Thursday, May 27, 2010

Teens With Autism by Amber Rothrock

Remember how awkward your teenage years were? Remember struggling to fit in; to be cool? Even as hard as it was, you probably had some idea of what was expected of you. You understood what certain gestures and symbols meant. Now imagine you’ve just been told you are going to be part of a foreign exchange student program and your flight to China leaves in less than one hour. You have no time to learn the language or the culture. When you arrive in China you feel alienated and completely cut off from the rest of the population. This is how it feels to be autistic.

Autism is a developmental disorder usually diagnosed in the first few years of a child’s life. The illness is found in all parts of the world and can affect people of all races and ethnicities. The rate of cases in the U. S. has risen in the last decade from one in twenty-five hundred to one in one hundred fifty (Shute, Despite its prevalence nobody knows for sure what causes autism but family genetics and underlying medical conditions are important factors. It is also common for other mental problems to be present, including depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and ADHD.

Autism is also considered to be a spectrum disorder, meaning that its symptoms range from mild to severe. With high-functioning autism, more commonly referred to as Asperger syndrome, teens can get by fairly well in the real world but can’t hold or maintain eye contact or a normal conversation. They also have difficutly playing with their peers and picking up on social cues. Those with low-functioning autism are often afflicted with mental retardation.

At each level of development a person with autism struggles with interpersonal skills (Coplan 16). Language development is delayed and sometimes children never acquire speech at all. Sensory input is processed differently as well. They may over or under react to physical stimuli. Those with autism also tend to be very clumsy. Taking all this into account, it’s interesting to note that some autistic people are math and memory geniuses. It’s as if the brain overcompensates for its disabilities. What it lacks in general development and social skills it makes up for with extreme intelligence in certain fields.

Teens with autism are very much isolated in worlds of their own. Some may appear to be completely normal but still have difficulty fitting in. Many are incapable of understanding the thoughts and feelings of others, making it hard for them to form emotional bonds. They may have many behavioral problems including anger expressed through tantrums and even violence. Whereas most of us can control the urge to act out victims of autism lack the mental capabilities to prevent these emotional outbursts (Evans,

This is not to say they can’t function in the real world. There are many different therapies available to help autistic children and teens improve their communication and social skills. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, can help them understand and manage their emotions and encourage them to find constructive ways to express themselves (Evans,

Another form of therapy that is most beneficial, but often taken for granted, is animal-assisted therapy. It’s been proven that when autistic children play with animals their violent tendencies gradually subside as they take on the responsibilities of animal husbandry such as feeding, watering, and cleaning up after the animal. The friendships animals provide can reduce feelings of loneliness and promote trust, commitment and self-confidence (Evans,

In 2006, a graduate of New Mexico Highlands University School of Social Work conducted a research project to study the impact animal-assisted therapies have on autistic youth. One boy, Zachary, underwent a dramatic change. Zachary was prone to throwing tantrums and participating in new activities was stressful for him. He couldn’t understand how to play with others and had never spoken a complete sentence. However, after meeting an eight-year-old Australian Cattle Dog named Henry he became more self-assured and was able to relax in a new environment. He was able to better understand the needs of others and what was going on around him. What was most interesting is that halfway through the research project, Zachary spoke his first complete sentence (Evans,

It is also possible for teenagers with autism to attend college. Several U.S. colleges have services to assist the learning impaired, such as the SALT center at the University of Arizona in Tucson. The Strategic Alternative Learning Techniques, or SALT, center was originally designed for those with learning disorders and ADHD but has expanded to include students with autism (Hincha-Ownby, Autism Friendly Colleges).

To help autistic people assimilate into the push and pull of everyday life there are now programs that have recently been developed to help the mentally challenged find work after graduation and become productive members of society. Counselors work with employers to find ways to make the quirks of a disability useful. For example, one young man who had fun pushing buttons and liked the sound of swishing water started his own business washing towels for hair salons (Shute,

Today, autistic teens are being recognized for the important roles they can play in society. They no longer have to become wards of the state and collect disability for the rest of their lives. When given the assistance they need they can participate in social activities and live relatively normal and happy lives.


Shute, Nancy. “Teenagers With Autism: Want A Job?” US 2 Apr. 2009.

Coplan, James. Making Sense of Autistic Spectrum Disorders. New York: Bantam Books, 2010. Print.

Evans, Rachel. How to Handle Autism Anger in the Teenage Years, Five Strategies for Coping with Autism and Anxiety on Socialization and the Benefits of Animal Therapy for Autism. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.

Hincha-Ownby, Melissa. Autism Friendly Colleges. Web. 8 Apr. 2010.

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