Autism is a vast and complicated diagnosis. Add teenage hormones to the mix and you’ve got a whole new level of behaviors. While I’m in no way an expert on every single person with autism, as a mom with four children on the autism spectrum, here are some suggestions that may (or may not) help you communicate with a teenager with autism. Since my teenage sons are completely verbal, my tips are geared more for the kiddos with autism who have acquired speech.
1. Skip the sarcasm.
Many individuals on the autism spectrum are very literal, and sometimes don’t get sarcasm or care for it. Since they can have a hard time making eye contact and looking at faces, they might miss a telling smirk or smile. Your teasing or joking may go over like a lead balloon. Sometimes though, the opposite poses a problem: My teenagers often take a joke too far, improperly using sarcasm, and are shocked when they offend someone. To them, it was merely a joke. With humor, try to be as straightforward as possible.
2. Don’t ask too many questions.
My teenagers on the spectrum hate to be quizzed and consider your questions inane. Often times they feel like they’re being interrogated. In this case, less is more. Questions like: “How’s school?” or “Who is your favorite teacher or subject?” always fall flat with my teenagers. Want to get them to talk? Ask about their strong interests, and they might be willing to talk at great length.
3. Bring solid evidence to your rationalizations.
Because my teenagers have a hard time recognizing social hierarchies, I avoid saying things like “Because I said so!” and “I’m the boss.” This kind of language typically doesn’t work. I always have an easier time using facts, rules and laws to back up why things need to be a certain way.
4. Don’t scold a teenager’s behavior before understanding what it is.
When a teenager with autism doesn’t respond to your questions, avoids eye contact or walks away without a word, don’t assume her or she is being rude. Social interaction and eye contact can be difficult for people with autism, and even physically painful for some. Some have processing issues and it may take a few moments for them to cognitively process what you said before they are able to respond.
If you see behaviors like rocking, tapping, banging, picking, covering their ears or anything else you think is “strange,” just ignore it and stop staring. They’re self-regulating in a world that can be loud and overwhelming to process, and the last thing they’re thinking about is whether or not it’s bothering you. Let their parents, therapists or teachers help them learn appropriate behavior or coping mechanisms when in public.
5. Text messaging can provide better communication than talking on the phone.
In my experience, the best way to communicate with a teenager with autism on a phone is through text messaging. Now that I think about it, the best way to communicate with any teenager is probably through text, but I’ve found that when you have a teenager with autism, it could mean so much more. You may even be surprised at the quality of the conversation. They might be more relaxed and willing to respond.
6. Don’t expect them to “perform.”
There’s this great saying: “If you’ve met one person with autism, you’ve met one person with autism.” Don’t assume everyone on the autism spectrum is a little Rain Man. Sometimes when you ask my kids about their talents or interests, my teenagers will act like they haven’t a clue what you’re asking, magically forgetting all their geography knowledge, their ability to play drums or their second-degree black belt karate skills. Personally, I think it’s their particular devious sense of humor.
7. Be patient with them.
I know they might do and say things you find strange or different. But please, be patient with them. They aren’t spoiled brats, purposely disobedient nor defiant. They’re just learning how to survive and cope in a complicated world that often overwhelms them.
8. Accept them, autism and all.
Try to enter their world instead of always trying to force them into yours. Be present with them; they’ll know you’re there. You may be very surprised at the conversation and the joy expressed from the teenager who is happy with your effort.
A version of this post originally appeared on Our Version of Normal.
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