The physical changes that occur during puberty affect all children at the same time. This is usually between the age of 7-14 years for girls and 12-17 years for boys and is never a smooth sail for any child. While it may not be easy for you to begin discussing body changes with your child, perhaps because you are simply embarrassed or because you fear that they may not understand, it is vital to find a way of doing it as early as possible. This is because the information that you would want to believe they are getting from school may not be detailed enough or sometimes just not right in your perspective.
Secondly, they may be getting information from other sources, mostly from peers or the internet, which can be misleading. As a parent, consider the fact that it is much better if you are the first source of the information they will receive, otherwise you may have a difficult time undoing what they have already taken in before you can set them on the right path. As you may have already known, children with autism develop differently and are the most receptive when loved, reassured, and supported through and through.
Teaching your child about puberty should start before changes begin to take place and continue until they cross the bridge into adulthood. During this time, your child will need accurate information in the most simplistic structure so that as time goes by, you can be exploring more opportunities to teach them again and again and answer questions as they come. Remember it is okay to teach your child what he already knows, provided you do it in a way that they will want to listen to you. Continuous talks are in fact what turn the topic into a normal discussion both for you and your child.
What to Expect When Your Child Reaches Puberty
Generally, children with autism have an aversion to change, and this includes changes in their bodies during puberty. And because these children develop slower than normal emotionally, you will realize that the physical changes taking place in their bodies are not at par with their emotional development. This can be quite disturbing and a cause for them to react strangely because they didn’t anticipate such changes.
The next challenge they will have is communicating how they feel about these changes. This explains why there is increased tendency for seizures among children with autism, according to research.
In addition, just like their typical mates, these children tend to become non-compliant which is quite normal. While neurotypical children will make it clear that they want their freedom, ASD children may not know just how to communicate this need and so will all so often offer no room to negotiate with their concerned parents.
As a parent, try giving your child some control. For instance if there is work that needs to be done, leave them plan their own schedule. You can also make them a part of the family’s menu planning and shopping. This will not only address the challenges they are facing but also create a bond between the two of you so that it is easier for them to open up about what they go through and what they feel about it.
How to Talk About It
Your child with autism needs more time, love, and patience to get used to the changes taking place in their lives. It is better to talk to them before rather than after puberty sets in. This helps him or her anticipate the change or take a shorter time to understand what is happening.
Usually, because of slowed emotional development, things like kissing (due to seeing it somewhere and assuming it is okay) or taking their clothes off in front of others may seem normal. Addressing such behavior before puberty begins will give you a soft landing when they actually happen.
There is Time for Everything
There is always an appropriate time to talk and you are the one in the best position to create this time. Because your child is more settled on routine, pick one of those moments when you normally have a heart to heart with him or her. It could be bedtime or scheduled private time with them.
Even then, because this is a totally new topic you will be discussing, they may not be receptive the first time. If you notice a lack of seriousness or embarrassment on his or her side, quickly change the topic and discuss something else, then reschedule the discussion for another date. Remember to make it as interactive as possible, giving him or her a chance to talk about what he thinks and also finding out what they already know about puberty.
Use Audio Visuals
Audio visuals work best for children with ASD. You can choose to use pictures, cartoons, images, lists (e.g. of private and public places, of normal physical changes), stories, and illustrations will compliment language a great deal when communicating because sometimes language alone can be overwhelming to him or her.
Propel Esteem And Self Worth
Confidence and good self esteem are important aspects of the transition for any child. For most children, esteem is tied to what others will say about them or how they will be treated. Your child will be looking out to see how you and others will react to the changes taking place in him or her. It is not enough to reassure that becoming an adult is something to be proud of. Find out what he is hearing from others. During this time, he needs to be exposed to role models more often and be reassured that they are as competent as any other person only a little bit different.
Secondly, their fluctuating moods can be frustrating even to you as a parent. If you consider what you too went through during puberty, then you’ll find it a little consoling to help your children do the same. Teach them to identify and deal with what they feel before it gets out of hand. Research about some coping tactics from experts and from other parents and teach them to your child.
Address Their Questions And Concerns Honestly
Children usually have many questions about puberty because this is something they have never experienced before. Take this opportunity to answer questions in all honesty and if possible in detail. This helps build trust between the two of you and will give them the confidence of counting on you for direction.
At the same time, you may not always have the correct answer for all the questions he may have and this is okay. In this case let him know that you do not have an answer then, but you will get back to them later with the right information. Otherwise, an incorrect answer may do more damage than good to your child especially when they get contradicting information out there. The idea here is to be open and available for any question your child may have.
Liaise With The School In Teaching About Puberty
It is mandatory for schools to make sex and puberty education part of their curriculum so be sure your child will be taught about it in school when he’s of the right age, your duty is to find out what the school teaches and when it does this. As you teach your child at home, you will observe that what you are teaching your child is in line with what the school teaches so that he doesn’t get confused along the way.
Handle the Inappropriate Appropriately
We have already seen that because they will develop more slowly emotionally than physically, children with autism may find themselves doing something they feel is normal although inappropriate in the eyes of others. For example, your child may ask a question in public when he or she should have in private.
As a parent, give your child some guidelines with regard to what is private and what is not. For example:
- Come up with a response that you or any family member can use, like 'That's a good question. Let's talk about it once we get home' (National Children's Bureau, Sex Education Forum, 2003) when they ask something at an inappropriate time
- Let them know who to share their puberty related concerns with
- Let them know that things like undressing or masturbating need to be done in their private rooms
- Differentiate public and the private rooms
Involve the Experts
Sometimes, it helps just to accept that you may not do it alone like other parents. You may want to consider seeking services of an expert who will talk to your child in detail about what happens at puberty.
You may even be surprised that your child might be more comfortable and open in the presence of such a person or a third party and quite honestly, there is nothing wrong with involving someone you can trust with your child.
Language Does Count
While teaching your child about puberty, it is better to get him or her used to scientific terminology. Explain the different parts of the body both for boys and girls and their functions. You may not experience the benefit of this immediately, but it helps in the long run.
Also mind how you refer to things like ‘the voice breaking’ because your child might just take it literally and this may cause him or her anxiety. It is better to explain through illustrations for instance by referring to someone older, where the changes are visible.
The Bottom Line
You need to be the first person your child will feel confident in approaching for information. You can achieve this not only by being patient and loving to them, but also by giving them the information they need. As you talk about puberty, it is important to do it as calmly and as slowly as possible to give your child every chance to understand what you are discussing. Remember, there is only so much you can discuss at once, so when you get the feeling your child has had enough, give him or her time to digest this information before you can schedule another talk.