Puberty is a tremendously difficult time for any child, but it can be several times more challenging for a child with autism spectrum disorder. Navigating the teen years on the spectrum is certainly no simple task, and can come at a very inopportune time – for many parents, puberty may be the time when they feel they have finally figured out their child’s needs and behaviors, only for everything to change and shift drastically.
Getting through the teen years is challenge enough, but the goal should be to help your teen thrive despite their condition. Growing up and becoming a teenager can be a wonderful thing, although it starts off as scary. To tackle the oncoming growing pains, it will be important to heavily stress coordination and cooperation – between you, your child, their teachers, their therapist, and their doctors.
Sexuality and Physical Changes
The first and most obvious change as your child enters puberty is their growth, in more ways than one. Girls enter puberty sooner than boys do, and there is no fixed age for when this occurs for either sex – some kids start sooner than others. You are likely familiar with the various changes that occur when a child reaches physical maturity, but your child won’t be.
When it’s obvious that puberty is beginning (pubic hair growth, breast growth in girls and penis growth in boys), it is important to regularly sit down with your child and walk them through the changes they are experiencing and will experience in the near future, including changes in voice pitch, height, facial hair, menstruation, and more.
Explain how and why girls and boys develop differently, and how puberty will be linked to a number of changes both socially and sexually. As awkward as it might be for you as a parent, it’s important that your child understands above all else that what they’re going through is perfectly normal, and that everyone struggles with these changes. The last thing they need is to think themselves strange because of these new and sudden urges and feelings.
Masturbation will be an important topic in the years to come, especially for children on the spectrum. It’s normal for children to explore their bodies as they enter puberty (and before that, in some cases), but children on the spectrum may have a harder time picking up on the fact that it isn’t appropriate to masturbate in certain places and under certain conditions.
If you know or suspect that your child has begun masturbating, make sure they understand that this is something they should only do in private, and that it is not appropriate behavior for anywhere public, or even other parts of the home.
A Tough Transition in School
As your child enters junior high and high school, their curriculum will likely shift towards tougher assignments, more complex schoolwork, and a greater emphasis on essay writing, abstract thinking, and group projects.
They will be tasked to do things they have never done in elementary school and will come across less work that requires rote memorization, and more work centered around improving and testing critical thinking, problem solving, and troubleshooting. These can be very difficult and complex tasks for someone on the spectrum.
While it’s a tough transition for everyone, children on the spectrum typically have an easier time memorizing things and a harder time grasping more abstract concepts, which means they may suddenly drop below their peers in grades. This can be a major blow to their self-esteem and understanding of how things are. Changes are always difficult for children on the spectrum, but they can be particularly traumatic if they are very negative changes.
Talk to your child’s school and teachers and ask about programs or opportunities for your child to get extra schooling and arrange for a tutor if they are having trouble in school. Your child will be able to understand difficult concepts and learn just as much as their peers do, but it may take more time and a different approach.
Hygiene and Grooming
With the shift to high school begin several shifts in terms of social etiquette and basic expectations. One simple rule is to smell good and look neat. For children on the spectrum, particularly if they struggle with strong sensory sensitivity issues, this can be a major problem.
They may not like or want to shower or bathe regularly and may try to seek ways to avoid using deodorant and various other hygiene products. Boys will have to start shaving and using face washes to avoid or reduce acne, while girls will have to begin wearing bras, and learning about different feminine hygiene products.
Sometimes, being on the spectrum means showing less of an interest in what your peers are doing. As such, it can be up you, the parents, to begin informing your teen on the necessities and importance of using hygiene products as one reaches physical maturity. Explain to your teen how the human body changes and begins to excrete stronger smells over time, and how social norms require a certain level of hygiene to avoid isolation and clashes.
Social expectations and norms will become perhaps the hardest concept to grasp and adjust to for your teen, especially as things can change very drastically and very quickly from the transition into high school. Teens begin to form cliques, and bullying can get even harsher than it previously was. It may become harder for your teen to find a way to make friends, as they might not share any common interests with their classmates and can no longer rely on parent-arranged playdates as a way to develop social bonds and practice social interaction.
Consider helping your teen express their interests and teaching them how to communicate what they like to other students, to make friends. If they are into any elements of pop culture, such as certain movies or video games, they can use that as a way to begin sharing common interests with other people.
Now might also be a good time to encourage your teen to try various extracurricular activities, and visit different school clubs to get an idea of where they might want to fit in. Don’t write off any hobby or interest – children on the spectrum can have wide interests just as much as anyone else, including in sports.
Perhaps the most complex change for a teen on the spectrum will be the inclusion of romantic and sexual feelings in their life. They might not understand what these feelings are or where they’re coming from and need guidance. The world of dating is all about subtlety, small cues, and the ability to intuit things such as interest and intent.
For someone who does much better with a straightforward and direct approach, this can be very difficult. Your teen’s date might misunderstand their lack of social skills as a lack of interest. Helping them understand how to pick up on cues of the opposite sex and navigate their way to and through a date can be important, especially in the later years of puberty.
Everyone goes through puberty. And everyone grows up. Some take longer than others, some start later rather than sooner, and some struggle more than the rest. These are things that cannot be controlled, or ‘solved’. Problems will occur, it will be hard, and you will need help (as will your teen, especially).
While these tips are meant to help, it will be important to brace yourself for tough days, dark days, sad days, and days when you can’t help but feel like you are at your wit’s end. When these days occur, look to others for help, as well. You should never be in this alone, and neither should your teen. With proper planning, support, and preparation, your child will make a successful transition into their teen years, and well into adulthood.