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Autism at Play: A Q&A with Irene McHenry, PhD, and Carol Moog, PhD

The Autism Playbook for Teens

Autism at Play: A Q&A with Irene McHenry, PhD, and Carol Moog, PhD

Teens with autism face unique challenges when it comes to school and friends. But what many people may be surprised to learn is that teens with autism can also have a natural gift for acting. In their new book, The Autism Playbook for Teens, Irene McHenry and Carol Moog seek to empower autistic teens with a fun, creative, strengths-based approach using mindfulness strategies and scripts. These imaginative exercises are designed to help teens on the autism spectrum manage emotions, reduce anxiety, and form meaningful connections with others.

Can you tell us what inspired you to write this book?

We’re two licensed psychologists with over forty years of combined experience in the fields of autism and mindfulness. We both love working with people who are unique in how they see world and how they learn. Given our many years of connection and mutual respect for each other’s work, we decided to team up to offer mindfulness tools with imagination-based exercises specifically for teens with autism. We saw the perfect opportunity to provide these teens with skills to help manage their anxiety, get connected with their bodies, and calm themselves. Mindfulness creates a receptive internal state, so people with autism are freer to try out new behavior, make observations, and learn how to manage their own lives instead of spending all their energy battling stress.

Collaborating in writing this book was a joyful experience for us both.

What special skills will autistic teens learn from the role-playing activities in this guide?

In this book, teens are not actually doing traditional role-playing; rather, they’re learning skills to practice and explore on their own to help them try out different roles with others. We invite readers to use mirrors, act out feelings with their bodies and facial expressions, explore sensory experiences, and then rehearse activities. 

By emphasizing the importance of getting in touch with what’s most comfortable for them—and by using mindfulness activities to alleviate anxiety and discomfort—they gain confidence in moving outside their comfort zones. The skills teens learn from the book’s activities will facilitate their being able to do real-life role-playing in a wide variety of situations.

What makes teens with autism such great actors?

Because they have difficulty engaging socially and want to fit in and engage with others, teens with autism are highly motivated to observe and study the behavior and mannerisms of people around them. As a way to try to figure out social language and unwritten rules of communications that come naturally to others, many are highly skilled in copying gestures, voice tone, and facial expressions they see people use. When teens with autism have a special interest in a film or television show, they often have all the lines memorized, including voice inflections, tone, gestures, and can play out entire scenes flawlessly.

Many of the activities are drawn from the world of acting and theater because drama can help people with autism capitalize on and expand their interest in understanding how people use their bodies and faces to show feelings. Having specific roles and scripts that fit their own unique personalities reduces the anxiety and awkwardness of entering the social world, so teens with autism often gravitate to theater and acting, even as careers.

Can you tell us the role that mindfulness plays in the book’s activities?

Mindfulness skills underlie all learning. In order to learn, one must be in a relaxed, alert state of mind and body. The skills include being able to concentrate, choose where to place one’s attention, and observe what is taking place—both inside and outside the social environment. We systematically guide the reader through activities that teach self-calming moment-to-moment awareness. Anxiety, stress, sensory overload, and the predisposition toward meltdowns and over-reactivity are typical of teens on the autism spectrum. The book shows teens how to calm nervous tensions, work with frustration, and become better at relating to people.

Is the book appropriate for all teens on the autism spectrum?

This book is written to be clear and accessible for teens (and adults working with teens) with average reading skills. It’s a fun and easy-to-read book, intended especially for teens on the autism spectrum with expressive and receptive language skills. Although this book is designed for teens to be able to use by themselves, parents, caregivers, teachers, therapists, coaches, and counselors can use the book to work with teens individually or in groups, in both educational and therapeutic contexts. The activities are designed to be easily adapted to different settings and for different ages.

How does the book work in concert with autistic teens’ unique neurology?

The book takes into account the fact that teens with autism are not neurotypical. We believe each and every one of these exceptional and fabulous teenagers has the capacity to learn and grow. The activities normalize teens’ stressful experiences living in a social world that doesn’t operate in ways that support their unique differences. Designed to be practiced in various ways in a variety of settings, the diverse activities take into account the unique perspectives, sensory issues, and neurological strengths and challenges teens with autism bring to their encounters with the outside world.

There are many theories and hypotheses about autism; ultimately, the key to understanding is the knowledge that each person with autism is a unique individual. We know there are real neurological differences in this special population; helping teens learn to connect with what’s unique in themselves will help them develop the skills to connect with others. The mindfulness- and imagination-based activities in this book help individuals experience greater attunement with themselves—become aware of their own bodies, aware of their own feelings, aware of their own way of being in the world. The book is designed to work with teens as they are and give them ways to become independent and engaged.

Many teens with autism have trouble connecting with others. How do the activities help foster social awareness?

The book opens with activities to center the body, calm the mind, and build an awareness of self. The middle section focuses on awareness of thoughts and feelings, and using those to build independence and confidence. The final section focuses on teens reaching out to others and directing their own lives.

Chapters such as “Play the Role of a Scientist: Get Curious” invite teens to use their skills to get comfortable in social situations. The activities focus on teens’ existing interest in social engagement and help them to channel this interest with specific guidance about what to do in different social situations. The book provides techniques for taking in the whole picture, focusing on details, quieting the anxiety in body and mind, and pausing before entering situations in order to gather information. Using the grounding of mindfulness, teens are directed in developing tactics for being in the outside world with other people. Fostering social awareness is a key focus of this book.

What does this book offer that other books on autism do not? What makes it new and unique?

Many books on mindfulness for children and teens have been published in recent years; however, this is the first mindfulness book that focuses on teens with autism. It’s also the first book that combines mindfulness with specific tools for using imaginative play to build skills that lead to connection with others.

Another unique aspect of this book is that it can be used by a teen on his or her own, without needing to be a part of a group or class. Most of the activities can be done in the safety and privacy of the reader’s own space, which in itself reduces anxiety about trying something new.

Finally, although the activities are designed so they can be effectively explored and practiced solo, they can just as easily be used with other people, such as friends and family. All of the activities can be customized in ways that best suit the needs and imagination of teens and their families.

Is there anything else you’d like readers to know?

We loved writing this book as a collaborative project. In working together, we actually used the activities to facilitate our work. As we were writing, we tried out these activities with students, teachers, family members, and each other in order to ground the activities in authentic experience.

The book was a true collaboration, using all aspects of who we are, what we value, our unique gifts and perspectives, and our shared commitment to helping teens with autism reach their full potential.