This month's blog article was featured in the May 2021 issue of our digital newsletter, Aspire Wire. To receive future Aspire Wire emails, please subscribe here.

by Emily Hartnett, PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow, Lurie Center for Autism

Adolescence and young adulthood are times of great change and development, especially around discovering your identity: who you are in relation to and in contrast with others. Neurodiverse young people have identities that are just that—diverse! Recent research has shown that there is an incredible diversity of gender identities, sexuality identities, and social identities and styles among young adults on the autism spectrum. Several studies estimate that around 15% of young adults on the autism spectrum identify as trans or non-binary, and 70% (or more) identify with a sexuality label other than heterosexual. Socially, many people on the spectrum may identify as autistic and take pride in their autistic identity, and others may identify with another social group or feel unsure of where they might fit best.

We also know that it is incredibly helpful for young people to explore their identity and find a way of describing themselves that feels right. Feeling like you ‘fit’ with a group identity (of any type!) is protective for mental health. Here at Aspire, we love to support our participants in exploring who they are, what is important to them, and how they want to express their personality and identities. For some of our participants, this comes easily and some feel that identity exploration is very challenging. Below are some tips for helping your child, adolescent, or young adult explore their identity, talk about who they are, and work towards finding where they fit:

Start early and stay positive! Our young people hear enough about their challenges every day. Try to notice strengths and emerging personality traits “I love to see how you can sometimes be outgoing and sometimes quiet and reflective.” “I’m constantly in awe of how helpful you are to younger kids.”

Help build and support self-awareness: If self-awareness does not come easily to your child or teen, start by talking about their preferences. Which do you like better—chocolate or vanilla? Which do you prefer—chatting after school or having time alone? Reflecting regularly on the smaller things can help build awareness of how they fit into the world.

If your young person has historically preferred to think of things in black-and-white terms, they might be struggling with the inherent nuances of identity. Normalize the grey areas and fluidity: “I notice I sometimes show different traits around different groups of people—around friends I’m silly but at work I’m serious. What about you?” “I am happy that I’m a woman, but not all of the stereotypes fit me—have you noticed that I like football more than your dad, but am also really interested in fashion?”

Establish yourself as someone who is open to identity conversations: (when seeing someone on tv who dresses, acts, or identifies differently than you) “How cool that she has found an identity that fits her. I’m glad there are so many different types of people in the world.” “I know many teens are thinking about who they are—I’d love to hear what you’ve been thinking.”

Our young people here at Aspire are unique and amazing individuals! We hope they all come to recognize their strengths and find where they feel most at home in the world. And we are happy to help them along that journey!