Signs of Teen Autism

This week, the greatest number of page views for this site as a result of an internet search was for my recent post centered around Tigger. He’s one popular cat, apparently. But the second most common search that yielded this website was “signs of teen autism.” I figured that subject warranted a post of its own.

I thought about it and realized that there would be primarily two groups of people who could be typing in that search:

a) either a parent, relative, or teacher trying to figure out a possible explanation for the different characteristics of their teen

b) anyone wanting to know how to recognize autism in the teen years, perhaps because they think they’ve come in contact with an ASD teen in their community

First of all, in the teen years, the signs of Asperger’s and high functioning autism are so similar that many people think that there is no difference between the two. Both have much difficulty with social skills (e.g. random, little, or no eye contact while conversing; random, little or no voice inflection; compromised ability to read facial cues and body language), often exhibit reactions to sensory issues (e.g. being easily startled by noises, covering ears; running away from bees and other flying insects), have a great need for routines and rituals, and exhibit obsessions with particular “specialty interests.” How, then, does one tell the difference between Asperger’s and high functioning autism in teens? The difference lies primarily in the child’s early development of language, although there are other differences as well. In cases of classic – or Kanner’s – autism, language development was very late, labored (took many years), or did not occur at all. My son Nigel falls into this category because his language acquisition was quite late and labored. Asperger’s, by comparison, was nicknamed “little professor syndrome” because the young children observed by Hans Asperger were quite verbal, but they often fixated on certain topics and exhibited some differences in social interaction. Because they can talk, many children with Asperger’s are not diagnosed until later, so the searchers listed above in group a) are most likely trying to identify a teen with Asperger’s.

For the group b) people, THANK YOU for wanting to find out. Thank you for caring enough to take the time to do so. We parents of ASD teens truly appreciate you.  You’ll find some characteristic signs of teen autism listed in bold green in this post (which you probably already figured out, because you’re a smart person for seeking out the information in the first place). You’ll also find some tips for interacting with an ASD teen in my post Getting to Know an Autistic Teen. If you’re looking for signs of autism in teens who are more profoundly autistic, in most cases they will not be mainstreamed in regular school classes, and when they are in the community they will be with a parent or someone else accompanying them. They exhibit little to no speech or echolalic speech. They may also exhibit more reactions to sensory stimuli especially in noisy, crowded places and may make repetitive body movements (spinning, flapping, rocking). Autism manifests itself differently in every person affected by it, so these traits, in addition to those listed in the previous paragraph, may or may not occur and in varying degrees. One thing’s for sure – you’ll find that people with autism at all functioning levels are wonderful, fascinating individuals worthy of your time, interest, and respect.

22 thoughts on “Signs of Teen Autism

  1. M

    i love the way you use searches to orient your writing. very smart, very helpful. the hfa/as description was very well put. as you say, there are distinctions, but people increasingly use the terms interchangeably, so it’s become a confusing bit of terminology. anyway…it’s nice when someone can concisely sort it out like that. i say we skip the dsm v and release a tanya-written dsm vi.

  2. mama mara

    Excellent overview! I wonder if any of the searchers were teenagers who wonder why they feel different from their peers?

  3. babs

    Wow. Reading the posts for the last couple weeks all in one batch, I’d say you hit so many of my nails right on the head, for both the Captain and Little Miss. All the same issues, though scattered by a different throw of the dice–but I see in your life that some of these are having more positive endings and ours just seem to go bad one after another. Thanks for writing and showing that there is hope out there. At least for some of them. 🙂

  4. Tanya Savko Post author

    Carrie and Melinda – You’re welcome!

    Rhemashope – Thank you for linking to A Little Bit Autistic’s post. That was very interesting and informative.

    M – Odd, but the DSM committee has not yet consulted me 🙂

    Mama Mara – Yes! You are so right, I bet! I hadn’t even thought of that, so thanks for mentioning it.

    Babs – Definitely hope out there, and for all of them! xoxo

  5. Nicky

    Hello, I also appear to be one of those people who googled “Signs of Teen Autism” and got this page.

    I would like to first apologise for my lack knowledge on the subject, as I have not been researching this long. However, I have some questions:

    1. It is my impression that Autism is usually diagnosed very early on – is it possible that a person who is “high-functioning” could go through life undiagnosed until the teen years or later?

    2. If a person has some signs of autism (difficulty initiating/maintaining conversation, the overreaction to some sensory information you mentioned, obsession over certain topics, face-blindness) but not others, (such as delayed language development, little voice inflection, and repetitive movements) is there any way to be certain whether this is autism or if the person in question is simply shy and anxious?

    3. How does high-functioning autism present itself? How is it typically diagnosed, and at what age?

    Thank you for any information you can provide.

  6. Tanya Savko Post author

    Dear Nicky,

    Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting. Please don’t feel like you need to apologize for your lack of knowledge; it speaks volumes about your character that you are interested in finding out.

    1. Classic, or Kanner’s, autism is usually diagnosed early on, typically around age 3. A high-functioning person diagnosed later in life will usually be diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome.

    2. Autism and Asperger’s manifest differently in each person affected, so in cases where some signs are present but not others, it would be best to consult a doctor specializing in ASDs (autism spectrum disorders). It is possible for a person to have SPD (sensory processing disorder) but not autism. Face-blindness can also occur with people who do not have autism.

    3. High-functioning autism usually presents itelf as I described in the post, however, it should be noted that most cases of high-functioning autism didn’t begin that way. If a child shows signs of high-functioning autism at a young age, they will usually be diagnosed with Asperger’s. If a child shows signs of classic (non-verbal) autism at a young age, they will be diagnosed with autism, as my son was at age 3. However, over the years he has responded well to therapy and has progressed and improved to a point where he is now considered high-functioning. He has never been diagnosed with Asperger’s, even though at this point he exhibits many signs of it. The reason why he does not have Asperger’s is because his initial language development was very late and labored (took a long time to learn). That’s the main difference between Asperger’s and high-functioning autism, but there are other points to consider, such as social awareness.

    I hope this helps to answer your questions, and again, thanks for stopping by.

    Best wishes,

  7. Anna

    Oh, and I meant to say that secret was posted a week before you made this post, so that would explain the sudden spike in that google search.

  8. mary

    I have a 15 year old son who is just now beleaved to be autisic he is going thru test over the next week i am looking for information that might help my family deal with this if any one cah help i would be very thatnkful my email is

  9. Renee

    I’ve often suspected that there was something wrong with my daughter, but when she was a baby, nobody really talked about Autism. Now she’s 17 & I’m noticing more & more “strange” behavior. As a mom, I know that it’s more than just being a teenager. The rocking & head banging really hit home. I’m so glad I found this site & I’m definitely calling our family doctor tomorrow!

  10. Tanya Savko Post author

    Hi Alex,

    Thanks for stopping by. There are some people who have Asperger’s (a mild form of autism) and aren’t diagnosed until they are adults, so that may be a possibility for you. I would suggest seeing your regular doctor for a referral to a psychiatrist. Psychiatrists have diagnostic evaluations that can determine if someone has Asperger’s Syndrome (or other forms of autism), mostly by asking key questions and observing the individual over several sessions.

  11. Heather

    Hi, recently I’ve been researching autism in teens after I took an online test about empathy. It said that people with high functioning autism score twenty-ish, and I scored less than that. I talked to my friend who has an autistic little brother, and she agreed and said that it’s quite likely, as the way I behave isn’t dissimilar from that of someone with aspergers. (I don’t make eye contact with people I’m not close with, I am easily startled by loud noises, every time I walked into a supermarket, I used to have to stack the gum ‘properly’ before I could leave, (thankfully, I’m over that now.) I sqing and flap my arms around on a regular basis, and I’ve been known to become fixated ion certain topics.) I’ve tried talking to my mother about it, but she doesn’t believe me, and just says I shouldn’t categorise myself.

    I was wondering, what do you actually do if you think you may have aspergers? Do you go and see a practitioner for a diagnosis or something, or…?
    Thank you for this article, by the way. it’s been very helpful.

  12. Tanya Savko Post author

    Hi Heather,
    Thanks for your comment. It would be best to see a psychiatrist for a diagnosis as most of the online tests are unreliable. In fact, I took one a few years ago and rated as having Asperger’s just because I am an introvert (even though I have no trouble understanding social expectations). A psychiatrist, especially one familiar with autism spectrum disorders, can see you over a period of time and make a more thorough assessment. But if you’re unable to get to a psychiatrist due to your mother not wanting to take you, see if you can talk to a school counselor and perhaps they might be able to give you a recommendation. I’m glad this article was helpful for you, and I hope you’re able to find someone positive to talk to.
    Best wishes,

  13. Kathryn

    I’m on here because my mum said the other day she thinks I might be autistic… My older brother is autistic (very low spectrum) and she also thinks my dad probably is (apparently always thought that). I’ve even thought about it myself before. I am 14, turning 15 in two days.

  14. Tanya Savko Post author

    Hi Kathryn,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your comment. It sounds like your mum might be referring to Asperger’s (about you), which is on the autism spectrum, but on the higher functioning end. It concerns having difficulty reading social cues. I have a good friend whose daughter has Asperger’s, and she is 12. Her website might be a good resource for you, if you would like to take a look:

    I hope you have an enjoyable birthday, and just remember, whether you receive an official diagnosis or not, that doesn’t change the person you are, and the person you will be.

    Best wishes,

  15. Kathryn

    Thanks, I’ve had a look at the website.
    I talked to her again this morning and she says she thought I was autistic from the start. She talked to teachers about it, but didn’t get an official diagnosis because I wasn’t a problem child, so she just used the same methods as she did when bringing up my brother.
    His autism is so low spectrum now that nobody even notices, and they are shocked when I tell them.

    I will thanks.
    I probably won’t go in for an official diagnosis. (So much to do, so little time…)

  16. Tanya Savko Post author

    That’s good to hear about your brother, Kathryn! Wishing you and your family well.
    Take care –

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