Taking on Puberty-Advice from the Mother of an Autistic Teenager
Puberty is a hard time for any family. The emotions and physical changes that teens feel during puberty can be extremely confusing for any family. For a teenager or preteen on the Autism Spectrum, the physical and emotional changes that accompany puberty may feel “out of place” with where they test at developmentally.
Likewise, it is almost always a giant shock for any family, let alone a special needs family, to begin to identify with the fact that their child is developing an adult’s body. Sometimes with Autism this happens without all the adult abilities that should come with it. My son, for example, is going to be 15 this year and has Autism. He is in the middle of puberty and sometimes it is hard for me to reconcile this tall, slender man (with facial hair) standing in front of me as being the same little boy I raised all these years. Mostly because he doesn’t act like a typical 15-year-old. He is still well behind his peers.
This is a normal issue for spectrum families. When a child reaches puberty, many families view this time with mixed feelings. Some families, whether special needs or not, view this period with unease. They reasonably worry about how to explain all the changes to their teenager. When it comes to Autistic teenagers we have the added uncertainty of if they will understand it all. Other families confront puberty with a sense of pride. Their child is developing into an adult! They couldn’t be prouder. Then there are us parent’s that sit somewhere in between. Unsure how to explain it, but so beyond proud of our child for the growing that he/she is doing! No matter how you feel about your child hitting puberty, they are going to go through it. The biggest questions you should have is what to do and expect!
What to Expect during Puberty
First let’s look at some puberty facts for all children, whether they are on the spectrum or not. Puberty is the “period of sexual maturation and achievement of fertility. The time when puberty begins varies greatly; however, puberty usually occurs in girls between the ages of 10 and 14 and between the ages of 12 and 16 in boys.” As we all know, puberty is associated with the development of secondary sex characteristics and rapid growth. Puberty may also be accompanied by emotional and mood changes and some medical conditions may worsen or first become apparent at puberty, including autism.
Now what to expect? If your child is on the spectrum you may notice an evening out of their sleep patterns. Most of us have spent a great deal of our child’s life battling them to sleep. Actually, some 53-78 percent of children with autism are estimated to have severe sleep disturbances. My son being one of them. Since hitting puberty he sleeps more regularly, with medications. This isn’t isolated to my child either. Many of the parents I interviewed for this article claimed the same of their Autistic teen. It’s like a magic button was pushed and they sleep more regularly now. This isn’t a certainty. There are some teens who experience a worsening of their insomnia during puberty. For those kids seeing a doctor specializing in Autism is key to finding the right course of treatment for their insomnia.
With sleep changes often comes different meltdowns as well. Most of us had children whom had massively violent meltdowns as children. As they grow into maturity most of them will break away from this destructive form of melting down and become more liable to yell, curse and cry. While some parents welcome this change other’s dread it. Either way, proper behavior should always be promoted and encouraged. They must understand there are consequences to every action they take in life.
The last big point I am going to bring up is an embarrassing one for some people. I will talk about it throughout the rest of this article. That is masturbation. Teenagers are experiencing an array of different feelings with puberty; sexual emotions are not excluded from this. It is not uncommon to hear of a family having issues with their pubescent teenager and their masturbation techniques. It is imperative that they understand if they are going to do this that it must be done in the privacy of their own room, with the door closed. They cannot do it on the couch with family around or out in public. Like most things with Autism, this will take time and patience for your child to master. Do not give up and do not shame them. Talk to them openly about it, regardless of their functioning level. Our children hear us, talk to them.
Preparing an Autistic Preteen for Puberty
You absolutely should start preparing your preteen/child (with or without special needs) for the changes they are about to experience. Understanding the different bodily functions, impulses and emotions they are going to experience is key. How you do this depends greatly on their functioning level. Children on the more severe end of the spectrum tend to need less guidance as to why the changes occur, and more communication as to the “appropriate responses” to the things that happen during said changes.
What I mean is that you really need to prepare your autistic daughters as to what they should and should not say and do during menstruation. Masturbation is also a hot topic with all boys. However, knowing when and where it is appropriate to touch themselves is an extremely important part of growing up for both boys and girls, especially those on the spectrum. As they learn through repetition, you may find yourself reminding them repeatedly about the appropriateness of their actions.
The different hygienic needs of a teenager in puberty versus a child should also be expressed regardless of a child’s functioning level. Wearing deodorant and learning to bathe themselves is key to their maturity. As is the importance of feminine hygiene products for females. A lot of us with low functioning teenagers still must help our child bathe. This is the time to really hammer it in that personal hygiene is key and the steps they must take to properly care for themselves. One parent, I talked to suggested adding one new task a week for your child to master in the bathroom. This is a great idea. Another idea is a visual aide. I have one in my bathroom that lists all the steps needed to shower and how to brush my son’s teeth. This has been key in his ability to mature throughout puberty.
The best ways to prepare an autistic individual for puberty is through repetitive talking and social stories about the important things that are about to happen to them. Social stories are essential to the development of Autistic individuals. They help them identify more readily with what they are going through.
Per Amaze.org, the best social story topics for puberty are as follow:
Topics for puberty social stories for girls: breast development and widening of the hips; pubic and underarm hair development; onset of menstruation; and growth acceleration
Topics for puberty social stories for boys: growth acceleration; pubic, underarm, and facial hair development; testicular and penile enlargement; spontaneous erections, sperm production, wet dreams; and voice deepening.
Some good titles that were suggested were: ‘The shape of my body will change’; ‘Extra hair will grow’; ‘I will begin to have my period’; ‘I will get taller’; ‘My body will look different’; ‘My body will do new things’; ‘My voice will sound different’; and the booklet ‘Let’s Talk About Puberty.’
Of all, my best advice to any parent with a child going through puberty is to be patient. Love them through it. Be there to answer their questions without embarrassment. After all, we all went through it. If your child is on the spectrum, remember that they are going through the same emotions and changes as any child their age; regardless of their functioning level. Take on puberty with patience, love, understanding and dignity. It is one of the most important milestones in your child’s life- let’s embrace it, not shame it.