Support for Youth with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) behaviors can look like deliberate acting out or an attempt to intentionally annoy someone else. Often the behaviors associated with ASD are also associated with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD). Sometimes they can be co-diagnoses for a youth with ASD.

But with more youth with ASD participating in community-based programs than in years past, a good youth worker must know how to use supportive interventions and to work with the assets that youth with ASD brings to your program.

Without proper training, youth workers resort to interventions that typically work with youth but can escalate a stressful situation for a youth with ASD.  Not knowing the best way to address the needs of a youth with ASD is frustrating to the youth worker, the youth with ASD, and other youth in the program.

As a youth worker, one of the most important things you need to remember is youth with ASD struggle to recognize the perspectives of others (also known as “Theory of the Mind”). In the most simplistic terms, autism is about a youth’s inability to relate to others.

Behaviors typical of autism spectrum disorder that can appear to be intentionally oppositional include:

  • Getting upset by a slight change in a routine or being placed in a new or overly stimulating setting;
  • Having a tendency to look at and listen to other people less often;
  • Responding in an unusual way when others show anger, distress, or affection;
  • Failing to, or being slow to, respond to someone calling their name or other verbal attempts to gain attention;
  • Having difficulties with the back and forth of conversations;
  • Often talking at length about a favorite subject without noticing that others are not interested or without giving others a chance to respond.

Too often we focus on these negative behaviors and forget that youth with ASD have assets. By tapping into these strengths youth workers can help them feel a sense of self-worth.  Equally important, as other youth in the program see how you interact with a peer with ASD, they will follow your example and create a more accepting and inclusive community.

While each youth with ASD is unique, many youth on the autism spectrum will show one or more of the following assets:  

  • Having above-average intelligence – the CDC reports 46% of children with ASD have above average intelligence;
  • Being able to learn things in detail and remember information for long periods of time;
  • Being strong visual and auditory learners;
  • Excelling in math, science, music, or art.

To create a supportive community and know how to de-escalate a stressful situation, a youth worker needs to:

  • Ask the family of the youth with ASD what works best. No child is alike. The family has the most experience with the youth and often knows what strategies work best.
  • Get training specific to working with youth on the autism spectrum.

The Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA) is offering a training called, Supporting Youth Living with Tourette Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder. This is an opportunity to improve your knowledge, skills, and confidence in this area.

It is important as youth workers that we recognize and build on the assets each youth with special needs brings to our program. It benefits the particular youth, but also the other youth in the program who will see you modeling respectfulness and inclusiveness.

Paul Meunier is the Executive Director of the Youth Intervention Programs Association (YIPA)