When you have kids, you quickly learn a universal truth: A lot of parenting consists of trying to keep your kid entertained. Regardless of their age or ability, you want to make them happy and create an environment where they can thrive. Plus, you kind of want to be the fun mom, right? And finding activities your kid enjoys can certainly help. If your teen has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), you’re likely on the hunt for entertainment options that include activities for teenagers with autism. And you probably already know by now that you’ll find plenty of activity options for children with ASD that are both fun and help to build important skills. But once your child becomes a teenager, you may notice that there are fewer resources available — especially when it comes to activities they’ll actually enjoy.
Much of what you do find may not exactly be age-appropriate and will, rather, be aimed at much younger people. Teens with autism need to be engaged in a way that develops their specific sensory, social, and cognitive skills. But don’t worry: We’re here to help. Here are some examples of activities for teenagers with autism that aim to do just that.
How do you entertain an autistic teenager?
1. Board Games
The Theory of Mind Gaming Program at Michigan Medicine uses board games as a part of speech therapy for teenagers with autism to help improve their conversation and problem-solving skills, as well as their narrative ability.
2. (Some) Video Games
Video games get a bad rap, and for good reason: There are a lot out there with gratuitous violence and sexuality, and we don’t blame you for wanting to ban those from your home. But not all video games are created equal — some are great for skill-building, according to Integrity, Inc.
“If they’re playing a puzzle game, it will require them to use logic. A role-playing or story-focused game will encourage creativity and comprehension. A time management game helps them understand rules and practical multitasking,” the Little-Rock-based organization explains on their website. “Every child is different and will prefer different games, but with a little experimentation, your teen is sure to find something that excites them and keeps their brain active.”
Whether they’re listening to music or making their own, music can be therapeutic for teenagers with autism. “It also helps with the efficient development of speech and language, as well as memory abilities while improving your teen’s life and encouraging better behavior from them,” according to experts at Speech & Occupational Therapy of North Texas. “All this happens because music is relaxing, so it reduces anxiety.”
4. A Pet Companion
This isn’t an option for every family, but getting a pet could be great for your teenager with autism. Not only could a furry friend function as an emotional support animal, but according to a 2015 article in the journal Advances in Mind-Body Medicine, young people with pets and/or emotional support animals develop social skills faster, sleep better, and are physically healthier. Plus, it’ll give them some degree of responsibility for something other than themselves, allowing them to practice and/or develop practical skills in the process.
5. Working in a Garden
Nurturing plants and cultivating a garden can be a very calming and therapeutic exercise for teens with autism. Not only will it give them a chance to socialize with other teens, but it keeps them active and gives them something to invest their time in. They can volunteer in a community garden or you can create one in the backyard. The Els Center of Excellence Sensory Arts Garden in Jupiter, Florida, was created to help children with autism spectrum disorders learn about gardening and explore their senses.
Does autism get worse during puberty?
Though every person with autism spectrum disorder is different, the good news is that recent research suggests that autism doesn’t appear to worsen with age and, in fact, tends to improve. For example, a 2020 study published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders found that around 30 percent of young children with autism have less severe autism symptoms at age six than they did at age three. And other research — like the studies mentioned in this article by the Interactive Autism Network (IAN) — has examined improvements that typically occur when a person with ASD is a teenager, including improved behavior and daily living skills.
The bad news is that puberty is rarely kind to anyone, and for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), it can be especially cruel. In fact, a 2019 study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics found that teenagers and other young adults with ASD are close to three times more likely to develop depression than their peers without ASD.
And depending on where your teen falls on the spectrum, they may face some challenges when it comes to executive functioning, according to Dr. Michael Rosenthal, a pediatric neuropsychologist based in New York. “If you think of your brain as an orchestra, executive functioning is the conductor, making sure all the parts are working together and working properly,” he told the IAN in an interview. According to Rosenthal’s own research, teenagers with autism may develop executive skills slower than their peers, especially when it comes to flexibility, organization, initiating activities, and working memory. Others may find that socializing and language skills are their biggest challenges.
All of this to say: Autistic teens have different needs, so the most successful activities for them will be ones that center those needs in a supportive and engaging way.