When should parents give their autistic teen more independence?
Lisa Jo Rudy
Question: When Should Parents Give Their Autistic Teen More Independence?
When should parents give their autistic teen more independence ? Some people say it's 'time to let go' of my autistic teen, even though he still needs a lot of work in the area of friendships and relationships. What do you advise?
Answer: From Dr. Cindy Ariel:
The balance between holding on and letting go is one of the most difficult ones that we parents have to face. You have obviously done an amazing job in helping your son achieve things he may otherwise not have had the opportunity to do.
At this time in your child’s life, it may be appropriate to take more of a back seat in many instances. Perhaps interpreting the message as ‘go away’ is a bit harsh. It may be helpful to back away a bit and see how things go. While others may want you to back away, you can still keep the lines of communication open with your son and help him do what it is he is trying to do.
For all teens, we are expected to be in their lives and out of their faces at the same time. Your son seems to have many good opportunities to reach out to peers if he is interested. If he doesn’t know how to, while it is now inappropriate for you to set up ‘play dates’ or constantly organize his social groups, you can offer occasional suggestions to the teacher or group leader and you can coach your son from the sidelines.
Another important idea to keep in mind is that some teens do not want more interaction even though their parents may feel it is important for them to have it. It is important to be sure that the social goals you set up for your son include what he wants now and not just what you think he should have or be doing. He may never be the life of the party and may always be a little on the periphery, but for him this could be a comfortable place and one that he is used to. It could provide social interaction and friendships and yet offer a comfortable distance and not a lot of pressure. If he wants more, you can help him learn to move in and reach out for more at his own pace.
From Dr. Robert Naseef:
When to hold on, when to let go, when to push, and when to pull; these are some of the themes that every parent struggles with—with “normal” as well as “special” children. From your question, I surmise that you have a good grasp of the disorder that your son struggles with and that you have done a lot to meet his special needs. You deserve a lot of credit. Not every parent can do what you describe. Now, there seems to be a difference of opinion about his needs at this point in his education and development. I sense some anxiety on your part, and that is not unusual or inappropriate. Consider that perhaps both viewpoints have some validity.
The outcomes for children and teens are best when parents and professionals work as partners with mutual respect and shared decision-making power. Parents, by virtue of their bond with their child, are true authorities in their own right, with information to contribute that no one else has access to. Professionals, on the other hand, through training and experience, can offer expertise and a broad perspective that parents alone don’t have. Each has only partial knowledge, with complete expertise possible through team work—often trial and error is involved. Given your son’s age, if at all possible, he should be involved with the professionals and you in making the plan. What he thinks he needs is also important in arriving at a good plan with a chance of success.
Letting go may sound too drastic, and perhaps so. Maybe a more realistic way to look at this dilemma is to just loosen your grip and see what happens. If your son seems to slip backwards, this may convince others that he needs more support than they thought. If he is somehow able to meet that challenge, you may be pleasantly surprised. There are inevitable and unavoidable road bumps and potholes in this process. We cannot control that, but we can control how we respond to them.
As for how you describe your son’s relationships to his peers, this, too, is not unusual. The differences between him and others his age can be even more awkward during adolescence. Some of his best friends going forward may be other teens growing up with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Some people overlook this because they are eager, understandably, to have their children accepted socially. I do not doubt that your son will need continuing support and guidance, some of it from experienced professionals, to continue his social development. While this may pose a financial strain, the long term benefits usually outweigh the cost of not getting him this support.
You yourself sound a bit tired and worried. Your feelings need also to be validated. It’s a long and winding road to raise a child like yours. It’s hard to know at any given moment what to accept and what to work on. A parent’s job never ends—it just changes. Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back for getting this far. Take good care of yourself as well.
Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People With Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). On the web at www.alternativechoices.com.
Courtesy Lisa Jo Rudy's About.com blog. About.com is a part of the New York Times Company.