Communicating with Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Posted by on February 19, 2023

“Let’s Talk Autism” – By Bjorn Kwok 


Approaching and communicating with a teen with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can be a challenging task for parents. Some young people with ASD may have difficulty understanding and interpreting social cues, body language, or facial expressions. However, with an informed approach, it is possible to build a strong and meaningful relationship with your teen. 


Here are some tips and strategies for parents on how to connect with a teen with ASD.


It’s important to understand that teens with ASD are unique individuals (as we all are!) and should be acknowledged with the same individuality, respect and understanding as any other teenager. A diagnosis of ASD may overshadow or follow a teen. Sometimes, their identity is at risk of becoming “the teen with ASD.” We know that they have their own interests, strengths, and challenges, and it is essential to acknowledge and value these traits and talents when interacting with them.


Be clear and direct when communicating with a teen with ASD. Use simple and concrete language and avoid using idioms or figurative language, as these can be confusing and difficult to understand. Provide clear instructions and to give teens adequate time to process and respond to what you have said. Be patient with pauses. Teens with ASD may have difficulty understanding and interpreting nonverbal cues, such as facial expressions and body language. Pay attention to their verbal cues and their tone of voice in order to understand how they are feeling. When unsure about their feelings or preferences, ask directly. Demonstrate understanding when they make mistakes. Many teens with ASD find visual aids, like pictures and charts, to be helpful in understanding and communicating information. 


Teens with ASD may feel more comfortable in familiar and predictable settings. Providing them with structure and routine can help them feel greater control in their environment and reduce their anxiety and stress. This may look like regularity with eating, sleeping, and waking routines. Teens with ASD might also have preferences for sensory stimulation with sights, sounds, and tastes. Inquiring about these preferences and routines is respectful and important. 


Many teens with ASD have special interests or passions. Knowing and nurturing these can create a common ground and help to start a conversation. Highlight their strengths and use that to build the foundation for problem solving, motivation and skill building. 


As teens grow and develop, they are exposed to new ideas and challenges every day. The hope is that they can build their resilience and independence to tackle new and unknown tasks and social environments. 


It can be helpful to think about a teen with ASD developing within a framework of four zones: Fear, Comfort, Learning and Growth. 

development framework for teens with autism spectrum disorder

The Fear Zone is when an individual is overwhelmed and overstimulated. New activities or skills are scary and uncertain. The Comfort Zone is often where people remain as it is secure and does not involve a lot of risk. In this zone, individuals do not demonstrate confidence when building new skills. The Learning Zone is identified when an individual is able to embrace the uncomfortable feeling of anxiety and use their strengths to try new activities. They can tolerate some discomfort and push past it. The Growth Zone is where an individual is able to regulate their internal emotional experience while learning new skills. With a significant focus on their strengths and energy, we are ultimately supporting the individual to build resilience, hope and confidence. 


A teen with ASD may fall within any of these areas depending on the skill and task they are trying to cope with, attempt or even master. This framework can be helpful to understand that a teen’s learning and progress is staged and scaffolded. Growth can be achieved with practice, effort, encouragement and persistence. 


The Fear, Comfort, Learning, Growth framework can also be helpful when assessing our own comfort and skill in communicating with a teen with ASD. Remain patient, positive and persistent in these efforts to engage. Connecting with your teen with ASD may be a challenge AND may be one of the most important actions you take. 


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