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How can I get my autistic teen to talk to me?

Autistic parent and teenager

I’ve never stopped to list the top three questions parents of autistic teens and young adults ask me but, if I did, this would probably be one of them!

It’s usually accompanied by several examples to make sure I’m getting the picture and expressions of anxiety and exasperation. Here are some of the comments I typically hear. I wonder if they sound familiar.

  • If I’m lucky I’ll get “I’m fine,” or “Nothing,” but it can be “Leave me alone,” or “Not now, I’m busy.”
  • Sometimes they just blank me completely or close the door, just walk away or stick their earphones back in and go back to (or keep) looking at their phone or laptop and just ignore me.
  • Most of the time I don’t even see them because they’re in their room, it often feels like they’re actively avoiding contact with me!

If you’re a caring parent, already worried about your young person because you know they’re struggling, the sense that ‘they’re not talking to me’ can be really stressful and concerning. You worry there’s something terrible going on and feel upset and frustrated that your young person doesn’t trust you enough to share what it is. You feel you should be the one to help them and yet they won’t even talk to you! You worry you’re somehow failing as a parent, and you just don’t know what to do.

And so, as can often happen when you feel scared and under pressure, you may try harder to get your young person to talk to you. This might look like asking more questions more often, bargaining with them, cajoling, guilt tripping, lecturing, ordering them to talk or even threatening them with some kind of sanction. Sadly, and not surprisingly, those approaches often don’t turn out well, and they’re probably not reflective of the kind of person you want to be either. Even if you get a little more ‘information’ out of your young person the interactions feel forced and may escalate into conflict. Pretty soon it’s back to the way it was, if not worse, and you’re feeling more worried, frustrated and desperate than you were before.

Why aren’t your attempts to get your autistic teen to talk to you working?

I have conversations most days with autistic teens and young adults who find it hard talking to their parents. Here are some of the reasons they share about why it doesn’t happen easily, or at all.

  1. Autistic people of any age have a wonderful ability to focus deeply, creatively and enjoyably on things that interest them. This is often called monotropism. That creative focus may be one of the few things that helps your young person recharge their emotional batteries and so it’s a vital psychological lifeline for them. It can therefore feel extremely unpleasant (think ‘painful’) and even threatening when someone interrupts them or tries to get them to discuss something that they’re not currently focused on.
  2. Some autistic people have difficulty identifying and expressing, let alone explaining, their feelings or difficulties. This is sometimes called alexithymia. When you ask them how they are, they can’t work it out, at least not quickly, so will tend to default to something like ‘Fine,’ or ‘OK,’ or ‘I don’t know.’ Please believe your autistic young person when they say this last one – chances are they really don’t know!
  3. Sometimes they may be very emotionally shut down. This can be a consequence of having to hide their authentic selves as they grew up to avoid being misunderstood, teased or bullied for being different. The last thing they want is to have a conversation that requires them to think about their emotions, or try and feel them, because they’re terrified of being overwhelmed and unable to cope. If you push them to talk, they feel backed into a corner, and the scene is set for conflict.
  4. When they’re not shut down, they may be the opposite – overwhelmed with what they’re feeling, with no idea how to start putting it into words, especially when they find themselves in a conversation they’ve not had time to prepare for.
  5. If they’re already aware that you’re worried, they may not want to worry you more by talking about their worries. If, like many parents I meet, you sometimes struggle to manage your own emotions and stay calm in conversations, your young person may avoid talking to you about anything that’s important to them. They know that seeing you upset will make them feel worse – and they may fear the conversation becoming about your feelings instead of theirs. Sadly, this often happens even when it may not have been your original intention – thinking clearly and staying calm and on track is hard when you’re an anxious parent!
  6. If your autistic young person thinks you’ll rush to fix things or come up with a plan, or that you’ll try to ‘normalise’ what they’re feeling or tell them, ‘It’s not that bad, things will get better,’ they will probably decide it’s safer to say nothing or very little, because none of these responses will make them feel like they’re being taken seriously.

So, as a caring parent who would like to share in their young autistic person’s life and learn how to support them sensitively, what can you do?

A good place to start is by replacing the question in the title for another that refocuses your attention away from getting information and towards creating an emotional environment where your young person eventually feels safe enough to talk or even just to spend time with you.

Instead of asking, ‘How do I get my young autistic person to talk to me?’ ask this:

How can I make sure I’m always ready to listen?

Say the question over to yourself a few times – don’t rush to move on, just think about the words and what they could mean for you.

If you were focused on being ready to listen, what would you be thinking, saying, and doing differently?

And how might that feel for you and for your young person, especially if this became the norm in your interactions?

Your young person needs to know they matter to you for who they are, regardless of whether they’re talking to you or not. Paradoxically, if they believe and feel this to be true, they’re more likely to share important things with you anyway!

You can show them they matter by making sure you’re always ready to listen, receptive to whatever they want to share or that you’re happy just to be together in the same space with no pressure to talk. Yes, it will probably take some effort on your part to learn new habits, to think differently and focus on listening instead of getting your young person to talk. You may even need some help from a therapist to do this, but I’m very sure that the stronger and closer relationship with your young person that grows as you learn will make it worthwhile!

Does this article resonate with you? If so and you want to find a professional to help, check out our directory of specialists here.

Sarah Pagdin
Author: Sarah Pagdin

I’m an autistic psychologist and parent to an autistic 24-year-old with ADHD who works alongside me. Together we help autistic young people and their parents navigate the transition to adulthood more safely and confidently. You can find us here: