ASD-puberty for parents
Autistic people of all ages have difficulty coping with change. This feature comes to the fore from other autism signs with the awkward age – puberty. The appearance of the first mustache and increased sweating in boys, the menstruation, breast growth, and hair in new places in girls is alarming and frightening a growing child with ASD. A teenager needs to be properly informed about new processes in the body during this period. Puberty is a difficult time for both the autistic person and the family. The autism symptoms by the beginning of puberty in many ways could have been ‘smoothed out’, but declares itself felt with renewed vigor. How can parents approach the issue and help the autistic teenager embrace change?
Puberty begins at 11 to 17 years of age, but sometimes it begins at 8 years of age in girls. This physiological period has nothing to do with the disorder (early childhood autism, atypical autism, etc.) and the intellectual development level.
Therefore, parents sometimes notice that their son has ‘matured’, but academic knowledge and skills correspond to the younger schoolboy age.
Boys’ puberty signs:
- sudden growth spurt;
- the facial and body hair appearance;
- The specific sweat smell, like ‘a real man’;
- nighttime pollutions and erections.
Also, there are serious psychological condition changes during puberty. The teenager becomes irritable, his mood constantly changes, and his behavior becomes aggressive. The parents have the impression that the quiet and calm child has been sharply replaced. School for an autistic teenager is not interesting anymore, and studying is ‘annoying’.
Girls’ puberty signs:
- bodily ‘design’ – the breasts growth, hips, gait becomes ‘feminine’;
- body hair growth, the first acne appearance;
- the beginning of menstruation.
Psychological changes are also observed in humanity’s beautiful half during puberty. Teenage girls become whiny, impudent, their moods changeable, which causes conflicts with others literally out of the blue.
Parents should show attentiveness and patience, correctly tell the teenager what is happening to him, and teach new behavior rules to help the child cope with new emotions and sensations that are not always pleasant, and with changes in the body.
How to tell an autistic teenager about puberty?
- You need to prepare yourself before starting a conversation. The topic is delicate, and sometimes it is difficult for parents to openly discuss natural things. However, remember: it is difficult for an autistic child to express emotions and share what is troubling him. The new state and changes are unsettling, and the adults’ silence can lead to depression or a nervous breakdown. Besides, if an adult does not tell, the street will. And for an autistic child, as well as for a neurotypical, this is the worst option.
- Use medical terms and correct concepts, but understandable to the child level and on time. It is important to talk about such topics when the child is calm and there are no strangers around. A crowded bus is a bad place to chat. Use visual aids, models, pictures depicting processes and bodily transformations, and conduct interesting experiments together. Explain that puberty is different for boys and girls. Autistic children take speech literally, and a girl with ASD will be very surprised why a neighboring boy’s breasts are not growing.
- Answer the child’s questions as accurately as possible and check that he understands. Convince of the naturalness of the body changes, tell him what else to prepare for, encourage frankness.
What topics should be discussed with an autistic teenager
It is important not to ‘go too far’ and move step by step when it comes to conversations on intimate topics for adults. The effect of ‘enlightenment’ will be if the child is curious himself about such things. Take into account the level of perception and trust in parents. You shouldn’t talk about fertilization to a 3-year-old child who does not show interest and does not understand the meaning of the word.
Be sure to talk about the following:
- Body parts and their purpose. The child must learn that the body has a ‘structure’, each part of which has its function. Do not forget also about the internal organs and body systems that are not visible. The child must understand what intimate body parts are and why they are not shown to others.
- Hygiene rules. Girls need to be told about washing, using sanitary napkins during menstruation, and ‘for every day’. Remind them of the need to brush their teeth and wash up. Boys’ attention should be paid to shaving, daily washing, using underarm deodorant, and special foot deodorant if needed. It is also important to take into account the sensory teenager characteristics because many complain about the discomfort from growing hair after shaving. There are special gels, creams, and aftershave lotions to eliminate this discomfort or advice teenagers to do it less often.
- Menstruations, masturbation, pollutions. Tell girls what menstruation is and when it happens, how and when to use sanitary napkins, and the need to have extra clean underwear during menstruation just in case. Create a scheme or flow of actions if necessary. Boys need to know that pollutions are normal, and dad did the same. Tell them about the phenomenon causes and the actions sequence in the morning. It is important to voice to the child the situation of the first erection’s painfulness because this is also the norm at first. The same applies to masturbation: children with ASD should understand the phenomenon’s naturalness, but also know that this should be done alone with themselves behind closed doors.
- Sex and birth of children. Teach to adequately perceive sex from childhood, as in the post-Soviet space this topic is still taboo and causes shame in adults. Tell your child with ASD what sex is, why it happens, and what the consequences are. Do not forget to convey information about sexually transmitted diseases, contraception, and early pregnancy, if the child is ready to understand this.
- Society behavior rules. An autistic teenager should be told about the ‘framework of decency’: what topics should not be discussed publicly, what should not be asked of strangers, what body parts should be hidden under clothes, why shouldn’t you go to your parents’ bedroom without knocking and why should you close the bathroom door during masturbation.
- Sympathy and attraction expression to another. Autistic people, like neurotypical people, become attached, fall in love, desire for a representative of the opposite or same sex. However, parents should teach the child with the disorder, who does not ‘read’ the other people’s emotions, about the sympathy signs, and how to express themselves. Tell what words, gestures, movements are acceptable and what should be avoided in society. It is important to demonstrate and tell the child with ASD feelings, discuss situations between adults to achieve this.
- Personal boundaries understanding and the ‘no’ word. Safety is first and foremost for any child, but for autistic kids it is vital. Children with ASD often suffer from self-doubt and low self-esteem, which is further reinforced by puberty. They can not always defend themselves, be persistent, or refuse the unacceptable. Therefore, the answer to the question ‘What is good and bad?’ parents are advised to prioritize and systematically reinforce the autistic child’s ability to defend personal boundaries. Repetition of the actions algorithm of ‘What to do if touched or offended?’ will allow the autistic teenager to avoid danger, whose symptoms can be used for ill purposes.
What cannot be done categorically:
- tell and forget – multiple repetitions and correct behavior encouragement for the autistic child is needed;
- swearing and punishing – if the child does not remember that he can not take off panties in the park, it is an excuse to put them back on without a scandal, and have a conversation about what is acceptable again;
- to shame and focus on shortcomings – it is important to teach the child to live with this period because the processes of puberty are physiological, and everyone went through it.
Success is a small step towards a goal. An autistic child will be at a loss if dad comes and says one time: “Son, today I will give you a lecture on puberty.” The child already knows a lot and knows how to: wash, express emotions, distinguish between boys and girls, treat others with care by adolescence. Correctly presented information about the puberty period will complement the child’s knowledge and teach how to cope with some changes. If you are sad, you can listen to funny music or pet the cat, for example. And when you want to smash the room, it’s better to do some exercises or help mom with cleaning.
Autism is not a reason to protect a child from knowledge, but a motivation to say important words in a suitable form. The parents of ‘special children’ are helped in this by ‘Child with a future’ Foundation promotions, lectures, and webinars about puberty, communication with autistic teenagers, relations with brothers and sisters, peers who are useful not only for parents but also for teenagers with ASD.