Trying New Things: Why and How To Challenge Your Teen with Autism

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Change can be difficult for most people, but it is particularly challenging for people on the autism spectrum. Teens with autism typically appreciate the repetitive nature of a routine. Knowing what comes next can provide a sense of security and creates a sense of order. And while routine can be very beneficial for autistic teens, there is the danger of teens becoming trapped in their routine and unable to try new experiences.

The Challenges of Change

May teens with autism also struggle with sensory sensitivities. A fire engine siren, the smell of lunch from a school cafeteria, or the feel of a new item of clothing can be overwhelming for teens with these sensitivities. Because of these sensitivities, it can be challenging for teens with autism to try new things. In a new situation, you don’t know what might trigger these sensitivities and possibly result in a meltdown. 

New experiences are an important part of education and growth. While mistakes can feel distressing to teens with autism, mistakes help us learn. Teens with a fixed mindset struggle with mistakes, risks, effort, courage, persistence, dedication, creativity, and success. Difficulties in any of these areas can cause problems with seeing the ability to change and grow. Engaging in guided practice with these skills can support change from a fixed mindset to one of growth.

Helping your Teen Try New Things

So, knowing that new experiences can be challenging for autistic teens, how can we help them practice the skills they need to make change more tolerable? 

  • Make a Plan: Talking through what this new experience will be like can be incredibly beneficial for your teen. For example, if they are preparing for a new school year, talk with your teen about who their teacher will be. Maybe have a photo of their teacher so they have a visual of what to expect. Talk them through their school schedule, when they will go where, and discuss appropriate social skills with peers in the classroom. The more they know what to expect, the less anxious they will feel.
  • Practice: Once you have talked with your teen about the plan, the next step is to practice. Perhaps you’ve enrolled your teen in an after school club you think they’ll enjoy. You can practice driving to the meeting place, then show them where they will meet the rest of the club. Practice walking from the meeting area to the nearest bathroom so they don’t need to worry about finding it in the moment. Practice some questions they can ask the other members of the clubs. Then practice walking back out to the parking lot. While we can’t prepare them for everything, the more they practice, the more comfortable they will feel.  
  • Make Mistakes Together: Making mistakes can be a big trigger for teens on the autism spectrum. One way to build tolerance around making mistakes is to make them on purpose. You can treat it like a game. Show them how you make a mistake, and how you deal with it. For example, when washing the dishes, maybe you “accidentally” spray water outside of the sink. Instead of showing frustration or anger about the mistake, you could model by saying: “Whoops, I missed the sink and got the floor all wet. No problem! I can wipe it up and everything will be good as new!”. Show your teen that it’s OK to make mistakes and encourage them to practice small mistakes themselves, skipping over a problem during homework or intentionally missing a level on a video game is a great way to practice mistakes with minimal negative impact. 
  • Take It Slow: Understand that comfort around trying new things is not something that will happen overnight. This is something you and your teen will need to work on on a regular basis. Encourage your teen, even when the process is slow, and allow yourself the grace to be proud of whatever achievements you both achieve. 

New Focus Academy Can Help

Our approach focuses on helping students gain independence in daily activities and their social lives. Subsequently, students develop confidence and self-esteem as they find success in accomplishing activities independently. As they do this, they start to feel empowered, thus stopping this feeling of being a “mistake” in its tracks.

Teaching the skills necessary to live an independent life is at the core of our program. By focusing on our students’ unique strengths, we help them accomplish meaningful goals and work towards independence. For more information please call (844) 313-6749.