ASD: Thriving in the Teenage Years

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell

In this brief article I will talk a little about my experience of children with ASD thriving in the teenage years. I will point you to some resources which will help your child do just that.

As you may know, autism runs in my family and it is my specialism. I lead a team at Everlief which assesses children for autism, and supports children and families therapeutically.

I am going use the terms ASD and autism, but I realise that there are other associated words that some people prefer to use (ASC, high-functioning autism, Asperger’s) and that some of the words are liked more than others.

Thriving in the Teenage Years: Is it Possible?

Yes, thriving in the teenage years is possible! If you have a teen or pre-teen with ASD whose wellbeing is not high, it may not feel like it. The world can seem very challenging. Though autistic brains are often very strong in so many areas, some aspects of modern life – very large schools for example – are often not a good “fit” for autistic brains and can cause stress and anxiety.

The teenage years can be particularly challenging. Social relationships – and the rules about them – are ever-changing. The academic, social and sensory demands of school can be so high.

Once into adulthood, people with autism often really start to flourish and can celebrate their individuality. They get a lot more say in where they work and live, who with, and who they choose to hang out with. But first, they have to navigate the crucial yet confusing time between childhood and adulthood.

What Does it Take to Flourish in the Teenage Years?

I have worked with several hundred children with ASD in my fifteen years as a clinical psychologist. In my work and personal experience, those who are happy and thriving in the teenage years have most or all of these things:

  • They go to a school where their unique needs are understood, and supported. This might be a mainstream school or a specialist school, and could be state or private. (Or, they may be home-schooled.)
  • They have at least one adult at school who makes them feel safe, and can help them in a crisis.
  • Their families have put in place the essential basics for emotional wellbeing: Prioritising sleep, exercise, and eating well.
  • Home feels like a haven: If the day has been tough, the child can get what he needs at home, whether that is a quiet den, sensory feedback, or a listening ear.
  • They have learned strategies to manage stress and anxiety, and their emotions in general.
  • At least one friend “gets them”, and loves their uniqueness.
  • They have developed a positive sense of identity. For example: “I know I am unique and I like that.”
  • They have a passion or special interest which makes them feel good about themselves.

If My Child is Not Thriving in the Teenage Years, What Should I Do?

If your child can tick most of the above, this is great news. Despite a demanding and challenging world, he is likely to be resilient enough to overcome challenges and enjoy his teenage years.

However, when I talk about resilience, I don’t mean that this is something a child should be able to control.

Resilience is the ability to bounce back in the face of a challenge or difficult experience. If, for example, school life feels so overwhelming that it is using up all your child’s energy reserves, then how can he be expected to show resilience when a challenge comes up? In other words, children need help to be resilient. They often need their school or home environment to be adapted so that they do not burn out. For example, some of the brightest teenagers I know have flourished when they have been allowed to drop one or two GCSE subjects. Instead of those lessons, they their free periods to catch up with a staff mentor and talk through current challenges, or to calm their senses by going to a quiet room and reading or listening to music.

If your child struggles with several of the areas I have listed, then pick one area at a time to work on with them, or with their school. You are only human and you cannot do everything. Every small step will help change the trajectory of your teen’s life and help him towards a happier life.

Helpful Resources for Thriving in the Teenage Years

There are certain resources I frequently recommend to our families at Everlief, and I would like to share these with you. If your child needs support with any of the areas I have outlined above, these will be a great starting point.

Teens and Emotion Regulation

10 Brilliant Sensory Activities for Autistic Teenagers

Teens with ASD: Helping to Develop a Positive Sense of Identity

All Cats Have Asperger Syndrome. By Kathy Hoopman (a light-hearted look at Asperger’s syndrome through the eyes of cats)

The ASD Workbook: Understanding Your Autism Spectrum Disorder by Penny Kershaw

The Awesome Autistic Go-To Guide: A Practical Handbook for Autistic Teens and Tweens by Yenn Purkis & Tanya Masterman

Confidence in Friendships and Peer Interaction

The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules by Jennifer Cook O’Toole

Bullies, Bigmouths and So-Called Friends by Jenny Alexander

Autistic Girls and Positive Identity

The Spectrum Girl’s Survival Guide: How to Grow Up Awesome and Autistic by Siena Castellon (Siena wrote this as a teenager herself and also featured in this podcast).

YouTube video

General Resources for Parents (Autistic or Not Autistic)

ASD-Specific Resources for Parents (Some Suitable for Teens as Well)

The Girl With the Curly Hair Project

Children with High-Functioning Autism: A Parent’s Guide by Claire Hughes

Girls Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum: What Parents and Professionals Should Know About the Pre-Teen and Teenage Years by Shana Nichols

Asperger’s Syndrome: A Guide for Parents and Professionals by Tony Attwood

How to Live with Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Practical Strategies for Parents and Professionals by Chris Williams and Barry Wright

Further Reading

Empowering Autistic Children: Top 10 Autism Classroom Ideas For Every Teacher and Parent to Know

Teach Your Child to Self-Regulate With a Calming Box: A Step-By-Step Guide

Movement Activities for Children: 7 Powerful Wellbeing and Learning Benefits

Autism Stim Toys: 30 Awesome Sensory Ideas

(Join Lucy’s Facebook Community: Parent Tips For Positive Child Mental Health UK: https://www.facebook.com/groups/parenttipsforpositivechildmentalhealthuk)