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Teenagers With Autism: Symptoms, Treatment, & Help

By Michael Hurst

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD), also known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD), are a group of developmental brain disorders characterized by difficulties with communication, social interactions as well as obsessions and repetitive behaviors.

Autism is typically diagnosed by the age of 3, though advances are being made in early identification and treatment, allowing professionals to identify these disorders much sooner. Although parents are usually the first to observe developmental problems, teachers, pediatricians, daycare providers and others play an important role in identifying and treating autism.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that an average of 1 in 110 children in the United States have an autism spectrum disorder. These disorders are about four times more common in boys than girls.

Types of Autism Spectrum Disorders

  • Teens with autism spectrum disorders may be considered “high-functioning” (often diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, or high-functioning autism) or may fall on the lower functioning end of the spectrum (often diagnosed with autistic disorder).
  • Less common ASDs include Rett syndrome and childhood disintegrative disorder.
  • Pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified is the diagnosis given to children that do not meet the specific criteria for other autism spectrum disorders.

Asperger’s vs. Autism

Asperger’s syndrome is a higher functioning form of autism. Teens with Asperger’s may display different characteristics than teens with other autism spectrum disorders:

  • Teens with Asperger’s are typically of above average intelligence, with less severe delays in cognitive development and language skills.
  • Teens with Asperger’s display greater capacity for imagination and symbolic thinking.
  • Teens with Asperger’s have greater challenges with motor coordination.

Causes of Autism Spectrum Disorders

The cause of autism is an area of extreme debate and controversy. While there is still no definitive answer, the following factors may be involved:

  • Genetics
  • Certain types of infections
  • Problems at birth
  • Brain structure abnormalities

Symptoms of Autism Spectrum Disorders

Sometimes symptoms of autism can be detected in the first few months of life and become more noticeable as children begin to fall behind others in their development. In other cases, a child may show no obvious signs of autism and then between 1 and 3 years old begin detaching socially and losing previously acquired language and social skills.

Every child with an autism spectrum disorder will exhibit different symptoms, but some of the most common autism symptoms include:

  • Difficulty interpreting social cues, such as body language, facial expressions and tone of voice
  • Difficulty empathizing and understanding other people’s perspectives
  • Repetitive behaviors or interests (e.g., head banging, arm flapping or tip toeing)
  • Unusual responses to sensory experiences (including lights, sounds and textures)
  • Difficulty regulating emotions (possibly resulting in crying, self-injury, verbal outbursts, and disruptive and physically aggressive behaviors)
  • Inability to make friends or engage in the “give and take” of normal conversation
  • Deficits in verbal communication and understanding language
  • Intense and persistent preoccupations with certain topics (such as trains or numbers)
  • Rigid need for structure and routine

Treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders

There is no cure for autism, but early diagnosis and intervention dramatically improve a child’s chances of fulfilling their potential. Although there is no single treatment that is right for everyone, available supports and treatments include:

  • Special education services pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, including an Individualized Education Program (IEP)
  • Medication
  • Speech therapy
  • Occupational therapy
  • Physical therapy
  • Psychotherapy
  • Physical activity and exercises designed to improve motor skills and coordination
  • Role modeling
  • Experiential therapy
  • Recreational therapy
  • Dietary interventions

The frustration of not being able to communicate and express themselves, combined with social challenges, leads some children with ASDs to develop behavioral problems or become depressed or anxious, particularly in adolescence. Treatment should address these needs as well as help the teen manage their other symptoms.

Specialized Programs for Teens with Autism

In some cases, a child or adolescent may need more specialized, in-depth services than a public school can provide. Therapeutic boarding schools that specialize in autism, Asperger’s syndrome and learning disabilities are highly effective alternatives. In a highly structured setting, under the guidance of teachers and staff with specialized training and experience, teens develop the skills they need to maximize their potential.

Therapeutic boarding schools offer:

  • Consistent routines and predictable schedules
  • Small class sizes and favorable teacher-student ratios
  • Education and training on self-advocacy
  • High level of personalized attention
  • Social skills training
  • Communication and life skills development
  • Hands-on learning opportunities
  • Minimal distractions in an environment conducive to learning
  • Extracurricular activities tailored to each teen’s interests
  • Family involvement

Summer camps for teens with Asperger’s and other autism spectrum disorders are a shorter term option that has proven beneficial — and fun — for many youth.