My Special Needs Teenager Isn’t Safe


The Healthy Family Connections Podcast

Episode 146 · Duration: 00:15:01

My Special Needs Teenager Isn’t Safe

What do you do when your autistic teenager wants to help anyone who comes up to him, breaking social distance?

My Special Needs Teenager Isn’t Safe

Today we’re answering a question from Betsy in NYC. Betsy writes:

Hello Mr. Brown, My son is 17 years old and Autistic. The COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on him, as the changes will take him a while to adjust to. He's anxious, and he internalizes the seriousness of our current situation and often suspects he is guilty of some sort of wrong-doing related to the crisis. One point of confusion for him is how far we should go to show compassion to others while responsibly following social distancing guidelines. We live in New York City, wear face-masks and venture out during parts of the day when there are fewer people around. Nevertheless, he has been approached by individuals seeking money and other assistance. Some are wearing face-masks and others are not. Nearly all of them approach us quickly, and too close physically. He has been taught for so long to act generously and compassionately towards others in need ("Mom, but he needed help!") We volunteer helping to pack and deliver meals to those in need. However, he is having trouble giving priority to his own safety over his instructed instinct and goal to show compassion towards friends and strangers alike. Could you give me some ideas on how I could steer this weighty situation into a positive learning experience? Many thanks for all your support and guidance to families.

Thanks for your excellent question, Betsy. It sure sounds like you’ve done a terrific job of supporting and teaching your son strong values and it’s apparently hard for him to differentiate appropriate vs inappropriate helping situations. Most importantly, you don’t want his instinct to be compassionate and helpful to override his need to protect himself, in this case, his health, and to be able to set critical limits.

The fact of your son’s autism makes him slower to read and understand social norms and social cues and then of course how to respond appropriately. Just so everyone understands, Autism can mean a lot of different things and to a lot of different degrees from slight all the way to profound. That’s why it’s often referred to as autism spectrum disorder. Very commonly, people with autism have trouble understanding how to communicate and interact socially.

Setting Appropriate Limits To Keep Your Kids Safe

But let’s look at the bigger question here Betsy of how do parents teach their children and teenagers how to set appropriate limits and keep themselves safe? That is certainly a huge issue for all parents and in that way, your son’s need to learn about that is no different from all teenagers’ need to learn about that. Teenagers, as we know, have a tendency to feel invulnerable and to be highly impulsive.

Teenagers have a tendency to feel invulnerable and to be highly impulsive.Click To Tweet

Your son’s tendency is to respond with acceptance to someone’s advances. For many parents, they worry that their teenagers, when they go out, won’t keep appropriate social distance with their friends or perhaps with other youth in general.

Even if we weren’t in a pandemic situation, parents want to teach kids to understand and prioritize their own needs over others’ needs of them. That can include setting appropriate sexual limits, limits on responsibility for other’s mental health, how much we trust strangers, even really nice or cool ones, online requests or inquiries, and how not to give out personal information over the internet. There is a lot to learn and sometimes the learning takes place from making mistakes, hopefully not extremely painful mistakes.

Explain Things To Your Teen In A Manner They Will Understand

Betsy, your situation is important and as I’m explaining, it’s a specific situation in a general area of learning for teenagers. So here is what I recommend for your very kind and compassionate autistic son. Acknowledge his wonderful compassionate nature and the ways he demonstrates it.

Explain to him that now that he’s 17 years old, that it’s time for him to learn more about how and when to be open and giving and when not to be.

First of all, this pandemic is not his fault or your fault. It’s a virus. A microscopic virus that just found it’s way into the human population and that we believe it started in China. Even though we aren’t at fault for causing it, we can all be part of defeating it. Everyone wearing a mask and everyone keeping a safe distance is on the team for defeating it.

Explain that no one can be open to giving all the time. Unless we take care of ourselves first, we won’t have the ability to take care of others at all. Offer some examples. Perhaps giving away all your money since everyone who is poor could use some. What would happen then? Or donating all your blood and dying rather than just a little that you can spare.

Unless we take care of ourselves first, we won’t have the ability to take care of others at all.Click To Tweet

Explain that packing and delivering food is our way of giving. That is reasonable and we do it in a safe way.

Explain the extreme circumstances of the virus being very contagious and very dangerous. We want to be extra, extra careful not to catch it or spread it and that’s why we are keeping our distance. Explain that there are places for homeless people to be cared for, but we have to keep ourselves safe and the virus from spreading by following safety rules and now the law, and keeping 6 feet between us and people whom we don’t live with.

If we get the virus or help spread the virus by catching it or giving it, we’re hurting ourselves and others. So by not helping this one person, we’re actually helping everyone and keeping ourselves safe.

Answer questions. What questions does this raise? Talk about ideas for how to set limits with people who break that rule and come to us. Get to the idea of turning away, folding your arms, and walking away. Practice it with role-playing. Switch roles so it’s both of you practicing together. Congratulate your son on learning an important and somewhat complicated lesson.

Then, before you go out again, review what you discussed and role-play one more time. When you get back, review what you saw about safety and what you may have seen that wasn’t safe and if anything happened that your son needed to use his new skills for.

So folks, Betsy teaching her autistic son to keep himself safe is an important reminder that we all have to keep ourselves safe and teach our children and teenagers to keep themselves safe. Let's be sure to teach it in all the critical areas as our children and teenagers grow and enter new stages of development. We don’t teach a concept once, we teach, review, ask questions, and let them have many if not most of the answers.

In this COVID-19 era, what we’re asking our kids to do is counter-intuitive, so it will take reminding and practice to get it right. Let’s keep reminding ourselves and others that the only way to defeat this virus is to not let it transfer from one host to the other. No more hosts, no more virus.

In this COVID-19 era, what we’re asking our kids to do is counter-intuitive, so it will take reminding and practice to get it right.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today everyone.

I want you all to know that I’m thinking about you and caring about the struggles you as families of every variety are going through. There are still more unknowns than things we know, so patience and persistence are required. I’ve got plenty of persistence in me but I’m having to muster more patience than I’m used to. How about you how are you managing? Drop me a line and let me know.

During this very challenging time for our respective countries, and in our communities and families, many folks will experience feelings and situations that are overwhelming and I want to encourage you all to reach out to your mental health community. Many individual therapists and community mental health centers are providing services by phone and video platforms. If you’d like a consultation with me, give me a call or email and we can set up a meeting in a Zoom meeting room.

If you're looking for a resource to help keep you productive at home while also helping you become a better parent, I've prepared a free gift just for you. It’s called Parenting Through Your Child's Second 12 Years. I know you’re thinking, "What the heck, 12 more years of parenting?" Adolescence neurologically, socially and emotionally, and often financially goes to around age 24. Yes, parenting your 20-year-olds is different than the teens. Download my gift and read and learn about the different stages of adolescence and critical strategies parents can use to avoid control battles and best support their adolescents’ quest for happy successful independence.

If you are a therapist who works in a behavioral health treatment program and would like to talk with me about improving outcomes in your program, come on over to my website and shoot me an email or give me a call. I’ll be happy to talk with you.

Please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it. Bye for now.

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