Physical Health in the Teenage Years
Becoming more independent in managing your own health is a core life skill.
This can range from being responsible for brushing your teeth properly, to eventually managing your own medical appointments.
The basics of a healthy life remain the same for teenagers, autistic or not. This can involve eating a healthy diet and getting physical activity every day. For parents, it is important to keep tabs on your teenager’s physical growth and development, their personal hygiene and their vision and hearing.
Through the teenage years, family and carers can assist their teen to slowly take over some of the responsibility for their health. However, this can be a slow process and take into considerations how much they are comfortable doing by themselves. Encouraging regular checkups with a GP or paediatrician can be very supportive for the whole family and can build trust between the teen and their GP. Often teenagers will listen to someone who isn’t their parent more closely.
Families and carers need to see the whole teenager, beyond the autism, keeping an eye on all aspects of their development. Close liaison with your GP and other health professionals is important to make sure relevant information is shared.
Whilst technology brings a host of benefits to autistic children and adults, it can also cause issues. Screen addiction can affect both mental and physical health. Managing screen time and balancing it with socialising and with physical exercise and time outdoors can be a huge challenge. This is something that needs to be a core focus for families, and it is never an easy thing to manage.
Having check-ins with a psychologist when needed can help everyone in the family through providing information on what consists of a healthy amount of screen time and provide strategies and supports when screen time or online social media becomes a problem. Ideally the screen rules can be mutually agreed to by all family members, but if your family struggles with this, know you are far from alone.
Safety in the teenage years
The high school years and growing independence can bring their own hazards to autistic teenagers.
Problems with friends, and bullying by peers can cause a decline in mental health. Cyber bullying is a particular problem. It is important to look out for signs of bullying and also of sexual or physical abuse. You will know whether your teenager is especially vulnerable to these things.
Signs such as withdrawal from the family, not wanting to go to school, injuries, anger or emotional distress, increased stimming or obsessional behaviour can all be signs that something serious is occurring.
Likewise, families and carers need to keep an eye open for signs that your teenager may be using alcohol or drugs. Many autistic teenagers choose not to, however others are susceptible to peer pressure and manipulation.
Depending on your teenager’s desires and abilities, they may face other dangers. Swimming, driving, taking public transport and being left at home alone are all potentially dangerous situations as our teenagers become more independent. They need to learn as much as they can about keeping themselves safe and well, in whatever manner they learn best.
Many families find that they use visual supports and do safety checks around the house in a way similar to how they assisted their child in their younger years.
Autistic teenagers tend to follow the developmental trajectory of their teenage peers, but at a slower pace. They may start to use public transport later and may delay learning to drive until they are much older. There is no rush, and a steady pace of learning can mean greater enjoyment and more safety for your teenager.
For some autistic teenagers, the high school years are so stressful they have difficulty with regulating their strong emotions and may lash out. They may cause injury to themselves or to others. This is very serious and might require specialist support for all the family. Your GP, paediatrician or psychologist needs to know what is happening and can provide assistance.
The Autism Launchpad website has a Managing crises section for both young adults and their families and carers here.
The Raising Children website has some terrific videos for families and carers of autistic teenagers here. The text and videos about autism and development are also very helpful for families.
It is important that families also learn about teenage development in general. You can find a lot of information and advice on the Raising Children website teenager section here.