Getting to Know an Autistic Teen

I got some funny searches this week: “100 count a Kindergarten,” “living in a car,” “angel of doom,” and “how to sew a wolf head.” But my favorite search this week was not, I presume, intended to be funny. And I want to give a big hug to the person who typed it in.

how to get to know an autistic teen

Wow! Doesn’t that renew your faith in humanity? Whoever you are, can we clone you? If more people wanted to get to know autistic teens, if more people realized that they have feelings and interests and personalities worth knowing and cared enough to find out how to achieve that, our kids would be a lot happier and so would we. And more people’s lives would be enhanced by knowing them. Because, verbal or not, they have a lot to offer.

So, how do you get to know an autistic teen? Your approach should depend somewhat on the teen’s communication ability. If you’re wanting to get to know a non-verbal autistic teen, your best bet is to contact the parents or caregiver first to find out what you can about the teen: likes, dislikes, things that might upset them. They might communicate with PECS or writing, or some other method. The important thing to remember is that, regardless of how they communicate, their receptive communication is usually much greater than their expressive, and autistic teens understand a lot more than people realize.

The following is a list of guidelines for getting to know an autistic teen:

  • Find out their interests, which may or may not include computers, Lego, science, history, movies, superheroes, movies about superheroes, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, etc. (Fellow parents, feel free to add to this list of interests in the comments!)
  • Don’t expect eye contact, handshakes, or hugs. At least not for a long time, in most cases.
  • Don’t use figures of speech, which tend to be confusing for literal-minded autistic teens.
  • Do expect many verbal autistic teens to speak in a monotone voice – it doesn’t mean they aren’t interested or are being rude. This type of voice is just a common trait of autistic teens.
  • Don’t expect terms of politeness. Autistic teens often forget to say thank you when you give them something, whether it’s a compliment or a gift or a piece of gum. If you ask “How are you?” they might say “Fine” but not reciprocate by asking the same of you. Conversational niceties are difficult for autistic teens to remember because most do not understand the purpose. Many try to remember to say them anyway.
  • Do be patient. Sometimes it takes a moment for the autistic teen to formulate a response.
  • Don’t expect them to talk for long periods of time in a conversational manner. You know how when someone trips a little, a friend might jokingly say, “Been walking long?” Well, some autistic teens haven’t been “talking long.” Mastering the art of conversation is something that many of them are still working on, and will continue to. They might likely end the conversation by bluntly saying, “I’m done talking now. Bye.” Again, they don’t mean to be rude. Don’t take it personally.
  • Do be aware, especially if talking outside, that autistic teens may react wildly to an insect that flies near them or to a sound that startles them or a sudden bright light in their eyes. Just accept that it’s part of who they are, and know that they can’t help it and they deal with it as best as they can.
  • Don’t feel slighted if you say hi to them in passing and they don’t respond. They’re so busy filtering all the sensory input of wherever they are and trying to organize their brain that a passing hello often won’t register until after you’ve passed them. Again, don’t take it personally. Really – they cannot help it. Many autistic teens also contend with face-blindness.
  • Do realize that even though an autistic teen may not show many facial expressions while interacting, most of them still want friends, and all of them have feelings. They probably really appreciate that you’re taking the time to get to know them and understand them, but they don’t know how to tell you that. Be persistent but respectful. They are worth it! And so are you. Take it from a parent of an autistic teen – we appreciate you more than words can say.

20 thoughts on “Getting to Know an Autistic Teen

  1. Jess

    How do those work, those seeing how people search for you engines? I’ve always wanted that…

    That being said, wonderful tips. šŸ™‚ People have used those and have, in return, gotten to know me. Whaddya know. Foolproof! šŸ™‚

  2. M

    you’re so good at this, crystalizing the basic info people need. my goal is to send you back in time, so that we can all have tanya-knowledge from the beginning. these are precisely the bits of info people have been needing for a long time.

    “an autistic teen may not show many facial expressions while interacting, most of them still want friends”

    i still hear this one a lot…that people on the spectrum lack empathy, have no emotions, do not desire social connections. it absolutely kills me. so again: tanya and time travel. gotta figure that one out.

  3. Carrie

    Let me add to the list of interest: Basketball, sports statistics in general, animated television (Sponge Bob, The Simpsons, Family Guy, etc…), basically anything that is UNinteresting to most middle-aged women.

  4. jess

    this is wonderful. and i love that someone found you that way.

    not long ago, i posted a story about darby making cupcakes for the family. one had no icing, for her sister who loves cupcakes, but can’t tolerate icing. i called it the ‘naked cupcake.’ now my most popular search is ‘naked cupcake’ which is um, ewwww

    ‘how to get to know an autistic teen’ waaaaaay better

  5. Carol

    I should give a copy of this to J’s former teachers/aides.
    I have more to add to the list–Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and, for whatever reason, the TV Guide channel! AARGH! I’m so sick of that channel!

  6. Tera

    I’m trying to find info to share with Scouting leaders so they can understand Kaeden a bit better after a failed attempt at Scout camp last week. I think I’ll translate this list and add to it, specifically to his needs. Thanks again, Tanya.

  7. Kathy

    Great article – and I share Kate’s sentiments!

    It was so funny, and such a relief, to see my son’s favorites on the list – starting with Legos and Star Wars!
    Also add to the list Terminator (or at least Sarah Connor Chronicles), and at the moment the 3 Stooges.

    Thank you for this post,
    Kathy

  8. mike bowman

    Tanya,
    This was so thorough, well-written, and Practical!
    I’m going to follow through on spreading word of you and your site.
    Thanks,
    Mike

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