Transitions for Autistic Teens

 On The Threshold

Transitioning into the adult world can be a difficult feat for any teenager, but teens with autism face special challenges that their peers might not understand. According to Pamela Dixon Thomas, a psychologist from University of Michigan, autism is often misunderstood and many adolescents on the spectrum face discrimination or rejection. This can be discouraging for teenagers and parents who simply want acceptance and equality.

Transition Challenges for Teens with Autism

While a great deal of information is available to parents on the the treatment and management of autism in children, relevant information on issues that confront autistic teens is much less prevalent. Scott Michael Robinson, Vice President of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network in Pennsylvania, believes that the more people learn about autism, the more accepting they will be of autistic teenagers and adults in society.

Among the issues that parents of teenagers with autism struggle with is helping their children prepare for the changes that come with becoming a young adult. Other challenges teenagers might face include:

  • Behavior
  • Vocation or education choices
  • Depression
  • Independent living skills


Autistic teenagers do not read social cues like their peers might. This means that an autistic teenager's behavior and interests might vary greatly from those of a typical teen.

While other teenagers might be interested in dating and sports, an autistic teen may still be interested in toy trains and board games. This can result in further ostracism, leaving the autistic teenager feeling alone and without friends.

Vocations or Education Choices

A teenager on the spectrum might be able to handle a job very well. However, there might be problems in figuring out just what type of work a teen can do. Should he work with people, given his disability? Is she capable of going to college?

Since many autistic teenagers have limited and specific interests, they might struggle to find a satisfying job or college major that suits their needs and preferences.

Overstimulation and other personal problems can result in difficulty securing and maintaining employment, according to Gassner.

Parents may face problems with letting go and having their teenager become independent, and teenagers who have been taken care of their entire lives may struggle with the same. This can hinder an autistic teenager in choosing a job or attending college.


Autistic teenagers are more likely to become depressed than other teenagers, and stressing about the future can worsen the state. Since many teenagers with autism have limited social skills and few friends, they may spend a great deal of time alone. This can lead feelings of isolation and depression. Some teenagers may retreat further into their own world while others may act out in anger and frustration.

Independent Living Skills

Teenagers with autism may struggle to take care of their basic daily needs, depending on their level of functioning.

  • Some teens may be need round the clock care, meaning the transition to adulthood is one that involves continuing to live at home or in a facility.
  • Teens with a moderate level of functioning might be able to tend to their basic needs with supervision.
  • High-functioning teenagers should be able to develop independent living skills with little prompting.

Parents will need to consider how well their teenager can meet basic daily needs before allowing them to transition away from home as an adult.

How Parents Can Help With Transitions for Autistic Teens

Parents need to be understanding of their child's special needs, wants, and limitations. Some things parents can do to help with transitions for an autistic teenager are:

  • Be supportive. He will need someone advocating for him, especially if he is non-verbal or low-functioning.
  • Listen and encourage independence. Higher-functioning teenagers may very well be able to support themselves independently when given the opportunity. Allowing a teen to gain independence in spite of her disability is an important part of the transition process for parents as well.
  • Collaborate in developing transition goals. Although a teen might love basketball, he may not posses the skills to be an NBA superstar. Parents can encourage him to find productive ways to incorporate his interests into daily life. For example, he could join a group that plays basketball on the weekends, or work for a local college basketball team.
  • Work with guidance counselors. Guidance counselors can help autistic teenagers enter college or vocational programs, depending on their interests.
  • Enlist a social worker who specializes in autism and can advocate for teenagers. Transitions that a social worker can help with include employment, health care, and services.
  • Develop self help skills. A teenager can benefit from doing simple household chores, such as washing dishes or doing his own laundry. The more self-help skills a teenager learns, the better.
  • Create a transition plan. The Autism Transition Guide is a great tool for developing plans for teens no matter what level of functioning.
  • Be realistic about the teenager's future. Parents of teens with low functioning autism may need to accept that the best residence for their teens after they transition into adulthood is in a group home or facility. A group home can also provide a level of socialization that a person can't get from other places, and knowledgeable staff to help with his everyday activities.

And remember, many parents have trouble letting their children grow up, and parents of teenager with autism are no different. They may need to prepare for the transition just as much--if not more--than their teenagers will.

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Transitions for Autistic Teens