How’s your day been?

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We often get asked ‘How’s your day been?’ If you’re living, teaching, or working with an autistic teenager, you’ve probably, at some point said ‘Uplifting’. ‘Hilarious’. ‘Rewarding’. You’ve also most likely said something like; ‘Challenging’. ‘A struggle’. ‘Testing’.

Autistic children and teenagers vary considerably in their individual strengths and difficulties (SIGN 2016), with many having co-existing conditions which can make getting the right support more challenging (Maskey 2013).

They often grapple with intense emotions like anxiety, stress, depression, and anger. Even minor triggers, can lead to meltdowns. After school, they may come home utterly exhausted, needing significant time alone to recuperate. There are several common challenges faced by autistic teenagers, and by having a better understanding of these you can develop a clearer plan to offer even better support than you are now.

Dr. Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood look at some of these common challenges.

Being different
Autistic children and young people often feel different but may not comprehend why. Socialising at school can become a challenge, with peer criticism, rejection, and derogatory comments. Individuality and being socially different is not always celebrated and can be difficult for the individual. It can result in low self-esteem and depression, with some potentially responding with anger issues.

Self-regulation
Autism impacts the frontal lobes of the brain, responsible for executive functioning. Many autistic individuals also have ADHD, making executive functioning difficult. This could affect organisation, planning, problem-solving, and impulse control. Autistic teens can often struggle with impaired emotion regulation and behaviour, leading to impulsivity, defensiveness, and at times avoidance, which can increase anxiety.

Sensory
Loud noises, bright lights, specific smells, textures, and tastes can all have a unique sensory system impact. These can lead to pain, temperature perception, hypervigilance, exhaustion, and sleep issues. Processing sensory stimuli can add background stress, affecting concentration and focus throughout the day.

People
For many autistic teens their biggest challenge is navigating social interactions. People can be confusing, hard to understand, and sometimes do not understand. Some perceive people as toxic and withdraw, missing out on valuable connections. Encouraging positive relationships is crucial for their well-being. We know from research and clinical practice that having just one friend can protect an autistic teenager from poor mental health outcomes.

Double empathy problem
Autistic individuals often struggle with “theory of mind,” the ability to understand others’ expectations and intentions. While they possess affective empathy, they find cognitive empathy challenging. Likewise, neurotypicals may struggle to interpret autistic social cues, leading to misinterpretation and negative perceptions. This mutual misunderstanding can hinder social acceptance, and start feelings of being unwelcome.

Overthinking
Autistic individuals, facing social confusion and executive function challenges, can often overthink as a coping strategy. While intellect is obviously valued, overuse leads to exhaustion and potentially fosters avoidance behaviours or isolation. This disconnect from emotions impedes healing; feeling is essential for emotional processing and well-being.

Empathy overarousal
Affective empathy, distinct from cognitive empathy, involves feeling others’ emotional distress as if it were one’s own, though understanding may be lacking. Autistic individuals can often experience others’ pain intensely. Autistic teenagers can feel overwhelmed by others’ distress, possibly being unsure how to cope or assist, causing distress.

Alexithymia
From Greek roots meaning “a lack of words for emotions”, alexithymia involves difficulty recognising and expressing emotions, it is often coupled with interoception issues. This difficulty to sense and articulate emotions leaves individuals ill-equipped to manage them, contributing to sudden anger outbursts. Alexithymia heightens the risk of anxiety and depression in autistic teenagers.

A different learning profile
Autistic individuals often exhibit significant variability across IQ test subtests, showcasing strengths alongside notable difficulties. This uneven learning profile poses challenges in various settings, including school and social interactions. Despite intelligence or giftedness, they may struggle with new tasks, leading to feelings of inadequacy, depression, and hopelessness.

Trauma or the effects of past trauma
Autistic individuals are more susceptible to both experiencing traumatic events and developing traumatic stress reactions like PTSD. Undiagnosed trauma, such as bullying or abuse, may afflict your autistic teenager. PTSD symptoms include hypervigilance, distrust, flashbacks, and disrupted sleep. Seeking professional help promptly is crucial, as PTSD is treatable, and identifying ongoing trauma can ensure safety.

Summary
The child and teenage years pose unique challenges for autistic individuals, often intensifying typical teenage struggles. Understanding these specific challenges is crucial for effective support. The challenges outlined in this blog stem from clinical insights and research. While not all may apply, empathetic exploration is vital. Providing ongoing support enhances the chances for success.

Where next?
We encourage you to look at the free resources on our website, this includes a free Topic Guide, podcasts, blogs, recorded lectures, and research digests. Do also visit www.attwoodandgarnettevents.com for expert resources on autism from Professor Tony Attwood and Dr. Michelle Garnett.

We are also delighted to welcome Professor Tony Attwood to deliver the webinars below. All delegates will have exclusive access to a recording available for 90 days after the event. Don’t forget as a charity any surplus made is reinvested back to develop the work we do.

Adolescent issues for Autistic teenagers Tuesday 20 June 9am – 12noon

Autistic teenagers experience greater challenges during adolescence than their typical peers. Tony explores these challenges and provides strategies to improve coping mechanisms, resilience, and connection with peers.

The Power of Special InterestsTuesday 2 July 9am – 12noon

Tony will discuss the stages in the development of special interests, their sequence, and the reasons why special interests occur. The perspective of parents, teachers, and the autistic person are explored, and strategies are outlined to make constructive use of the interest.

The profile of abilities in Autistic girlsThursday 10 October 9am – 12noon

Tony will describe the strengths and abilities commonly experienced by autistic girls, as well as key challenges, including self-understanding, developing an authentic self, navigating school, developing relationships whilst staying true to oneself, self-advocacy. Tony will also discuss co-morbidity with issues of mental health including; ADHD, anxiety, depression, autistic burnout and eating disorders.

Autism and Family DynamicsThursday 17 October 9am – 12noon

Tony will look at key aspects of life that play an integral role in family life to understand how autism can affect different members of a family in different ways. The degree of challenge may vary depending on the severity of the autism, but the autism-related issues that families deal with are similar. This talk will also look at stress management for all members of the family with practical tips and advice for parents/carers and siblings.

 

Discussion

As a very caring grandfather to a 14 year old autistic boy ..thank you so much for these explanationsp

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