Education and Coaching for Parents, Teachers, Therapists and other Professionals

Unique Problems Faced by Teenagers with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism

Adolescence is probably the most miserable and complicated years for many young people with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA). This is not true of everyone – some do extremely well. Their indifference to what peers think makes them indifferent to the intense peer pressure of adolescence. They can flourish within their specialty and become accomplished in their area of interest (e.g., music, history, etc.).

Unfortunately, many AS and HFA adolescents become more socially isolated during a period when they crave friendships and inclusion more than ever. In the rough-and-tough world of middle and high school, these adolescents often face rejection, isolation and bullying. To make matters worse, school becomes more demanding in a period when these young people have to compete for college placements. Issues of sexuality and a desire for independence from moms and dads create even more problems.

In the adolescent world where everyone feels insecure, young people that appear different or “odd” are voted out of “the group.” AS and HFA adolescents often have strange mannerisms (e.g., talk in a loud un-modulated voice, avoid eye contact, interrupt others, violate others physical space, steer the conversation to their favorite “odd” topic, etc.). Many of these young people appear willful, selfish and aloof, mostly because they are unable to share their thoughts and feelings with others. Isolated and alone, these adolescents are simply too anxious to initiate social contact.

Many AS and HFA adolescents are stiff and rule-oriented and act like little adults, which is a deadly trait in any adolescent popularity contest. Friendship and all its nuances of reciprocity can be exhausting for these teenagers, even though they want it more than anything else.

AS and HFA teenagers typically don’t care about current fads and clothing styles (concerns that obsess everyone else in their peer group). Also, these adolescents may neglect their hygiene and wear the same haircut for years. Some AS and HFA adolescents remain stuck in grammar school clothes and hobbies (e.g., unicorns, Legos, dolls, etc.) instead of moving into adolescent concerns like FaceBook and dating. AS and HFA males often have little motor coordination, which leaves them out of high school sports (typically an essential area of male bonding and friendship).

AS and HFA adolescents are not privy to street knowledge of sex and dating behaviors that other adolescents pick up naturally. This leaves them naive and clueless. AS and HFA males can become obsessed with Internet pornography and masturbation. They can be overly forward with a female peer who is simply being kind, and then they can get accused of stalking the girl. AS and HFA girls may have fully developed bodies, but no understanding of flirtation and non-verbal sexual cues, thus making them susceptible to harassment – and even date rape.

Loneliness and depression can lead to problems with drugs, sex and alcohol. In their overwhelming need to “fit in” and make friends, some AS and HFA adolescents fall into the wrong crowd. Typical adolescents who abuse drugs and alcohol may use the AS/HFA teen's naivety to get him or her to buy/carry drugs and alcohol for their group.

Many AS and HFA adolescents, with their average to above average IQs, can sail through elementary school, and yet hit academic problems in middle and high school. They now have to deal with 5 to 7 different teachers instead of just 1 or 2. The likelihood that at least one teacher will be indifferent - or even hostile - toward making special accommodations is almost certain. The AS and HFA teenager now has to face a series of classroom environments with different classmates, odors, distractions, noise levels, and sets of expectations.

AS and HFA adolescents, with their distractibility and difficulty organizing materials, face similar academic problems as young people with ADHD. A high school term paper or a science project becomes impossible to manage, because no one has taught the youngster how to break it up into a series of small steps. Even though the academic stress on AS and HFA students can be overwhelming, school administrators may be reluctant to enroll them in special education at this late point in their educational career.

Adolescence is an emotional rollercoaster for all teens. But, the hormonal changes of adolescence coupled with the problems associated with having an autism spectrum disorder mean that AS and HFA adolescents can easily become emotionally overwhelmed. Childish tantrums can reappear. Males often act-out by physically attacking the teacher or a schoolmate. They may experience "meltdowns" at home after another day filled with harassment, bullying, pressure to conform, and rejection. Depression and drug/alcohol abuse become real concerns, as the adolescent now has access to a vehicle, drugs and alcohol.

The parent of an adolescent with AS or HFA often faces many problems that others parents don’t. As the teen approaches adulthood, time is quickly running out for teaching him or her how to become an independent adult. The parent may face issues like vocational training, teaching independent living, and providing lifetime financial support. Meanwhile, the immature AS/HFA teen is often indifferent – and even hostile – to the parent’s concerns.

Once AS and HFA youngsters enter the adolescent years, they are harder to control and less likely to listen to their parents. They may be tired of parents nagging them to “pay attention to people when they’re talking to you” … “comb your hair” … “you need a shower” … “get up, it’s time to get ready for school” …and so on. They may hate school because they are dealing with so much anxiety, social isolation and academic failure.

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