August 21, 2016

teensI hear it over and over again from other parents:

  • “My son doesn’t even get dressed. He spends the whole day in pajamas.”
  • “How do I get my daughter to understand she needs to clean her room?”
  • “Why can’t I get my teen to help around the house?”
  • “Why doesn’t he understand he needs to look for a job?”
  • “I spend all my time getting my daughter to just do her homework.”
  • “My child doesn’t even get out of bed before 2:00 in the afternoon and then stays up all night playing on the computer.”

While these complaints may not seem unusual for any parent when talking about their teenaged child, for those with autistic teens the behavior doesn’t always change after the teen reaches the age of 18 or 25.

In fact for many parents, the teens may lose what little motivation they had while attending high school. Services for transition to adulthood are few, often with long wait lists. So parents are left to fend for themselves in trying to motivate our kids to transition into adulthood.

Frustration can turn to anger. Anger can turn into accusations of laziness and other hurtful verbal exchanges. This process is then repeated and nothing changes, or things get worse.

So what can a parent do instead?

Here are 4 things to keep in mind that may break this cycle in your family.

  1. Behavior is a form of communication

When our kids were in grade school and behaved in ways that were unacceptable the most effective programs put emphasis not on stopping that behavior, but understanding what caused it in the first place. That strategy still works.

A child who was able to motivate themselves in high school, but is without that structure as an adult may feel anxious and fearful. This may manifest as an inability to make even the smallest decision, such as what to wear for the day or what time to get up.

Finding a counselor or therapist who is familiar with autism as well as anxiety may help. Learning how to cope with anxiety can make it easier to cope with making decisions.

Help build a daily structure with your child. This may be as simple as writing out a daily routine with specific times for specific activities. Include time to get up, eat, do a specific chore, enjoy something fun etc. Include every step in the day – no matter how small – and post it where it can be reviewed as often as necessary. Over time the amount of detail needed may decline. This is also a great exercise to help teach teens how to organize their day.

  1. Autistic teens do not have the social/emotional maturity of their peers

I don’t have any scientific proof to support this idea, but there is certainly plenty of anecdotal support. The general rule I keep seeing is that autistic kids are roughly 2/3 the emotional age of their peers.

Think about that.

Would you expect a 12 year old to drive? Get a job? Go to the grocery store alone? Probably not.

Would you expect a 12 year old to get themselves out of bed in the morning? Do laundry? Yep, I would.

Understanding the emotional and social maturity of your teen and then adjusting expectations can go a long way to reducing frustration. This applies to them as well. They may have unrealistic expectations of themselves too.

The media is constantly bombarding us with what people of a certain age ‘should’ be doing. We see it, they see and it can be difficult to ignore. They may be expecting others to be angry with them because they don’t have a job or aren’t in college or don’t drive. They may see themselves as ‘lacking’ and this can make it more difficult to keep trying.

Once you understand what they can handle, it is time to set expectations that they WILL reach those goals. Sit down and make a plan. It may require taking small steps forward to teach or reteach them skills. Don’t forget to give rewards for meeting specific goals.

For example if you want your child to put the dishes away from the dishwasher daily take the time to walk them through each specific step and make sure they understand exactly where each dish goes. Even if they already know how to do it, a reminder can reassure them that they are competent enough to do it correctly. Then set expectations of what reward will be offered when done correctly and what consequence will follow if no attempt is made to complete the chore.

It is important to remember that they may not be very cooperative in this. They may feel like you are treating them like a small child. You may even feel like you are, but until they can demonstrate their ability to ‘act like an adult’ you don’t need to treat them like one.

It can also be helpful to find a counselor or psychologist to help them work through their frustrations and learn coping methods.

  1. Autistics have a passion about something, find it.

One of the characteristics of autism is to be passionate about a subject to the point of knowing everything about it.

Sometimes this passion can get in the way because they will fixate on it, rather than on anything else they should be doing.

Sometimes this passion can be used to motivate them and even make them money.

For example, a teen who is passionate about anime can go online and form friendships with other teens who are also passionate about anime. They can join local groups, attend conventions, or start a You Tube channel. This may not seem like it is helpful, but it is allowing them to interact socially with others who share an interest. That interest could lead to taking art classes (that means getting dressed and leaving the house to learn) or writing stories and selling them online.

The internet has opened a whole new world for artists and people who are passionate about any subject. For most subjects there are already websites and social media groups with others who share that passion – some of those people will be new and will appreciate the knowledge and skills your child has around that subject.

Another aspect of supporting them in pursuing their passion is the feeling of competence they have in that subject. Instead of being told they don’t know, they are the experts. They can build relationships with others over time and it may eventually lead to a job.

No matter what their passion is, if you are creative there is often a way to use it to help them learn to motivate themselves.

  1. A change in the environment can change behavior

I recently saw a post in one of the Facebook groups where I lurk about a mother who purchased a house with a mother-in-law apartment attached. She moved her young adult child into the apartment. He is close enough for her to check on him daily, yet he still has some independence. He has good days and bad days, as we all do, but the change in environment has been good for everyone.

It may be that he wants to live up to the expectations that he can handle it or it may be that he was just waiting for an opportunity to be independent.

Sometimes kids just need a new environment to force them to grow.

Sometimes they need a change in environment to allow them the freedom to try a new behavior.

This is just one example of changing the environment. Of course our autistic kids often don’t react well to changes, so it is important to plan ahead and be prepared for meltdowns.

Small changes such as finding a place to volunteer or going to a different grocery store to shop can allow our kids to rise to the occasion.

Changes such as the end of a school year can trigger a lack of motivation. Whenever possible, plan ahead for these changes. Set expectations of chores that will be done or what time they should get up each day. Clearly define rewards and consequences. Include lazy days too to allow for some downtime.

Clearly setting expectations for everyone can help us as parents help our kids meet the goals we have set.

About the author 

Dawn Marcotte

Dawn Marcotte is the CEO of, a website designed to help teens and young adults on the spectrum live to their highest potential.


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