
Making and Keeping Friends
Adolescents with ASD and other disabilities have shared through writings and social media posts that they want to make friends. They may want to engage in conversation, share their interests, and enjoy being in the community with peers. But they may also feel isolated and have a difficult time making or keeping friends. They may have trouble with nonverbal cues such as body language signals or subtle meanings in everyday language. The following tips can help adolescents with special needs maintain friendship:
- Teach the individual how to smile when encountering others. A smile can be a way to invite interactions.
- Provide instruction on how to greet peers. Use visual supports if needed.
- Practice simple back and forth conversation. Start with comments on the weather, classroom activities, complimenting others and making positive statements. Move on to age-appropriate topics/subjects.
- Find common interests/activities that can support friendship.
- Take photos of peers who interact with the individual. This will reinforce those peers who have taken an interest in the individual.
- Encourage video chats with peers. This is a way for the individual to see and react to a peer using a common and popular way to communicate.
Many people with autism express that they want to date. There was even a popular television series about dating and autism! But dating may be a complicated experience for adolescents with ASD and other disabilities. There may be fewer opportunities for dating and making interpersonal connections. Adolescents with ASD often misunderstand what they may be feeling both emotionally and physically. They may approach peers inappropriately because they often lack the ability to read body language, facial expressions, and/or the meaning behind words. This may result in failure to connect to a person of romantic interest causing the adolescent to feel depressed and unsuccessful. These tips are provided to help support adolescents to develop successful dating habits:
- Be sure that as a professional, you understand the parent/guardians’ views on dating and sexual activity. This will be the guide for developing interventions.
- Create rules that provide dating boundaries. For example, understanding when we should hold hands or when we should kiss or what words to use.
- Explain verbally and/or visually about the feelings between two people. Make clear the differences between companionship and interpersonal relationships. Be respectful when someone says “no.”
Supporting Adolescent Females Sensory Needs
Sensory needs can be supported to help autistic girls be able to participate more fully in all environments. Adolescent girls with ASD may appear to be shy, soft spoken, calm, and may mimic others in social situations. Because of these characteristics, they may appear to be more socially appropriate. But adolescent girls with ASD may experience sensory issues, anxiety, communication, and social difficulties in those social situations. And, their symptoms are often less obvious, less atypical, and less overt. Frequently, the characteristics of ASD become more evident during early adolescence when social language and relationships become more complex. Consider the following tips to help support adolescent females on the autism spectrum:
- Identify sensory stressors. Once these stressors are identified, allow for breaks or removal from the situation for short periods of time. Consider designating a safe place at home, school, or work.
- Consider teaching deep breathing exercises to use when stressed or anxious.
- Provide simple social/communication strategies, both verbally and visually, on how to engage in back-and-forth conversation, share common interests, and read body language and facial expressions. Be sure to provide a checklist or social narrative to review taught strategies to ensure that the individual understands what to do.
Navigating Social Media
In a digital world, communication via the internet is the norm, especially for teens. Since many individuals with ASD are often uncomfortable with interpersonal social interactions with peers, social media may be an accessible venue to build social relationships. Although there are many benefits, there are also risks to consider. These risks include fixation on games or social networking sites; exposure to inappropriate material; predators; and cyberbullying. To help your adolescent(s) stay safe when navigating the internet, remember the following tips:
- Set clear limits on internet use by setting a timer that shows how long to be online, searching websites, etc.
- Encourage computer use in a room with an adult.
- Discuss verbally and visually the dangers and consequences of visiting certain internet sites.
- Use visual supports to provide images of dangerous content/materials.
- Install pop-up blockers to block or monitor content.
- Provide a checklist of information that is not to be shared with anyone on the internet.
- Provide visual supports of internet ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts.
- Role play scenarios about internet safety.
- Use social narratives, both online and created specifically for the situation, to help reinforce ideas on how to stay safe on the internet.