Advice on autism and teens from an adult on the autism spectrum

Lisa Jo Rudy

School is a tough place for teens with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). In junior and senior high school, conformity is valued. But for people with autism, social conformity is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Junior and senior high school also require tremendous flexibility, as students move from space to space, subject to subject, teacher to teacher. Since people with autism tend to prefer consistency to change, this, too, can be difficult to manage.

Robyn Steward is a young adult with Asperger syndrome. She lives in London, and is a trainer and mentor working with teens and parents who are coping with autism spectrum disorders. Robyn's experience may be both helpful and inspiring to parents and to teens with Asperger syndrome.

Here's how Robyn describes her own teen and young adult experiences:

I was essentially asked politely to leave school, because I spent so much time out of classes since I refused to be called names by the other children. I had no real friends at school apart from the IT teacher and no friends at home. I just assumed I'd never have friends or get anywhere because I felt that was what the teachers were saying. and because I got bad grades and struggled being organized.

But when I went to college things changed. Suddenly I did get good grades. I made friends and became organized. I’m almost 22 and still don’t fit in, but I have my own place in the world.

I believe that everyone can find their own place and they may do that aged 12 or aged 99. The best thing you can do is be there for them, because they will have to find their own path, because only one path is "them-shaped," just as only one path is "Robyn-shaped" and nothing can change that.

Parents raising a teen with Asperger syndrome may have a tough time helping their child find that "them-shaped" path. Here's Robyn's advice:

At school, most teens want to fit in, but sometimes they just don’t. I was one of those teens, now I've found my feet in London (UK) as a trainer and mentor. I train people who work with those with an ASD (autism spectrum disorder) and I also mentor young people with ASD’s. So I come into contact with a lot of people, not just those with ASDs but their families, teachers and supporters. Most of the young people I work with have a common problem: they are "them-shaped" and that often means they don’t fit in anywhere at school.

It can be easy to say this will be better when you're older but this doesn’t solve the immediate problem.

One of my mentees said to me recently, “I’m almost normal now,” and this is very sad indeed, because you cannot become "unautistic." You can change behaviors, but unless you actually do someone harm, such change can sometimes be a bad thing.

Of course, I'm not saying that a behavior like smearing excrement on the walls could possibly be a good thing; that’s one behavior that clearly does need to be changed. But other things perhaps just need moderating. For example, saying exactly how one feels is often inappropriate, and tact needs to be learned. The ability to express your feelings, though, is a good skill to have, and some people actually like that. Some people also enjoy the eccentricity of kids with an ASD, whether it's in their speech, musical taste, or clothing.

The key is to find those people who connect with a teen with an ASD. The internet is a great resource for this, as are clubs or groups centered around a specific interest.

In addition to seeking individual people who appreciate and connect with your teen, it's important to help your teen to use his particular fascinations as a tool for building relationships and self-esteem. A fascination with dinosaurs, for example, can lead to rewarding volunteer work in a museum, or even an internship on a dinosaur dig. An overwhelming interest in LEGOS can become the ticket to LEGO Mindstorms competitions and a whole world of opportunities in robotics. In short, there is more to a teen's life than school. And looking around and beyond the problems inherent in high school can make all the difference as your teen moves into the "real world."

Courtesy of a NYT Company

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