Growing up with autism I have a lifetime of mishaps and mistakes that I wouldn’t want anyone growing up with autism to make. Now that I have a teen with autism I find that I watch him and see myself in so much he does. He’s obsessed with skateboarding and the skateboarding industry. When he was younger it was trains, airplanes, Legos, and a few others. When I was a child and on into my teens it was Star Wars and aliens. Yeah, aliens… Anyway…
Here are my top ten tips for helping autistic teens navigate life and school. I thought it was important to list the areas that I remember triggering on or the things I always felt where I fell short of people’s expectations. I wanted to let them know that it’s all going to be ok. That we are all ok the way we are.
Tip #1: It’s ok to be weird! It really is. People are going to find reasons not to like you anyway so just be yourself. Everyone has something strange about them, it’s just not always noticeable or they hide it well. We autistic people can’t really, or aren’t able to, hide who we are so why hide? Be yourself and the people who count will always love and accept you.
Tip #2: Don’t let the expectations of anyone cause you stress. People, like teachers, parents, and your peers, will always feel that you should act or think a certain way and it isn’t always that simple. That being said, you still shouldn’t run around town naked or yell profanity at the mailman because there are rules. We follow rules for many reasons and we all have to follow them. Just keep in mind that rules and expectations are two different things. (and I don’t buy the argument that me expecting you to follow rules is valid) What I mean is that someone will expect you to act a certain way and expect you to do it. It’s not always that easy even though we try.
Tip #3: Don’t put so many expectations on yourself. Don’t think you have to be on a team, or dress like your friends. Don’t get so wrapped up in an image that you have of yourself or of the things around you that you can’t enjoy life. Stress, anxiety, and depression are a few of our biggest stumbling blocks. When you let go of the expectations you put on yourself then you turn those stumbling blocks into stepping stones.
Tip #4: Structure and order are paramount, but keep in mind that plans aren’t always going to go as planned and that things fall apart. Stay calm (yeah, right) because it’s all going to be ok. It’s about accepting things are going off course and we have no control over it. As much as we want to control everything we can’t. If forty-five years have taught me anything it’s that some of my best memories are where plans went south and I had much more fun that I thought I would. Just let go of your own expectations and accept a little chaos.
Tip #5: When you feel yourself feeling stress, anxiety, or depression tell someone. Talk to someone. When I was young I had no one I could talk to, or at least didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to. Today it’s different. Not only do most parents learn to accept that their child has autism, and try to take the time to understand their feelings ad concerns. But what if they don’t? Talk to a teacher, a school counselor, or even a friend. Trust me someone will listen. They can’t always help, but they will listen.
Tip #6: Pace yourself. Learning either comes easy or it doesn’t. It’s important that you learn and that you keep learning but learn at your own pace. If you don’t understand don’t be afraid to speak up. This should apply to everything. It doesn’t matter if you are building Lego’s, model trains, or playing sports. Pace yourself.
Tip #7: Stop blaming yourself for everything. Not everything that happens is your fault. I remember all too often apologizing for things that were either out of my control or things that couldn’t be helped. I often apologize, even as an adult, for things that don’t even need an apology. Part of that is manners, which is good, and the other part is that I feel that for some reason whatever it was is my fault. Most of the time it isn’t. If you get angry and throw a plate then apologize. If you are upset and say mean things then apologize. If you’re crying because you’re upset that’s ok. Don’t apologize for feeling bad. Don’t apologize for telling the truth. Don’t apologize for being yourself.
Tip #8: Don’t let anyone tell you who you are. Be yourself and you’ll always be happy. I imagine that anyone reading this has some part of their life that they are uncomfortable about or are ashamed of. I know that I do, but I learned a long time ago to let go of how I felt about what people said about me. People would tell me that I was strange or wired and I believed them. When I started listening to these people my anxiety and depression when crazy! As I got older I discovered that they were wrong and that I was perfectly fine the way I was. You are fine the way you are.
Tip #9: Get off your butt! Go outside and do something. Make plans. Have fun. Find a hobby that you love and do it. Go play basketball with someone. You don’t have to be good you just need to have fun.
Tip#10: You ARE NOT alone. There are so many people out there willing to help you and give you the support you need for good mental health. There are organizations and people who freely give their time just to help people like you and me.
In closing I want you to keep in mind that life is an amazing adventure. People are strange and wonderful and beautiful all at the same time. You have your entire adult life to worry about being an adult. Right now is your time to be a teen. Make friends, play sports, and don’t worry about being good enough with any of it. Love yourself and develop a sense of self-worth. Everything else will fall into place.