If you have a teen on the autism spectrum, you know they’re a phenomenal human being worthy of the best care and support available. And they’re far from alone. In 2018, 1 in 44 children age 8 in the United States were diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), according to the most recent data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring Network. Serving this population is a critical issue for American families.
Teens with autism need a holistic treatment perspective that supports their neurological, intellectual, and emotional needs. The science on this topic is constantly changing, so we sat down with Embark Behavioral Health Chief Clinical Officer Rob Gent to get his perspective on how parents and caretakers can best support teens with autism.
Here’s what it all comes down to: relationships and routine. Let’s dive in.
A Quick Neurology Primer
To best help your teen who’s on the autism spectrum, it’s critical to understand what’s going on neurobiologically. Knowing a few key facts allows you to better make sense of and empathize with the experience of living on the spectrum, which can include dealing with co-occurring mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
To break it down simply, those with autism may have issues both “horizontally” (across the brain) and “vertically” (down the nervous system, including the spinal cord and other nerves). Within the brain, a structure called the corpus callosum connects the right and left hemispheres.
“The right side of the brain that’s concerned with relationships, emotional and relational cues, the nuances of facial features, and social engagement is often cut off because the corpus callosum is actually shut down,” Gent said. “Compensation then comes from the left side of the brain, which is concerned with logic and focus.”
This disconnection could be why someone with autism may struggle to understand others’ emotions or react to affection. It’s also why those on the spectrum may excel in highly focused activities, math, and more.
But this disconnection doesn’t mean that people with autism don’t want relationships — quite the opposite.
Autism and Relationships
“Secure relationships are the most effective and efficient means for creating healthy development,” Gent said. “The ‘miss’ is that most people think that those with autism are not interested in close connections with others. In reality, they’re craving relationships more than anybody.”
When it comes to autism and relationships, secure connections provide stability and emotional support that improve overall well-being. Gent explained:
“There are a lot of nonverbal experiences that happen with primary caregivers and parents that are essential for all of us. Who doesn’t want to receive hugs and empathy? Just because we can’t respond in the same way, it doesn’t mean that our limbic systems — the part of the brain involved in our behavioral and emotional responses — and our bodies aren’t growing and developing in a positive way because of those experiences.”
So, how do you use this information about autism and relationships to provide effective treatment and support for your teen with autism?
Rebuilding Neurological Connections Through Therapy
When considering the best therapy options for those with autism, it’s critical to acknowledge the whole person, not just where they fall on the spectrum.
“Treatment should not be compartmentalized,” Gent said. “Rather than focusing on specific neurological interventions, treatment really needs to be seen in a more holistic perspective.”
One critical factor in this assessment is putting aside chronological age and seeing an individual for where they are in life.
“One of the most impactful things I like to say to parents, families, therapists, and frontline staff is, ‘Do you see the child and their chronological age and load that relationship up with unrealistic expectations, or are you aware of and realistic about their emotional development and where they’re at developmentally?’”
Occupational therapy (OT), neurofeedback, and biofeedback are just some of the treatments proven to help those with autism lead more fulfilling and healthier lives. From learning to cope with events like how to deal with new or unknown situations to managing heightened sensory experiences, these different types of therapy change and train the brain to build and grow new connections, known as neuroplasticity.
“Creating these new neurosynaptic connections enhances the connectivity between the hemispheres,” Gent said. “This results in improved communication, understanding, and connection for the child with autistic features as well as those who are consistently and reliably involved in their lives, like parents.”
Autism and Routine
Another important consideration in improving well-being for teens with autism is the importance of routine. Having a routine allows those with autism to better regulate their emotions, enabling them to feel safe and secure.
“The art of flexibility and adaptation is really difficult,” Gent said. “That need for structure, reliability, repetition, transition, knowing what’s going to happen and when — all of it is essential for us to establish that regulation of emotions.”
Having a reliable routine is one of the best ways friends and family can care for those with autism. When we refer to autism and routine, it comes down to having a daily schedule. For example, you can plan out everyday tasks, such as when it’s time to get up, have breakfast, go to school, do homework, participate in recreational activities, and more. This approach can be incredibly helpful for those with autism given change can contribute greatly to their anxiety.
Putting It All Together
“If there’s one takeaway I want to make sure parents have, it’s that providing structure, boundaries, and limits that feel rigid to us is actually one of the most supportive, caring, and compassionate things we can do for teens who struggle with autism. Because when that structure and reliability exist, it provides them what they need, not what we think they need.”
At the end of the day, your teen living on the spectrum wants what we all want: to be able to rely on and trust the people in their lives. Your love and support play an important role in making this happen.