Are You Struggling To Understand And Support Your Autistic Teenager?

Are you clear where your child falls on the autism spectrum or are you still getting conflicting diagnoses, especially if your teen in on the higher functioning end of the spectrum? Even if your teen is high functioning, are there academic or social problems that seem to be getting worse now that your child is older and expected to accomplish more in bigger and broader school and social environments? Does your teen experience problems with transitions or become easily fixated on an activity, concept or idea, making adhering to a schedule consistently problematic? Are you experiencing resistance from your teen – either by your attempts to help or due to his or her rigid way of thinking? Has the school environment been a big challenge – especially if your teen is in the public school system? Do you feel very protective of your child and want to shield him or her from the social upsets and challenges that are part of the normal teenage experience, but may be more pronounced for your teen? Are you concerned about your teenager in the long-term, wondering if he or she will be able to live a normal life with a job and relationships?

The teenage years are by definition a struggle and your teen, like his or her peers, is developing a sense of self and working out a way to navigate increasingly more complex academic and social environments. In addition to that, your teen sees his or her experience through a different kind of lens. By adolescence, most higher functioning teens on the spectrum realize that they see and process things differently. And, although it’s different, it makes sense to them. While most autistic teens don’t seem to have a lot at stake emotionally or socially, some with higher functioning capabilities can develop anxiety or become reactionary, especially if they have been bullied or find it really challenging to relate with peers. Other teens may not understand their differences, and your teen along with others on the spectrum may have a hard time putting themselves in other’s shoes. This can make the already challenging school environment even more complicated – adding another level of frustration and difficulty to what both you and your child are experiencing.

By now, you probably have at least an indication of where your teenager falls on the autism spectrum. Maybe your teen is on the higher functioning end of the spectrum, or you are seeking another diagnostic opinion, or a different kind or style of intervention. Regardless, a lot can be done and finding the right therapist and getting appropriate intervention now can make big difference in the long-term.

The Autism Spectrum Community and Available Resources Are Growing

Autism is becoming more widespread, as are the kinds of intervention, community resources and an understanding of what autistic teens need to engage effectively within their greater communities. Studies are continually being done, and with them have come more developed tools and strategies to support teenagers with the cognitive and social issues that affect those who are on the spectrum.

Research also shows that early intervention is very effective, and that the teenage years are a crucial time to get the right support. It’s really common for autistic teens to struggle in school and with social interactions, which are typically the two dominant parts of a teenager’s life. Learning how to interact with others socially as a teen can make a big difference. Rather than go into physical or emotional isolation, your teen can learn and practice ways to engage with others more effectively.  This can prepare your child to better navigate social interactions now and as an adult. Having a plan – which your BPS therapist can help you develop – is key. A good plan, along with the opportunity to strategize and rehearse, as well as having an expert monitor your teen’s progress, can make a significant impact on both social and academic development now and in the future.

Therapy Can Be Very Effective

While autism is pervasive and ongoing, your teenager can learn ways to minimize the unwanted consequences of his or her special needs. Your BPS therapist can help you with the day-to-day challenges, reduce obstacles, and develop more balance within your family. You’ll also learn to set realistic goals and the tactics needed to obtain them.

In therapy, your teen can learn what to do in specific social situations. With your therapist, your teen can practice potential scenarios, which can help him or her better navigate their social experience. Your teen can also learn real, concrete strategies and be better prepared to handle difficult situations in healthier ways. Your BPS therapist can also help your teen with the executive function tasks – like organization, memory and time management – that are common challenges for teens on the spectrum and can make family and school life more difficult. By providing the appropriate tools and strategies, these challenges can be addressed and worked out in the therapy setting.

Your BPS therapist can also help you understand what things will look like for your teenager and your family in the future. You’ll create a plan and become equipped to manage issues that may occur over time.  Working with a therapist on the challenges that come with autism can provide you with the advantage of being able to develop effective management strategies. Your therapist can also help you set and obtain realistic goals and have the support and guidance needed to alleviate stress and minimize conflict. Getting to better know and understand your child and his or her specific needs can be a positive and supported process.

While you and your teenager are going to have a different kind of journey, with help, it may be possible for your teenager to have a more normal life. With help, your teen can hit certain milestones, even if you’re worried now. There is no quick fix for autism, but with the right approach, strategies, tools and education, the journey can be a truly joyous one.

But, you still may have questions or concerns…

I think that my teenager could really benefit from therapy and other outside resources, but I’m concerned about costs.

This is your child’s life and wellbeing. Addressing your teen’s autism-related issues now may prevent a host of problems from occurring as he or she finishes high school and enters adulthood. Investing in your teen’s mental and emotional health and ability to function socially now can provide great benefits. It can also keep the symptoms from getting worse and interfering with his or her ongoing social development .

Many people come to BPS having worked with other therapists who were not trained to work specifically with adolescent autism spectrum issues or who they or their teenager couldn’t relate with – which is a waste of time and money. At BPS, we’ll conduct a increase the likelihood of a good fit, BPS offers an online therapist directory and match you with a therapist who is trained and experienced to treat adolescent autism spectrum issues and whose personality is a good match for you and your teen. Once you find that good match, making a commitment to your child, yourself and your family may be one of the most valuable investments there is. Imagine everyone in your home – especially your teen –  feeling and functioning better now and in the long-term on a regular basis and ask yourself what that’s worth.

If money still is an issue, you can talk with your BPS therapist to see if they work on a sliding scale. They may also be able to help you find other lower cost resources in the community, such as Imagine!, a local program that provides support, resources and funding specifically for children and adolescents with autism.

My teenager doesn’t seem to be distressed about his or her social world and is doing okay. Wouldn’t it be best to just leave my child and the situation alone?

Even if your teen seems to be managing okay right now, it is necessary that he or she be working on skill building and getting better prepared to function independently. Preparing a plan, learning skills, developing strategies and practicing how to navigate difficult situations is necessary for teenagers on the spectrum. It should be happening regularly during the teenage years, regardless of the level of distress. Therapy can provide your teen with the skills needed to handle social challenges and to live and function in the large community. It can give him or her tools to be more successful. We live in a world where many people still do not understand the challenges and differences that come with being on the autism spectrum. While we cannot change the social environment, therapy can help your child be better prepared to function well within it. Without proper skills, your child may resort to mental, emotional or physical isolation, which is not healthy. The demands on your teen will only increase as he or she gets older. Without skills to navigate the world independently, your child will need to continue to rely on you and family to do it for him or her. Now – while your child is still a teen and has constant support from you –  is the time to give your teen the skills and practice needed to live a more normal and independent adult life.

We’ve tried anything and nothing helps. I’m starting to feel like nothing will.

The helplessness that you’re feeling and experiencing can be highly frustrating and is very understandable. Sometimes parents get bad or inappropriate advice or are not plugged into the right resources. However, even if you feel like you’re constantly treading water, without help, your child could feel like he or she is drowning.

The good news is that, with the right therapist and resources, a lot can potentially be done to help your child. You need a therapist who understands the teenage experience, how autism works and the challenges that occur for teenagers on the autism spectrum. At BPS, your teen will be matched with a therapist who has experience working with autistic teenagers and understands the different intricacies that make up his or her experience. You can’t expect to be able to handle this on your own – nor do you have to. With the right therapist and tools, your teen – and you and your family – can get the help and support needed so that everyone in your home can feel and function much better.

To increase the likelihood of a good fit, BPS offers an online therapist directory to help determine what your child’s specific issues are and to ensure a good match between you, your child and a BPS therapist in terms of personality, style and expertise.

Check out our free, online therapist directory, which will match you and your teenager with a therapist who has expertise in counseling for autistic teens, working with adolescents and autism spectrum issues.


BPS therapist Dan Fox, LPC helped create the content for this page. Dan is a licensed professional counselor and Imagine! provider who has been working with autistic children and their families since 2002. Dan’s diverse, adolescent-focused background also includes teaching high school, running a summer camp, school counseling and serving as director of September High School.