Self-identity for autistic teenagers: what to expect
Forming a self-identity is about working out who you are and what your values are. It’s an important part of adolescence for all teenagers.
Self-identity can be more challenging for autistic teenagers than it is for typically developing teenagers. They might also find it hard to see themselves as valuable community members with skills and strengths.
This is partly because autistic teenagers often have trouble recognising and managing their emotions. This can make it difficult for them to work out how they feel about themselves, how they feel about certain issues and what their values are.
Also, autistic teenagers might find it harder to learn about themselves from being around their peers. For example, your child might be unsure of how they fit into and relate to their peers. Or your child might notice for the first time that they’re different from their peers. Or your child might just not be interested in their peers.
And then there are the usual adolescent ups and downs. Your child might be feeling more ups and downs than they used to. This could be for many reasons – physical, emotional, social and psychological – and not for any one reason in particular. Often you can’t pin it down.
Emotional development happens according to your child’s cognitive or developmental age rather than your child’s age in years. For example, your child might be 13 but be more like a 9-year-old in emotional development and behaviour.
Helping autistic teenagers with self-identity
Autistic teenagers will probably need your help to build their self-identity. Building a positive self-identity is important for your child because it also helps with your child’s self-esteem and self-confidence.
Here are some practical ideas that can help.
Talking about diversity
You can talk with your child about how everybody has their own strengths, interests and challenges – which is what makes us interesting. This can help your child see themselves as valuable and worthwhile.
You can also help your child understand that people can look, speak, think or act differently from each other – and this is OK.
You could turn this into a social story. The professionals working with your child will be able to help.
If your child joins an activity that they enjoy, like a sports club or a band, this can help them build a better sense of their strengths, what they enjoy and where they fit in. It’s also a good chance for your child to develop and practise their social skills and mix with teenagers who don’t have autism.
Getting involved with other autistic teenagers can help your child to understand more about autism and how it’s part of other people’s identities. Your child can share their own experiences with an understanding peer group. Your state autism association or local council can help you find a local group.
Thinking about ‘me’
You can encourage your child to think about:
- what they like and don’t like
- their personality – for example, whether they’re generous, artistic, polite and so on
- what words they would use to describe themselves to others.
One way to get your child thinking about themselves is to help your child create an ‘All about me’ book. This might include pictures of things your child likes, pictures of friends or things about their hobbies and achievements. Drawings or craft creations from when your child was younger can remind your child of past experiences. Things like school reports can help your child think about past and current achievements.
When your child comes up with a list of words to describe themselves, these can go into their book.
Knowing about family
Your child’s self-identity also comes from knowing about their family. You could show your child things like family photographs and include these in their ‘All about me’ book too.
It might also help your child to hear about your experiences of growing up and being a teenager, especially if your child doesn’t have a lot of support from peers and friends.