Like many parents, at this time of year you are probably anticipating and preparing for the start of a new school year. Back to school time is both exciting and stressful for all parents as children transition to new classrooms, new teachers, new routines, and new schools. Parents of neurodiverse teens often have to anticipate additional challenges associated with this time of transition such as handling executive functioning difficulties, embracing different classroom expectations, understanding friendships, and regulating emotions.
Luckily, these skills can be targeted, scaffolded, and taught while teens are still in the comfort of their high school setting. Working on these skills while teens are still in high school will give them more time to practice and will allow them to more skillfully face the challenges of the adult world.
Here are four practical skills to start focusing on with your neurodiverse teen to help prepare for life beyond high school.
- Get Involved. Though this may sound like a standard recommendation, it is worth repeating because it is so crucial. For many neurodiverse teens, joining a club can be met with both internal and external challenges. External obstacles, such as figuring out how to get home from school after a club (“I don’t know where to find information on the late bus schedule.”), can be addressed in a creative way. Internal obstacles, like black-white thinking (“I’m not the smartest person on the Quiz Bowl team, so I should quit altogether.”), can be dealt with as well. This will also open up a discussion on the greater purpose of joining a club. In addition to enhancing a transcript, participating in a club offers teens a chance to foster their interests, skills, and talents while also helping them to build connections and memories with others, thereby laying a foundation for the “soft skills” that will be crucial to future careers. Simply the feeling of being a part of a group can shape teens in so many positive ways. No matter how niche their interests, you can find something to motivate them, whether it is at school or as within a community organization that caters to even the most unique hobbies.
- Learn How to Calmly State Your Emotions. While ignoring people and taking the high road are great coping tools to reinforce with your teen, the reality is that these strategies cannot be used in dealing with issues that arise with those closest to us. Teaching your teen how to calmly relay feelings using the framework of an “I Message,” will empower him or her and give others an idea of what needs to be done to fix the issue. The framework for an “I Message” is simple: “I feel (state your feeling) when you (what the other person did). I need you to (what the other person can do to fix the situation).” In practice, it can sound like, “I felt embarrassed when you posted that awful picture of me on your Twitter without me knowing. Can you take it down?” Ignoring your roommate for a week while an unflattering picture gets forgotten about is an option, but you probably won’t get the results you want, and you may end up making it a bigger issue than you really want it to be.
- Maintain Your Own Schedule. It is tempting to schedule your teen’s appointments for him. You are quicker, more efficient, and more deliberate in making the appointments than he is at this age, but when you pass this torch on to your teen this is one less thing you have to do for him. Start with things like giving your teen access to a family calendar, and then look at dates to decide when is a good time to make an appointment, like for a physical or a permit test. You can always put the call on speaker phone to give him a lifeline during the scheduling interaction. Practicing with orthodontist appointments, haircuts, and tutoring appointments will translate to bigger things over the years, like balancing the demands of a full-time course load, job interviews, and office hours.
- Balance Your Time. Knowing when to end an activity and get back to the things that need to be done on your own is a crucial time management skill and an essential study skill. Teens can be given tools and strategies to learn how to regulate their “downtime.” Distinguishing between “downtime” and “free time” is crucial to neurodiverse teens because without this differentiation, they become interchangeable. Teens should fill their free time with recreational activities, such as exercising or engaging in a hobby. These hobbies require effort. By contrast, downtime is made up of the things we do to recharge and re-energize ourselves. Listening to music and reading are popular calming techniques. Early on, tools like timers and schedules can be used to help build the concept of time. Scheduled downtime, proper modeling of downtime, and having downtime in a shared common area of the home may also help teens to build this skill more independently.
Colleen Barry, M.Ed.
Founder and Owner, Main Line Social Learning
About the Author: Colleen Barry is a Master’s Level Special Education teacher with over twelve years of special education teaching experience in private and public schools. Colleen is now a private practitioner who founded Main Line Social Learning, where she focuses on teaching social skills, social cognition and social competence to neurodiverse teenagers and adults. Visit mainlinesociallearning.com for more information about Colleen and her practice.