Autism and puberty can be a very confusing time for both kids and parents.
In addition to hormonal and body changes, the teenage years come with a lot of emotional and social changes that can be particularly overwhelming and difficult for children on the autism spectrum. Communication challenges, an inability to express emotions and understand the emotions of others, sensory sensitives, difficulty with transitions, poor impulse control, and problems with self-regulation are all common struggles for kids with autism, and these challenges tend to become more apparent during the teenage years (and beyond).
But it’s not all bad news.
With a little bit of planning and preparation, and a whole lot of patience and understanding, autism and puberty can be manageable. Keep reading for our best tips and ideas to help make the transition from childhood to adulthood as seamless as possible.
Autism and Puberty: What Parents Need to Know
It [probably] won’t be easy. As your child approaches puberty, I urge you to think back to your own experience as a teenager. It was pretty tricky, wasn’t it? Your hormones were raging, your body was changing, and it probably felt like you were on an emotional rollercoaster most of the time. Now imagine what it would be like to go through all of those changes as a person with autism who already finds the world confusing and overwhelming.
Preparation is key. As with all things related to autism, the more prepared you are, the better. Take the time to think ahead and consider how puberty will impact your child, and put a plan in place to make things easier. Talk to your child’s doctors, therapists, and teachers for ideas, read autism and puberty books for coping strategies (see below for our favorite picks!), and start preparing your child for the changes he or she will experience sooner than later.
There will be mood swings! If your child with autism already struggles with mood swings and/or aggressive behavior, it’s quite likely you’ll see an increase in these behaviors during the teenage years. Don’t panic that your child is regressing! Write yourself a reminder that a lot of the behaviors your child is exhibiting are normal and will dissipate once his or her hormones level out.
Sensory sensitivities can complicate things. If your child has sensory processing disorder, or is sensitive to certain stimuli, consider exposing him or her to different sensations well in advance of puberty to avoid sensory overload. For boys, consider buying a toy razor and let them experiment with lathering their face with shaving cream and pretending to shave. Girls can do the same on their legs and under their arms, and you may consider experimenting with panty liners and gradually work your way up to bigger, bulkier sanitary pads.
Honesty is important. While it may feel awkward at first, it’s important to keep an open and honest dialogue with your child. Puberty can be extremely confusing for all kids, let alone a child on the autism spectrum, and giving your little one a safe place to ask questions without judgement is extremely important. Remember to use proper terminology and to be very literal in what you say.
You need to allow more independence. The teenage years are a time in which kids start to push boundaries, and no matter how different your child’s situation is from his or her peers, the reality is that he or she needs to establish some form of independence from you. Be proactive and find ways to encourage and facilitate independence wherever possible to avoid power struggles.
This is harder for your child. It can often feel as though autism and puberty is harder on parents and caregivers, but I promise you that isn’t the case. While your job is to be your child’s parent first and foremost, it’s important to exercise some compassionate. Remember that your child isn’t GIVING you a hard time. Your child is HAVING a hard time.
Make self-care a priority. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: self-care isn’t selfish. It’s necessary. All parents need the opportunity to recharge once in a while, and when your child has a developmental delay like autism, it’s more important than ever. When you take the time to put yourself first and tend to your own emotional and physical needs, you will be much more present and able to handle all that comes along with autism and puberty (and more). Exercising regular self-care isn’t just a gift to yourself. It’s a gift to the ones you love, too!
8 Autism and Puberty Books for Parents
- Sexuality and Relationship Education for Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Puberty and autism can be extremely overwhelming for parents and caregivers. Figuring out what you need to discuss, and the best way to go about tackling these topics can be tricky. This book helps break things down so you know what to say (and when), and covers topics like what is/is not appropriate behavior to engage in while out in public, the importance of personal hygiene, emotions, and sexuality.
- Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty and Personal Curriculum for Young People with Autism. This is another recommended book for parents and caregivers who are trying to wrap their heads around puberty and autism. The author – Mary Wrobel – provides ideas on what you should/should not say to teens with autism using a concept similar to Carol Grey’s Social Stories approach. She addresses topics like hygiene, the importance of modesty, menstruation, touching, and personal safety
- The Out-of-Sync Child Grows Up: Coping with Sensory Processing Disorder in the Adolescent and Young Adult Years. Another pick for parents and caregivers, this book focuses on providing strategies to help teens with sensory processing disorder cope with the sensory aspects of grooming, socialization, dating, and other extracurricular activities that come with adulthood. It also provides ideas on where parents and their sensory sensitive kids can seek help for specific challenges.
- What’s Happening to Tom? Designed to help boys with autism navigate the murky waters of puberty, this simple resource covers both the emotional and physical changes that occur during puberty.
- What’s Happening to Ellie? This is the female version of the book above, and comes highly recommended in the autism community as a resource to help explain the confusing changes that come about with puberty and autism to girls.
- Things Tom Likes: A book about sexuality and masturbation for boys and young men with autism and related conditions. If you’re the parent of a boy with autism, this is a great resource to help you broach the topic of masturbation – when and where it’s appropriate, and how to establish proper boundaries.
- Things Ellie Likes: A book about sexuality and masturbation for girls and young women with autism and related conditions. When we think about autism and puberty, we often focus on figuring out how to establish and enforce appropriate rules and boundaries around masturbation in boys, and fail to consider discussing this with girls on the autism spectrum. Things Ellie Likes is a great book to consider if you have a teen girl with autism and don’t know how to reassure her that the things she’s experiencing are normal, but that she needs to exercise proper self-control in public.
- The Asperkid’s (Secret) Book of Social Rules. Written by an Aspie, this is a great resource for teens with autism who struggle with the social complexities of the being a teenager. What I love most about this book is that it’s not just a list of Dos and Don’ts. It’s equal parts fun and insightful, and will help your high-functioning teen navigate the teenage years with confidence.
11 Ways to Support Your Autistic Child Through Puberty
Think ahead. One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever read on the subject of autism and puberty is to think ahead. Think through all of the things your child currently does on a daily basis, and all of the habits and quirks he or she has, and then consider whether these behaviors will be appropriate as your child ages. Undressing in public, talking about inappropriate subject matters, touching others, etc. are all examples of behaviors that can become problematic over time. The sooner you break these habits, the better.
Talk to your child’s doctor, specialists, and therapists. Since no 2 individuals with autism are the same, it’s difficult to predict how your child will respond to puberty, especially if they have a comorbid disorder. Taking the time to speak with your child’s doctors, specialists, and therapists is a great idea to consider as they may have insight into specific things you should look out for as well as suggestions on different strategies and services you can use to make things easier.
Explain expected changes ahead of time. The sooner you start talking about puberty with your child, the better. You want to make sure he or she is aware of the changes that will occur in his or her body ahead of time to avoid any unexpected (and stressful) surprises. Remember to be factual and literal in your conversations, and talk about the changes your child can expect to see regularly so he or she doesn’t forget.
Provide reassurance. When discussing puberty with your child, it’s important to provide reassurance that the changes that occur are completely normal. Relay some of your own experiences and how you dealt with them, and try to keep things light and fun. This is especially important for children who have a comorbid anxiety disorder.
Write Social Stories. Created by Carol Gray, Social Stories are written descriptions of everyday situations and events told from a child’s perspective. The intention behind Social Stories is to give a child something to rehearse so that she’s prepared once the situation described actually takes place. This can be an excellent strategy to prepare your child for autism and puberty and to teach him or her what is and isn’t appropriate behavior (i.e. when to exercise proper modesty). Check out the book The New Social Story Book by Carol Gray for more details on how to use Social Stories to help with autism in teenagers.
Set clear guidelines. If you find yourself struggling to find a way to get your child to understand why it’s inappropriate to engage in certain behaviors in public, a great strategy to try is to develop a list of ‘house rules’ with clear expectations. Individuals on the autism spectrum can’t always grasp the nuances behind social rules, and equipping them with a list of things they must avoid is often a much easier option for everyone.
Think outside the box. When it comes to autism and puberty, one of the biggest fears parents have is figuring out how to deal with menstruation. This can be especially challenging with children who are lowering functioning or who struggle with personal hygiene and/or have motor delays. If this sounds like your child, incontinency underwear and/or period panties may be a good option. The point is to get creative and think of other ways to address the challenges you see your child facing to make things more manageable.
Meet with your child’s teachers. As children transition from middle to high school, educational requirements change. Children are expected to move from concrete thinking to abstract thinking, which can be very challenge for those on the autism spectrum. Take the time to meet with your child’s teachers to get a sense for what the educational requirements are, if your child will be able to keep up with the demands, and how you can support him or her at home.
Focus on hygiene. When it comes to autism and puberty, personal hygiene tends to be an area where parents and caregivers struggle the most. Whether your child puts off showering due to sensory processing challenges or because he or she just doesn’t see the point, a lack of proper hygiene can become particularly problematic once those pesky hormones kick in. Teach and enforce personal hygiene from a young age, and use visual schedules to ensure your child remembers to brush his or her teeth and shower daily. Consider using reward charts if necessary!
Nurture your child’s self-esteem. The teenage years can be a very turbulent time for all kids, and if your child falls on the autism spectrum, it can be downright awful. Hormones and body changes aside, adolescence is a time in which the differences between kids become more apparent. Your child may become more aware that he or she is different and have trouble making and maintaining friendships. Kids can be cruel, and no matter how difficult your child is being, it’s extremely important that you provide a safe environment where he or she can be him- or herself.
While your role is to be your child’s parent first and foremost, recognize when you need to be his or her friend. Autism can be extremely confusing and isolating, and having a supportive parent to come home to each day can go a long way in making your child feel loved, safe, and secure. Remind your child about his her strengths, encourage him or her to join extracurricular activities with like-minded kids, remove him or her from situations in which he or she isn’t treated fairly, and model positive self-esteem yourself.
Is your child being bullied? According to the 2012 IAN (Interactive Autism Network) research report, a total of 63% of 1,167 children with ASD, ages 6 to 15, had been bullied at some point in their lives, and with the prevalence of autism diagnoses on the raise each year, one can only assume that number continues to increase. From physical abuse and property destruction, to verbal threats and deliberate exclusion, bullying can happen in many different ways and isn’t always visible to the naked eye, which is why it’s so important for parents and teachers to look for warning signs and find ways to intervene when needed. CLICK HERE to learn more about the warning signs of bullying and tips and ideas to help children who are being bullied at school.
Before I end this post, I wanted to share a powerful quote I recently read:
The difference between high-functioning autism and low-functioning autism is that high-functioning autism means your deficits are ignored, and low-functioning means your assets are ignored.
We assume that autism and puberty will be more challenging for children with nonverbal and more severe forms of autism, and neglect to remember that it can be just as difficult – if not more so – for higher functioning autists who spend so much of their time and energy trying to hide their differences from the confusing, unforgiving world within which they live.
I hope these tips and ideas help make the idea of autism and puberty feel less overwhelming, and that I’ve inspired you to think outside the box and find ways to make the process easier on your child.
Remember to keep a healthy dose of perspective about you at all times, to invest time into your own self-care, and to be the rock your child needs as he or she navigates one of the most confusing times in his or her life.
You’ve got this!
This post contains affiliate links.
If you found these tips and strategies to cope with autism and puberty helpful, please share this post on Pinterest!
And if you’re looking for more autism-related ideas, please follow our Special Needs board where we share all kinds of helpful articles we find each day!