Blog/CYM Blog

Ten Things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew: Part II

Welcome to Part II of my blog series entitled “Ten things Your Student With Autism Wishes You Knew”. In Part I, we first discussed five key insights to educate and minister to teens on the spectrum. Part II, we will explore five more concepts that will help you serve in your parish community!

Teach the Whole Me

“I’m more than a set of “broken” or “missing” parts.”

“Learning should be a whole person thing. Teach me, the whole child, not a collection of symptoms or missing skills, or a set of pieces.”

Don’t focus on symptoms or missing parts when it comes to teens; you will lose sight holistically. Not everything your teen does is a result of autism. For example, you have balls set up for a game in the gathering space. Charlie keeps bouncing and throwing balls; it must be because of his autism. No, it’s because of his age. Teens get distracted, especially when there are things to throw or bounce!

Be sure to emphasize commonalities. All teens have dreams for the future like growing up, owning a car or home, and getting married (or priesthood/religious life). All teens enjoy humor and fun! You may think teens on the spectrum don’t have a sense of humor, but they do.

Teens with autism have feelings even though it may be hard for them to identify. They want to be liked and have friends, even though they don’t socialize with the others independently. Let me give you an example from my perspective of how it is for a teen with autism to socialize.

I find myself a pretty quick learner when it comes to sports. I wanted to be a professional the first time I played golf. I wanted SO badly to be like Happy Gilmore. I held the club in my hand and had NO idea what I was doing. Where do I start, what do I put the golf ball on, where is the hole, how far away is it, how do I hold the club? There are like ten different clubs! Which one do I use, how many holes are there, what does “on the green” mean? I had no idea where to start or how to wrap my head around it all!!

This is exactly how a kid with autism feels when it comes to social communication. But remember Aristotle’s famous saying, “The whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Teach the whole person recognizing all the parts that make them complete.

Be curious

“Be curious about what makes me tick, and about the road less traveled you may have to tread in order to reach me.”

If you have ever worked with elementary students, you know they like to ask TONS of questions: Where is God? What does God look like? Is my turtle going to go to heaven? What grows inside my mom’s belly, how does that happen?!

Children do not lack curiosity, but children and teens with autism do lack curiosity; it doesn’t come naturally. The art of asking might come after long periods of practice and encouragement.

So how do we kindle the fire of curiosity?

  • Go through the teen’s interests
  • Make a list of the teens favorite movies or television shows
  • Ask their parents for anything that is significant to their teen. What has worked with their teen and what has not worked?
  • Find out their favorite snacks and treats for rewards
  • NEVER assume anything
  • Be curious and ask, ask, ASK!
  • Question how your Proclaim and Break will work with the structure of autism
  • Be willing to change what you have done (This may be as simple as changing up small group questions for one or two teens before the Life or Edge Night begins)
  • Do not compare your teen on the spectrum to other teens

Can I Trust You?

“Build my trust in you, because if and only if I can trust you will learning unfold freely.” (xxx)

“I will trust someone who respects my individual needs and does his or her best to meet them, and I will trust someone who is honest with me, even when – especially when – they don’t know all the answers.” (xxx)

“When I can trust you, I can more easily see that what you are trying to teach me is truly relevant to me.” (xxx)

R-E-S-P-E-C-T! Find out what it means to them! If they need a schedule, create one! Provide a break when they need it. Give extra time to explain a “simple” game. Let me give you a scenario and show you two different options on how one might respond.

Scenario: Your teen gets hyper, bouncing off the walls when you are giving the Proclaim.

Response One: You call him out front of everyone thinking this would be a good way to teach a lesson by using humiliation in front of peers. “Dude, John, calm down, stop wiggling and listen.”

Response Two: You take the teen out of that environment and explain why his behavior is distracting and irritating to others. Then you ask him, “What can I do to help? What do you need to hear to the teaching?”

I have surely done response one, even with some of my students with autism. But, when you are honest and explain to your teen, it will make sense, and they WILL TRUST you!


“Believe that I can learn and I will learn.” (xxxi)

“Believe that you can make a difference for me and you will.” (xxxi)

“Encourage me to be everything I can be, so I can stay the course long after I’ve left your classroom.” (xxxi)

Believe all teens, even those with autism, will have a strong relationship with Jesus! Know they will sing praise to God and will practice their faith outside of youth group. Do not underestimate them!

Have FAITH in your teens, even when it appears they are not paying attention. Teens on the spectrum might be absorbing more information than you realize! They can feel when you believe in them!

Rules on Believing

  • Believe your teen can do it and act on that belief. Actively seek out and place your teen in situations where they will experience success! Look for opportunities where their strengths, such as organizing papers to hand out or designing a shirt for the retreat, can be put to service!
  • Core Members, remember you are teachers too and involve yourself! Watch how teens do things; try to see how they learn and where they need help. Figure out how to break down challenging games and small group questions into smaller, more concrete pieces. Throw out any developmental milestones you have for teens at this age with regards to religion and understanding. Every teen is going to grow and develop at their pace.

Teach Me How To Fish

“The most important things you can teach me will not necessarily be found in a book or on a worksheet. I need to learn skills to live my adult life as independently and productively as possible.” (xxxii)

Hovering has never helped anyone. Teens need to be taught independence! Be patient when you give instructions. Don’t do it for them because they aren’t doing it as fast as you want. If you did it for them, what is that teaching?

Another thing to think about is relevance. Use their interests and their life! If you remember from a previous blog, I had a student who LOVED Mario. I would incorporate Mario into lessons. When I was teaching, he would sometimes talk out loud to himself. I would have to tell him, “Hey do you think Mario would interrupt the teachers?” or “If you do not disrupt me for 5 minutes you can hold onto your Mario figure!”

Teach a man to fish and feed him for a lifetime.

“Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” (Ephesians 4:28)

Working through all ten of these practical tips will help your teens believe in themselves as well as encounter Christ. In fact, they might end up being a Priest or a Nun, a part of your Core Team, or employed at your church all because YOU BELIEVED in them, RESPECTED them, ACCEPTED them, and had FAITH in them!

Don’t pay attention to people who think individual teens are getting “special treatment.” What you are doing is not “special treatment.” You are making accommodations based on neurological need, and ministering to each teen so that they can encounter Christ.


Quotes come from Ten Things Your Student with Autism Wishes You Knew by Ellen Notbohm.

About the Author

Sarah LeClair

I live in the Mitten, I work in an amazing district for Special Education, and I absolutely ADORE IT! I have a FUN, wild family, who loves to dance whenever we hear a fun tune. I have two furry roommates for life, Princess Buttercup and Steve. Princess Buttercup's head is permanently crooked and Steve has a mustache. I love getting lost in the woods and going on adventures. I can't control myself when I hear worship music, my hands instantly go up and I do not care because I LOVE our Lord! I LOVE working out and caring for the body God gave me because "I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well." Psalm 139:14

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