If you’re wondering whether a teenager in your life has autism, you’ve come to the right place. If you yourself are a teenager wondering if you have autism, you have also come to the right place! In this article, we’ll cover the signs of autism in teenagers – both what it looks like from the outside, and what it feels like on the inside. We’ll also mention some tips for what to do next if the signs feel like they align with your experiences.
Beyond the Stereotypes
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental condition characterized by repetitive behavior, differences in social functioning, and hypersensitivity to stimuli. It’s important to understand what we’re talking about before we talk about the signs, because a lot of what we hear in the media or in our culture about autism creates a stigma that is not accurate. It’s just a condition, like ADHD or Asthma, and we happen to think that autism is actually a wonderful gift. Support needs also vary widely from person to person within the autism spectrum, and no two autistic people are the same.
Signs of Autism in Teenagers
Social Communication and Interaction
Teenagers with autism often prefer direct verbal communication. They often miss their peers’ nonverbal communication cues, and sarcasm might be confusing for them. (Did they mean what they said, or were they being sarcastic so they meant the opposite of what they said? Why can’t people just always say what they mean?)
It might be difficult to interpret gestures, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Eye contact might feel uncomfortable, and from the outside, they might avoid eye contact entirely or hold eye contact for longer than expected if they’ve been told they need to make eye contact with other people. Reciprocal conversations, where two people take turns talking about themselves and asking questions about each others’ interests, may not come naturally.
Restricted and Repetitive Behaviors
Teenagers with autism sometimes engage in repetitive movements or actions, such as hand-flapping or rocking. These behaviors serve a self-soothing or sensory stimulation role, and are sometimes referred to as “stimming” (from the word stimulating). They might also be most comfortable in predictable routines, and might say they prefer routine because they know what to expect. If their routine is disrupted, they might become distressed or could even panic.
Highly focused interests or fixations on specific topics are common among autistic teenagers. Their intense passions and deep knowledge about certain subjects often surprise others.
Teenagers with autism often experience sensory sensitivities, which can manifest as over- or under-sensitivity to sensory stimuli. Certain sounds, textures, or lights may trigger strong reactions or discomfort. They might hate the grocery store lights, or not be able to focus if there’s a faint, distracting sound in the background while they work.
They may become overwhelmed by crowded or noisy environments. Some people actively seek specific sensory experiences, such as spinning or deep pressure, to regulate their sensory input. Deep pressure can come from a family pet or a weighted blanket or stuffed animal.
Executive Functioning Challenges
Executive functioning challenges affect things like organization, time management, planning, problem-solving, and transitioning. Teenagers with autism may struggle with completing tasks, maintaining a clean room, personal hygiene, and adapting to changes or transitions in their routines. They may find it difficult to prioritize tasks, manage their time effectively, and stay organized. These challenges can impact their academic performance and daily functioning.
Some teenagers might experience pathological demand avoidance, or PDA. Tasks that come with obligations or expectations can be particularly overwhelming in these cases, and it’s important to show compassion for yourself (teenager) or your teen (parental figures). For more about pathological demand avoidance (PDA) and autism, check out the linked article.
Potential Challenges in Identifying Autism in Teenagers
Identifying autism in teenagers can be challenging due to masking and camouflaging behaviors. By adolescence, we’ve learned that some behaviors are acceptable socially, and others make us the victim of criticism or even bullying. Coping mechanisms can help autistic teenagers to fit in socially, but they also can make it more difficult to recognize and meet their true needs.
Maybe they imitate movies, TV shows, or peers because they’ve seen those actions lead to positive social outcomes for others. If they “seem fine,” others might not believe them when they describe internal sensory difficulties or other challenges, but their internal experiences are very real! Additionally, social pressures and diagnostic biases, as well as gender differences, can impact the identification process.
The Importance of Early Intervention and Support
Early identification and intervention can drastically improve quality of life for individuals with autism. Appropriate resources and accommodations can empower them to feel comfortable in who they are and accomplish their life goals. Empowering teenagers with self-awareness and self-advocacy skills helps them navigate the challenges they may face and enhances their overall well-being.
Strategies for Supporting Autistic Teenagers
(Hey teenagers, this section isn’t just for your parents. Understanding what is helpful for you is an important step in the process of getting it!)
Creating an Understanding Environment
Creating an inclusive and understanding environment is essential for supporting autistic teenagers. Try out different communication strategies to see what works for them/you, and keep an open dialogue about how things are going. Some autistic teens appreciate clear and concise instructions, breaking down tasks into manageable steps, and using visual schedules for things like chores, homework, or extracurricular activities. It can also help to create a calm and predictable environment, minimizing sensory overload whenever possible. Giving them the opportunity to have quiet spaces or access to sensory tools, such as noise-canceling headphones or fidget toys, can support their sensory regulation.
Demonstrate Respect for Your Teen
A reversible stuffed animal is a great communication tool. While a teen is in the middle of something, they can choose whether they’d like to be approached by family members. If they place their turtle next to them with a smile, they can indicate to parents, siblings, etc. that they are comfortable being approached. On the other hand, a frowning stuffie indicates that they’d like to be left alone for the time being.
Know Thyself (And Express Thyself!)
Self-expression and self-regulation is key for autistic teenagers. Encouraging them to engage in their interests and providing outlets for creative expression can foster their sense of identity and boost their self-esteem. We feel this is particularly important because of the disproportionately high amount of negative messages autistic teens receive compared to their neurotypical peers. Offering opportunities to engage in activities that align with their passions, like joining clubs or pursuing hobbies, can help them connect with like-minded peers and build social connections.
Teaching effective communication skills might involve a little more intention than with neurotypical kids. Encouraging open and honest conversations, practicing active listening, and validating their feelings and experiences can create a safe space for them to express themselves. We have a few products that can also help autistic people build communication skills. Most importantly, be patient and understanding, and allow them the time they need to process information and respond.
Education and awareness play a significant role in supporting autistic teenagers. Educating family members, friends, and educators about autism can foster a more inclusive and accepting environment. Promoting acceptance and understanding can reduce stigma and create opportunities for meaningful social interactions.
Teaching Two-Way Conversation
Autistic kids and teens have a tendency to “info-dump” on the people around them, which can be super fun. But, it doesn’t necessarily help them learn about their friends and build connections. Conversation cards are a great tool to help teach the skill of two-way conversation, and parents/caregivers can start by using them at the dinner table!
Fulfilling Lives and an Inclusive Society
By recognizing the unique challenges and strengths of autistic teenagers, we can create a supportive and inclusive environment that promotes their overall well-being. If you see potential signs of autism in your teenager, consider a professional evaluation. Remember, acceptance and support are crucial in helping them navigate the complexities of life. By embracing their uniqueness and providing appropriate resources and interventions, we can empower them to reach their full potential and lead fulfilling lives. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of autistic teenagers and foster a more inclusive society.
A final note about us
We’re not doctors, and we absolutely believe in science. Our resources here are informative only, and should not be taken as medical advice. We’ll update our content as new research emerges, so if you see something that’s gotten out-of-date, please send us a message!
Unmasking Autism: Discovering the New Faces of Neurodiversity, Hardcover
So you think you’re autistic: A workbook for the confused person who’s just trying to figure things out Paperback
Uniquely Human: Updated and Expanded: A Different Way of Seeing Autism
Masterpiece: an inclusive kids book celebrating a child on the autism spectrum