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Top 3 Tips for Helping Your Teen With Autism Get Back to School

headshot of Spenser CrainSpenser first began working with people with autism and their support system as a tutor and mentor in 2010. Since then she has worked with individuals with autism and their family members in a speech and occupational therapy clinic, applied behavioral analysis services, and therapist.  Spenser currently works as a therapist with anyone ages 4+ and loves supporting people with special needs and their family members. If Spenser isn’t around the office, she is probably relaxing outside a food trailer and eating tacos with her dog, Wyatt.



The Need for Belonging and Significance

I believe that people at their core are driven by the underlying need for belonging and significance. This idea came from the brilliant medical doctor, psychotherapist and theorist Alfred Adler. I use this lens to view the behaviors of my clients, their parents, and people in my personal life;  this iceberg is my favorite way to describe this idea to others.


iceberg of behavior and need for belonging and significance


For nearly ten years I have had the honor of working with people who have autism and their support systems. I strongly believe that people who are neurologically diverse share this same need for belonging and significance; however, people often seem to overlook these needs.

The transition from summer back to school can often be a challenging time for children and teens, especially for youths on the autism spectrum. Because autism covers a large spectrum and presents differently in every person, I would like to review several ideas for ways to help your teen or child with autism feel that they belong and have significance during this time of change.


Tools for Supporting Children and Teens with Autism

1. Speak your child’s love language.

Gary Chapman’s “Love Languages” are the way that you prefer for others to show you that you are valued and appreciated. The languages include: physical touch, words of affirmation, quality time, gifts, and acts of service. If your teen has been to occupational therapy, you may consider speaking with his or her OT about how your child’s sensory needs may affect their experience with physical touch or words of affirmation. For example, should physical touch be lighter or firmer to communicate love to your teen.

If your teen has a difficult time processing verbal communication, he or she may not feel the love you express if you say, “I love you.” A hug or act of service may better communicate your feelings.


2. Help your child or teen communicate their feelings, then validate the experience and learn to cope with these feelings.

Change can be scary, especially for a person with autism. An example of emotion identification, validation, and coping might be, “I know going back to school after summer break can be scary and you might be feeling anxious. It’s okay to feel this way. What can I do to support you?” If the teen or child does not have any ideas, you can make some suggestions like meeting the teacher the week before or taking a tour of the school. Additionally, it is important to keep verbal explanations at a developmentally appropriate level for the child or teen you are speaking with.


3. Help your child or teen find a place where his or her unique strengths are valued and appreciated.

hedgehog shooting quills at target

This picture by “I Love Doodle” is my favorite representation of this concept. If this hedgehog were trying to make a balloon animal, it would definitely struggle. Instead, it found a role where it will thrive and have significance.

School can be a hard place for any child or teen. Help your son or daughter find a role where he or she can shine. This could be a job where organizational skills are useful, or volunteering at an animal shelter, or joining an art club. Be creative and think of your child’s strengths. This will help to fulfill his or her need belong and feel significant, not just at home but in the world. Finally, try out whichever of these tips feels right for you and your teen.

Feel free to adapt these ideas to fit your family and teen’s needs. To learn more about youth’s need belonging and significance, read “Positive Discipline for Teenagers” by Jane Nelson and Lynn Lott or “Positive Discipline for Children with Special Needs” by Jane Nelson and Steven Foster. For more information on supporting individuals with autism check out Dr. Barry Prizant’s “Uniquely Human” or contact me.

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