Coping with the Loss of Normalcy
Regardless of the individual developmental route, most children with autism start realising that they are not quite like others at some point during their adolescence. A few factors seem to facilitate the process:
- A higher level of interest in others
- A higher level of insight into difficulties in social interaction
- A higher IQ
Once the adolescent realises that he has significant difficulties in conducting social relationships compared to his peers, he needs to deal with this loss, just like dealing with another loss. Understanding the thoughts, feelings and behaviour of an adolescent with autism is the necessary first step in helping him out and being there for him.
Considering this coping process in a few stages may make the caregivers’ job easier:
Most commonly, the adolescent will not go through these stages one after another, but rather display a larger or smaller aspect of each at any given time. This is a painful process for not only the adolescent but for others who care for him as well. Parents may find themselves compelled to forget the whole thing and act as if nothing is happening. Denial is one form of getting over the problem. It is important for the parents to help the youngster not to deny but to face the problem and handle it squarely. If parents handle the problems calmly and in a matter-of-fact manner, this will encourage the adolescent to also follow a similar approach. Help the youngster to talk about his anger and frustration, which will in turn help the adolescent get closer to acceptance and adaptation. Parents do not have to bring up any topic or take initiative and give an impression of intrusion; instead, if they give good listening and show patience to the youngster when he or she brings about a problem, will go a long way in easing the situation.
In contrast with their rather slow social development and maturation, adolescents with autism develop physiologically and sexually at the same pace as their peers. As their sons and daughters with autism grow older and display sexualised behaviour, many parents find themselves worrying that their child’s behaviour will be misunderstood or that their child will be taken advantage of.
For instance, they may be worried that their daughter will get pregnant or their son will impregnate someone else’s daughter. Another concern may be that their child will not have the opportunity of enjoying sexual relationships; or that their child will contract sexually transmitted diseases etc.
While some parents get concerned that their children show no interest in sexual matters, others have to deal with behaviours like the following:
- touching private parts of own in public;
- stripping in public;
- masturbating in public;
- touching others inappropriately;
- staring at others inappropriately; and
- talking about inappropriate subjects.
Talking about sex, especially the sexuality of the adolescent makes the parents feel uncomfortable. Even though parents wish that their youngsters have safe and fulfilling sexual lives, we hope the issue just gets resolved by itself, or at least somebody else takes the responsibility of resolving it.
They may find themselves lost trying to imagine their children having significant problems such as the inability to carry on a simple conversation and build relationships that may lead to healthy sexuality. Parents may find it comforting to believe that their children do not have sexual needs and feelings, and avoid bringing up the subject in any shape or form.
They may feel uneasy about sex education, believing that ignorance will prevent sexual activity.
The main issue is for the parents to make up their mind regarding addressing the sexual issue rather than avoid it. They have to set up a time with their child to talk about sexuality, rather than making a few comments about it when the issue is hot. There is no point talking about the issue when it is raw and right after the incident when everybody feels quite emotional about what just happened.
Change in the Point of View
In this period, adolescents manifest clear sexual identities and are concerned with serious relationships. They are able to love others tenderly and have a capacity for sensual love. Self-esteem and personal dignity become important to them. They want that they should be respected and treated as adults. They can even offer useful insight on many things and can set goals for themselves and follow them through. By this time, teenagers learn self-regulation and accept social institutions and cultural traditions more easily. There can be mental and emotional problems involved, but most of them are treatable with the help of an expert professional.
Late adolescence represents a unique period of transition between youth and adulthood. These youngsters are usually considered to be a healthy group but may also develop many chronic medical problems around this time.
A few health problems, such as eating disorders, are actually unique to this group of late adolescents. They are constantly concerned about their looks and do not want to become obese. Thus they tend to starve at this time and develop eating disorders.
Also, this is the age when they develop high-risk behaviours. They experiment with drugs, alcohol, smoking, adventurous sport and many more. Many of these behaviours are a challenge to the existing norms and systems. They tend to defy the norms and take risks. Through such behaviours, they try to convince themselves and their peers and parents that they are grown-ups.
During adolescence, children develop the ability to:
- Comprehend abstract concepts, such as higher mathematical concepts, and develop moral philosophies, including rights and privileges
- Establish and maintain satisfying personal relationships by learning to share intimacy without inhibition or dread
- Move gradually towards a more mature sense of identity and purpose
- Question old values without a sense of dread or loss of identity.