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How Can I Help My Autistic Teen eel "Cool"?

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Updated January 23, 2014

Question: How Can I Help My Autistic Teen eel "Cool"?
How can I help my autistic teen feel like he's cool? At age 16, my son with Asperger Syndrome is trying to develop a 'cool' persona, but he is not very adept. If he could just learn small talk, he would be miles ahead of where he is now. Please help me find some way to help him.
Answer: From Dr. Robert Naseef:

Each season of life for any child, now adolescence for your son, brings on a new season of parenthood for mothers and fathers. Autism or Asperger’s further complicates the transition for both parent and child. When your son refuses to admit that he is different from others, he is actually fighting for his own identity and independence. While this can be painful and uncomfortable to watch, it is a sign that he is growing up. So there is a healthy aspect. Wanting to fit in and be “cool” is the form that this takes right now. Not easy to deal with, but still a new developmental phase. It is a sign of your success in raising your son as well. Try to hold onto that thought, and give yourself some credit that this problem has now come to the fore. Empathizing with how he feels right now may actually help him to understand and embrace his difference.

Actually there is help available. For starters, many youngsters with Asperger’s love the book, Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence, written by Luke Jackson, a teenager with Asperger’s, and published by Jessica Kingsley. You too will get a few good laughs and some very poignant insight from an insider’s view of growing up and dealing with differences. You have noticed that much attention is given to the earlier stages of dealing with autism and Asperger’s, but the children with this diagnosis are indeed growing up and facing new and varied challenges. There are many books which provide a curriculum for teaching the social skills that are necessary.

You are wise to realize that you cannot do all this by yourself. He needs to learn what he needs from other people as well. I would suggest professional guidance both at school and outside of the school day because that may be less embarrassing for him. Medication may be helpful. I would suggest an evaluation by a developmental pediatrician or a child psychiatrist who has experience in treating adolescents with Asperger’s. Often a small dose can make a big difference, as numerous successful adults with this diagnosis have reported.

Finally, don't forget to take care of yourself a bit. Children take longer to be ready to be on their own in this modern world and this seems even further applicable with young people growing up along the spectrum. Your son needs you to be positive and enjoy life while this process unfolds. You deserve this for yourself as well.

From Dr. Cindy Ariel:

Teenagers in general have a hard time admitting difference as they struggle to find out and come to terms with who they really are. Fitting in is one of the primary goals that concerns typical teens during this phase of their development.

There are now several good books out there that may help your son in his struggle for his identity. Among other places, you can find several of them along the shelves next to the book that Dr. Naseef mentioned, by searching Amazon, or by thumbing through a Jessica Kingsley catalog. It may be helpful to leave books around that talk about being different, and also about typical teen problems. Your son may be able to learn about what other teens think and do by reading about it, and learn about himself and some of his differences at the same time.

While the process can be slow, it is possible to teach and to learn the art and science of small talk. There are several ways to try to make this happen and to help teens like your son to become more adept at the teen scene. Being around other teens in safe settings is often helpful. There are books that can also help you to coach him in small talk and other social skills. If he has any friends you can continue to encourage interaction while helping him to learn the social nuances that are so difficult for so many teens.

At this point, it may be difficult for your son to agree to attend a social skills group with other teens, although if he really wants to become more skilled around his peers he may reluctantly agree and secretly welcome such an opportunity. Remember, though, that your son may not feel loneliness the way you do and ultimately it will be up to him to deal with his aloneness and potential loneliness. With your help, if he is motivated to reach out and interact with others, he will learn to be more social in his own time.

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People With Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). On the web at http://www.alternativechoices.com .

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