Treating Young Adults with Autism Like Adults

Categories: ASD and DD, Adult-focused


And, as young people with autism and other special needs transition into adulthood, it is important for those of us who are their parents, friends, and advocates to continue to provide support and care. It is even more important that we begin to recognize and respect them as adults.

There are many things to consider when supporting and caring for a young adult with special needs. For example, we need to help them make mature and responsible decisions about clothing, hairstyles, and leisure activities. We also need to communicate with them in a more adult manner.

When it comes to fashion choices, a young adult should begin to move away from clothing that appeals to children. Cartoon characters and glitter can be fun, but can also make an adult with special needs stand out and appear childish. When helping individuals with special needs make age-appropriate clothing choices, include them in the process as much as possible. Ask for their input, and help them select attire that is not only mature, but also flattering. Providing enthusiastic compliments and praise is a great way to increase the likelihood that they will make good choices.

You should also introduce young men and women with autism and other special needs to age-appropriate hairstyles and accessories. Regular visits to a barbershop or salon can help them look their best. These visits are good ways to help with community integration and foster meaningful relationships with members of the community.

You can also help them select more adult leisure activities. Although many of today’s children’s television programs are appealing to adults, and cartoons can be enjoyable for people of all ages, it’s a good idea to introduce more age-appropriate alternative activities such as concerts, plays, and family movies.

The most important considerations for supporting young adults with special needs involve communication and interaction style. When interacting with an adult with autism or an intellectual disability, your language should be clear and concise. Address him or her as you would an adult, not a child. Avoid terms like “honey” and “sweetie,” and descriptors like “cute” and “adorable.” These well-intentioned words can be degrading to a person who is working to establish his or her independence. When providing praise for good behavior, never say “good boy” or “good girl.” Simply saying, “nice job making your bed,” or “great! you finished your dinner” is not only respectful, but also clear and specific.

For an individual with special needs, the transition from childhood to adulthood can be overwhelming. By providing a strong support system designed to foster independence and help the individual to gain control over his or her life, we can help ease this transition and help make the journey to adulthood a worthwhile experience.

When we offer age-appropriate options and support age-appropriate choice-making, we help young people learn to make responsible decisions, gain self-esteem, and become mature and responsible adults.

Teka J. Harris, M.A., BCBA

May Institute is a nonprofit organization that is a national leader in the field of applied behavior analysis, serving individuals with autism spectrum disorder and other developmental disabilities, brain injury and neurobehavioral disorders, and other special needs. Founded more than 65 years ago, we provide a wide range of exceptional educational and rehabilitative services across the lifespan. For more information, call 800.778.7601  or visit