When Should Parents Give Their Autistic Teen More Independence?

Here are two perspectives on independence for autistic teens.

Frustrated Teen
Frustrated Teen. SW Productions

When should parents give their autistic teen more independence?  Should you "let go," even if your child is very young for his age? Drs. Cindy Ariel and Robert Naseef, both psychologists who work with special needs families offer their advice.

From Dr. Cindy Ariel:

The balance between holding on and letting go is one of the most difficult ones that we parents have to face. At this time in your child’s life, it may be appropriate to take more of a back seat in many instances. You can still keep the lines of communication open with your child and help him do what it is he is trying to do.

For all teens, we are expected to be in their lives and out of their faces at the same time.  If your teen has a hard time with social communication, while it is now inappropriate for you to set up ‘play dates’ or constantly organize his social groups, you can offer occasional suggestions to the teacher or group leader and you can coach your son from the sidelines.

Another important idea to keep in mind is that some teens do not want more interaction even though their parents may feel it is important for them to have it. It is important to be sure that the social goals you set up for your child include what he wants now and not just what you think he should have or be doing. He may never be the life of the party and may always be a little on the periphery, but for him this could be a comfortable place and one that he is used to. It could provide social interaction and friendships and yet offer a comfortable distance and not a lot of pressure. If he wants more, you can help him learn to move in and reach out for more at his own pace.

From Dr. Robert Naseef:

When to hold on, when to let go, when to push, and when to pull; these are some of the themes that every parent struggles with—with “normal” as well as “special” children.

The outcomes for children and teens are best when parents and professionals work as partners with mutual respect and shared decision-making power. Parents, by virtue of their bond with their child, are true authorities in their own right, with information to contribute that no one else has access to. Professionals, on the other hand, through training and experience, can offer expertise and a broad perspective that parents alone don’t have. Each has only partial knowledge, with complete expertise possible through team work—often trial and error is involved. If your child is old enough, if at all possible, he should be involved with the professionals and you in making the plan. What he thinks he needs is also important in arriving at a good plan with a chance of success.

Letting go may sound too drastic, and perhaps so. Maybe a more realistic way to look at this dilemma is to just loosen your grip and see what happens. If your child seems to slip backwards, this may convince others that he needs more support than they thought. If he is somehow able to meet that challenge, you may be pleasantly surprised. There are inevitable and unavoidable road bumps and potholes in this process. We cannot control that, but we can control how we respond to them.

The differences between your autistic child and others his age can be even more awkward during adolescence. Some of his best friends going forward may be other teens growing up with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum. Some people overlook this because they are eager, understandably, to have their children accepted socially.The reality is that your child will probably need continuing support and guidance, some of it from experienced professionals, to continue his social development. While this may pose a financial strain, the long term benefits usually outweigh the cost of not getting him this support.

It’s a long and winding road to raise an autistic child. It’s hard to know at any given moment what to accept and what to work on. A parent’s job never ends—it just changes. Give yourself a well-deserved pat on the back for getting this far. Take good care of yourself as well.

Robert Naseef, Ph.D., and Cindy Ariel, Ph.D., are the co-editors of "Voices from the Spectrum: Parents, Grandparents, Siblings, People With Autism, and Professionals Share Their Wisdom" (2006). 

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