Adolescence. It’s a time to explore, make friends and have fun. You start to learn more about yourself, you experiment, you discover new interests. You’re being prepared to step out into the big wide world as an adult. It’s a period of change – the body changes, relationship dynamics change with friendship groups, perhaps becoming interested in romantic relationships and a desire to have more privacy. Not to mention the amount of peer pressure teenagers face in todays society. It was bad when I was a teenager, I can’t even imagine how much pressure there is now.
Being a teenager can be tough! Being a teenager on the autistic spectrum can be one of the hardest transitions of our lives.
Transitioning from primary school to secondary school is a big change for all people. For autistic people the transition can be particularly hard to adjust to. All of the strategies we used to fit in with others as we were younger begin to change, what is considered ‘cool’ in primary starts to become ‘uncool’ in secondary exceptionally fast. Social play starts to fizzle out and celebrity gossip, interest in romantic relationships, following trends and peer pressure take precedence.
In primary school we engage in social play, and it’s more accepted to have friendships on a one-to-one basis. Personally as I transitioned from primary to secondary in year 7 I was definitely still acting the way I would in primary, trying to engage in social play, trying to maintain one on one contact with people because it felt safer, but of course in secondary school gangs and cliques form. Being part of a group is an instinctive part of human nature, just like animals we form social hierarchies. The thing is, I could not cope in group settings. I found the unnecessary comments and cattiness unbearable. In primary school I feel like it was more acceptable to flit between friendship groups, but if you do that in secondary your loyalty can be questioned. Many autistic teenagers feel isolated and experience debilitating loneliness, which is really difficult as a teenager particularly when you can see your peers going out to the cinema or shopping.
With peer pressure piling up around us our anxiety can really increase. We often like to follow rules, systems and structure. We can spend a lot of our time observing behaviours and learning social rules to face confusion when we’re put in situations that might make us succumb to peer pressure. Confrontation can be complicated and we might struggle to communicate ‘No’. As we might struggle to maintain friendships we may give in to peer pressure in the hope of gaining a friendship. We can also be very trusting and socially naive and therefore people can pick on those vulnerabilities.
Autistic people are often subject to bullying. We may like to talk about our special interest for hours on end, not realising the other person is bored. We can take things really literally and we may not always understand jokes. From personal insight when I was a teenager I didn’t understand the concept of banter, and this lead to me being teased because I would show a reaction.
Quite often autistic teenagers become isolated and excluded. We may withdraw from social interaction and hyper-focus on our special interests, or use escapism through activities such as gaming, reading or music to help us cope with our emotions. While we may like and need our own space, that doesn’t mean we do not want or that we are not capable of making valuable friendships.
Why am I talking about this?
As an autistic teenager, I was undiagnosed until I was 16. I remember feeling isolated, lost, confused. Desperate to make friends and not understanding where I was going wrong. Wanting to go out with friends and then having meltdowns because I couldn’t cope with the sensory overwhelm. Not being able to go to sleepovers because I didn’t feel safe outside of my home. Ultimately, feeling like I was missing out on what are supposedly ‘the best days of your life’.
When I was diagnosed there was very little support for autistic teenagers. I was able to attend one course where I learnt about autism, but I felt like I needed more than that. I wanted somewhere that I could make friendships. I wanted to be able to do the things my peers were doing, but with people who would understand if the sensory environment became too much or if I had a panic attack and I’m sure there are so many autistic teenagers out there who feel the same way.
In adolescence, autistic teenagers need support and provisions to help us prepare for our next transition into young adulthood. We may have difficulty with daily living skills, executive functioning difficulties, high levels of anxiety and depression. We may need support with our learning. The support just currently isn’t there.
There are lot of support groups and family sessions available, but these are usually aimed at younger children. Those support groups are vital, children need that support and to have inclusive activities and a having a support network is invaluable. However, these children grow up. Teenagers really need the support too and the opportunities to learn new skills and make friendships in an environment that they feel safe in.
Team AP are hoping to be a part of changing this narrative, by working on a new project designed for teenagers.
As autistic teenagers we often want to express how we feel and have our voices heard but we can struggle to communicate these feelings. We want to be understood and to feel accepted. With our new project, we really hope we can create something where autistic teenagers finally feel they have the support they need. With lack of provisions and support more autistic teenagers are going through the system without the help they need. It causes distress, it can be traumatic, it demolishes self esteem and it is time for a solution.
For more information on this exciting new project follow AP Cymru on facebook. There is A LOT coming.
Thanks for reading!
Cerys The Chameleon.