Loneliness is something most neurodiverse individuals experience. In the past two weeks, I discussed loneliness amongst women with autism and working professionals. Today, I would like to take a moment to discuss how loneliness impacts children and teens with autism. Then, I will offer some suggestions on ways autistic teens can make friends and overcome the isolation they are experiencing.
Loneliness and Autistic Teens
Often, in 4th and 5th grade, children with autism begin to notice they are different from their peers. At this age, social interactions become more complex and stressful for a neurodiverse child. They begin to have trouble following the social nuances of conversations. Initiating conversations with their peers can be hard because they don’t know what to say, they may not share the same interests, or understand the jokes their classmates are telling or the topics they’re talking about.
This becomes even more challenging as puberty hits and they are expected to keep up with their peers social maturity. Neurotypical teens want to talk about things like their crush, dating, sexuality, and the latest gossip. These may not be topics that interest a preteen with autism. In fact, it may be uncomfortable for them to talk about. Therefore, they struggle to interject and contribute to the conversation. Unfortunately, peers may ignore them or bully them for not fitting in.
Comparison is the thief of joy…
In middle school preteens with autism begin to compare themselves to their peers. This is the stage of life when self-consciousness is at its peak. All teens, with or without autism, have a strong desire to fit in. Feeling different from peers can lead a teen with autism to not only feel lonely but impacts their sense of self-worth. As they begin to notice the ways that they are different, middle schoolers with autism become self-conscious and overtime they begin to feel bad about themselves. Furthermore, when others point out their differences, they feel rejected and become very upset. Often, this causes them to withdraw and stop trying to make friends. They may associate autism with feeling ashamed. Leading them to reject help or talking about autism or their challenges with loved ones or providers. Ultimately, they end up feeling very lonely.
As an autism parent, you want to help your child fit in, but this could be making matters worse
But, what makes a preteen or teen with autism fabulous IS their differences and their unique mind. And, as an autism parent, I know you want your child to be happy and thrive. So, you’re probably struggling with wanting to help fix their troubles and make them feel better. I get it. As a parent, you want only the best for your child. You want to give them the world, so they can be happy, confident, and successful. Unfortunately, this often means autism parents advise their children on things they can do to fit in better. But, this leaves their child feeling even more inadequate then they did before. By telling them things they should do differently, you’re further affirming you’re child’s inner monologue that they are not good enough or they have to change in order to be loved.
If you push your autistic teen too hard it could have a profound impact on their sense of self-worth
You’re coming from a really good and loving place. But in my experience, strongly encouraging or forcing your neurodiverse teen to conform to these social norms can cause your child to go down one of two paths.
- The autistic teen feels flawed. They try to avoid social failure and reminders of their perceived inadequacies by withdrawing. To compensate for these emotions they push themselves to succeed in other areas of their life, the ones that they are passionate about. Or, they might stop trying in most or all aspects of their life.
- The autistic teen becomes overeager to fit in. Due to social naivety, they miss signs that their so-called friends are not genuine and are just using them. Or, they realize their “friends” are taking advantage of them. But, they tolerate it just to have someone to spend time with. They might go to great lengths in order to feel accepted by a peer group.
If your teen feels flawed or becomes overeager to fit in they can develop a profound sense of self-loathing and loneliness. This can then cause serious mental health issues such as anxiety (especially social anxiety), depression, and even self-harm behaviors and suicidal thoughts and attempts. Or, if your neurodiverse teen becomes so overeager to fit in and impress their peers, they may go to extreme lengths to be accepted. This can cause them to engage in risky behaviors such as drug and alcohol use, dangerous activities, or promiscuity. Unfortunately, many autistic teens are taken advantage of by their neurodiverse peers because they don’t fully understand social norms.
How to Help Your Autistic Teen Avoid Loneliness
At my autism therapy clinic in California I work with many high-functioning autistic teens and their parents. Ultimately, my goal is to help them learn how to advocate for their needs and be proud of their differences. Parents who allow their neurodiverse teen to be different and encourage them to be their true selves will notice that they are able to stand up for themselves and be proud of their uniqueness. They respect themselves. Also, they acknowledge that challenges are a part of life and see it as an opportunity for social growth. Ultimately, these teens have good self-esteem and make true friends.
How can I help my autistic teen develop good self-esteem?
As an autism parent, you want to help your child feel good about themselves and make friends. So, teach your child that self-acceptance and self-compassion are the most powerful antidotes to loneliness, low self-esteem, and depression. You can:
- Help your child identify their strengths and weaknesses.
- Explain that everyone has their own set of strengths and weaknesses and everyone struggles with something. When your teen understands this, they are likely to feel less self-conscious of their differences.
- Encourage your teen to embrace their incredible strengths. Unfortunately, many teens with autism try to downplay these gifts because they have an inner critic. They have internalized the message that they are not good enough, so they’re unable to acknowledge how awesome they are.
- Take time to really understand and empathize with the way your child is feeling. Help your child learn self-compassion instead of self-criticism
- Look at your own behavior. Do you use words of self-compassion when you’re struggling? Do you have a strong inner critic that comes out and makes you feel worse during a difficult time? Recognizing your own inner critic and bringing in self-compassion can help you model this for your child.
Consider joining a social skills group for autistic teens and parents in Palo Alto, CA
If you are looking for more support and a community of other neurodiverse individuals for your teen with autism, please consider joining a social skills group. My autism social skills groups are being offered online and provide a wonderful opportunity for teens with autism and their parents to interact and learn in a supportive community. In my Gifted Teen with Autism and Caregivers Group, we separate teens and parents to allow both parties to speak freely and learn a unique set of skills. Our teens are encouraged to learn tools to be self-sufficient and advocate for their needs. It also allows for autism parents to discuss the issues that matter most to them and learn techniques to help their child thrive.
In order to teach your child the skills they need to be independent and successful, I’ve developed a three-part social skills group curriculum that focuses on the following: learning social skills, distress tolerance and anxiety management, and self-advocacy.
Autism Parent Support Group
If your teen already has a social skills group, but you are looking for support as an autism parent, I encourage you to check out my free online autism parent support group. In this group, we discuss topics that many autism parents struggle with. You will also find a community of other adults that are experiencing similar struggles as they parent their gifted autistic children.
Begin online autism therapy for autistic teens in Palo Alto, CA
You want only the best for your teen with autism. So, if you sense they’re struggling with loneliness please consider reaching out to my autism therapy clinic based in Palo Alto, CA to learn more about our online autism therapy services.
To get started, follow these steps:
- Contact Open Doors Therapy and schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation with Dr. Tasha Oswald.
- Like Open Doors Therapy on Facebook.
- Sign up to receive my newsletter about neurodiversity.
Autism Therapy Services offered For Autistic Teens and Adults at Open Doors Therapy:
At my Palo Alto, CA autism therapy clinic, I work with teens and adults on the autism spectrum. this includes high functioning individuals who identify as having Aspergers, high functioning autism, undiagnosed autism traits, etc. and their families. Due to COVID-19, all my autism therapy services are being offered online. You’ll find a variety of autism counseling services offered at Open Doors Therapy including individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, and group therapy. Also, I run several social skills groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, gifted youth & caregivers, autistic adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a summer social skills college transition training program for youth going to college, teens & caregivers, and a mothers group. Contact my autism counseling office for more information on my services or to schedule a consultation.
About the Author
Dr. Tasha Oswald is a trained developmental and clinical psychologist. She is also the founder and director of Open Doors Therapy, a private practice specializing in autism therapy services in the South Bay Area, near San Francisco, CA. Dr. Oswald specializes in helping neurodiverse teens and adults and facilitating social skills groups.