I just finished writing a book for psychotherapists on helping teenagers and young adults with autism. This topic does not get much coverage in the clinical literature on autism, as treatment books focus most often on children. This blog post will share some major points from the book.

Autism is a neurobehavioral condition impacting social comprehension. It is often described as impacting "social skills,” but that is much too limiting. Autism impacts how an individual perceives the social world and interacts with that social world. Individuals with autism literally have a different way of perceiving social relationships, and they use skills they find appropriate given those perceptions.

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Autism makes up "who the person is" and not just "what the person does." Having Autism makes up a major part of the answer to the all-encompassing question teenagers and young adults ask: "Who am I?" Therapists can help older clients take on this challenging question by helping them answer more specific questions like:

“What does being a person with Autism mean?"

“How do I want to live my life as a person with Autism”?

"How important is it to have friends and what sort of friends do I want to have?"

"How much am I capable of doing on my own?"

"How much independence can I hope for?"

"Where do I agree and disagree with my parents and teachers in terms of what they expect from me?"

"How much do I care (and why do I care) about how people respond to my Autism symptoms?”

Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA), the primary treatment approach used for autism, emphasizes learning skills to replace behaviors that are causing problems. ABA still plays a major role in treatment for Autism for teenagers and young adults. Using the questions listed above is an effective way of determining what skills the teenager or young adult needs to learn. So, for example, once your client has worked with you on what sort of relationships he or she wants, you can use ABA approaches to help them learn skills needed for obtaining those types of relationships.
But what you are making clear is that you are not taking a "one-size-fits-all" approach to what skills to learn. You are not telling your client “You need to have friends” or “You need to do more with other people.” You are helping your clients decide what they want, even if it is different from what their parents, teachers or healthcare providers think they should want.

Addressing disagreements between what young clients and their parents want from therapy can be a real barrier to progress. Everyone wanting to have the final say in what gets addressed can be more challenging with this type of therapy than any others. You have parents who are used to guiding their child’s treatment, and then the child (now a teenager or young adult) who is tired of being told what they should want or what goals they should have. This is even more of an issue with autism because childhood autism treatment requires heavy parental involvement. Backing off on this involvement, so that their child can have more say over what gets addressed, can be difficult for parents.

I remember one client, a teenage girl with autism just starting the 11th grade, whose main issue was disagreements with her parents. Her goal was to interact with her peers more at school, but she was not particularly interested in more social activities outside of school. But her parents wanted her to do much more socially. They had another daughter who they described as a “social butterfly” who was often at parties and out with her friends. When they saw that their other daughter (my client) did not have much interest in parties, they determined that something was “wrong” with her and that her autism symptoms, which she dealt with all her life and had been under control for years, were causing her problems that she did not see.

My client had considerable disagreements with her parents about this issue and was really starting to resent them for it. She was comfortable with her limited social activities and did not want to do much socially outside of school (but did want to do more socially in school). Her parents disagreed and we had to address this issue before deciding what direction treatment would take.

This sort of disagreement is not uncommon for families of a teenager or young adult with autism. Given how intense autism in childhood can be and how involved parents often are, they may come to expect their child will not fully understand what they need from treatment. Having family sessions, where everyone is given their say but the therapist makes clear that the young client must be listened to, can help parents recognize the validity of their child’s views. It can also give the therapist the opportunity to talk with the parents about how there are different perspectives on what makes social relationships meaningful and what to expect from friendships.

When I had the chance to discuss these issues with my client’s parents over two family sessions, they were more receptive to considering what their child wanted socially. They were actually initially quite angry at me for “giving in” to their child and treating her too much like an adult. It was only after we discussed these issues in depth, and everyone had the opportunity to express their views without interruption or criticism, that the parents were receptive to allowing their daughter to set the goals for therapy.

Therapy for autism in the teenage and young adult years is more individualized than therapy for autism during childhood. One example of how this works out is that "social scripts" are used as opposed to "social stories." Social scripts are based on discussions during the therapy sessions specifically addressing what the person wants in terms of social relationships and what situations they find most difficult in reaching social goals. Social stories, on the other hand, emphasize more general rules that are used across a variety of social situations.

Many types of therapy approaches used effectively for treating different conditions for teenagers and young adults can also help individuals with autism. Mindfulness, cognitive-behavior therapy and relaxation therapy all have been found effective for treating anxiety, depression and anger comorbid with Autism. T client can learn how to use these skills to reach the social goals they set for themselves.

Perseveration and self-stimulatory behaviors are common problems in autism that need addressed. They typically get addressed as clients identify the negative responses they get from other people because of these behaviors. Using the "Red Card/Green Card" exercise is one effective approach for this problem. Essentially it involves helping the person practice suppressing their repetitive behaviors by allowing them periods of time to talk about whatever they want (including perseverative topics) without interrupting them when the "Green Card" is up, in exchange for focusing on specific topics the therapist brings up when the "Red Card" is up.

I have also found reviewing material related to the "neurodiversity movement" to be invaluable for helping determine effective ways of helping teenagers and young adults with autism. This is not a therapy orientation per se, but is a philosophical movement emphasizing that autism, along with other neurobehavioral conditions, is best thought of as a "difference" and not a "disorder". Reading material related to this movement can give you a different perspective on helping make therapy for someone with autism as beneficial and individualized as possible.


Marston, D. (2019) Autism & Independence: Assessments & Treatments to Prepare Teenagers for Adult Life. PESI Publishing & Media: Wisconsin. 

File under: Family Therapy, Musings and Reflections