Teens on the Spectrum and School Phobia

Being a teenager brings along waves of emotions, puberty, and social desires. School is not only used for education, but is often a playground for peers to experience friendships, break-ups, and the developmental changes of growing up. The need to fit in is on each teen’s mind. During their formative years, adolescents are learning which people to take trust in and basing their opinions off those experiences. For most teens, this is all a normal part of growing up. For students on the autism spectrum, the idea of just attending school can cause anxiety, leading to an unrelenting phobia.

What is The Spectrum?

The spectrum is the umbrella term used for developmental disorders previously diagnosed separately, such as Asperger’s, Rett syndrome, and pervasive development disorder. Collectively, they fall under the Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) or spectrum for short.

For adolescents, symptoms can range from physical limitations to behavioral restrictions. Without positive support, this can leave children feeling lost and frustrated. When it comes to attending classes and socializing with their peers, overwhelming emotions take a front seat to anxiety and phobia around school hours.

Signs of Sensory Peer Overload

While it is normal for teenagers to experience companion social demands, for those on the spectrum, these relationships can become unbearable mentally. Excuses to not attend school start to surface. The phobia of being judged and dismissed becomes the only focus. This then leads to the following behaviors:

  • Claiming to be sick – Teenagers have been using this excuse to get out of school for years. For adolescents on the spectrum, they feel these emotions more internally, leading to the “I’m sick” excuse. 
  • Causing disruptions during class – Most people can remember the “class clown” when they attended school. This was the kid who played harmless pranks on teachers and classmates, often leading to a group laugh. For adolescents that are on the spectrum, these disruptions are a way to feel like they fit in with their peers without advertising their disabilities. 
  • Isolation from school events – For many students, attending a pep rally or evening football game is often an exciting time to socialize with their peers outside of class. Staff encourage these affairs to engage and learn from their classmates bringing school spirit. Teens that are already dealing with other mental impairments, these group activities are overwhelmingly emotional. Their answer is often isolation. 
  • Leaving school grounds unannounced – In larger capacity public schools, there is rarely enough staff to keep track of all the students and their whereabouts. This makes it quite easy for a student to walk out the front door with no consequences. For students on the spectrum, this sometimes becomes a daily habit and can be dangerous.
  • Bullying other peers – During these formative years, adolescents are consistently seeking the approval of their peers. When they feel “picked on,” their responses fall under the ‘fight or flight’ mental mode. For those students on the spectrum, these words, and actions from their classmates, hit more deeply. To counteract the negative feelings, they become the bully out of fear of becoming the target again.
  • Constant refusal to attend school – When a teenager experiences daily frustration from attending school, the answer is often complete refusal to be present. By shutting out that social requirement, an adolescent on the spectrum can block out that frustration and feel less criticized.

How This Affects Home Life

Trying to reason with an adolescent who is on the autism spectrum about the importance of school is often ignored. Though they understand that school is a requirement, trying to reason with them causes more angst.

Over time, this can lead to a complete disconnect from the family. Parents feel constant frustration while their teen senses disapproval. Once this door has been opened, it becomes harder to get back to a level of understanding.

Overall Consequences of Not Attending School

For students that are emotionally stretched, the need or want of peer relations does not have the same meaning. They want to fit in and be “normal” but these roads are often rocky. As adults, spectrum individuals can find life’s moments overwhelming and unfavorable. Eventually, this can lead to the following:

  • Less life knowledge – While school is not meant to be an inclusive learning experience, it is the first place that children begin to participate and engage with their peers and authority figures, such as teachers and sports coaches. By excluding these formative years, adolescents on the spectrum find that they are unsure about the proper decisions to make about large decisions.
  • Lack of social skills – Learning to be social starts at school. These younger years are each child’s way of experiencing different points of view and habits. Without this, the decisions they make in adulthood often come under strain due to a lack of reading their peers’ demeanors and responses.
  • Unmotivated to seek employment – When an adolescent has not stayed on a daily schedule due to not attending school when it comes to employment, they find that they do not have the proper knowledge or incentive to maintain a job. This often leads to multiple professional changes or a complete financial shutdown.
  • Distrust in others – Lastly, with all the above combined, adolescents on the spectrum can lose all trust in those around them, especially peers. Friendship is such a crucial factor during school years. Without those experiences, adolescents take those negative aspects into adulthood. By only using their own opinions, they miss out on strong relationships with co-workers and partners.

How Parents Can Help Their Teen Adjust More Smoothly

For parents and caregivers of a special needs child, life decisions are often challenging. It is not as simple as sending them off to school and expecting a positive experience. Days are filled with excuses to teachers, doctors, and family. Advice comes from everyone and yet the answer is rarely found without a bit of trial and error. The following are a few ways that parents can regain emotional control of their adolescents in times of need:

  •  Keep them on a schedule – As a society, we function best on set schedules. We understand that work is our first itinerary and home is our second agenda. We accept this as a necessity. For spectrum adolescents, the importance is not as clear. They focus on their free time and not their obligations.

To reason with them, try centralizing your words about the positives of schedules and less on the consequences. This will give your child the feeling of trust in your discussion leading to more motivation to remain on a schedule.

  •  Look into small group activities – When adolescents feel overwhelmed during school hours, they tend to lose focus when seeking solace in their own interests. By ignoring their talents and being consumed by their negative interactions at school, a young adult on the spectrum can quickly fall into depression.

If your child has a special talent, such as an artist or tennis player, sign them up for an evening class a few times a week. Encourage your teen to learn the craft and make new friends with others that have the same interests. This gives your adolescent the chance to show off their talents while learning to have healthy peer relationships. 

  • Respect their boundaries – Everyone has boundaries. As children, we learn what we are fearful of, what we find soothing, and so on. During adolescent years, these boundaries are tested. It is the mind’s way of making a permanent decision around emotions. In adulthood, these factors become part of us and the risks we take. For those on the spectrum, boundaries are no less important.

It is natural for an adolescent to experience anxiety and hesitation when trying new things such as sports or band. Yet, for those with sensory limitations, these “tryouts” seem impossible. If they dismiss these suggestions, let them know that you respect their boundaries. Conclude with an alternative proposal, such as practicing at home first with the family. This makes them feel included in the group and more secure when attempting the task.

How New Focus Academy Gives Students the Extra Support They Need

New Focus Academy prepares struggling teens for a purpose-filled, independent life. We create an environment of success when most of our students are used to failing. Our positive reinforcement approach empowers students to take small steps leading to big changes and overall wellness. Contact us today to learn how we can help your family. For more information, please call (435) 740-8599.