What Are Signs of Autism in Teenagers?

Autism is a developmental disorder that affects communication, relationships and behavior. Although researchers have found evidence that autism begins before birth, and signs appear during infancy as the young person matures, the challenges of adolescence can cause new signs to emerge.

The goal of the teen years is to prepare for launch into independent adult life, while simultaneously forming community. Working towards these goals is important and more challenging for the autistic teen.

Communication Difficulties

Some autistic teens have very limited interactive communication, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. They repeat phrases they hear, a pattern called echolia, or say the same words over and over again, enjoying the sounds and familiarity of them. Other young adults can engage in conversations, but may have trouble initiating discussions or maintaining interest in what the other person is saying.


When any child feels unsafe or anxious, he can fall back on familiar rituals or routines that provide comfort. For the autistic teen, this can be more exaggerated, and the source of the discomfort may not be obvious from the outside. In school, the normal amount of pressure associated with homework and moving from class to class through crowded hallways can be the stimulus for the teen to withdrawal into the safe harbor of his ritualistic behavior. Some teens find a small school to be more manageable, and others make time in their schedules to be by themselves and regroup emotionally between classes. What's important is that strategies, which can be used in the workplace as an adult, are nurtured during the high school years.

Advanced Vocabulary in Narrowed Areas of Interest

Adolescents with autism may have developed sophisticated vocabularies in relation to their one or two areas of intense interest, and may be able to discuss those areas more fluidly than they could as children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry notes that preoccupation on a very narrow area of interest is also indicative of Asperger's Syndrome, a related disorder on the autism spectrum 1.

Poor Perception of Risk and Pain

Autistic teens may underestimate or be oblivious to risks or pain, or they may exaggerate them. In childhood, parents can watch for danger, but in the teen years, any move towards independence involves accepting an inherent increase in risk. Shana Nichols, the author of "Girls Growing Up on the Autism Spectrum" notes that young women with autism may be at risk of sexual dangers, including unwanted sexual activity, sexually transmitted diseases and HIV-AIDS, and teen pregnancy, because:

  • they look as if they are capable of consenting
  • but they don't fully understand the risks involved 2

Driving is possible for some teens with autism, but a correct perception of danger and the ability to sustain concentration must be in place first.


There is a physical basis for depression in some autistic teens and a social one, as well. Seizure disorders occur more frequently in autistic individuals, with 20 to 30 percent developing epilepsy by early adulthood, according to the National Institutes of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and seizure disorders are closely linked to depression.

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