The Medical Minute: Autism - The Teenage Years

April 14, 2009

By Michael Murray

April is Autism Awareness month. Autism spectrum disorders are neurodevelopmental disorders marked by impaired social interactions, deficits in verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior that persist throughout a person’s lifetime. Autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, have received increasing media and public attention in recent years as the numbers of individuals and families affected by autism continues to steadily increase. The most recent prevalence estimate for ASD is that one of every 150 children born today is affected. On average, 67 new diagnoses of autism are made every day.

Recently, increased awareness has been raised about the challenges faced by teens and young adults with ASD. Adolescence is a challenging time for young people to successfully navigate. There are numerous social and developmental tasks to resolve, including: identity formation (Who am I?); social connectedness (Where do I belong in the world?); and career planning (What do I have to contribute?). These can be difficult answers to find for any teen, but when the social and communication challenges of ASD are included, these tasks can become overwhelming.

Part of what makes the social world of adolescence so confusing for teens with ASD is the increasing complexity and sophistication of both verbal and non-verbal communication between teens. Slang and novel uses of language that are used frequently in teen conversations can be misunderstood by adolescents with ASD, as most tend to interpret verbal language literally. Similarly, sarcasm, the backbone of adolescent humor, may be lost on them. The speed of typical adolescent conversations requires verbal fluency and processing abilities beyond what most teens with ASD possess. Overarching these concerns is the change from the activity-based interactions of children (playground games, etc.) to the less structured interactions of adolescents (“hanging out”).

Communicating clear expectations to teens with ASD can help them be more successful in social interactions. Many studies have demonstrated that peer coaches can be effective in improving the social skills of teens with ASD. Efforts to slow down conversations and an awareness of the difficulties ASD teens can have with humor and slang can also help them feel more comfortable in social settings.

Freaks, Geeks and Asperger Syndrome: A User's Guide to Adolescence by Luke Jackson, a young man with ASD, is a wonderful resource for ASD adolescents struggling with the teen years. Family members and professionals wanting to find out more about ASD and adolescence may wish to visit the Web site of the Organization for Autism Research at In the resources section, an informative booklet entitled “Life Journey Through Autism: A Guide for Transition to Adulthood” can be downloaded free of charge. It contains practical information and tools for increasing success during these pivotal years.

For more information on services available to people at all ages and points along the autism spectrum, visit Penn State Hershey Psychiatry and click on the Penn State Hershey Autism Program.

Michael Murray is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Penn State College of Medicine, and medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 17, 2009