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.