Introduction: Parenting a Teen is a Both a Rewarding and a Complex Journey
Dreaming and planning for your child’s teen years ideally starts early. Parents have hopes and expectations for their teen with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and/or an intellectual disability (ID). You and your teen will need to work together to identify opportunities to develop skills, and find resources to support your teen.
Adolescence is a time of rapid brain development along with significant physiological and emotional changes. Teens’ social relationships and academic expectations are likely to to shift in the midst of changing bodies, gender identity development and a growing sense of self.
This Toolkit offers ideas that are a part of this developmental stage while recognizing that each teen and family are unique. But trying to be prepared for the teens years may help you and your teen along the journey.
An Overview of this Toolkit
This Toolkit offers information, practical tips, exercises and resources to help guide you through the teen years and transition into adulthood. Sections include:
- What to Expect Now that your Child is a Teen
- Knowing your Child/Teen: A Parenting Exercise
- Parenting Approaches that Work with Teens
- Strategies for Communicating with your Teen
- Puberty, Sexual Health, Gender Diversity & Safety
- Self-Esteem, Identity, Disclosure & Advocacy
- Belonging: Friendships, Fitness, Recreation and Community
- Dealing with Mood, Depression & Anxiety
- Thriving in High School & Preparing for Adulthood
- My Teen’s Life Planning Map
What to Expect Now that your Child is a Teen
Although you may feel that you know your child inside and out, being a teen often comes with new territory. Your teen may seem unrecognizable to you at times. They may experience moments of surliness, acting out or confusion. They may express unwillingness to take their parent’s advice. Your teen may have feelings of self-doubt in one moment, and confidence in the next. As their body chemistry and brain grow and change, they may strive for more independence and separation from you, although this varies among youth.
Parents of teens with neurodiversity may worry about what other parents likely worry about: puberty, growing independence, friendships, high school and dating. You may take delight in watching your teen launch into something new. Imagine watching your teen master a new skill like ordering food at a restaurant or figuring out a new piece of technology? Be proud of these moments and markers, and remember to celebrate what may seem to be ‘small beginnings’. (Tip: some of these new skills may require many small steps and many practice efforts. Parents can support their teens in tackling new interests by helping them to break down skills into small steps.)
Parenting your teen will require you to do things differently than you did when your child was younger. You may constantly feel the need to change your approach as your teen’s development changes, and as you strive to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Parenting any teen has its ‘ups and downs’ - remember to find time to have fun and relax along the way.
Knowing your Teen: A Parenting Exercise
This exercise invites you to reflect on your child ‘as a child’ versus where they are at today. How are they similar or different? What stands out most about how you describe your teen? What do you notice that is the same or different in how you view your youth now (versus when they were younger)? What are some changes you’ve observed regarding your parenting?
Knowing your Child
Knowing your Teen
Describe your child before he/she became a teen (think about a favourite and a challenging time)
Describe your teen (think about a favourite and a challenging time)
What brought my child joy?
What brings my teen joy?
What were my child’s strengths?
What are my teen’s strengths?
What were my child’s interests?
What are my teen’s interests?
How did my child learn best?
How does my teen now learn best?
What situations, behaviours, thoughts or feelings caused your child the most problems or distress?
What situations, behaviours, thoughts or feelings now cause your teen the most problems or distress?
What helped my child cope when things were challenging? How did I help my child when things were challenging?
What now helps my teen cope when things are challenging? How can I help my teen when things are challenging?
What did I imagine my child would be like as a teen?
In what way(s) has my teen changed since childhood?
Parenting Reflection Questions
How would I describe my parenting when my child was younger? (List both positives and negatives)
How do I describe my parenting now? (List both positives and negatives)
What do I need to do differently now that my child is a teen?
Not all approaches work for all teens; after all, your teen is unique! Elements of your parenting style may work well, while other elements may need adaptation. Be patient with yourself, other family members and your teen. Consistency, adaptability and kindness are key, but most of all remember to not be too hard on yourself. Parenting can be difficult and we all make mistakes.
Helpful Parenting Tips:
- Expectations of your teen (and thus of your parenting) will need to be adjusted as teens with neurodiversity are often at a socially and emotionally different place than their typically developing peers.
- Your role as the parent of a teen with ASD or ID may be different than you imagined, and different from some experiences of parents of neurotypical teens. You will experience different situations, challenges, and joys. Be gentle with yourself and focus on supporting your teen in the ways that they need you to, and do not compare the expectations of you and your teen to those of others.
- Teens with neurodiversity may prefer routine and sameness in order to keep their lives predictable and themselves calm – so changes can create extra chaos. Remember, this can be a tough time for teens, and they are not trying to purposefully make your life more difficult.
- Support your teen build resilience by helping them address fears of failing, anxiety about change and any feelings of perfectionism. This may require taking small steps toward your teen feeling success (big or small). Celebrate successes.
- Many teens with neurodiversity are strong visual learners. Some have had success using technology as aids to communicate such as apps, text and/or video prompts.
- Accept your teen for who they are, and try not to worry about what other people think of them or you when in public. Focus instead on what your teen and family need.
- You know your teen best so it’s okay to trust your instincts. And it’s okay to seek a second opinion when you feel you need it.
- You may feel sad about your teen’s struggles, or feel bad that that your teen is missing out on typical adolescent development. It’s okay to have those feelings. Try to balance this with thinking about your connection with your teen, their successes, and the things about your teen that you admire. Speaking with other parents who are walking a similar journey can be an important way to stay connected and find other parents who “get it”.
- It’s important to set rules, expectations, and consequences for your teen. Be consistent, and reward and praise achievements. It’s also important that you have expectations around safety and respect. Additional strategies like ensuring your teen has downtime, soothing activities and a safe place to go to take a break, may be helpful.
- Become an expert on, and an advocate for, your teen. This may include knowing your teen’s strengths, challenges and triggers.
- Do your best to keep your cool. It can be hard for teens to manage their emotions. Try not to take personally anything that your teen has done or said that may be hurtful. Remember that they often don’t feel so great either when they are acting out towards others or you! If you feel frustrated, sad, or angry, seek out healthy ways to release your difficult emotions. Some examples might be meditation, exercise, counselling support, or journaling.
- It will be hard sometimes, and at other times, not as hard. Your teen will change and grow. Things may shift. Don’t give up!
Autism Canada has a Family Support Representative who is available to support families through their parenting journey.
Autism Speaks Canada has information about autism and stories from parents who have children with ASD
Provincial organization like Autism Ontario and Autism BC offer support groups for families
Autism Speaks: Advice for parents from a teen on the autism spectrum by Ethan Hirschberg
P4P Planning Network has family and personal stories that cover a child’s life span.
Having a child with autism: 21 things I wish I’d known, Ronnie Koenig and Laura T. Coffey, Today, April 14, 2017
6 Parenting Styles to Avoid when Raising a Child with Autism, Lisa Jo Rudy, verwellhealth, January 17, 2020
Picture books on prescription, Alison Flood, Feb 2020, The Guardian
Strategies for Communicating with your Teen
Parents of teens develop ways to communicate depending on their teen’s abilities, preferences and personalities. Parents often talk about the importance of finding the ‘right time or place’ with their teen to strike up a conversation, to provide some feedback or to talk about something important. For instance, talking in the car has been reported by some parents as a useful place for conversation given unique factors such as no direct eye contact (which may be uncomfortable for some teens) and being in a confined and quiet space. The point here is… Consider how you and your teen can best communicate. Be open to seek and alter your strategies and actions, as needs and skills emerge or change.
If verbal communication is a challenge, non-verbal ways to communicate may be helpful. This may include the use of technology like smart phones, and teaching your teen how to stay in touch, ask for help, pose questions, and express feelings using features such as texting, video prompts and email. Teens who need more support may find it helpful to use other tools such visual supports, visual schedules or alternative/augmentative communication like picture exchange communications systems, speech output devices or sign language.
To understand more about how parents can be “communicator and role-model champions” watch: “AspieComic”. Here, Michael McCreary in Studio Q talks about how his parents helped him learn to read non-verbal communication cues such as friendly versus non-friendly smiles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0deO8oaORc
Strategies that parents share:
Use one message at a time to tell your teen what you need them to know.
It may be easier for your teen to understand a chart, calendar, email or text, versus verbal communication only.
If you or your teen need a break from each other, you may want to establish a set of verbal codes or hand gestures ahead of time. This will give you both the opportunity to communicate that you may need some time out.
Some teens want and need affection, but prefer that this happens in private and not in front of friends or other people. There may be some signs of affection that help your teen calm down when they are heated up (such as a subtle but firm squeeze of the hand).
Be willing to talk about tough situations with your teen. For example, if your teen has experienced a negative social interaction with a peer, you perhaps could talk about how they handled the situation, and remind your teen why some teens aren’t nice to other teens and/or bully others. You can talk with your teen about socially acceptable behaviours in certain situations, and work on practicing or role-playing these behaviours together. These actions can help your teen to adapt to certain social situations. On the other hand, it is important to remember that there needs to be room for people to be themselves. Work with your teen to practice strategies to self-advocate, ask for help, and express confidence in themselves.
Bullying is a complex and concerning issue. Seek to understand what your teen is facing. Find proactive ways to move forward. Work with your teen in dealing with negative messages, but also ensure safety. Be a stong advocate, as needed, at school, home and in the community.
If your teen grapples with getting ‘worked up’, help them to find ways to seek calm. Perhaps let them choose what calming techniques work best for them in different situations. Often, it doesn’t help to tell a teen what not to do, but help guide them in choices about their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. You could also discuss some of the times you observed them struggling in the past and what helped. It may be useful for you and your teen to create a toolkit or scrapbook with effective calming strategies, useful reminders and other helpful tips (such as applying deep pressure, using a weighted blanket, listening to music, exercise or playing on an iPad, etc.).
As you work with your teen to manage challenges as they come up, inner emotional strength may be developed. This may help your teen return to a calmer state. Let your teen know that you’re listening and truly trying to understand their concern. Regardless of who we are, many of us appreciate knowing we have someone “in our corner”! Don’t forget to celebrate the growth in how your teen is managing anxieties and difficult situations.
There are other types of communication strategies that you and your teen may find helpful. Video prompts, audio readers, picture books, role-playing and visual aides may help you and your teen work through difficult conversations.
Beyond Words (provides books and training to support people who find pictures easier to understand than words and cover many topics that are hard to talk about)
Our Crazy Adventures in Autismland, Family Blog
Raising Children Network
Autism Research Network
Freaks, Geeks and Aspergers Syndrome: A User Guide to Adolescence, Luke Jackson
Autism Speaks has lots of blogs by teens and parents and some give ideas about how to use technology to help with communication.
Autism Org has some additional strategies to help with communication.
Puberty, Sexual Health & Safety
Puberty is a natural yet complicated part of growing up for teens. Physiological and hormonal changes can deeply impact your teen’s mood, temperament, sleep patterns and more. It’s important to begin teaching your teen about puberty early so that they are prepared and not alarmed when their body naturally changes.
Teens with neurodiversity may need additional direction about understanding and taking care of themselves including hygiene, being safe and engaging in social and dating behaviours appropriately. This section will cover topics related to grooming and personal hygiene, sexual health, gender identity and safety.
Grooming and Personal Hygiene
Teens, especially pre-teens, may need reminders to take care of their personal hygiene. Your teen may need some extra help in being aware of, and motivated to, maintain personal hygiene.
It may be helpful for your teen to watch you with your own hygiene routine like teeth brushing, shaving, washing your face, skin care or putting on deodorant.
Some teens may be shower-averse or shave-averse, and you may need to help them address these needs. Questions include: is aversion a sensory issue or something else? If hygiene is a challenge, work together to come up with a solution that feels comfortable for your teen but also moves them forward as much as possible.
Visual cues, creating a routine and modifying tasks may help your teen develop self-care skills.
Something to Try…
Perhaps you and your teen could create a chart with reminders and directions about daily personal care. This is one example (adapted from Autism Speaks) of a personal care task that your teen could practice until they no longer needing reminders or direction (adapt as makes sense to your situation).
Tips for Showering (could also be adapted as Tips for Bathing)
- Create a schedule for showering: choose the frequency (how often) and ideal time of day. You may also want to think about if you need to shower more often such as after participating in physical activity, going to the pool/beach or other special occasions.
- Make sure you have what you need (shampoo, conditioner, soap, dry towel, shaver)
- Turn on the shower
- Test the water to make sure the temperature is as you like
- Wash your arms, legs, stomach and face with soap
- Wash your underarms and private parts with soap
- (As appropriate) Use soap or shaving cream on your legs and then use your razor to shave hair under your arms and on your legs (some but not all girls like to do this)
- Wash your hair with shampoo, rinse off the shampoo with water and make sure there is no more shampoo in your hair
- Turn off the shower
- Dry off with a dry towel
- Put on underarm deodorant
- Brush or comb hair
- Pick up wet towel off the floor and hang it up
- Put dirty clothes in the laundry bag or laundry room
- Get dressed.
Body awareness, boundaries and autonomy are important concepts that can be introduced early on, and continued throughout teen years. This awareness provides a foundation for children and teens to know how to keep themselves safe, respect others’ boundaries and bodies, and understand consent.
You and your teen should be using the proper language (correct adult terms and not “baby” language, nicknames or cutesy names) for body parts and body functions. Using the right language and context helps teens communicate clearly about their changing bodies. They may need to talk with their doctor about their bodies or in settings (like school) where they are learning about health. This awareness also helps them from being misunderstood by others, particularly if they have experienced unsafe touching, and they need to report it. Using incorrect terms may lead teens to feel embarrassed or ashamed and/or be misunderstood by others.
Sexual Health & Romantic Relationships
Teens will need to take care of their bodies as they mature (menstruation, testicles, hair, breast development, erotic feelings, PMS, sexual or romantic feelings for an opposite- or same-sex peer, for example). You and your teen will need to talk about what is happening to their bodies, and how to accept and deal with these changes. For example, you may need to teach your teen how to purchase tampons or pads and how to use them, or how to deal with increasing sexual feelings and behaviours (like masturbation).
It is important to teach your teen how to interact while on a date or within a romantic relationship. For example, they may need help understanding what physical touch is appropriate, or what consent looks, sounds and feels like. They might need help understanding appropriate boundaries, privacy and safety, and how to express affection. Your teen might also need help understanding what is acceptable behaviour in public and in private (such as hugging and kissing). One way to help your teen in this area is to seek out resources and picture books to help your teen understand some of these issues. It may feel strange or awkward, but by working through these conversations together, can help your teen (and their romantic interests) to be safer and happier.
Privacy, Safety & Pornography
Some teens with ASD or ID may have difficulty understanding unwritten social rules about the types of information and bodily activities that should be kept private (such as speaking in public settings about topics like masturbation or menstruation). Try to help guide your teen in how, when and to whom to speak about these topics. It is important to teach your child early, and remind them periodically, that privacy (about one’s body) is important for their safety and well being. Teens also need to understand when someone is not respecting their privacy (such as unwanted touching or comments).
Help individuals with ASD and ID to be safe by ensuring that they know how to ask for help and thus, reach out if they are in an unsafe situation. Teach your child early, and practice and repeat and reinforce these skills often. For example, it is important that teens learn to identify safe places to go if they are feeling unsafe such as a community library, YMCA or school and/or safe person(s) to talk with such as a family member, neighbour or teacher.
It is important to remember that teens may be exposed to pornography online. It is also important to proactively address issues of safe, consensual sex in a healthy relationship.
Gender Diversity & Sexual Orientation
There are many definitions of gender diversity; however, this Toolkit refers to gender diversity as gender identity and sex assigned at birth that do not correspond based on society’s expectations. This includes individuals who are transgender, gender fluid, genderqueer, non-binary, agender, etc.
There is growing research that suggests that people with neurodiversity, particularly those with ASD, are more likely to be gender diverse compared to neurotypical people. Your teen may be experiencing confusion or change related to their gender identity. If that is the case, it is important to be supportive, and seek out qualified resources to help your teen to understand and cope with their feelings.
Autism Speaks: Has a comprehensive guide for parents of adolescents with autism spectrum disorder that is available to download.
Beyond Words: Picture books area available on topics related to caring for breasts, testicles, preparing for a pap smear and loving someone safely.
Autism Parenting Magazine
Interactive autism network
National LGBT Health Education Centre
Self-esteem, identity, disclosure & advocacy
Adolescence is uniquely experienced by each person. For some, it is a time of figuring out who one is, and their value and view of themself. This may be especially challenging for some teens with neurodiversity as they may be becoming more aware of their “differences” from neurotypically developing teens. They may also find it hard to recognize their value, skills and strengths, and perhaps aren’t confident in and of themselves, are dealing with residue from longstanding mistreatment and bullying, and are experiencing difficulty managing their emotions. Parents of teens with neurodiversity may find it helpful to use various tools and techniques or therapies to help their teen recognize their emotions and perspectives.
Something to Try…
Teen and Parent Exercise: Identifying your “differences” and discovering a “gift”
Watch this powerful YouTube video with your teen about a young man who describes the gifts and uniqueness of being on the autism spectrum and his comedic strengths:
Does this Make my Asperger’s Look Big, By Michael McCreary: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jBVpgyIXllw.
After watching the video, talk with your teen about these points:
- What were your and your teen’s immediate impressions of the video?
- What did you and your teen think about how Michael talks about having Asperger’s Syndrome?
- How do you and your teen view and understand their own diagnosis?
- What do you and your teen see as a strength or possibly as a gift that comes with their “difference”?
- What creative way could you and your teen come up with to create a positive and strength-based identity? (could be a short story, a song, a poem, a comic strip, or… the possibilities are endless).
Michael directed his strengths into comedy and advocacy, and a similar process of finding strengths may be something that you and/or your teen discover as you embark on this exercise.
Here’s another way to get you started. Including pictures may be a great way to help your teen visualize themselves.
Using your and your teen’s responses to the prompts above, create a “Me Book” or a Vision Board that has pictures of your teen’s likes, strengths, achievements, photos, school reports and words that teens and others use to positively describe them/themself. You can draw pictures, print them from the internet, or cut out of magazines or books. If you have more than one child or teen, try doing this activity as a family so that your teen with neurodiversity can see how everyone is unique and special.
Disclosure & Self-Advocacy
Have you shared with your child/teen their diagnosis? If not, it may be time to talk with your teen about their diagnosis, or have someone you and/or your teen trust have this discussion. Having a diagnosis may help some teens understand what “differences” they have, and why they may be behaving or feeling they way they do.
Knowing about oneself may also help your teen learn and plan what they to do to advocate for themselves. Some people they encounter may not know about neurodiversity, and may need information to understand where your teen is coming from. It may be helpful to provide your teen with a few statements that help others understand them and their diagnosis, but do so in a way that doesn’t overwhelm your teen.
Interacting within Public Spaces
Some teens with neurodiversity may need particular help building skills for asking employees or staff in a public location for assistance with something such as how to order a library card, use a public computer, or navigate the bus system, for examples.
They may also need to build skills that help them with understanding when to call police, and understand how to interact with police or other first responders. Dealing with first responders can be challenging as these community service providers don’t always understand behaviours and reactions related to those with neurodiversity. Some police departments offer an autism registry which provide helpful information to police. Teens may need the skills to advocate for themselves if an interaction becomes uncomfortable. Some teens may choose to carry a wallet disclosure card or other ID to help in these situations.
Teens will also need to start developing the skills needed to interact with their health care providers as they potentially prepare for more independence and responsibility over their own health.
The Parents’ Practical Guide to Resilience for Preteens and Teenagers on the Autism Spectrum, Jaeanette Purkis and Emma Goodall, JKP Books
Empowering Parents of autistic young people to help them Promote Resilience in their child, Jaeanette Purkis and Emma Goodall, JKP Books
The Asperger/Autism Network (ANNE) has wallet disclosure cards that are available to download.
The Asperger Teen’s Toolkit by Francis Musgrave. This book has minimal text and is a fun, comic book style graphics, info for teens and their carers, explores science of how the human mind words, gives handy tips on how to cope with adult world, responsibilities, health, sex and relationships.
Tint, A., Palucka, A. M., Bradley, E., Weiss, J. A., & Lunsky, Y. (2017). Correlates of Police Involvement Among Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 47:2639–2647. Available on the aidecanada website.
Ask and Tell: Self-Advocacy and Disclosure for People on the Autism spectrum, Stephen M. Shore, Ed.D
Dealing with Moods, Depression and Anxiety
All teens experience “ups and downs” and sometimes it’s hard to predict which mood your teen will be in from one day to the next - or even one moment to the next! Teens with neurodiversity may be at a greater risk of low mood, anxiety and depression, This may be heightened as they become more self aware of their “differences”, deal with sensory, social and emotional overload, cope with increasing academic pressure and expectations, and try to learn the social rules and seek to “fit in”.
What to do if you are concerned about your child’s mental health?
- Check in with teachers, coaches or other involved adults to see if they’ve noticed concerning behaviours such as change in mood, having more trouble getting things done, or not feeling like participating in something that they used to enjoy doing.
- Try to be a “thought detective” and encourage your teen to explore their feelings. See what they are getting stuck on, check out how they’re thinking about a situation (such as “nobody likes me”), and help them create a new list of constructive thoughts and facts (such as creating a list of all the people that do like them).
- Explore “worst case” scenarios to find out what your teen thinks is the worst thing that could happen. Talk through whether it’s as bad as they imagine. Help them to understand that they do have strategies in their toolkit, and that you’re there to support them.
- Find out what resources are available to help your teen with social skills, find a hobby or social activity for your teen to join, or perhaps locate a mentor, tutor or other support person, as needed.
- Exercise and/or hobbies may be helpful (swimming, yoga, etc.). Physical activity and sunshine help to boost “happy” hormones and often improve sleep. (Tip: Participate in physical activity together!)
- Try to help your teen get enough sleep. Consider removing screen time late at night as it can disrupt sleep quality, and establish regular bedtime routines to help settle at night.
- Introduce soothing or calming strategies and a safe place for your teen, when needed. Some ideas might be to practice mindfulness or breathing exercises, having a safe space to vocalize frustrations, etc.
- Access a mental health professional such as a school counsellor, psychologist or social worker.
- Consider medication, with guidance from your teen’s physician or mental health professional.
e.MentalHealth.ca is an online directory that will help you find therapists, resources and program across Canada
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868, www.kidshelpphone.ca. It is a 24/7 national service that provides resources in both French and English.
211 Canada: Telephone: 211. Call to get information on health and social services across the country.
Canadian Mental Health Association: www.cmha.ca. They offer a variety of mental health services.
Belonging: Friendships, Fitness, Recreation and Community
Teens often organize themselves around mutual interests and create friendships among peers. There are a lot of complex and nuanced “rules”, and behaviours that go along with teen friendships that can be hard for all teens to understand. Teens with neurodiversity may find social situations difficult and they may find it hard to make and keep friends.
Social Skills Strategies:
There are several social skill strategies that you may have started doing when your teen was a child and which can be continued in an adapted way to help your teen with social situations. These include: role-play, and watching and discussing TV shows and movies, ready-made or home videos that may model skills such as conversation starters, sharing information, etc. Picture books, photos and story telling can be used to show social situations. Prompt cards, tick sheets or wrist counters are examples of tools that can provide scripts or cues about greetings, goodbyes, and self-management techniques that help regulate behaviour. Sometimes, you may not be aware of situations that your teen is trying to navigate; this may be a good time to connect with your teen’s school so that you can learn about any challenging social situations that are coming up in that setting.
Teens with sensory, social or emotional overload may need to consider additional strategies if they become overwhelmed in social situations or public places. Having headphones to block out sensory ‘noise’ is one example of being prepared when situations are too much for your teen.
Balancing the use of technology is important. Some technology such as social media and apps can create additional social, emotional and sensory content, and may need to be limited in terms of their use. Some teens may need to balance their time on social media versus being face-to-face with friends or peer groups, and they may need their parents to help them set limits. Others may find that virtual friendships are key to building and retaining relationships with peers.
Fitness, play & exercise
All of us benefit from fitness and play, and there are many opportunities for your teen to join in. Fitness has many benefits for your teen’s physical and mental health, sense of belonging and opportunity to engage with peers or supportive adults. Look for opportunities to join a fitness centre or physical space that has paid special attention to the needs of persons with sensory or other challenges. Don’t be shy about asking instructors how they can support your teen with ASD or ID. Your teen might also consider talking with the instructor about strategies that can help them participate. successfully.
- Seek out other teens with similar interests (such as gaming, theatre, swimming, dancing, faith/religion, photography, cooking, music, movies, etc.) by connecting your teen to local community groups
- Join an organized club or group such as Brownies/Scouts, theatre, dance group or recreational activity that meets regularly and on a consistent basis
- Find out if there are modified activities or support persons available within recreational programs such as the YMCA/YWCA, Boys and Girls Clubs, or other community-based facilities or programs.
- Seek out community based social supports such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters, buddy groups, youth mentorship programs, and others.
- Seek social skills groups that are designed to nurture social skills.
- Create a social or recreational group based on your teen’s interests or strengths.
- Invite others into your life or home who may create a sense of community, support and/or friendship for your teen and perhaps for you.
- Be creative with your teen and consider taking on a family project like cooking a meal together once a week or having a movie or games night. These can be fun opportunities for your teen and family to be together.
- Follow your teen’s passions, interests or hobbies, and consider if there is a volunteer or part-time job or group that they could apply for or join.
- See if there are any camps that might be suitable for your teen which gives them a chance to participate, nurture social relationships and potentially build skills.
Provincial organizations such as Foundation de l’autisme de Quebec and Autism Nova Scotia offer social and inclusive programming
The Science of Making Friends: Helping Socially Challenged Tweens and Young Adults, Elizabeth Laugeson and John Elder Robison, 2013
Autism Speaks Canada have links to adapted exercises and fitness tips and a guide to organizations and programs for youth with autism.
Guide to Making Friendships with Supportive People, p4p Planning Network
The Autism Discussion Page on Stress, Anxiety, Shutdowns and Meltdowns, Bill Nason, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2020.
Bloom: 50 Things to Say, Think and Do with Anxious, Angry and Over-The-Top Kids, Lynne Kenney and Wendy Young, Unhooked Books, 2015
The Awesome Autistic Go-To Guide: A practical handbook for autistic teens and tweens
Provincial organizations such as Autism Ontario and Autism BC offer social clubs
Raising Children Network
A Practical Guide to Happiness in Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum, Victoria Honeybourne, 2017
Teens with autism can master daily living skills when parents, teach, reach for iPads, Mary Louise Duffy, Michael Brady, Peggy Goldstein, Florida International University, EurekAlert, Oct 2019
Social StoriesTM and comic strip conversations are helpful in creating social understanding and keeping safe, National Autistic Society
“F-words Agreement” helps teens and parents navigate what they want for themselves/their teen with respect to function, family, fitness, fun, friends and future. Available to download from CanChild.
Canadian Down Syndrome Society
Thriving in High School and Preparing for Adulthood
Teens that succeed in high school have often developed skills before they reach high school, They practice and master these skills as they mature, gain more focus and become motivated to succeed.
Important skills for teens to master include:
- navigating positive peer relationships
- time management
- increased independence, and
Teens develop these skills at different rates, but teens with neurodiversity may find these skills difficult to master or need more support. It may be helpful to think and plan early about what kind of living situation and employment your teen pictures for themselves over the next 5 years after high school.
Here are some things to consider:
- Developing skills required for high school and a future, starts early. School aged children can be taught positive attitudes about school, engage in social skills training, take on responsibilities that match their abilities, and dream about their future.
- Engage and request specialized interventions, resources and professionals to help guide your teen’s academic and vocational plan.
- Individualized Education Plan (IEP)
- Be involved in your developing your teen’s IEP. It’s okay to agree or disagree with school recommendations, and you may want to seek outside evaluation or another expert opinion.
- IEP meetings should be held regularly to keep everyone in the loop and to monitor your teen’s progress.
- Your teen’s IEP should address skills needed while in high school and in preparation for increased independence after high school.
- Be informed about services and financial resources that are available to you and your teen.
- Request a vocational/career assessment through your teen’s school to help identify your teen’s interests and abilities, opportunities for job placements, and potential careers.
- Neuropsychological evaluations can be done periodically to help your teen explore pathways to success in school and for transitioning after high school. Find out if your school offers them or if this needs to be done privately.
- Mentors, peers and/or tutors may be sought within or outside of the school to help your teen with learning and/or school life.
- Parents, teachers and school support staff will need to come together to help your teen come up with a plan to manage the complex demands of high school (changing classes hourly, keeping track of assignments, following complex directions, completing multi-phase projects, handing in homework on time, etc.). This may require coming up with a system that helps your teen break down tasks, creating a list of when schoolwork or projects are due along with regular check-ins to make sure your teen is on track.
- Consider an alternative school if a large high school is not working for your teen socially or academically. Also inquire about resources that could support your child in the school system.
- Help your teen choose their courses based on future aspirations, what is required for post-secondary options, and what they are interested in.
- If needed, explore what assistive technology is needed and may be accessed to support academic work or communication.
- Consider co-op placements that match your teen’s interests and skills.
- Your teen may need more time to graduate than do other students. Support a pace that works for her/him, and ensure that transition services are in place. Ask school personnel about the timeline and expectations for graduation.
- Consider what kinds of self-care and life skills your teen needs. Perhaps start small and build up skills by practicing. Some examples of skills are: life skills, hygiene, learning how to do laundry/cooking, setting appointments, being on time, handling money and banking, using public transit, employment internships, and managing transportation.
- Some secondary school courses help teens learn practical skills such as banking, budgeting, grocery shopping, cooking, and other life skills. Talk with the school guidance counsellors to identify these course options.
- Explore what might be available as a part time job or a volunteer experience for your teen in your community.
- Coaching and facilitation experts can help build on strengths and nurture skills required for greater executive functioning/organizational planning. Find out if there is a coach in your community.
Considering life after high school includes thinking about post-secondary education, a job or career, where and how your teen wants to live, and supports that may be needed. There are multiple programs that support employment finding. Examples of employment-related programs in Canada, for instance, are: Worktopia (https://worktopia.ca/), and Ready, Willing and Able (http://readywillingable.ca/).
Other examples of resources are as follows:
Inclusive Education Programs/Community Integration through Co-Operative Education Programs
You can find out more about what’s required for your teen to be admitted to a college co-operative program and what kinds of accessibility supports are available through the college or university’s Accessible Learning Offices.
Scholarships, awards and loans are available for students with disabilities. For more information, check with the school guidance staff or others who have knowledge about the post-secondary education system.
Internships offer an opportunity for teens and young adults to “try out” jobs . This allows gaining some experience, learning from mentors and developing skills.
College & University
The National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS) (https://www.neads.ca) provides a directory of disability-related services, contacts and websites related to post-secondary schools in Canada. NEADS also lists resources about education funding (awards, scholarships and loan), and offers information about preparing job applications, job interviews and much more.
Pre-employment Training Programs
Seek out initiatives that provide employment readiness programs for individuals with neurodiversity who are looking to develop skills to obtain meaningful and sustainable employment.
Coaching and Independent Facilitators
Teens may find it helpful to work with a Life or Job Coach or an Independent Facilitator who can help them with moving through high school and into adulthood.
Provincial organizations such Autism Ontario have information about post secondary opportunities
Pacific Autism Centre for Education offers Youth Leadership programs and employment opportunities
Autism Speaks. You can download a Community-based Skills Assessment (CSA): Developing a Personalized Transition Plan which is designed to help parents and professionals assess current skill levels and abilities of individuals with autism beginning at age 12 and continuing into adulthood to help you develop a comprehensive plan.
Ontario Independent Facilitation Network (OIFN)
National Educational Association of Disabled Students (NEADS)
The University of British Columbia, Canadian Institute for Inclusion and Citizenship, Transitioning Youth with Disabilities and Employment (TYDE)
Worktopia, National Employment Network
Late, Lost and Unprepared: A Parent’s Guide to Helping Children with Executive Functioning. Joyce Cooper-Kahn and Laurie Dietzel. Woodbine House, 2008
The Neuordiverse Workplace: An Employer’s Guide to Managing and Working with Neurodivergent Employees, Clients and Customers, Victoria Honeybourne, 2019
Canadian Down Syndrome Society
Exercise: To envision elements of your teen’s life, ask the following questions…
What will make your teen happy?
What are your teen’s strengths?
What does your teen need help with?
What and who will help your teen during high school?
What does your teen want to do after completion of high school?
Is your teen suited for and/or interested in college or university?
Who does your teen enjoy doing?
What skills does your teen need to be learning and practicing?
What resources or supports does your teen need?
Where does your teen want to live after high school?
Something to Try:
Path to More Independence
As illustrated, create a visual checklist that breaks down needed skills, and observes and documents the steps and practices with each skill, adaptations made or needed and when the skill is mastered. Some teens may find having a visual schedule downloaded on a tablet or iPad is more effective as they may benefit from and prefer visual prompts.
Breakdown of Steps
Practice (notes, observations, what worked/what didn’t work, how the practice was adapted)
Supports or adaptations
(who was helpful, what resource was helpful)
Examples of Potential Skills to Work On
Using Public Transportation
Communication and Social Skills
Being safe in public (pedestrian safety, wandering, identifying helpers, danger signs, etc.)
Joining leisure/recreational activity
Taking care of physical and mental health (know when needing a break or when feeling overwhelmed, etc.)
Speaking up for oneself (self-advocacy)
Managing social, emotional or sensory overload
Being on Time
Join something fun