Autism and Puberty

Autism and Puberty

Puberty. The time when our kids seem to morph into moody, unpredictable creatures right before our eyes. It can be a rollercoaster for many kids (and their caregivers!) but for autistic kids and teens, there are several unique considerations.

Begin Discussions Early

The age of onset for puberty is decreasing. While the average age for girls is 11 and boys is 12, the range for girls is 8-12 and for boys 11-14. A recent study found that autistic girls may have an earlier onset of puberty compared to both neurotypical girls and autistic boys.

Before puberty, begin to talk about the differences between children’s bodies and adult bodies. You can discuss growth “spurts”, body hair or breast development for example as good starting points. As they progress closer to puberty, you can begin to provide more nuanced information about the ways their bodies will change such as growth of genitals, pubic hair and hair under their arms, voice changes and more muscle development. There are many wonderful books for a variety of ages that can be used to facilitate these discussions with autistic kids and teens.

Use Language Wisely

It is always recommended to use anatomical names for body parts. It not only lessens embarrassment and shame, but it also helps keep your child safe as research has shown it makes them less susceptible to harm from others. For autistic kids who are very literal in their language use, we need to use clear language. For example, instead of saying that voices “break” through puberty, it’s better to discuss the fact that voices change and may sound deeper over time.

Be clear and specific that these changes will happen to them rather than discussing them as an abstract concept.

Sensory Sensitivities

During puberty, sensory sensitivities can become more pronounced, making everyday experiences feel unbearable. Consider creating a sensory-friendly oasis amidst the chaos, complete with dim lighting, preferred textures, and calming activities.

Create a sensory toolkit filled with comforting items like noise-canceling headphones, stress balls, or cozy blankets. Having these tools on hand can be a lifesaver when the world feels like it’s spinning out of control. Encourage breaks in quiet areas when sensory input becomes too much to handle. Remember, a little bit of peace and quiet can go a long way in calming those frazzled nerves.

Addressing Hygiene and Body Changes

Hygiene becomes increasingly important during puberty, but for autistic individuals, understanding and managing personal care routines can be challenging. Break down hygiene tasks into smaller, manageable steps, providing visual cues and demonstrations as needed.

Help your child understand why hygiene needs change during puberty including the increased perspiration and the resultant change in body odor. Understand that for many kids, skipping a bath before puberty wasn’t a big deal. That may mean it is harder, especially for kids who struggle with change and transitions, to shift to daily showers. Be patient with them but continue to hold that expectation.

Navigating Menstruation

Menstruation can be a particularly daunting aspect of puberty. Start the conversation early, using clear and concrete language to explain what menstruation is and how to manage it. Explain that it signals the body’s capability of getting pregnant. Invite questions: ask what your child already knows about periods and demonstrate openness to all questions. Provide practical tools and resources, such as demonstrations of a variety of menstrual hygiene products, strategies for managing any discomfort such as warming pad or warm baths, and a calendar or app to track menstrual cycles. Validate your child’s feelings and concerns and offer support and reassurance throughout this transition.

Understanding the Role of Difficulty with Change

Autistic children often struggle with changes in routine and environment, and puberty brings about significant changes on multiple fronts. Be mindful of how these difficulties with change may impact your child’s experience of puberty. Maintain consistency and predictability to the extent possible and provide plenty of support and reassurance during periods of transition.

Celebrating Growth and Progress

Amidst the challenges of puberty, don’t forget to celebrate the growth and progress your child is making. Whether it’s mastering a new self-care task, navigating a social interaction successfully, or simply expressing themselves more confidently, every achievement deserves recognition. Create opportunities for your child to celebrate their successes and feel proud of their accomplishments.

Gender Diversity

Researchers have found a higher degree of gender variability amongst autistic individuals. The reasons are not fully known but one possible hypothesis is that autistic individuals may not feel the need to conform to neurotypical social and gender norms. Therefore, there are a few things to consider. Listen with empathy and compassion and let them know you are there for them.

Encourage them to follow their own pace in the understanding of their gender identity and gender expression. Get support from community organizations, family, and friends.

Seeking Professional Support

If you’re feeling overwhelmed or unsure how to best support your child through puberty, don’t hesitate to seek professional support. A pediatrician, therapist, or autism specialist can offer guidance, resources, and personalized strategies to address your child’s specific needs and challenges.

Puberty can be a daunting journey for any child, but with understanding, support, and practical strategies, you can help your child navigate this phase of life with confidence and resilience.

 

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