The middle years and autism

In addition to the key developmental changes experienced by all children during the middle years, children with autism may face a number of unique challenges:

  • The child’s physical development may be more advanced than their emotional and social development. This can result in feelings of fear, confusion and anxiety.
  • As academic expectations change at school, the child’s information processing differences may result in difficulties in the classroom
    • Children may find it difficult to make connections between academic concepts to easily gain the required understanding of some disciplines
    • Children may find abstract concepts (such as the theme of a story or hypothetical possibilities) difficult to grasp
    • Children’s development of independent decision making and self-management may be delayed1
  • The child’s social understanding may not be on a par with his/her peers and their social interactions may differ. This can accentuate a child’s feeling of being different and can make children with autism susceptible to bullying.

Research confirms that it is during the middle years that many young people with autism are at risk of bullying. Heinrichs (2003) notes that young people with autism are 75% more likely to be victims of bullying at school than their peers.

Because young people [with autism] stand out more and are alone more often than their typical peers, they are at a greater risk for bullying and shunning at a time when peer acceptance is most critical.2

A child who is, or perceives themselves to be, in a bullying situation may be reluctant to attend school and may have difficulties with sleeping or eating.

For information about how to help a child who is being bullied follow the link to Autism Tasmania’s Information Sheet on Bullying and Autism Spectrum Disorders. This information sheet includes tips for identifying that your child is being bullied and strategies to help.  It also includes information and strategies for occasions when the child with autism is the bully.

The unique differences experienced by children with autism can lead to feelings of confusion and anxiety which in turn can jeopardise their self-esteem and mental wellbeing.  These emotions combined with the hormonal changes occurring during the middle years means that challenging behaviours can be common during this time.  These may present as avoidance behaviours (such as school refusal and social withdrawal) or as aggression.

Autism Tasmania’s Information Sheet on Behaviour Management Strategies includes strategies and handy hints.  It explains that you don’t have to be a behavioural expert to manage problematic behaviours – you just need the basic strategies, a good understanding and plenty of determination and patience!

Challenging behaviours can be particularly difficult to manage when they occur over a sustained length of time and/or when the health and safety of the child or others are at risk.  In these cases seeking expert assistance to manage challenging behaviours is advised.  The first step in seeking this assistance may be to visit your child’s general practitioner.  The GP may then refer you to a psychologist, psychiatrist or paediatrician.  If you would like advice during this process please contact Autism Tasmania

It is important to remember that whilst change is difficult for individuals with autism, with individualised and appropriate planning and support, the changes that occur in the middle years can be negotiated successfully and children with autism can develop into adolescents and adults who lead fulfilling lives.

For information about how to best support your child who may be facing some of these challenges, explore the Raising Children Network’s articles on Pre-teens 9-11 years and Teens 12-18 years.

Some children with autism experience extreme challenges during the middle years.

If you are concerned about the health and/or mental wellbeing of a child with autism it is wise to seek expert help.  Autism Tasmania’s Information Team can help you find the right health or allied health professional to assist you and your child to navigate this challenging period.

The National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) offers service and support options for people with autism and is currently available for a number of age groups in Tasmania. For further information about the NDIS and to determine whether your child may be eligible, please contact the National Disability Insurance Agency.

There are also a number of websites that are designed to help you find a service to suit your needs.  They are:

FINDING YOUR WAY (FYW) is a website created and administered by the Association for Children with Disability (Tas.) Inc. (ACD) on behalf of the Tasmanian community. It is a user friendly interactive website that provides a central point for the community to supply as well as find up to date service and support information and resources aimed at assisting people with disability and their families during their life journey.

CARER GATEWAY is an Australian federal government initiative. It is a national online and phone service that provides practical information and resources to support carers. The interactive service finder helps carers connect to local support services.

RAISING CHILDREN NETWORK provides useful information and advice regarding choosing and finding the correct service to meet your needs such as Therapies and services articles and Autism Services Pathway


  1. Hume, al(2014)Supporting Independence in Adolescents on the Autism Spectrum.Remedial and Special Education,35(2),102-113.Rosenthal,M et al (2013) Impairments in real-world executive function increase from childhood to adolescence in Autism Spectrum Disorders.Neuropsychology, 27(1),13-18

  2. Heinrichs, R (2003) Perfect Targets: Asperger Syndrome and Bullying – Practical Solutions for Surviving the Social World, Autism Asperger Publishing Co. p 7