Many children get a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) later in childhood. If this happens with your child, it’s never too late to try a treatment or intervention. And there are lots of interventions that can help older children and teenagers.
Autism interventions for older children and teenagers: some basics
Many types of interventions for younger children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can also help older children and teenagers – for example, interventions based on the principles of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA).
Programs that have been developed specifically for older children and teenagers should take into account the fact that there’s often a mismatch between an older child’s cognitive or developmental age and her age in years. For example, your child might be 13 but be more like a nine-year-old in emotional development and behaviour.
These therapies and interventions should also help your child with the skills and understanding he needs to go through puberty, build healthy self-esteem and social relationships, manage romantic and sexual feelings and deal with any adolescent low moods and mood changes.
Below we list some types of interventions you might want to think about for your older child with ASD.
Social skills training
Social skills training can include teaching children and teenagers to read non-verbal cues such as eye contact, body language, tone of voice and facial expression. It often includes skills such as seeing things from other people’s perspectives, solving social problems and understanding social and emotional rules.
Your child might be able to do some social skills training one on one with a therapist or teacher, or as part of a group. Some programs include outings so your child can try out her new skills in the community. This helps her apply the skills she’s learned in one setting to other settings, situations and people.
Some social skills programs are designed by a therapist or a teacher for a specific child or group of children. Others might be run by someone who is trained to use a particular program, such as the Secret Agent Society program, the Social Thinking Program or Stop Think Do.
Cognitive behavioural therapy
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is based on the idea that how we think, how we feel and how we act are all related. That is, the way we think about something will shape our feelings and our behaviour. For example, negative or unrealistic thoughts can cause us to feel bad, which in turn affects how we behave, and the choices we make.
For example, if your child thinks, ‘Nobody likes me and I’m never going to have any friends’, he’s likely to feel sad and lonely, and his actions will reflect this. He might hang out by himself or close himself off to opportunities to mix with other children.
CBT could teach your child to replace this negative thinking with something more positive and realistic. This could be, ‘It’s hard to make friends but I’m a good person and I’m going to keep trying’. This will help your child feel better about herself, so she’s more likely to try to socialise with her peers.
CBT programs also often teach relaxation strategies that your child can use to reduce and manage anxiety associated with ASD.
Cartooning strategies use visual symbols to help children and teenagers with ASD understand social situations. By drawing cartoons, children can turn abstract or confusing events into pictures that they can understand and think about with the help of an adult.
For example, your child is sent to the principal’s office after a playground conflict. Your child could draw the situation as a cartoon, using speech bubbles. An adult could then talk about what happened with your child.
Modelling involves an adult or peer showing your child how to do something or how to behave, which your child then copies. Modelling can be useful for teaching many skills, such as social skills (smiling, saying hello), self-care (hygiene) and educational tasks.
Video modelling is another option. There are some ready-made videos that show people modelling different skills, but you could also make your own. For example, you could record yourself or someone else showing facial expressions, using body language or using different tones of voice.
Interventions that use peer training teach typically developing children – for example, siblings or classmates – strategies for playing and interacting with children who have trouble with social skills. This means that when your child plays and socialises with the typically developing kids, your child has more and better opportunities to develop social skills.
For example, classmates might be taught to appreciate how everybody is different, how to start an interaction with a child with ASD and how to keep that interaction going.
Children with ASD can develop independence by learning to regulate their own behaviour.
One way for them to do this is by recording how often a particular behaviour happens using tick sheets, stickers or a wrist counter. For example, your child’s goal might be to stay sitting down until he’s finished eating. If he does this, he puts a sticker in his book.
Stepping Stones Triple P
Stepping Stones Triple P is a parenting program that has been modified for parents of children, up to 12 years old, with a developmental disability. It can help you:
- manage challenging behaviour and developmental issues
- encourage behaviour you like
- develop a close relationship with your child
- teach your child new skills.
Video Interventions for teens with ASD
In this short video, parents talk about interventions for their teenagers with ASD. A person’s ASD can change over time, and different interventions can become more useful. Sometimes parents can do training to help them pass on skills to their kids in daily life. A good tip is to avoid therapies in the evening when teenagers are tired.