Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a name used to describe a wide range of neurodevelopmental conditions that can be observed through certain behaviors, communication techniques, and styles of social interactions.
Autism is called a “spectrum disorder” because the outward signs of autism can range on a spectrum from “mild” (not very noticeable) to “severe” (very noticeable) compared with what’s neurotypical — basically, what many would call the “social norm.”
According to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), doctors diagnose ASD by identifying several key signs. But the signs of ASD vary widely from person to person.
The signs can also change as you age: ASD signs you experience as a kid may be completely different from what you experience as a teenager.
Let’s get into what the common signs of ASD look like in teenagers, what you can do if you or your teenage child has ASD, and what you can do if you’re concerned about autism disrupting you or your teen’s life.
The outward signs of ASD aren’t the same from person to person.
But the signs of autism in teens aren’t all that different from those in children or adults.
Here’s a brief summary of the diagnostic criteria for autism according to the DSM-5:
- having difficulty with social interactions and communication, such as having conversations or misunderstanding gestures
- having intensely focused or restricted patterns of behavior, such as repetitive motor functions like hand-flapping, or a strict adherence to a daily routine to the extent of feeling distressed if these patterns are disrupted
- outward signs of autism are identifiable early in development, even if they’re not easy to spot, as they may become more apparent when the child gets older
- autism signs result in noticeable challenges adjusting to functions expected in social or workplace norms
- autism signs aren’t more clearly part of a different intellectual disability or developmental disorder diagnosis (although they can be diagnosed alongside each other)
These signs are also diagnosed according to their “severity.”
Some people diagnosed with autism may show only “mild” forms of these signs. But others may experience “severe” forms that disrupt their ability to adjust to neurotypical social and communication norms.
This is why many people think it’s critical to get a diagnosis and get treated as early as possible.
A “severe” diagnosis may help someone more easily get access to the resources they need to adjust to these norms as they get older, when adjustment becomes more critical to self-sufficiency.
Signs of ASD can change from childhood to adulthood. In many cases, autism can’t by definition be diagnosed unless its signs are present when your child is young so that a pattern of behavior can be established.
Of course, there’s no exact time when these signs of autism will become noticeable in your teen.
But as with many teens, you may start to see behavioral and emotional changes happen when they hit puberty, usually at 11 to 13 years old.
Signs of autism may also become more noticeable when they start attending middle and high school, where social relationships often become more central to a teen’s life.
Autism isn’t curable. It’s a part of your teen’s personality and selfhood.
Help your teen understand who they are and learn to love and accept themselves, especially if they’re worried about not fitting in.
- monitoring your teen’s development against a checklist of common developmental milestones
- performing an in-depth behavioral evaluation
- figuring out what resources may allow your teen to overcome challenges in adapting to neurotypical norms and becoming self-sufficient
Just like the signs of autism differ for everyone, the outcomes for someone with autism will look different for each individual.
The first thing to understand is that your teen (or you!) isn’t impaired or deficient.
But they may need access to resources that can help them overcome challenges in adapting to neurotypical norms, depending on whether their ASD has been diagnosed as “mild” or “severe.”
Here’s what you can do to make your teen feel loved and accepted by you and those around you, as well as how to help them love and accept themselves.
Educate yourself about autism
New resources for understanding and living with autism appear seemingly every day.
Talk to doctors, researchers, or speech pathologists with expertise in autism to learn:
- more about autism and how it works
- what’s happening in a neurodivergent brain
- how you can advocate for your teen when others don’t understand or accept who they are
Read plenty of books and visit online resources, too. Here are just a few:
- “A Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism” by Shannon Des Roches Rosa
- “Uniquely Human” by Barry Prizant
- “Neurotribes” by Steve Silberman — a comprehensive work on the history, diagnosis, and increasing understanding of what autism is (and isn’t)
- Autism Self-Advocacy Network (ASAN)
- Autistic Women and Nonbinary Network (AWNN)
Learn everything about your teen
Most parents do this anyway (and it drives most teens nuts). But if your teen has autism and you’re not sure what to do, ask them!
Keep an open conversation going with your teen. Ask them to tell you what they’re thinking or write down their thoughts.
If your teen may not have the verbal or writing capacities to share their thoughts or emotions with you, it’s crucial to observe their behavior and take note of what might trigger certain behavioral responses.
Find what does (and doesn’t) work to help minimize behaviors that may be disruptive or challenge their ability to get the most out of the resources they have access to.
If you believe their behavior is disruptive or hindering their ability to succeed in ways that they’ve expressed interest, try to minimize those triggers or help your teen find coping mechanisms.
Here are some ideas:
- Bright lights a trigger? Keep the lights dim in your home.
- Loud noises disrupt their focus or overstimulate their senses? Buy them some noise-canceling headphones or earplugs.
- Is your teen feeling intense emotion? Give them space, and be understanding. Don’t yell, make them feel ashamed, or respond with hurtful language or violence.
Accept them for who they are
Regardless of the message many parents of autistic teens get from the people and organizations around them, there is nothing wrong with your teen. They don’t need to be fixed.
Instead, make your teen feel loved. Include them in all your family events. Get involved in their favorite activities.
Respect their boundaries, whether by letting them have their own friends and hobbies or by giving them privacy when they ask for it.
Be consistent and supportive
Autism doesn’t “go away” or “get better.” It represents your teen’s:
It’s crucial to be there for your teen as they experience not only the typical struggles of being a teen but also the added pressure to conform to neurotypical standards.
Consistency in maintaining a positive, accepting environment can be an enormous influence on the direction of their lives well past the teen years.
Helping your teen learn certain life skills or behaviors they may have difficulty mastering can also be a form of support. To build skills in these areas, you can:
- See a psychologist or psychiatrist who can help your teen work through personal challenges. They can also prescribe medications for anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), or other conditions that may affect your teen’s sense of personal fulfillment or be perceived as disruptive.
- See a speech pathologist to help with any communication challenges, or do speech therapy.
- See a behavioral specialist to help with routines, activities, or habits that may be disruptive to activities your teen wants to do.
- See a dietitian who may be able to help optimize your teen’s diet or supplement intake to reduce their experience of challenging behaviors or emotions.
Autism isn’t a medical condition that needs treatment.
But it’s a diagnosis that many people don’t understand. You may not fully understand autism yourself right now, even as the parent of an autistic teen.
It’s important that your teen feels loved, accepted, and supported with all the resources they need to accomplish the things they want.
There’s strong support for getting your child or teen an autism diagnosis. It can help them get the resources and services they need to experience more positive or personally fulfilling outcomes throughout their lives.