Tag Archives: communicating

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.

His Own Terms

“I will try to express myself in some mode of life as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defense the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.”           -James Joyce

Lately Nigel has taken to expressing himself in a new way. If I ask him a question and he doesn’t feel like talking, he silently mouths the words of his answer. This only works, of course, if I’m near him and looking closely at his face, and even then, sometimes I can’t figure it out, not being a lip-reader. I suggest that he might like to write the answer down. “No,” he mouths, not using any vocal chords, not even whispering. He shuns writing with a writing utensil, preferring to type if possible, if the computer is on and accessible. He’ll offer a thumbs-up or thumbs-down if my question requires a yes or no answer. He’ll point if the question involves indicating a direction or the location of a missing item. Then, after exhausting all options for answering the question non-verbally, he’ll sneer the answer in a low voice between clenched teeth.

It’s not that he’s losing his hard-earned, long-awaited speech. It’s that he’s being selective about when he uses it. It’s as if his voice is a precious commodity and he doesn’t want to expend it uselessly, unnecessarily. There is effort involved in speaking, both in choosing words carefully and in vocalizing and making oneself heard. But many times, when he is in his social mode, like at a party, he does not use this discretion, he is not concerned with conserving his voice, and he blurts out unfiltered comments. Of course, inconsistency is one of the more dependable traits of autism.

“Silence, exile, and cunning” could also be considered traits of autism. I find myself faced with the choice of enabling Nigel by asking him questions that do not require a voiced answer or forcing him to answer verbally. Is it a need of his to be selective about when he chooses to talk? Don’t I owe it to him to respect his choices, to meet his needs? Or is it more of a want and less of a need? At this point, I’m looking at the big picture. Nigel turns fourteen in a few days. I think this may be his way of asserting his developing autonomy, and as such, it is a need. It’s a need for any teen, but especially an autistic one. He knows when he can silently mouth words, and he knows when that won’t work. He’ll do it selectively. He’s still talking, still communicating. Just doing it on his own terms.