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Transitioning Into Adulthood With Autism

Adulthood in autism is a very important subject, particularly because of how we define what adulthood is. Where do we draw the line between a child and an adult? If we are being honest with each other, we know it isn’t age. People don’t magically become adults once they’re 18. Some start taking on far greater responsibilities than they should at a younger age.





Adulthood is a threshold that represents the rest of one’s life after a certain level of maturity, choice, independence, and responsibility is reached. A child becomes an adult when they begin to own up to their actions. Also, to decide for themselves what to do and when to do it, and plan ahead for their future.


For many children on the autism spectrum, the transition into adulthood is long and difficult. Independence is harder to achieve for someone on the spectrum, yet it is still achievable. Many on the spectrum can learn to become productive on their own, and largely independent.





Most children begin developing into adults both physically and emotionally during their later school days. The last year or two of secondary education and eventual transition into post-secondary education and/or the workforce often coincides with increased freedoms at home. As well as an increasing level of responsibility.


Children become “young adults”. They now have greater control and freedom over what they do with their time. Also, with their lives, and with the money they earn (if they’re earning money). They have greater privileges and have greater responsibilities. These are the years where failures are most important. Children must come to learn how ignoring or slacking with one’s responsibilities draws consequence. And how with greater freedom comes more liability.


Many children who struggle with autism. There are far greater challenges attached to these last few years of childhood innocence. Many struggle to keep up socially, understand the world around them, be understood by their peers, and maintain or build the ties that help us survive adulthood by sticking together and having others to lean on in times of need.





Instead, many with autism naturally withdraw from social interaction due to previously negative experiences, bullying, or fear of failure or rejection. Communication, from maintaining casual platonic relationships to the new and scary world of dating, is often vastly more daunting and complex for someone on the spectrum than a neurotypical teenager.


An important first step for teens on the spectrum and their parents is to identify the various communicative challenges that they face. Then, address them one by one through effective intervention and behavioral therapy.


This becomes more vital as one gets older, as effective communication is important for scoring job interviews and finding work, exploring the world of romance, nurturing a relationship, working towards independence, and seeking out personal fulfillment.





One of the most important lessons for someone on the spectrum transitioning into adulthood is the importance of context and contextually appropriate speech and behavior. These include learning to differentiate between appropriate tone and colloquialism when speaking to friends, speaking to family and speaking to peers. Also, when speaking to elders, and speaking to those in higher ranking positions within an organization. Such as managers, bosses, clients, and owners.


The world is full of hierarchies and social castes. The way we address one another appropriately becomes second nature once we’re taught what authority means. Yet these systems often seem strange or unintuitive for someone on the spectrum. And they may have difficulty taking lessons they’ve learned elsewhere and applying them within an entirely different context.


Furthermore, as people on the spectrum often avoid eye contact and display excessive or repetitive body language (stimming) to avoid discomfort, there’s a need for understanding and support from both aisles – just as those on the spectrum can learn to better conform to the workplace, so do more workplaces need to understand the peculiarities and symptoms surrounding autism.


More attention is being given towards the fact that, with the right support and the right environment, many on the spectrum can find work that is appropriate to them and function on an effective level within an organization. But they cannot simply be treated as any other employee, and the truth is that someone on spectrum is not somehow worse as a person or worker, but often just different.





Vocation is one’s suitability towards any given occupation or career path, and vocation is a major issue in autism. The nature of autism does not lend itself well to many occupations. Particularly ones that involve customer or client interaction. Not everyone on the spectrum is a savant or in possession of extraordinary skill in math, organization, or creative work.


Yet despite that, there are still many positions that people on the spectrum can occupy, especially given the right support. And indeed, seeking and finding employment and holding a job can be a form of therapy. Especially in a workplace that helps cater towards workers on the spectrum.


Through vocational programs, rigorous on-the-job training, mentor/mentee programs, and assistance at work, those that experience adulthood with autism have a variety of skills or levels of independent functioning can find work that is right for them and become a boon.





Of course, there’s more to adulthood than just the workplace. Work is a big deal. It’s something we all struggle with in one way or another. It does matter whether we’re on the spectrum or not, the overarching theme of adulthood is responsibility and independence. And one of the challenges that parents of children on the spectrum face is helping their kids face problems. And  then tackle them independently rather than avoiding them.


Whether it’s social avoidance or avoidance of a different sort, children on the spectrum need to be empowered to make mistakes and learn from them. Rather than being forced to face something they avoid without the necessary skills to cope with failure.


Through cognitive behavioral therapy, applied behavioral analysis, and other forms of treatment, children and young adults on the spectrum can learn. They can learn just how much they’re underestimating themselves. They can begin to have more confidence in their ability to do things on their own. As well as to persevere to try again when it doesn’t work out the first time.





One of the greater challenges for parents in this phase of their child’s life is figuring out exactly how much to let go, and how much to hold on. It’s clear that children and adults on the spectrum need a little more help and support than most of us do. It’s regardless of where they are on the spectrum and how much they can function and think independently.


But by never letting go at all, many who might be capable of functioning more independently find themselves stifled by those around them. This can be damaging in its own right. Parents must work with both professionals and their children to make the step-by-step transition towards a new period in their child’s life.


The transition into adulthood is probably the scariest and hardest one for parents and their children alike. Some parents will never be able to completely let their children go for their own sake. Others must find ways to continue supporting their child on the spectrum.


And without taking away from the crucial moments wherein they exercise their independence, with positive, negative, or mixed results. Life is full of ups and downs for each and all of us. In a way, becoming an adult means finding your own way to cope with that fact.


Gaining Acceptance With Autism

Autism is a complicated disorder that encompasses a whole spectrum of symptoms (thus, the autism spectrum disorder). However, one set of symptoms that many children and adults with autism share is a lack of important communicative skills. This can lead to problems with gaining social acceptance with autism, as children and as adults.


Individuals with autism struggle when it comes to social cues and language, which can lead to bullying from peers, serious misunderstandings, missed important cues, and more. A tendency to focus on the non-essential while losing sight of the bigger picture can further confuse others. It can also lead to frustration among the uninitiated while leaving the person with autism in the dark about why their behavior is unusual or negatively perceived.


Children on the spectrum may be aware of how they’re being mistreated, and may internalize that punishment, conditioning them early on to avoid further social contact and turn towards antisocial behavior, all while causing them to further lose out on the crucial practice that’s meant to help hone their communicative skills for adulthood.


This can be even more frustrating for those on the milder end of the spectrum. They naturally want to make friends (as all children do) yet find themselves ill-equipped to do so. Tackling this issue early is key to helping a child on the spectrum gain acceptance in any stage of their life.





Autism is linked to other disorders, notably learning disabilities like dyslexia and intellectual disability, which causes a below average IQ. However, low IQ and problems processing words or numbers is not a part of autism itself, and an estimated 44 percent of children on the spectrum have an average to above average IQ (>85).


Despite that, many on the spectrum struggle to function at school, at work, and in society at large. Mostly due to difficulties processing social cues and communicating with others. Some use analogies like being in a play, describing it as “I’m in a play and everyone else has the script but me.”


Other issues compound this, making it difficult to focus on conversations with others due to any number of other reasons. Common symptoms of autism include sensory overload, which can make it difficult to concentrate on a conversation with someone else due to a distracting or distressing environment, or something incredibly stressful happening in the background.


As children on the spectrum get older, they may begin to figure out what neurotypical peers expect to hear or see. They  excel at pretending just to fit in. They feel like they can never quite be able to properly express who they are or what they want. Rather, they just project an adequate image of themselves to get by with others.





School can be a grueling place for many on the spectrum. It is where children naturally learn to develop and coexist and test one another. Social conventions are discovered and established. Children go through a host of different behaviors over their early years, as they master their ability to communicate. Yet for children on the spectrum, the pace at which other children develop their communicative skills can leave them feeling left behind. This could cause them to seek isolation, especially after some negative experiences due to unusual behavior.


Early intervention is critical once children on the spectrum start to go to school. Applied behavioral analysis can help a child learn to recognize certain cues, phrases and avoid behavior like palilalia and echolalia.


However, it isn’t always enough during this stage to rely on making the child take on the brunt of the work. It’s often critical to work with teachers and students themselves to help the class better understand autism. And why their classmate might seem so different. With the right support, a child with autism can learn to fit into a positive role within the class.





Children on the spectrum can be naturally social, while others don’t really show any interest in other kids early on. Once a child has been reliably diagnosed, early intervention can help set up the foundation for play dates.  A lot of early experiences between the child and their peers can build a stronger social foundation.


Yet once language and more complex forms of communication enter the picture and playing is no longer the primary way in which kids interact with one another, things can get much tougher. This is especially true throughout pre-adolescence and adolescence, where conventions and rules quickly shift as children experience the big hormone shift.


This is a wildly confusing and difficult time for any kid, let alone someone on the spectrum. Support here can help guide a young teen through each step of the process, as well as to help them cope with their growing sexuality, issues of sex and friendship in teenage years, feelings of romance, and more.


Building off of earlier lessons, kids at this point are learning to continue to focus on communicative skills that help them be better understood by their peers. As while practicing the skills that they might be struggling with on the road to independence.


For kids where total independence isn’t realistic, interventions might focus on reducing harmful behavior and improving self-control. At the same time, introducing different, healthier outlets for emotional frustration or sudden mood shifts.





The statistics on autism in the workplace are rather grim overall, but forecasts show reasons for hope. More and more headlines about companies specializing in hiring people on the milder end of the spectrum draw media attention to how being autistic does not mean someone isn’t skilled or capable, and there are several studies that show that, with proper support, most on the spectrum can perform on the same level as their peers and earn similar salaries.


Vocational rehabilitation and programs focused on teaching specific skills can help. Although intense on-the-job training made the biggest difference. It was often crucial to helping those on the spectrum better adapt to the workplace.


With the transition into the workforce come many unique challenges. Communication continues to be an issue. Also, social interaction is important towards helping someone on the spectrum find work they can thrive in. Finding the appropriate job is also crucial. For those on the spectrum, environments with minimal distractions and a predictable, steady schedule are common requirements.





In the end, gaining acceptance with autism needs to start from the home. Many children and adults, once aware of how and why they’re different from their peers, may have a hard time not resenting their current situation. They may find themselves seeking distractions. And trying to distance themselves from interacting with others due to painful experiences and challenges. Which further isolates them later in life.


While many mistake those with autism as being somehow less emotional or incapable of empathy, children and adults with autism have all the same emotional needs that any other human being possesses. They do wish very badly to belong.


Helping them accept themselves and their condition should be an important first step into acceptance with autism. From there, many different behavioral approaches can help them find ways to start interacting with their peers. Such as to start developing mechanisms to cope with their condition and still make friends, find work, or function a little more independently.


Depending on where you or your child is on the spectrum, the expected outcome of any course of treatment will be wildly different. Some adults cannot live without the constant support of their loved ones. Others learn to live on their own without any treatment.


But some still struggle with some respect to their ability to interact with others. And to benefit off of the support that certain kinds of treatment and intervention may offer. Treatment for autism is wholly flexible and depends on each person’s unique circumstances and needs.


Behavioral intervention and long-term support can do a lot to help children and adults to gain acceptance with autism. As well as to develop the means to own their identity and disorder while still effectively communicating with others.


What is Autism?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a term used to describe a group of complicated neurodevelopment disorders. The spectrum, rather than just describing intensity, represents a long list of different symptoms that have been identified as autism. Symptoms begin to present themselves very early on in childhood, and the disorder affects all races and ethnicities, although statistically, boys are currently more often diagnosed than girls.

While autism has been ‘on the rise’ on paper, it’s a disorder with ancient heritage, and an unfortunate history as being often misdiagnosed or completely invisible. Autism is a longstanding part of humanity, and by current estimates, affects roughly 1 in 59 children in the US, with studies in multiple countries estimating that roughly 1-2 percent of children are born with autism.

Although autism heavily affects development, it does not cause, nor is always linked with intellectual disability. Current estimates state that almost half of children on the spectrum have average to above average intellect. However, several different disabilities correlate with autism, including language and speech impediments, and roughly 83 percent of ASD cases co-occur with another developmental condition, while 10 percent also suffer a psychiatric condition. Autism commonly has physical symptoms, the most common being digestive tract problems and epilepsy.


What We Know

We know that autism begins in the brain. While the list of risk factors and potential causes is not yet conclusive, autism is often genetic, and is linked to viral infections during pregnancy, other genetic or chromosomal conditions, premature birth, and the age of the parent. Again, this list is not conclusive, which means that as we learn more about how and why this condition develops, we may also develop a greater understanding of how it might be mitigated.

Some debunked causes of autism include the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory (which posits that an emotionally distant mother may cause autism), vaccines (based on an infamous study that has since been heavily discredited), anesthesia, and more. On the other hand, snake oil salesman tactics have led to a number of fake and harmful autism cures, include bleach-based products.

Because autism co-occurs with other conditions, and its symptoms are varied, treatment is complex, and must account for a long list of different symptoms and issues. Some therapies that have helped children on the spectrum develop at a better pace include applied behavior analysis (ABA), speech therapy, skills training, and medication to treat the physical symptoms of the disorder.


Diagnosing Autism

Currently, doctors screen young children for symptoms of autism to determine whether they might be on the spectrum early on. The earlier the disorder is identified, the earlier a child can begin to be taught to cope with their symptoms and develop the means to grow and learn skills at a better rate than they might without any help.

The earliest that autism can be diagnosed is roughly 12 to 18 months, although it is difficult to catch some cases of autism so early, and a definitive diagnosis is only met after more rigorous testing. It’s important to bring your child in early to a doctor for their regular checkup but beware that indications of autism may not necessarily mean your child is on the spectrum, until certain symptoms crystalize. Typically, at age 2, a diagnosis by a professional can be considered reliable.

Children don’t develop on a set timeline, and there is plenty of leeway for individual quirks and differences from child to child. But children with autism aren’t just mildly different – their symptoms occur due to a fundamental change in the brain, causing sensory issues and problems with language and behavior in later ages. While new techniques are being developed to help catch autism early, diagnosing autism is generally complicated.

As a developmental disorder, many children with autism display a range of different symptoms that suggest slow or delayed development, including nonverbal communication, emotional outbursts, restricted or repetitive motions and behaviors, repeating sentences, aloofness, and constantly avoiding eye contact.

Children with autism may seem withdrawn and don’t make much of an effort to engage in play with others or pick up on cues and skills more slowly than their peers. However, these are guidelines rather than hard rules. Autism is incredibly varied, meaning there are children who are diagnosed with autism who are quite social, yet display issues in other capacities such as executive functioning and independence.


Low Function? High Function? 

Low-functioning and high-functioning autism are terms not typically used in any clinical literature. Instead, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Edition) defines autism spectrum disorder as being categorized into three levels, which are supposed to provide guidelines to help parents understand how much support their child may need in the future.

The reason low-functioning and high-functioning autism is a misnomer more than a helpful label is because capacity and function are too complex to be used as labels. Children and adults with a certain level of autism may not be able to function in one sense but can excel in another. Trying to categorize cases based on how much support they may be expected to require is more helpful but avoid thinking of autism as something that can easily be classified. The reason the spectrum exists is to avoid restrictive and/or self-fulfilling labels.

According to the DSM 5, the ASD severity ranking is:

  • Level 1 – Support is needed.
  • Level 2 – Substantial support is needed.
  • Level 3 – Very substantial support is needed.

One problem with the low- or high-functioning labels is that it leads some parents and educators to feel that children who are high-functioning require far less support, or even no support.

Children with autism require different levels and types of support throughout their lifetime. Early on, the focus may be on helping them develop simple communicative skills and learn social behavior through play, roleplaying, and modeling other people’s behavior. As they get older, it becomes important for lessons and therapies to switch towards managing one’s emotions, engaging in more complex social situations, and developing skills for independence.


Support is Critical

To someone with autism, the world is built and structured around the needs and rules of neurotypical people – those without neurologically atypical behavior or thinking. Adults who were diagnosed late recall the immense difficulties they experienced trying to cope with all the strangeness the world entails, from their lack of understanding specific social cues to struggling to keep up with their peers, to the bullying and shaming that fed their existing anxieties and problems.

Regardless of one’s severity, autism is a condition that requires persistent and early support. While treatment shouldn’t focus on trying to impose ‘normalcy’ on a child with autism, it is meant to arm them with the tools needed to cope with their environment and more smoothly interact with their peers at any age and any developmental stage, from the kindergarten years to early adulthood.


The Importance of Early Intervention

Interventions and treatment styles like applied behavior analysis help individuals on the spectrum at all ages develop the means to overcome behavioral issues and emotional outbursts, learn necessarily communicative skills, and even learn skills critical to independent executive functioning, from organizing one’s thoughts and forming to-do lists, to doing the shopping, balancing a checkbook, and cleaning up at home.

How to Help a Child with Autism Communicate Better

The term ‘autism’ was first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler, who based it on the Greek word autos, meaning ‘self’. According to Bleuler, people with autism were self-absorbed within their own private world and were nigh-unreachable from the outside. Autism was not well understood in these days, and Eugen’s term was the first to try and describe the condition. The term itself betrays one of autism’s most obvious symptoms: communication problems.

While some children and adults with autism are non-verbal, many others can and do speak, but struggle to communicate, nonetheless. That being said, even nonverbal children can learn to communicate and use a limited albeit versatile vocabulary and a variety of modern assistive technologies to interact with the world around them, communicate their needs and wants with those closest to them, and become important, contributing members of society, and lead fulfilling lives.

Each case of autism comes with its own unique set of challenges and considerations. There is no one-size-fits-all treatment, and psychiatrists have spent the better part of a century trying to find the best ways to address autism and integrate children with autism into society.

Rather than try to categorize every symptom into its own condition, the DSM-5 places all individuals with symptoms of autism under the umbrella condition of autism spectrum disorder, which includes those previously diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, as well as children with forms of autism that require much more support. Below are a few different communicative issues that often crop up in children with autism.


Communication Issues in Autism 

The first thing to consider when talking about communication issues in autism is the fundamental nature of two-way communication. To most neurotypical people, effective communication is second nature. We don’t think twice about how and why we communicate, and as a skill, it comes naturally.

But for children with autism, that intuitive use of language, gestures, and listening skills is lacking. They need to learn, at a slower pace, how to use images, words, phrases, and gestures to issue requests, state their opinions, ask questions, answer questions, and express emotion. Some children with autism naturally develop a good vocabulary but struggle to use it. Others don’t speak until they grow much older. Issues include:


– Repetitive use of the same words.

– Using words without any meaning, mimicking what they heard elsewhere without association (echolalia, i.e. asking for candy by saying “do you want candy?”).

– Repeating words and phrases heard on TV/YouTube.

– Using a strange pitch, or a monotone voice.

– Using made-up words (neologisms).

– Confusing pronouns and point-of-views.

– Pushing or pulling someone to show them something.

– Only gesturing or using objects to communicate.

– Self-harming or getting loud/throwing a tantrum to call attention, calm down, or try to escape an unwanted situation.

– Developing normal language skills, albeit several years behind (expressive language delay).

– Developing a large vocabulary, but only in one particular narrow focus/interest.


Different levels of autism come with different communication issues – for example, children with nonverbal autism are more likely to display emotional outbursts and tantrums and rely on inappropriate or rude gestures and physical actions to communicate.

They may naturally learn to use certain objects or a limited vocabulary to communicate over time, but without guidance and proper training, they cannot effectively communicate, which can lead to frustration, self-harming, and other destructive behaviors.

Even children with ‘high-functioning’ autism will struggle to pick up or understand social cues, figure out the nuance and meaning of pitch and sarcasm, or speak on the same vocabulary level as their peers. They may display extraordinary ability in one narrow field but will still find themselves confused without adequate support and training.

Social cues present yet another challenge for children with autism, especially because an important part of picking up on subtle gestures and communicative hints is eye contact, which can genuinely cause children with autism to feel distress and physical discomfort. One prevailing theory is that autism affects the way certain stimuli are perceived by the brain, and eye contact causes a heightened reaction in hyperactive portions of the brain’s subcortical anatomy, including the amygdala, creating a fear response that is tempered in neurotypical children.


Ways Parents Can Help Foster Communicative Skills

Every child needs its own unique approach. What works for one child might not necessarily work for another, especially when different issues are concerned. Parents are encouraged to contact a specialist early on after their child’s diagnosis, and most often it’s recommended to find a speech therapist or an applied behavior analyst.

There are many things parents can do to foster communicative skills at home, especially after consulting with a professional.

A common recommendation is to introduce verbal cues to interactive play, starting with simply narrating a child’s activities (helping them associate nouns and verbs with the actions they are performing and the objects they play with, such as ‘ball roll’, ‘block in hole’, or ‘car spin’).

If a child likes to communicate entirely in gestures, it helps to slowly match words to gestures, such as saying ‘yes’ with an exaggerated nod, or ‘look’ when pointing and facing something. It’s important to take your time with helping your child understand what certain words mean, rather than trying to focus on getting them to say these words.

Repetition is key, so be sure to make use of opportunities in everyday situations to teach a word, associate it with an object or action, and repeat it as often as is needed. In turn, give your child opportunities to ‘fill in the blanks’, stopping a phrase short and waiting for your child to continue it, or encouraging them to use their words to ask for something that they cannot reach on their own (such as a toy on a shelf, or a particular candy or snack).

Some specialists may recommend assistive technologies that help nonverbal children communicate through text-to-speech software and stand-ins for verbal communication.


Why Early Intervention is Critical 

The earlier a child gets help, the better the results. Regardless of whether your child is high or low functioning, or how their autism manifests, it’s important to seek the right support early on to begin establishing the routines and exercises necessary to help them develop at a point in their life when they’re most receptive to learning experiences, and most likely to develop skills that will be critical for them later in life.

Communication is especially critical, because adults with autism need support too, and the ability to communicate that need is very important.

Learning Appropriate Social Interaction on the Spectrum

One of the main indications of autism is trouble with social interaction. Autism, or the autism spectrum disorder (ASD), is a condition with a wide array of symptoms, many of which manifest differently from person to person. Social interaction is a complex facet of human communication that is generally part of our DNA and develops naturally at an early age.

But for children on the spectrum, different factors hinder the proper development of the skills and instincts necessary to fluidly and easily communicate with others, make friends, pick up on social cues, understand certain abstract concepts like contextual humor, and more.

However, this breeds many myths and misconceptions, including the idea that children with autism are less compassionate or incapable of empathy, or that they cannot understand a joke. To the contrary, children with autism do display the capacity for empathy, but quite differently.

They may be more sensitive to certain cues than others. Some children with autism are quite gifted at making friends in an early stage of life but drop off once cues and conversations grow at too quick a pace. And while humor is difficult to understand on the spectrum, it can even play a role in teaching the skills that many other kids pick up naturally. In other words, children on the spectrum are not unable, they simply often need more time and training.


Why Are Social Interactions Challenging in ASD?

There are several theories, many of which stem from a greater understanding of what autism itself is. Some researchers posit that one aspect of autism is impaired connectivity in the brain.

Our mind relies on an effective and well-connected network of neurons, and problems with the way neurons in children with ASD connect might explain some symptoms of autism, including difficulty with context, executive functioning, and abstract thinking. Language skills may be significantly delayed in children on the spectrum because their brain doesn’t put 2 and 2 together as efficiently as it should, to put into simpler terms.

This can be discouraging to many kids, who might sense that they aren’t able to effectively communicate with their peers, either because they can’t always understand them, or because they aren’t being understood. Such incidents can lead to intentional isolation, and frustration and anxiety surrounding social interaction.

Another theory is that much of how we develop social skills relies on our innate ability to pick up conversational cues and subtle read-between-the-lines intentions from body language and eye contact. Research shows that children on the spectrum are aversive towards eye contact because it makes them far more anxious than it might an average child – the part of their brain responsible for the fear response lights up much more in response to eye contact than it might in most people, suggesting that children with autism have a more visceral negative reaction to eye contact, and general face contact, which can impair their development of crucial skills for social interaction.

There may be even more to it, but based on what we know, there are a variety of factors that inform a child’s challenges with social interaction while on the spectrum.


Do Kids on the Spectrum Want to Interact with Others?

Yes, they do. Many children on the spectrum indicate that they want to communicate, and even engage in attention-seeking behavior early on to vent their frustrations at wanting to be seen and heard, although without any understanding of how to clearly communicate what it is that they want to show or say.

Social development is a very important part of early childhood, and one that is often delayed in children on the spectrum for one reason or another. That does not mean students with autism want to avoid their classmates for any other reason than the fact that they may be too embarrassed to interact with them, or dread the anxiety that accompanies being unable to properly and competently communicate. Their peers may not be instinctually kind to erratic or strange behavior, which can make children with autism feel even further singled out.


Strategies for Teaching Key Social Skills

Key social skills include interpreting and catching certain cues, understanding context, developing crucial play skills such as sharing and taking turns, knowing what kind of body language to use to reflect certain moods, managing one’s emotions and avoiding outbursts, and much more. There are many ways to teach these skills, and it’s important to consult a professional therapist versed in applied behavior analysis (ABA) or a form of talk therapy when teaching social skills. ABA is a form of therapy that relies on a variety of methods to help children with autism model ‘normal’ behavior and better understand their peers. Examples of techniques used in ABA include:

  • Utilizing play to teach – like any other child, a child with autism often learns best when it is being taught through play.
  • Explaining subjects and concepts through a child’s hobbies and interests – paying attention can be difficult for some children with autism, so keeping them interested is important. If lessons are recontextualized in a child’s personal interests, they may remember them better.
  • Incorporating specific skills through roleplaying – roleplay and modeling can help provide mock experience for children to better understand physical and verbal communication than through video or visual aids.
  • Utilizing video-modelling or face-to-face modelling to teach body language and social cues – by mimicking others, children with autism can practice and form a habitual understanding of what certain gestures and phrases mean.
  • Working with teachers and peers to better incorporate a child on the spectrum into class activities – experience is still the best teacher, and children on the spectrum learn best through group therapy, from specialized therapy sessions to working with other students to better incorporate a child with ASD.

Children with ASD should ideally socialize with normally developing children as well as other children on the spectrum. Knowing they are not alone and meeting other children with similar struggles can be incredibly comforting and help foster a sense of solidarity, while play sessions and conversations with normally developing children are important to practicing skills learned through ABA and other methods.


Employing a Trilateral Approach 

With autism, repetition and education is important. Parents, teachers, and therapists need to work together to help a child with autism learn to function alongside their peers and make up for certain social deficiencies with extra training.

Many children with autism are exceptionally gifted in one way or another. Autism does not equal intellectual disability, but all cases of autism require ardent support in several key areas of early life. Children on the spectrum face a great many challenges, some of which may be summarized as a kind of difficulty in interpreting and managing the input provided by their environment.

Most children naturally learn to adapt to this input and use it fluently. Children on the spectrum can often be trained to do the same, but they need much more assistance and time.

That is why early intervention is critical. The earlier a child on the spectrum is identified, the earlier they can begin getting the help they need to better contextualize the world around them and learn to cope in a neurotypical world. It’s not easy, and it’s not 1:1, but the end goal of ABA and autism treatment is not to try and make a unique and wonderful child ‘more normal’, but to provide them with the means to function alongside others, and feel included.

More than just working with children, applied behavioral analysts also work with parents, teachers, and relatives. Not only do children on the spectrum need to adjust to the world around them, but their relatives and friends must make adjustments to understand what autism is, how to better communicate with a person on the spectrum, and how to properly educate others on the matter to avoid bullying and discrimination at school and elsewhere.


“High Functioning” Autism Doesn’t Mean It’s Easier

Autism has been on a rise for decades – statistically, at least. The reality is that we are slowly approaching a point in time where we finally have a more accurate understanding of just how prevalent autism really is, not just among predominantly white families with better socioeconomic standing and access to quality healthcare, but among all ethnicities and classes in the US.

Currently, an estimated 1 in 59 children has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), although that number may continue to rise as statistical gaps are eliminated, and diagnostic tools improve. Autism is a part of humanity, and one with a history much longer than most might realize. More than just a facet of modern society, autism is something we’ve ignored for generations, either out of misunderstanding or due to mislabeling, and we are just now coming to terms with the depth and scope of this diagnosis.

Yet, many old or inappropriate myths surrounding autism persist into the modern day: including the idea that some children with ‘high functioning’ autism require significantly less care, or that it’s easier to be ‘diagnosed’ with ‘HFA’.


The Misnomer of High Functioning Autism

High functioning autism is not a clinical term, or a real diagnosis. It is largely a colloquial term used to describe cases of autism without intellectual disability. And it is a misnomer. Children on the spectrum who might be off-handedly called ‘high functioning’ show normal levels of intelligence yet have all the other trappings of the autism spectrum disorder, including emotional outbursts, communication issues, and functional abilities.

Years prior to the inclusion of several different autism diagnoses under the umbrella term of ASD, different cases of high functioning autism were often diagnosed as Asperger’s syndrome, a milder type of autism. Today, children diagnosed with ASD are assigned different levels of severity. But even mild autism needs serious support.

High functioning autism somehow implies that a child diagnosed with a less severe form of autism will be able to behave more ‘normally’, or even lead a ‘normal’ life with less support and fewer interventions. In some cases, the mislabeling of some individuals as high functioning has even led to dropped insurance coverage, and a harder time finding care.

Yet clinically, the research supports that the absence or presence of intellectual disability in children on the spectrum has no bearing on their functional ability. Children with high functioning autism still have an incredibly hard time doing many of the things their low-IQ peers struggle with, despite normal IQ levels. In other words, a child’s IQ is a poor metric for how well they will adapt to their autism symptoms, and the idea that some children are high functioning and thus have an easier time needs to go away.


Autism is Never Easy 

One thing that needs to be explicitly understood is that, when a child is diagnosed with a form of autism, they will not be neurotypical. Autism is not reversable or curable. But autism doesn’t really change what’s so fundamentally human about us all. Children and adults with autism are still people, although they might struggle with a different perception and sense of the world around them.

While there are certainly different levels of severity on the spectrum and some children require far more care than others – sometimes requiring care throughout their entire life – a child with a milder diagnosis will still need emotional and social support well into adulthood, and will still need the help of professional services to adjust to new and unknown environments, learn to navigate social cues, learn how to make friends at different ages, and differentiate appropriate from inappropriate behavior.

Many adults who were diagnosed with autism later in life due to their milder symptoms express regret at not receiving more care early on in life, when their condition was unknown and only led to emotional suffering, bullying, constant misunderstandings, and the feeling that they were negatively unique.


‘High Functioning’ Does Not Mean Low Support

Yes, children who do not have an intellectual disability may require less long-term support than peers who cannot ever be fully independent. But they still require early and intensive interventions to begin adapting to a neurotypical world as a child with autism. In other words, they still require long-term care. But on a different level.

Children with milder symptoms will have an easier time coping with their own ‘quirks’, but life will still be significantly harder for them without the appropriate support.

And in some ways, being high functioning can translate into having a harder time adapting. Sure, children who are ‘high functioning’ are more outwardly brilliant seem to be impressively talented, but the misconception that this somehow makes it easier for them to deal with their condition is a pervasive myth.

They still struggle with sensory issues, an inability to catch subtle social cues, problems with romance and employment, anxiety, depression, motivation, emotional outbursts, and functional ability (executive planning).  Many of these issues persist into adulthood – it’s just that some learn to mask them better than others. But they remain a source of anxiety and stress unless addressed properly, and ideally, early.


There’s A Reason It Isn’t Official 

There is no relevant modern-day literature that considers ‘high functioning autism’ a proper label for anyone on the spectrum. In fact, the opposite is true, as some researchers are calling onto people to junk the term entirely.

Even if we accept that some people on the spectrum have an easier time of certain tasks than others, it’s not a simple gradient. Some children show signs of intellectual disability yet seem to more easily make friends, while others are completely socially isolated, but perform well in terms of intellect and memory.

While autism is a spectrum, that doesn’t mean that being on one ‘end’ of the spectrum means having a mild measure of all symptoms, while the other ‘end’ struggles hopelessly in every regard. Every case is unique in how symptoms appear, and the severity with which they impact everyday functioning and behavior.


Early Intervention Is Always Best 

Regardless of how a child is diagnosed, all forms of autism need adequate and early support. An early intervention ensures that a child learns to cope with the differences between them and their peers, and better adjusts to the world around them.

Experienced applied behavior analysts don’t try to ‘cure’ a person’s autism, but instead try to find ways to help them function better in a framework they won’t intuitively understand.

Social Cues That Might Be Missed with Autism

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is diagnosed through a series of different symptoms, yet few are as recognizable or common as the symptoms of ASD relating to social dysfunction. It’s noted that cases of mild as well as severe autism often exhibit some form of social dysfunction, particularly in the realm of subtle, non-verbal communication.

When other children or adults fail to say things ‘plainly’ and try to convey meaning through subtext or certain gestures, it’s likely that the patient will misunderstand or completely miss the intended meaning.

There are several theories as to why this is, but it is important to stress that this ‘problem’ takes many forms and shapes, and that while some can cope with their troubles and develop the means to recognize and even understand many cues that might previously have been missed (particularly in milder cases of autism, or in those previously diagnosed with Asperger’s), many do not intuitively learn to cope with this difference in communicative skill, and only improve with early and repeated intervention.

To help better understand why a child on the spectrum might fail to pick up on social cues, it helps to understand what they are, and why they are important.


What Count as ‘Social Cues’? 

Social cues range from subtext in the tone of one’s voice, to the unwritten and ‘obvious’ social etiquette that can be most plainly seen in adolescents who develop cliques and a social hierarchy based on displays of dominance and shared interests. Just as most children would intuitively know not to pick a group of strangers to suddenly talk to, neurotypical children naturally develop the means to pick up on subtle changes in one’s voice or body language to catch a lie, understand sarcasm, or figure out that what’s being said is meant to be a secret.

Social cues can be very complicated to understand, as behavior that might be appropriate within a very specific context can be seen as wildly inappropriate in another context. For children with ASD, these very complex rules are often completely unspoken and unnatural, and at first, completely incomprehensible.

In general, social cues can be categorized as any non-verbal communication that is not previously codified or explained, as well as the implied etiquette surrounding certain situations. Take the practice of talking to strangers, for example. Within a certain context, it is perfectly normal to join a group of strangers and simply engage with them – for example, at invited parties, orientation day at school, or during certain off-duty hours at the bar. But within a different context, such behavior could be seen as ‘weird’ or ‘annoying’.

Similarly, a child or young adult on the spectrum might not pick up on subtle cues to stop talking about something, whether it’s something that was intended to only be held in confidence, or whether it’s simply a matter of speaking at length about a subject everyone else has lost interest in.


It’s Not Just Non-Verbal

When it comes to verbal communication, similar issues occur. Different cases of autism exhibit wildly different issues, but a common thread is a lack of understanding for pragmatics (how the use of language changes based on context, such as using a different tone with a teacher than with a friend, or an indoor voice versus a play voice) and prosody (the tempo and rhythm of speech, including concepts such as intonation, emphasis, and varying pitches). Just as children with autism can have a hard time knowing how to speak appropriately, they often miss on non-verbal cues by others telling them how to behave.

This is not a simple issue, and it’s not an issue entirely to blame on the diagnosis of autism. While language issues and missed cues can be frustrating to neurotypical individuals and many cues can be taught with enough practice, depending on the severity of a person’s condition, more can be done to help peers of autistic children learn to understand and accept their peer’s differences, and in turn help them better understand what is expected or wanted of them within a given situation.


Why Autism Struggles with Social Cues 

There are different theories that can help explain why social cues, body language, and non-verbal communication are so complex for children on the spectrum, but these explanations do little to explain why autism often struggles with other forms of social communication and the complexities of language. In general, one theory on the nature of missing non-verbal cues involves the natural inclination among children with autism to avoid eye and facial contact.

While we teach our children that it’s polite to look at another person when they are speaking to you, for children on the spectrum, doing so is incredibly uncomfortable and feels threatening. Research indicates that deficits in the ability to recognize expressions among patients with ASD may link to a heightened response.

Although most people learn to read faces intuitively and become ‘experts’ in recognizing cues during normal conversation, people on the spectrum avoid looking at the face as an adaptive strategy, due to increased activity in the amygdala. Put plainly, they are more likely to be agitated and to experience feelings of anxiety when making eye contact. This is because making eye contact is perceived as threatening in the brain, and while this is ‘overcome’ in most people depending on the context of the situation (eye contact is still socially threatening in many situations), people with ASD have a heightened reaction to direct eye contact.

Presumably, this cascades into a long series of other problems with missing facial cues, expressions, and gestures, because our ability to naturally intuit what another person is implying non-verbally often relies on a complete picture of their face. There are also hints that it’s a cyclical issue, wherein problems with facial recognition and processing lead to poorer social interactions, which further cause one to avert from social interaction and facial processing, deepening the issue.


Can Children with Autism Learn to Recognize Social Cues?

Methods of training facial recognition in people with other disorders exist but have not been applied in autism treatment. However, teaching children on the spectrum to try and make eye contact is often a part of applied behavior analysis (ABA), as part of a greater series of interventions aimed at helping people with ASD develop the skills to better pick up on social cues. In the future, there may be a place of ‘face training’ in children and adults with ASD who have problems with social communication.

However, ABA is not a one-size-fits-all treatment. Some children respond better than others, and the rate of one’s progress is entirely subjective. Research shows that earlier intervention leads to better overall progress, and more lasting progress.

Why Is Applied Behavior Analysis Helpful for Autism Treatment?

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological condition that affects children at an early age, causing developmental issues, as well as physical symptoms such as epilepsy and gastrointestinal discomfort.

While autism can be linked to several potential factors, including prenatal viral infections and other risk factors, it is understood to be largely hereditary. As we have learned much about how the disorder can come to be, we have also learned of many ways to address and treat autism through early intervention.


Autism Treatment Timeline

To recall the early days of autism research and treatment is to recall a grim and dark picture. Before autism was identified as a separate diagnosis, it was mistaken for schizophrenia, and treatments were very limited in scope and effectiveness. Early treatments included restricted diets and shock therapy.

Although autism was not formally recognized in any diagnostic manual until 1980, the term originated in 1911, and the discovery of a link between autistic behavior and gastrointestinal symptoms dates back to the 1920s. In the 1940s, autism was characterized as a social disorder, and Hans Asperger discovered a different form of autism (the discovery of which later gave way to the concept of a spectrum of symptoms and degrees of severity).

Other theories emerged over time, positing that autism was the result of emotionally withdrawn parents (refrigerator mother theory), and that treatment should involve forcing eye contact and intense hugging to simulate bonding (a deeply flawed and dangerous approach).

It wasn’t until the 70s that autism was discovered to be partly hereditary, and over the years, a more complex definition of the autism spectrum emerged as a neurological condition with behavioral and physical symptoms. Today’s standard in autism treatment is applied behavior analysis (ABA), which was first coined and developed by Dr. Ole Ivar Lovaas.

Lovaas developed ABA throughout the 60s and 70s and was known as a pioneer in behavioral treatment after publishing his article, Behavioral Treatment and Normal Educational and Intellectual Functioning in Young Autistic Children, in 1987. However, while Lovaas started ABA, the standards and intentions behind the therapy have evolved since moved on from his original methology. Despite effective results, many of Lovaas methods were questionable: some included the use of aversive therapies, such as shouting, shock therapy, foul odors and more to coerce children into avoiding ‘bad’ behavior.

Today, ABA continues to take its original core tenet to heart, and Lovaas techniques have been expanded on considerably without resorting to cruelty.


What is Applied Behavior Analysis? 

Broadly defined, applied behavior analysis (ABA) is a system of therapeutic methods aimed at helping patients identify better ways to interact with their environment. Today’s ABA methods emphasize a naturalistic approach, prioritizing techniques that teach children to interact with others appropriately through play and games. ABA therapists have moved on from face-to-face forced behavioral changes, and taken things to the play mat, where children lacking key skills and an understanding for social cues are taught to recognize these in their peers and behave accordingly.

Historically, ABA relied on repetitive drills to teach basic key skills, including polite conversation and behavior. Many ABA therapists have abandoned these drills in favor of a more patient-centric approach that caters to each individual child, based on their needs, weaknesses, and abilities.

The methods used change on a case-by-case basis, with a similar framework. ABA is typically applied anywhere from 10 to 40 hours a week, depending on a child’s age and the severity of their symptoms. A focus is placed on teaching communication skills and functional skills, from communicating wants and wishes, to motor function. ABA leads children to reduce or stop tantrums and self-harm behavior, focus better at school, communicate more with others, and communicate more effectively.

ABA does not work for all children with autism and has its limitations. However, it is often cited to be the gold standard in autism treatment and is currently recognized by the American Psychological Association (APA) and the US Surgeon General as the evidence-based best practice treatment for autism.


What’s the Evidence on Applied Behavior Analysis?

There is research giving credence to other treatments and therapies for autism. However, what applied behavior analysis has is a greater bulk of quality studies. These are studies that correspond to the gold standard of empirical research, the randomized trial. However, that does not mean that there is an overwhelming amount of convincing evidence supporting applied behavior analysis as the current best possible treatment of autism. It’s simply the one therapeutic method with the most current evidence-based backing.

ABA has come a long way from the approach that Lovaas first taught, and there have been many variations of ABA that have become useful and well-studied, most notably pivotal response training, and the Early Start Denver Model. Both are play-based models that focus on interactivity, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach focused on drilling specific behaviors and eliminating unwanted behavior. Both have quality research backing their efficacy.

This does not mean applied behavior analysis will address all of your child’s needs and issues. And it does not mean that applied behavior analysis ‘fixes’ or ‘cures’ autism. This is not what modern-day ABA therapists should seek to do. If you are considering a therapist for your child, it is important to ensure that they are board-certified by the BACB as a board-certified behavioral analyst, and that their genuine intentions are not to train your child to avoid expressing themselves, but to learn how to effectively communicate with others, and develop the skills needed to live and learn more independently.


Limited Options and Aversive Techniques

There are two main issues that critics address when speaking about ABA: the first is that some believe ABA has unfairly monopolized autism treatment, communicating to government agencies and health bodies that it is the only effective form of treatment for autism.

In recent years, different associations have called to ask for insurance providers and government agencies to recognize the work being done in other fields to help treat and therapeutically address autism, outside of ABA or pharmacology.

The argument is that patients with ASD and parents of children the spectrum are customers, and government intervention is needed to help promote consumer choice and not limit the options that parents have regarding the treatment of their children’s ASD, as some states only offer insurance coverage for ABA. Some cases of autism are addressed through

The second issue is that the history of ABA highlighted the use of aversive techniques to address unwanted behavior, and some therapists advocate for the continued use of negative reinforcement to stop children on the spectrum from behaving ‘badly’. This approach is unethical, and ineffective, and ranged from shouting a child down to utilizing aversive electric shocks.

Many defenders of ABA argue, and rightly so, that this is no longer the norm. However, adults on the spectrum with poor experiences with ABA argue that it continues to be a problem in some cases.

Parents need to be aware of their therapist’s reputation and techniques and work closely with their child’s therapist to ensure that they feel comfortable with the way their child’s condition is being addressed. ABA has become a framework to define many effective treatment methods, including pivotal response training, ESDM, and early intensive behavioral intervention.

ABA is not about making your child fit into society and reject their autism. It is not about making them feel ‘normal’. It is about helping them better function in a world that caters to being neurotypical, helping them understand what they might not otherwise understand, and helping them learn how to better communicate their needs with others so as to make their way through the world. It’s a long process that takes years, and early intervention leads to the best results.

How to Better Connect with Your Child with Autism

Autism, or the autism spectrum disorder, is a condition that is usually diagnosed early in a child’s life and continues throughout childhood and adulthood. It is a neuro-developmental condition with a cause that is not easy to pinpoint, with factors including genetics, infections, and chemical exposure. In simpler, broader terms, autism is caused by radically different wiring in a child’s brain.

The result can be extremely varied, hence the autism spectrum. Symptoms and overall severity ranges from mild to very severe, with some children requiring full-time care, while others can learn to be independent over time, with the proper intervention and right tools. In the past, autism was split into different diagnoses, including Asperger syndrome. However, over the years, researchers have come to understand that symptoms and conditions are far too varied for individuals to fit into specific diagnoses, and thus, the spectrum was born.

For many parents, communicating with a child on the spectrum can be very difficult. While autism expresses itself very differently from case to case, many children have a hard time communicating effectively, or at all. This can lead to much frustration and disappointment as requests and wishes would go unheard, and parents feel inadequate and lost. To better connect with your child, you have to start at the beginning.


Learn More About ASD 

Autism affects roughly one in 59 children in the US alone, according to the CDC. While autism exists on a spectrum, it can be broadly defined as a developmental condition. Autism is not the same as an intellectual disability or a learning disability. However, children on the spectrum may struggle with multiple different conditions, including other disabilities.

Unlike a learning disability (like dyslexia) or an intellectual disability, autism is best defined by how a child struggles to interact with its environment.

Children on the spectrum often have trouble with social interactions, subtle cues, complex or abstract thinking (including problem solving and planning), sensory problems (feeling discomfort at a sound, smell, or even sight), and physical medical issues that are more common among children with autism, including GI disorders and epilepsy.

A child’s ability to think, learn, and interact may be extremely poor, but it could also be very advanced. Children on the spectrum are sometimes referred to as ‘low-functioning’ or ‘high-functioning’, but a more apt description would be to explain that children sometimes show low or high functioning in various markers of autism, and that, based roughly on the severity of their condition, they may develop extraordinary skills in some aspects, or struggle more than their peers in others.

Above all, caring for a child with ASD requires patience. It’s a tough condition to live with, and children with autism can feel the pressure around them, even if they don’t outwardly show it – more so than their peers, they experience symptoms of anxiety and depression, often at least partially as a result of their condition and the stigma it carries.


Work with an Applied Behavior Analyst

In any case of autism, it should be a given to work with a professional and start interventions and treatment early on. With proper care, a young child with autism can learn to overcome difficulties and challenges that would otherwise cement themselves and become harder to deal with in the future. Applied behavior analysis is a common form of therapy used to treat children and adults on the spectrum, specifically targeting ‘unwanted’ behaviors and helping children and adults change these behaviors over time.

It’s important to work with an applied behavior analyst, because the work they do does not always translate into all aspects of a patient’s life. Even as they make progress together, a child with autism may not immediately understand that what they’re learning to do at therapy is a rule that should also be followed at home, or at school.

By coordinating with a specialist and your child’s school and teachers, you can ensure that the positive lessons they are learning are being constantly and consistently reinforced, with a better chance of sticking in the long-term.


Don’t Expect Enthusiastic Reactions

One of the things parents may have a hard time getting used to is the lack of enthusiasm or indication of joy on a child’s face in certain situations. While it’s a common myth that people on the spectrum cannot experience emotions, or are less emotional, it’s just that: a myth. Rather than being less emotional, children on the spectrum can sometimes be less emotive.

Others can be very emotive indeed, regularly lashing out and having problems with aggression, and how to channel it. But in some cases, children may experience joy but describe it only in a flat voice, with no facial indication of happiness. This does not mean they are being sarcastic or unenthused, but they simply may not show it. It helps to ask your child to tell you how they feel, if you are unsure.


Be Particular with Your Language

Metaphors and sarcastic humor may be initially lost on your child, even as they grow older. Some kids do develop an understanding for certain idioms and grasp humorous concepts such as irony, sarcasm, and comedic timing, but others require much more straightforward language. Avoid using terms that might confuse your child when communicating and keep things simple.


Watch Carefully for their Interests

It can be very difficult to connect with a child that does not communicate very well, but straight one-on-one communication is only one of many ways to connect with a person. Another would be through play, which is particularly effective in children. The key, however, is to find out what your child likes to do. Keep a careful watch on what interests them the most and make a point of becoming invested in that as well.

Some parents try to get their autistic children interested in their own hobbies, which may or may not work. However, when your child develops a hobby far removed from any of your own, you should do your best to learn more about it and foster their interest. Not only can it be a great way for them to simply have fun and be a kid, but children learn best through interests, and knowing what your child likes can be a great help later on, as they are learning different concepts, and their hobbies can become vehicles for them to better understand the world around them.


Introduce Changes Slowly & Be Patient

Patience is very important when connecting with a child on the spectrum. Changes cannot be introduced quickly, and any sudden change to a child’s routine or schedule can and will be met with resistance, and at times, frustration. However, that doesn’t mean parents should let their routines stagnate.

While it’s okay to take things at your child’s pace, it is your job to push them to learn new things and explore their boundaries, more so than they otherwise would. It is normal for children to yearn to grow and constantly exercise curiosity, but these traits may be difficult for some children on the spectrum.


Navigating the Teen Years with Autism

Puberty is a tremendously difficult time for any child, but it can be several times more challenging for a child with autism spectrum disorder. Navigating the teen years on the spectrum is certainly no simple task, and can come at a very inopportune time – for many parents, puberty may be the time when they feel they have finally figured out their child’s needs and behaviors, only for everything to change and shift drastically.

Getting through the teen years is challenge enough, but the goal should be to help your teen thrive despite their condition. Growing up and becoming a teenager can be a wonderful thing, although it starts off as scary. To tackle the oncoming growing pains, it will be important to heavily stress coordination and cooperation – between you, your child, their teachers, their therapist, and their doctors.


Sexuality and Physical Changes

The first and most obvious change as your child enters puberty is their growth, in more ways than one. Girls enter puberty sooner than boys do, and there is no fixed age for when this occurs for either sex – some kids start sooner than others. You are likely familiar with the various changes that occur when a child reaches physical maturity, but your child won’t be.

When it’s obvious that puberty is beginning (pubic hair growth, breast growth in girls and penis growth in boys), it is important to regularly sit down with your child and walk them through the changes they are experiencing and will experience in the near future, including changes in voice pitch, height, facial hair, menstruation, and more.

Explain how and why girls and boys develop differently, and how puberty will be linked to a number of changes both socially and sexually. As awkward as it might be for you as a parent, it’s important that your child understands above all else that what they’re going through is perfectly normal, and that everyone struggles with these changes. The last thing they need is to think themselves strange because of these new and sudden urges and feelings.

Masturbation will be an important topic in the years to come, especially for children on the spectrum. It’s normal for children to explore their bodies as they enter puberty (and before that, in some cases), but children on the spectrum may have a harder time picking up on the fact that it isn’t appropriate to masturbate in certain places and under certain conditions.

If you know or suspect that your child has begun masturbating, make sure they understand that this is something they should only do in private, and that it is not appropriate behavior for anywhere public, or even other parts of the home.


A Tough Transition in School 

As your child enters junior high and high school, their curriculum will likely shift towards tougher assignments, more complex schoolwork, and a greater emphasis on essay writing, abstract thinking, and group projects.

They will be tasked to do things they have never done in elementary school and will come across less work that requires rote memorization, and more work centered around improving and testing critical thinking, problem solving, and troubleshooting. These can be very difficult and complex tasks for someone on the spectrum.

While it’s a tough transition for everyone, children on the spectrum typically have an easier time memorizing things and a harder time grasping more abstract concepts, which means they may suddenly drop below their peers in grades. This can be a major blow to their self-esteem and understanding of how things are. Changes are always difficult for children on the spectrum, but they can be particularly traumatic if they are very negative changes.

Talk to your child’s school and teachers and ask about programs or opportunities for your child to get extra schooling and arrange for a tutor if they are having trouble in school. Your child will be able to understand difficult concepts and learn just as much as their peers do, but it may take more time and a different approach.


Hygiene and Grooming

With the shift to high school begin several shifts in terms of social etiquette and basic expectations. One simple rule is to smell good and look neat. For children on the spectrum, particularly if they struggle with strong sensory sensitivity issues, this can be a major problem.

They may not like or want to shower or bathe regularly and may try to seek ways to avoid using deodorant and various other hygiene products. Boys will have to start shaving and using face washes to avoid or reduce acne, while girls will have to begin wearing bras, and learning about different feminine hygiene products.

Sometimes, being on the spectrum means showing less of an interest in what your peers are doing. As such, it can be up you, the parents, to begin informing your teen on the necessities and importance of using hygiene products as one reaches physical maturity. Explain to your teen how the human body changes and begins to excrete stronger smells over time, and how social norms require a certain level of hygiene to avoid isolation and clashes.


Complicated Hierarchies

Social expectations and norms will become perhaps the hardest concept to grasp and adjust to for your teen, especially as things can change very drastically and very quickly from the transition into high school. Teens begin to form cliques, and bullying can get even harsher than it previously was. It may become harder for your teen to find a way to make friends, as they might not share any common interests with their classmates and can no longer rely on parent-arranged playdates as a way to develop social bonds and practice social interaction.

Consider helping your teen express their interests and teaching them how to communicate what they like to other students, to make friends. If they are into any elements of pop culture, such as certain movies or video games, they can use that as a way to begin sharing common interests with other people.

Now might also be a good time to encourage your teen to try various extracurricular activities, and visit different school clubs to get an idea of where they might want to fit in. Don’t write off any hobby or interest – children on the spectrum can have wide interests just as much as anyone else, including in sports.



Perhaps the most complex change for a teen on the spectrum will be the inclusion of romantic and sexual feelings in their life. They might not understand what these feelings are or where they’re coming from and need guidance. The world of dating is all about subtlety, small cues, and the ability to intuit things such as interest and intent.

For someone who does much better with a straightforward and direct approach, this can be very difficult. Your teen’s date might misunderstand their lack of social skills as a lack of interest. Helping them understand how to pick up on cues of the opposite sex and navigate their way to and through a date can be important, especially in the later years of puberty.

Everyone goes through puberty. And everyone grows up. Some take longer than others, some start later rather than sooner, and some struggle more than the rest. These are things that cannot be controlled, or ‘solved’. Problems will occur, it will be hard, and you will need help (as will your teen, especially).

While these tips are meant to help, it will be important to brace yourself for tough days, dark days, sad days, and days when you can’t help but feel like you are at your wit’s end. When these days occur, look to others for help, as well. You should never be in this alone, and neither should your teen. With proper planning, support, and preparation, your child will make a successful transition into their teen years, and well into adulthood.