Mother helps her Autistic teenager with homework and communication on a tablet.

Being a teenager is not easy. If you don’t remember the emotional rollercoaster of your teen years, just talk to any present-day teenager. On the other hand, being a parent to a teenager is not much easier, especially when they are in this transitionary period between childhood and adulthood. 

For most neurotypical teens, the teenage years are characterized by the challenges of growing up, figuring out who they are, and learning some sense of responsibility. Teenagers with neurodevelopmental disorders, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), face the same challenges but might experience or handle them differently. During an already-fragile phase of adolescence, parents of teens with ASD may find themselves relearning how to communicate with their teenage son or daughter.

Today, we will share some tips that may help you communicate with your child more efficiently during their teenage years. Whether you are a parent, family member, friend, teacher, or acquaintance, knowing how to talk to an autistic teenager (or any individual diagnosed with ASD) is a valuable skill to have. 

Communication & Autism

Autism Spectrum Disorder is an umbrella term that refers to a range of conditions characterized by challenges with communication, speech, social skills, and repetitive behaviors. Although not every person displays the same symptoms or signs of ASD, it is not uncommon for a diagnosed individual to have a marked deficit in their communication skills–verbal or non-verbal. Some individuals may have trouble speaking, while others may have difficulty carrying the conversation or processing what is being said. That is why we must educate ourselves and others on communicating with autistic adults, teens, and children. 

Teenagers with ASD

Unless you are a parent or family member of a teenager with ASD, you may be wondering what autism looks like in teens. It can manifest differently for each person, and signs and symptoms will vary from one teen to the next, but some hallmark symptoms may make it apparent to someone familiar with ASD symptoms. Remember that it does not affect a person’s physical appearance, so unless you are familiar with some of the more common symptoms, you may not even know that they have autism.

In some cases, there may be subtle signs that distinguish an autistic teen from a neurotypical one, or maybe even none at all. Either way, it may be helpful to be aware of some common signs present in teens with autism. Here are a few:

  • Lack of eye contact 
  • They may get anxious when rules are not followed precisely or misunderstand them altogether
  • Have the same routines (a teen may sit at the same spot at school or follow the same route to each class)
  • May have issues or may not respond well to schedule or routine changes 
  • May be overwhelmed by the noise from fire alarms, assemblies, or in the cafeteria (while in school)
  • May not pick up on social cues or “hints” that conversations are over

5 Helpful Tips on Talking to Teens with ASD

So now that we went into some background information regarding teens with ASD let’s get right into some helpful tips that may help you communicate more effectively with an autistic teenager. 

1. Initiate the conversation
As we discussed, teenagers with autism may struggle with communication, which is why adults, parents, friends, relatives, etc. must make an effort to talk with the teens. If you notice that they are not really engaging in the conversation, it does not necessarily mean that they don’t want to talk– they could just be processing what you’re saying and may be struggling with a response. 

2. Talk about what they want to talk about
If you have been unsuccessful in conversations with an autistic teenager, try shifting the conversation to talk about something you know they are interested in. Often, someone with ASD will hyperfocus on a topic that interests them; if you start the conversation with something they want to talk about, it may make it easier to discuss other topics. 

3. Pick Your Moments
There are going to be times when you just have to realize that it may not be the best time to have a conversation. When it comes to ASD, external stimuli may cause stress or sensory overload to the individual, and having a conversation with them during a time like this may not be the most effective way to communicate. 

4. Practice Patience
Knowing how to talk to an autistic teenager requires a lot of patience and empathy. It’s essential not to take anything too personally, and you must understand why the conversation may not be going the way you planned. 

5. Remember that they are still kids
Teenagers are still children, and adults must remember that when speaking to them, especially if they are living with ASD. It can be easy to expect more children as they grow older, but their brains are still developing even as teens.

If you really want to know how to talk to an autistic teenager, just keep practicing. Try new ways to talk to your teen by implementing these 5 tips, write down what works and what doesn’t, and then keep that in mind for future conversations.