Four questions every parent should know the answers to—whether or not you have a child with autism. 

By Kaitlyn Pirie
Photo by Flashpop/Getty Images

What does it mean to be on the autism spectrum?

Autism encompasses a broad range (or spectrum) of symptoms from mild to severe. While symptoms vary, people with autism usually have issues with social and repetitive behaviors. “A teen might be fixated on the solar system, talk about it nonstop and not understand when others don’t want to,” says psychologist Laura Klinger, PhD, executive director of the University of North Carolina TEACCH Autism Program. “Or they could have repetitive motor behaviors like pacing or slapping their hand, especially when anxious or confused.” Keep in mind that many people with autism are very bright—about 44% have average to above-average intellectual abilities.

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Is it possible to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at an older age?

Yes. “Autism is present early in life,” says Klinger. “But it is common for some very intelligent children with good language skills to be recognized as autistic in adolescence or even adulthood.” They may not have obvious developmental delays as toddlers, but later they may begin to show difficulty with things like schedule changes or relating to peers. “If you suspect your child might have autism, talk to your pediatrician about setting up an evaluation with a psychologist who specializes in developmental issues,” says Cynthia Carter Barnes, PhD, clinical psychologist at the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence. It’s better to ask now because earlier intervention often leads to better outcomes.

How should we broach the topic of autism with typical kids?

“When I speak to other children, I explain that people with autism do things differently but it’s cool to be different,” says audiologist Alisha Griffith, AuD, a speech language pathologist, author and mom of a son with autism. “I say that it could be a challenge for them to communicate with you even though they want to.” Ask your child’s teacher or school counselor for the best way to include a peer with autism, because what works for one person might not work for another. It may be as simple as starting a conversation about a common interest or extending an invitation to eat lunch together. Your child may not get the reaction they’re expecting and that’s okay. Remind them to respect boundaries, keep an open mind and not take it personally, says Griffith. It might be too bright or too loud in the room, or the child with autism could be in a bad mood—just like anyone else.

What are some ways parents of kids with autism can help them succeed?

Over the next 10 years, an estimated half a million teens with autism will age out of school-based services, but you can start prepping your child years before they hit that milestone. “Identify their strengths and strategize how to turn them into skills,” says Griffith. Someone who is great at stacking items and staying organized might be an asset to a grocery store, while a person who likes to fold blankets and keep their room neat could be a great fit for a hotel. Griffith suggests finding clubs that pertain to their interests, letting them do volunteer work or bringing them to your office. 

“We’re finding that more than IQ, independent daily living skills—knowing how to make a bed, do laundry, shop, manage money—make a huge difference,” says Klinger. “Those who have practice when they’re younger are able to be more independent and successful as adults.” It’s understandable for parents to focus on making sure a teen has friends and stays on top of schoolwork, but don’t overlook daily living and adult social skills. A school-to-employment transition program might also help. Check to see if one is offered at a nearby college or autism resource center.

Test your knowledge about myths and misconceptions with a quiz produced by Autism Speaks: