How to Discuss Puberty with Your Preteen on the Autism Spectrum

"Our son with high-functioning autism (age 12) has never really had the 'official' discussion about what to expect in puberty. We may have waited too long at this point, but in any case, how can we approach this topic in a way that a person with his challenges can understand (he takes most things very literally by the way - and is a bit immature for his age)?"

The teenage years can be trying for kids and their moms and dads. An autism diagnosis compounds the journey and makes it more complex. Thinking about a future of surging hormones can be very scary for moms and dads. We, as parents, feel a part of ourselves back in that intense and sometimes scary world of our own adolescence. Try not to let your own fears about your youngster’s changing hormones scare him or make him feel that the change he is going through is scary or bad.

A youngster with ASD level 1 or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) can learn to cope with the trials and tribulations of puberty and the teenage years. Your son or daughter may have many questions, and it is important for parents to be tuned-in to what the teenager might be asking for. There are plenty of teachable moments in everyday life. For the conscious and aware mother or father, more often than not, kids teach us as much or more than we teach them. There is no shame in educating (or re-educating) ourselves to be equal to the task. 

Many changes happen around puberty, and these changes can certainly affect behavior, including in areas where your teen has already made so many strides. As with all teens, your adolescent may regress in some areas even while he continues to move forward in others. Furthermore, these changes can be unexpected and unpredictable.

HFA teens need information that matches their level of understanding. Your child needs to learn about puberty and the physical and emotional changes he may go through so that he can take some responsibility to piece together what will be happening to him.

Don't wait for your youngster to come to you with questions about his or her changing body — that day may never arrive, especially if your youngster doesn't know it is acceptable to talk to you about this sensitive topic. Ideally, as a mother or father, you've already started talking to your youngster about the changes our bodies go through as we grow.

It's important to answer questions about puberty honestly and openly — but don't always wait for your youngster to initiate a discussion. By the time children are 8 years old, they should know what physical and emotional changes are associated with puberty. That may seem young, but consider this: some females are wearing training bras by then and some males' voices begin to change just a few years later.

With females, it's vital that moms and dads talk about menstruation before they actually get their periods. If they are unaware of what's happening, females can be frightened by the sight and location of blood. Most females get their first period when they're 12 or 13 years old, which is about two or two and a half years after they begin puberty. But some get their periods as early as age 9 -- and others get it as late as age 16.

On average, males begin going through puberty a little later than females, usually around age 11 or 12. But they may begin to develop sexually or have their first ejaculation without looking older or developing facial hair first.

Just as it helps adults to know what to expect with changes such as moving to a new home or working for a new company, children should know about puberty beforehand.

Many children receive some sex education at school. Often, though, the lessons are segregated, and the females hear primarily about menstruation and training bras while the males hear about erections and changing voices. It's important that females learn about the changes males go through and males learn about those affecting females, so check with teachers about their lesson plans so you know what gaps need to be filled. It's a good idea to review the lessons with your youngster, because children often still have questions about certain topics.

When talking to children about puberty, it's important to offer reassurance that these changes are normal. Puberty brings about so many changes. It's easy for a youngster to feel insecure, and as if he or she is the only one experiencing these changes.

Many times, adolescents will express insecurity about their appearance as they go through puberty, but it can help them to know that everyone goes through the same things and that there's a huge amount of normal variation in their timing. Acne, mood changes, growth spurts, and hormonal changes — it's all part of growing up and everyone goes through it, but not always at the same pace.

Females may begin puberty as early as second or third grade, and it can be upsetting if your daughter is the first one to get a training bra, for example. She may feel alone and awkward or like all eyes are on her in the school locker room.

With males, observable changes include the cracking and then deepening of the voice, and the growth of facial hair. And just as with females, if your son is an early bloomer, he may feel awkward or like he's the subject of stares from his classmates.

Children should know the following about puberty:
  • A girl's period may last 3 days to a week, and she can use sanitary napkins (pads) or tampons to absorb the blood.
  • Both females and males have a growth spurt.
  • Both females and males often get acne and start to sweat more.
  • Males grow facial hair and their muscles get bigger.
  • Males' penises and testicles grow larger.
  • Males sometimes have wet dreams (i.e., they ejaculate in their sleep).
  • Males' voices change and become deeper.
  • Females and males get pubic hair and underarm hair, and their leg hair becomes thicker and darker.
  • Females become more rounded, especially in the hips and legs.
  • Females' breasts begin to swell and then grow, sometimes one faster than the other.
  • When a girl begins menstruating, once a month, her uterine lining fills with blood in preparation for a fertilized egg. If the egg isn't fertilized, she will have a period. If it is fertilized, she will become pregnant.

Not surprisingly, children usually have lots of questions as they learn about puberty. For you, it's important to make sure you give your youngster the time and opportunity to ask questions — and answer them as honestly and thoroughly as possible.

Let your youngster know that you're available any time to talk, but it's also important that you make time to talk. As embarrassing or difficult it may be for you to talk about these sensitive topics, your youngster will likely feel even more uncomfortable. As a parent, it's your job to try to discuss puberty — and the feelings associated with those changes — as openly as possible.

It can be made easier if you're confident that you know the subject matter. First, before you answer your youngster's questions, make sure your own questions have been answered. If you're not entirely comfortable having a conversation about puberty, practice what you want to say first or ask your youngster's doctor for advice. Let your youngster know that it may be a little uncomfortable to discuss, but it's an important talk to have.

If there are questions or concerns about pubertal development that you can't answer, a visit to your youngster's doctor may help provide reassurance.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

Best Comment:

They should also be educated on the social changes. Aspies are socially and emotionally delayed producing an 9yr in an 11 or 12 yr old's body. My son became very confused when girls stopped playing with him and why boys his age didn't want to play with toys.

This is when girls and boys break into groups and say that boys/girls have 'cooties'. Some girls will have monthly mood swings, so explain to boys what's happening to the girl. (My Aspie nephew watches the calendar and stays out of his mother's way one week a month.)

It's also a time when boy have increased testosterone causing some to act as if they were in a primitive society that requires competition between males for their standing in the 'clan' (increase bullying, rule enforcers or 'tattle tales', female protectiveness, and so on.) If your son already has frequent melt downs, he'll have even more during puberty. 

Teach them early to control their anger and frustration. Explain what the bullies will do and act out situations so that your son will know what to do. If not, some Aspies, as a defense mechanism, will, after repeated bullying, become the bully. An example: my son has had to lean to ignore the bullies instead of hitting them; however, if he sees a girl or disabled kid being bullied, he becomes the protector - by hitting the bully. We are currently trying to teach him to either get a teacher or escort the victim away from the situation.

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