Maneuvering puberty can be a daunting experience for most teenagers. While neurotypical children also struggle with understanding and making sense of the changes their bodies are going through, autistic teenagers need a little extra support in navigating through these confusing times. After all, it isn’t just the internal hormonal upheaval and their burgeoning sexuality that they have to deal with. For autistic teenagers, a sudden shift in their social dynamics, which in all likelihood, they’re already struggling with, can be particularly challenging.
Challenges of Puberty
Puberty is a roller coaster ride. It brings along mood swings, acne, growth of armpit and pubic hair, development of breasts and menstruation in young girls, deepening of the voice, and enlargement of the penis in young boys, among other internal changes. Combine that with the symptoms of autism, such as emotional and sensory issues, repetitive behavior, difficulty in reading social cues, and coping with sexual maturity can become even more difficult.
This is also the reason why autistic teenagers going through puberty are more likely to suffer from mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, eating disorders, among other issues. The parents of autistic teenagers or their primary caregivers can help by preparing them for the imminent changes in a sensitive and appropriate-to-them manner. Here’s how:
- Explain puberty
Even before the signs of puberty become apparent, you can start by explaining how adult bodies are different from a child’s body. For a younger child, begin by pointing out the noticeable differences such as a beard, breasts, or armpit hair to simply give them an idea about ‘an adult body.’ For an older child whose body is beginning to change or a child who has shown curiosity and is asking questions relating to physical differences, you can say, ‘This is how a child’s body transitions into that of an adult’s.
Another great way to introduce them to the concept of puberty is by using books like ‘All about me.’ A pictorial book will help them visualize the changes that you are talking about. Make sure also to explain how girls develop differently than boys.
- Talk about sexuality
Puberty is when most teenagers begin experiencing sexual urges, and it is normal for autistic teenagers to start getting sexually aroused. In the absence of an explanation for these new sensations, they can feel anxious, especially if they are sensitive to sensory stimuli. It is also probable that your child will start masturbating – which, again, is entirely normal. However, children on the autism spectrum that lack social awareness might not understand when it is appropriate and when it isn’t.
Understandably, this might seem like an awkward conversation to have with a teenager, but it is the one that you must have. If you feel the need to seek the help of a professional, your child’s therapist or their school counselor should be happy to help.
- Challenges at school
With most children going through puberty, middle school can be a little tricky. Add to that an increasingly difficult curriculum, and autistic children might find it challenging to keep up, negatively impacting their self-esteem. During this time, you can talk to their therapist and figure out self-esteem-building exercises to help them.
Few other things to consider:
- Make sure that you use the right language while explaining these concepts. It is best to use formal terms like breast, penis, vagina, etc. while talking about body parts but telling them about the different terms used to describe them is also recommended.
- Make it a point to answer all the questions that they have. While they try to process the information you share with them, they might have some silly, important, and tricky questions. Be honest, remain patient, and maintain a positive attitude when you deal with them.
- Use visual supports and learning resources available at your disposal to help them understand everything better.
Every child goes through puberty and roughly around the same age bracket. It is essential to plan, get in touch with their therapist or doctor and be prepared to lend your autistic teenager all the support and help that they might need.
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