Seven Things Your Autistic Teen Wants You to Know
Young adulthood is, by its nature, a period of individuation – a time when our children must create their own identities. Hormonal changes, increasing academic and social demands at school, and facing the daunting prospect of “adulting” often lead to extreme anxiety. This combination often means that parents are on the receiving end of a lot of behaviors that are confusing and challenging to navigate: emotional meltdowns, a seeming unwillingness to share their thoughts or feelings, holing up in their room with video games or online friends to the exclusion of everything we see as critical for their future.
For over fifteen years, I’ve had the privilege of supporting young adults as they navigate the critical transition to adulthood. Over and over again, autistic young adults have told me they would like their parents to know:
I want to make you happy. I want you to approve of me. I want to make you proud.
You don’t have to convince me to care about my future.
When you say I’m lazy, I believe you.
I’m anxious. All the time. About everything.
Please be excited about what I care about.
Say what you mean.
Please make our conversations about one thing, not everything I’ve ever done that you’re unhappy about.
Before I go into more depth on each of these, please consider using this list as a way to start a conversation with your teenager or young adult. While yes, I’ve heard these comments repeatedly from a wide variety of individuals, it does not mean that every neurodivergent person feels this way. Instead, I recommend showing this list to your young adult and asking them for their input: “I’ve read that some people feel this way. I’m wonder which of these you agree with, and which of these you disagree with?”
1. I want to make you happy. I want you to approve of me. I want to make you proud.
When you’ve been fighting with your teenager every day for the last month over a long list of items, and they haven’t done a single one of them, it’s hard to imagine they care at all about what you want or think. After all, how hard is it to empty the garbage? To log on and do one assignment for their online class? To get dressed in the morning and get to school on time without a huge battle?
Here’s the thing: avoidance behaviors stem primarily from anxiety, executive function challenges, and sometimes physical lethargy. They are not about you, so don’t take them personally. In fact, most young adults tell me they care deeply about how their parents feel about them. They want you to be happy with them and proud of them. They just don’t know how to deal with the challenges they’re facing, and when you’re mad at them, they sink even further into self-critical thoughts and swirling anxiety.
2. You don’t have to convince me to care about my future.
They get it. The future is coming. It’s looming. They need to get an education, get a job, support themselves financially. You might think they just don’t care or understand or aren’t taking their responsibilities seriously. But it’s actually the opposite: the severity of their fear of the future, and deep inner doubts as to their abilities to be successful, is motivating their avoidance behaviors.
3. When you say I’m lazy, I believe you.
Maybe we haven’t actually said the words, but my guess is – most of us have. At one point or another, in a moment of exhaustion and frustration, it’s slipped out: “why are you so lazy?”
Unfortunately, most of the young people I work with have heard that phrase so many times from parents, teachers, and others that they now believe it about themselves. Why else, they reason, would they constantly be late on assignments, not do what their parents ask, not be making plans for their future the way their peers are? “I’m just lazy,” they tell me. “I have no motivation.”
Anxiety and associated avoidance behaviors make daily life much more difficult for autistic people than for neurotypical people. Executive function challenges make getting moving, staying on task, and achieving goals challenging. Without an understanding of how to face these challenges, young adults and those around them may begin to believe they are indeed lazy.
In a subsequent blog, I’ll address the remaining items on this list, and how Transition to Adulthood Services can help!