This article was originally published in January 2019 Issue 84 of Autism Parenting Magazine.
As parents, we all want to have the best possible relationship with our children. Teen years can be particularly difficult, especially when your teen is on the spectrum. And no matter how much advice we get from the professionals, it is still hard to accept some of the behavioral traits of our Aspie teens. It is still frustrating at times and hard to cope day-to-day.
Growing up with undiagnosed autism myself and then struggling with my own child, I’d like to share some things that helped to improve our relationship by leaps and bounds.
1. Educate yourself (this may seem obvious but read on)
Gaining a better understanding of my child’s behavior was unbelievably helpful in changing the way I dealt with him. Prior to my son’s diagnosis, a friend of mine asked me if I’d ever heard of Asperger’s Syndrome (after listening to me vent my frustrations). I did some research and my son fit the profile to a TEE! I told my son what I’d learned about it and asked him what he thought. He said (in his usual matter-of-fact low and monotone voice) “I am just glad you finally understand me”. Try listening to first-person accounts from adult Aspies. They were once your child’s age, and they are telling you firsthand about their experiences and what was going on in their heads at that age. I did this through books (audiobooks are a good option if you don’t have time to read). You’ve already taken the first step by reading this article.
2. Stop trying to read between the lines
This is a common pain point for many Aspies, as we are frequently misunderstood due to the unnecessary attempts of others to ‘decode’ what we are saying. Try to hear what your Aspie teen is saying without adding your own layer of meaning to their words. If you are unsure about the reasoning behind a question or a statement they’ve made, simply ask for clarification. For example, if your Aspie teen asks why you decided to wear a green shirt to the party. Just tell him/her why. Do NOT assume that he/she asked because they thought the shirt was ugly. Or that they didn’t agree with your choice. If you’re curious about why they asked, just ask.
3. Be direct and specific
This goes in companion with the last tip. Don’t expect your Aspie teen to read between your lines. If you say, “You should clean your room”. You need to understand that all you did was make a suggestion. And if you say, “Geez, that was very inconsiderate”. That is probably not going to trigger your Aspie teen to apologize. If you want a specific result, you must be direct in telling him/her exactly what you expect.
In terms of being specific, imagine this: There is a load of wet laundry in the washer (finished), and a pile of clothes on the floor waiting for the washer. You ask your Aspie teen to ‘go put the clothes in the dryer’. They go in the laundry room, and instead of taking the clothes out of the washer and putting them in the dryer, they pick up the visible clothes off the floor and put those in the dryer. Do you see what happened here?
4. Believe them
Pre-diagnosis and in moments of frustration, I used to ask my son things like… Why did you do that?? What were you thinking when you did that?? Why didn’t you do what I asked you to do? But I would never really accept or believe his answers. One thing I’ve realized throughout this learning process is that my son was answering me honestly! We [parents] just have to be mentally prepared to receive the answer (without assuming they are being a smart aleck). Chances are, they are just telling the truth.
5. Don’t assume that they have the same ‘common sense’ as you
While formal research articles and info will not say this directly, one thing you need to understand is this: Things that are considered to be common sense for neurotypicals, do not necessarily come naturally for Aspies. But that does not mean they can’t learn. Here are a couple real-life examples:
- Hiding food: When I was a pre-teen, I used to take food into my room and put it in my nightstand drawer. I think the plan was for me to go back to it later. But later (sometimes days later) there would be ants all over it. Upon discovering this, I would close the drawer back and wait for the ants to go away.
- Handshakes and self-introductions: I once took my son to work with me for a tour. An executive walked over and said, “Hello young man. My name is Ron Brown”, as he held his hand out. My son just stood there looking at him.
When things like this happen, don’t panic and don’t write it off as part of his/her condition. Explain to him/her why hiding food in the drawer is a bad idea (the food spoils, ants and other bugs will come for it, it smells bad, etc.). Teach him/her what they are supposed to do when someone extends their hand and introduces themselves. Role-playing is a good technique for that. They may not naturally pick these things up, but they will learn it if you make the conscious effort to teach them.
6. Know when to force them, and when not to
Growing up undiagnosed, I often found myself in situations where I didn’t want to interact, but I had to. And I am certain that had I not been forced to ‘perform’ out of necessity, I would not have achieved as much success in life. Had I been diagnosed early and protected/sheltered from those types of situations, I could have easily gone completely mute and may not have ever learned appropriate superficial behavior.
One of the things we used to struggle with is my son wanting to stay in his room 24/7. I would have to force him (with verbal authority) to come out and do something fun with me. And EVERY time I did that, he’d end up having a great time! I thought he would eventually stop resisting the invites. I was wrong. I have to force him every time. And it’s exhausting, yes. But the feeling I get when I see him actually having a good time is priceless.
For clarity, here are some examples:
- Force your Aspie to join the pep squad at school. NO!
- Have him/her accompany you to do something that you already know they are interested in, and where the interaction will be primarily with you. Yes.
- Have him/her handle a small grocery checkout transaction. Yes.
- Make him/her go out to the park on the 4th of July to watch the fireworks with all their siblings and friends. NO!
Important: Aspies do not like being forced to do anything. But do not underestimate their ability to understand ‘why’ you are doing it. If you explain why the activity is important (e.g. you need to learn to interact this way now because it’s going to be expected of you as an adult). When they understand why, they may still resist, but they won’t resent you for it. This is where the relationship improvement happens. In the explanation.
7. Allow the stimming
My son’s stimming activity has to do with his hair. He will vigorously and repetitively swipe his hair to one side. If he’s self-aware and actively trying to control his hand movements, he will grab a small bunch of hair on the side of his head and twist it. He twists it so tight and so often that his hair breaks off in those areas. I used to shave his head in efforts to stop him from doing this. I know others who might bounce a tiny ball, pace the floor, or tap a pencil on the side of their head. It’s frustrating, I know! But when it comes to behavior modification, I am going to say (from my own experience and with my son) stimming must be allowed. Talking about it helps. If you can get your Aspie to talk about why they do it, he/she will become more self-aware and start working toward modifying on their own and in their own time. Once you understand it and accept it, it won’t bother you as much and your Aspie teen will feel more free to be themselves. You can’t imagine how much anxiety comes along with knowing you are annoying your parents by doing something you literally cannot control.
8. Be mindful of their need for (or) their sensitivity to touch
With both of us being Aspie’s, this one was tough for us. Outside of being in an intimate relationship, I cringe at the thought of another human touching me. My son, on the other hand, is very affectionate. He likes to touch. He wants to sit close to me. Touch my arms for no reason. Sometimes he would even come by and rub his head on me like a cat. He and his father both have sweaty palms and I used to act like I was melting if either of them touched me.
What I didn’t realize is that I was actually making my son feel unloved. He asked me one day why I didn’t like him and why I move away every time he gets close to me. And he asked me if I knew what it felt like when your own mother doesn’t like you. This broke my heart. I compromise now and allow my son to touch me and be close to me because I want him to feel loved. And this has had a tremendous impact on our relationship.
On the other hand, I was the complete opposite. I developed a deep resentment for my father growing up because he used to tickle me every chance he got. And I could not stand it. I would escape his hold and storm off furious and crying. So, the message here is just to be mindful and try to accommodate either way.
9. Find their special interest and make it work for both of you
If you haven’t discovered your Aspie teen’s special interest yet, it may sometimes seem like he/she isn’t interested in anything at all. And finding can be challenging if he/she doesn’t talk much and just doesn’t show much enthusiasm for anything. Pre-diagnosis I had my son playing soccer. He cried after every game. His school recommended we try an individual sport, so we tried golf. The social awkwardness while paired with other boys took a toll, but he was doing it! I would also buy him things I thought would be cool (drawing kits, science kits, etc.) that he would ignore.
Now I hadn’t thought about this before, but when he was a toddler, I would find the cutest little accidental recordings of him trying to figure out how to use my camera. So recently, I purchased myself a camera and sure enough, he asked if he could ‘check it out’. He went outside for half an hour and came back in with the most amazing photo!
Alex’s first photo…
Needless to say, we had identified his special interest. He now enjoys traveling with me more and participating in outdoor activities, all because he wants to get some cool photos.
If you can identify this special interest, chances are your Aspie teen will do it with such genius it will astound you. It will be exciting for both of you and you will be able to leverage that special interest to better reward him/her for doing the things they are less enthusiastic about, creating a win-win situation.
10. Step away from the tree
For those who haven’t heard this metaphor, imagine yourself in a forest. You’re in a forest, but you have your nose up against a tree. Can you see the rest of the trees? No. You must ‘step away from the tree’ in order to see the bigger picture. Try to be mindful of this. The idea here is that when you are frustrated, your nose is usually up against the tree.
This is particularly helpful in dealing with delayed responses and or inappropriately repeated phrases. Take a deep breath and step away from the tree before verbally expressing your frustration. It takes practice, but it gets easier and you will become more self-aware in those moments.
While some of the advice here revolves around coping mechanisms, please understand that learning to cope effectively can have a huge impact on the quality of the relationship between you and your Aspie teen. The diagram below illustrates how learning the information in this article has impacted my family. As a result, I am now enjoying a great relationship with my son. His grades have improved, he is more active, and he even made a friend at school for the first time ever. We made these improvements simply as described, and without the introduction of any medications.
Written By: Shelly Willoughby
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