How autism can make the teenage years even tougher

A couple of years ago, school was not going so well for Jack. He was close to failing several subjects, even at risk of dropping out. He was bright, the teachers were relaxed and friendly, but that was the problem – they were too relaxed.

Now in year 9 and doing well, Jack, 15, says he has a very particular learning style, getting teachers who match that has turned everything around.

"There's a huge misnomer that these young people are aloof, that they don't want friendships, that's completely and utterly wrong, they absolutely do but we just haven't set up a world that makes that easy. We still have a long way to go." 

Professor Rinehart

Having Aspergers, now formally known as Autism Spectrum Disorder, has made many of the usual trials of teenage-hood tougher for Jack. Moving up to secondary school, making new friends, finding a sport or hobby, these mole hills can become mountains when you struggle with social skills, reading others and communicating.

Jack finds talking with his mother, Tasmin, about some of the daily issues he faces helps him to deal with ASD. Photo: Justin McManus

With impressive insight, Jack says forming friendships and reading sarcasm and humour are tough. "I just wasn't born with the appropriate social skills. I can take things very literally." 

His school has been hugely helpful, matching him with teachers who suit his learning style, allowing him to do golf outside of school for his sport and "with a lot of other little things that seem to go on behind my back", Jack says laughing.

Jack says his parents have been very supportive, helping him by talking through day-to-day issues, such as interactions that he struggles to understand. He says singing cheers him up and he has recently joined an amateur opera group.

Meeting other teens with ASD through Aspergers Victoria has also made a big difference. "It's really, really good. Everyone in that group is a massive nerd, we all end up talking about movies and video games, which I love."

An Australian study will for the first time ask teenagers with ASD about their happiness and how much the developmental disorder magnifies some of the typical stresses and strains of adolescence.

Research into autism has until now concentrated on young children and early intervention, with little known about how teenagers and young adults manage, particularly as they move towards living more independently.

The researchers from Deakin University are asking teenagers with ASD, or high-functioning autism, to talk about their sense of happiness and wellbeing. In the online survey, teens are asked how satisfied they feel with their lives, as well as about other areas such as quality of life, relationships and achievements.

Professor Nicole Rinehart said extensive research into typically developing young people has established when the greatest periods of risk were likely to be, in terms of stresses and anxiety, and when to provide extra support. But this was not yet known for adolescents with ASD.

"We do know that if you've got an ASD you're at greater risk of anxiety and depression so this is trying to take a preventative approach, having a look at how kids are tracking before they move into a period of struggle."

Professor Rinehart said the study aimed to "tease out" some of the protective factors that could be helpful for teens with ASD, such as ensuring that when they leave school they remain socially connected.

"What happens at the moment is that the young person with ASD, even if they've struggled socially, by default they wake up every day, they're surrounded by their peer group. When they leave school, all of that falls away and they can find themselves isolated and struggling to develop that rhythm that gives meaning to life."

Autism Spectrum Disorder involves social and communication difficulties that make engaging socially and making friends challenging, as well as difficulty with change and transition. Children and teens with ASD are also at high risk of being bullied. The transitions from childhood to adolescence and from adolescence to adulthood can be particular stress points.

Professor Rinehart said because adolescence is marked by looking outwardly from the family of origin, and more towards peers, social interactions and romantic relationships, this was particularly challenging for those with autism. "It can be more complex to move through what is already a complex maze for adolescents".

She said it was well established that having good relationships, a circle of friends and a sense of purpose and achievement were important to people's satisfaction with their lives, but these things were often difficult for people with ASD.

"If you don't have a developmental challenge you can take these things for granted. These kids that we're looking at, they're faced with many challenges, friendships are not easy, belonging to a social group isn't easy, obtaining work isn't easy.

"There's a huge misnomer that these young people are aloof, that they don't want friendships and they don't want to be part of groups, that's completely and utterly wrong, they absolutely do but we just haven't set up a world that makes that easy. We still have a long way to go."

Getting a first part-time job is a big rite of passage for many adolescents, Professor Rinehart said, but this was often difficult for kids with ASD and was one area where support could make a big difference.

She said future research should look at employment for young adults with ASD. Recent research shows at least one per cent of people have ASD, around 250,000 Australians. Unemployment rates for people with ASD are about 65 per cent.