Social and Academic Challenges for Teens With Autism Spectrum Disorder

You are currently viewing Social and Academic Challenges for Teens With Autism Spectrum Disorder

Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological disorder that impacts a person’s ability to relate to their peers, communicate with others, control their emotions, follow instructions, and transition throughout the day. The symptoms and characteristics of ASD vary greatly and range from mild to severe. However a common issue that many adolescents with ASD struggle with is known as the ‘triad of impairments’ which include nonverbal and verbal communication, social behavior, and flexible thinking. In this blog post, we will share specific ways that these challenges are manifested in teens with ASD.

1. Teens with ASD experience challenges with nonverbal and verbal communication

  • Difficulty understanding others
  • Difficulty communicating their own thoughts and feelings
  • Difficulty processing and retaining verbal information
  • Trouble recognizing other people’s feelings
  • Doesn’t pick up on nonverbal cues
  • Slow to develop functional speech
  • Limited to a literal understanding of language
  • Short attention spans
  • Tendency to throw frequent tantrums for reasons others do not understand
  • Does not use or recognize many facial expressions
  1. Teens with ASD experience social differences
  • Difficulty understanding the social behaviors of others
  • Difficulty making and keeping friends
  • Difficulty working cooperatively
  • Often behaves in socially inappropriate and unexpected ways
  • Difficulty empathizing with others
  • Struggles to play and communicate with their peers
  • Spends time alone rather than with others
  • Shows little interest in making friends
  • Demonstrates little to no eye contact
  1. Challenges with imagination and cognitive rigidity
  • Difficulty engaging in imaginative play outside of their interests
  • Spends most time in solitary environments
  • Excellent memory regarding subjects or activities they are passionate about
  • Difficulty coping with changes in routine
  • Struggles to generalize skills
  • Sensitive to sounds, sights, and textures

What Makes Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder Different?

Teens with ASD  tend to show resistance or an inability to following directions and have difficulties transitioning from one activity to another in school. Challenges that teens with autism face are related to differences in communication and social behaviors, cognitive rigidity, executive function, and self-care.

Communication and Social Differences

Understanding the social world can also be a major, and increasingly complicated, communication and social challenge for teens with autism. Teens with ASD often have trouble understanding and communicating their needs to teachers, in addition to having difficulties interacting with peers. At school, he or she may have difficulty understanding classroom directions and instruction from teachers. Expressing themselves, following conversations, and accurately communicating with body language and inflection is a struggle.  Effective communicating in social situations may also be a challenge for individuals with ASD, disrupting the development of reciprocal relationships. As a result of these challenges, an adolescent with ASD may exhibit disruptive behavior both at home and at school.

Though some teens with ASD experience bullying, it is also common for them to become socially isolated. A national study of teens in special education revealed that students with ASD were less likely to take part in social activities than adolescents with speech and language disorders, learning disabilities, or an intellectual disability. More than 40 percent of the these teens with autism never saw friends outside of school and half were never invited to take part in activities.

Strong Cognitive Rigidity

Teens on the autism spectrum also tend to struggle with cognitive rigidity. Cognitive rigidity refers to a person’s inability to shift effortlessly from task to task. Cognitive rigidity occurs when a person is unable to consider and implement alternative viewpoints in a given situation. In a school or social environment, a teen may manifest their cognitive rigidity with intense and uncontrollable emotions.

Strong cognitive rigidity also makes transitions difficult for individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Many students with ASD strongly resist change and are easily distracted by sights, sounds and smells. They may also struggle with physical activities because of a tendency to be clumsy and uncoordinated. Tasks such as riding a bike, catching a ball, and running can be a struggle to perform.

Executive Functioning Deficits

Many teens with ASD have executive function deficits that affect their ability to interpret social cues and develop certain skills. They may also have a hard time processing large amounts of information and relating to others and often find it difficult to get organized, solve problems, and keep their emotions in check. Executive functioning skills can further affect a teen’s performance in the following areas:

  • Planning and prioritizing
  • Starting and completing a task
  • Controlling impulses
  • Emotional regulation
  • Transitioning from one activity to the next
  • Working memory
  • Organization

Appearance and Hygiene

Lastly, many teens on the autism spectrum struggle with grooming and developing good personal hygiene habits. These individuals have difficulties with daily routines such as showering, brushing hair, changing clothes, haircuts, and brushing teeth. Many teens with autism feel that it simply is not necessary, while others have sensory sensitivities that make these activities extremely uncomfortable to them. In both circumstances, the appearance and hygiene can make it harder for them to fit in with their peers and often create a strain in the family environment.


Teens with ASD may exhibit behaviors and preferences that are different from their peers. Many adolescents with ASD perform exceptionally well in areas that interest them and very low in other areas. They often have a great memory but tend to struggle with reading comprehension, fine motor activities, and have short attention spans with things outside of their interests. In our next blog post, we will share specific ways that parents can best help their teen with ASD.

Download our White Paper and see how you can help your child with autism spectrum disorder