Autism. What is it and how can you help teens on the spectrum?

April is Autism awareness month, but for many it’s just another month on the calendar. So why is it so important to understand why we all need to be more aware of autism in our community?

There isn’t really one experience of autism and that is why it is called a spectrum as autism can appear in many different forms. While people on the autism spectrum share a bunch of similar traits, there are an equal number of differences between them, so the experience of living with autism varies greatly from person to person.

What is autism?

Simply put, autism changes the way you see, experience and understand the world.
Autism is a lifelong developmental condition characterised by difficulties in social interaction, communication, restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours and sensory sensitivities. Autism is most commonly identified in children and young people but traits can also present later during adolescence and adulthood. Males are 4 times more likely to be diagnosed with autism than girls.

What are signs of autism in teenagers?*

  • Issues with conversation, perhaps dominating conversations with their favourite topic and not knowing how to take turns.
  • Not being able to interpret the non-verbal communication of peers and adults.
  • Unusual speech patterns, a monotonous tone or an old fashioned way of talking.
  • Seeking solitude, and finding being with others very stressful and exhausting
  • Being rigid in following rules at school and in sport and games
  • Finding it hard to read social cues and the unwritten rules of friendship
  • Having unusual interests and obsessions, no breadth of interests
  • Sometimes there are unusual physical movements, such as touching, biting, rocking or finger flicking
  • Having sensory issues, either heightened or lack of sense of smell, touch, taste, sound and vision
  • Need to follow routines to feel secure, become very upset when expected routines change
  • Having few or no real friends
  • Aggression is sometimes seen, usually as a way of avoiding overwhelming situations
  • Anxiety is also common, especially as children enter the teenager years

*Source: Autism Awareness

Teenagers on the spectrum face many challenges. Anxiety is extremely common, occurring at a much higher rate than seen in typically developing teens. Depression can also occur in ASD, especially as young people become aware of their differences and social ‘failures’.

Many teenagers retreat to the safety and security of their computers at this time, but if you’re a young person who struggles to understand the social rules, even using social media can be fraught. Unfortunately, these differences can also lead to bullying, including cyberbullying.

How can you help?

  1. Educate yourself and understand what kind of traits neurodiverse kids can display.
  2. Do not ridicule or make fun of kids who have autism. They might not have the same understanding neurotypical kids have but they have an understanding of bullying and teasing and can create more anxiety and alienation in kids with ASD.
  3. If a child/teenager is displaying abnormal behaviour in your presence or online, ignore it. Kids on the spectrum struggle understanding social rules and social nuances. They are not creepy or weird. They don’t have the same understanding as neurotypical kids.
  4. If you see a child with autism having a meltdown, leave them alone. They will calm down at some stage but it is best if you don’t get involved.
  5. Engage with these kids regularly. Say hi, ask how they are and involve them. They find it extremely difficult to make friends and often feel lonely and alienated.
  6. Be kind

Must watch shows that highlight autism

  1. Atypical on Netflix
  2. Love on the Spectrum on Netflix
  3. Everything’s Going to Be Okay on Stan
  4. Employable Me Australia on ABC iview
  5. You Can’t Ask That-Autism Spectrum on ABC iview

Let’s look at autism as a superpower

‘I have Aspergers and that means I’m sometimes a bit different from the norm. And – given the right circumstances – being different is a superpower’– Greta Thunberg

Whilst many people on the spectrum see their diagnosis as a hinderance, there are some great qualities and strengths they possess including;

  • Strong long-term memory skills
  • Thinking in a visual way
  • Punctuality
  • Loyalty
  • Detail orientated
  • Understanding rules and sequences
  • Intensive focus when working on a favorite activity
  • Extensive knowledge resulting from deep study in favorite topics
  • Average to above average intelligence
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