How To Support Teens with Autism
While it is easy to focus on the difficulties experienced by the autistic teen (difficulty making friends; difficult to understand, restricted repetitive behaviour etc.), it is more important to focus on our approach and how we can establish genuine and meaningful connections. We all have a right to be ourselves and feel what we feel.
Neuroscience has taught us about how the autistic brain works, and we can use this information to adapt and adjust our support in order to create an environment that makes sense to teens with autism. The attitude of ‘they need to learn the proper way to do it’ is uneducated, out-dated and damaging. A far more helpful approach would be to understand that repetitive outcome-driven behaviour is often a comfort to the child; for example, in the therapy room we could provide space to move around or resources to facilitate this.
As with all of my clients, I aim to try and meet them in their world and work with what is in the room at that moment. In addition, I am aware that differences in the brain hippocampus (the part that searches memory stores for similar events) means that I may need to create ‘hooks’ to link to the other parts. Some level of instruction can provide stability and avoid overstimulation of the brain.
The most effective person-centred approach may not be to work in a purely non-directive, person-centred way.
Another key area of the brain’s limbic system, the amygdala, is responsible for the stress/emotional responses and in the case of autistic teens, they are unlikely to feel much of a threat response in a dangerous situation. Helping them to understand this may require patience and repetition, but be careful not to bore them by going over and over it. Bearing in mind that the pre-frontal cortex (responsible for logical thinking) is not yet fully developed, tools and strategies can equip the autistic teen to live life more fully with less need for adrenalin production.
Most autistic teens will ‘work in straight lines’, they will be rigid thinkers—often there will only be one way, and it would be unethical to dismantle this. Instead, try to come into their straight lines and do something within their frame of reference. Find out what it is that interests them and use this to expand ideas. Routine and familiarity are important. Respect this don’t destroy it, come in and walk alongside them. Rather than trying to enter their 'box' from the outside, work from within..