Puberty typically occurs between the ages 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 to begin discussing body changes, it is vital to find a way of doing it as early as possible.
It's difficult to know for sure if sex education programs are comprehensive, and sometimes children can hear about puberty and sex 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. 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 explore more opportunities to teach them again and again and answer questions as they come. It's okay to reinforce what your child already knows. Continuous talks are in fact what turns an awkward 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 can develop slower emotionally, you will realize that the physical changes taking place in their bodies are not on par with their emotional development. This can lead them to react negatively, as the changes might feel unexpected to them.
The next challenge they will have is communicating how they feel about these changes. In addition, just like other children, children with autism can be non-compliant which is quite normal at this time in their life. 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 may 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 to plan their own schedule. You can also make them a part of the family’s 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 how they might 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 change and 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 in the best position to create this time. Because your child is more settled with a 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 revisit the discussion for another date, repeatedly if you must. Remember to make it as interactive as possible, giving him or her a chance to talk about what they think and also finding out what they already know about puberty.
Audiovisuals 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. It is not enough to reassure that becoming an adult is something to be proud of. Find out what they're hearing from others. During this time, your child 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 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. Look into 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 your child may have and this is okay. In this case, let them know that you do not have an answer at that moment, 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 if they find 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
When it comes to sex education, every school is different, so be sure to look into your school district's policies before your child reaches that age. As you teach your child at home, you may notice that your child is learning the same or different information at school. Keep on top of this to make sure your child won't get confused by the information presented either at school or at home.
Handle the inappropriate appropriately
Children with autism may find themselves doing something they feel is normal which might be 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 private rooms.
Involve the experts
Sometimes, it helps just to accept that you don't need to do this alone. You may want to consider seeking the services of an expert who can talk to your child in detail about what happens during puberty.
You may even be surprised that your child might be more comfortable and open in the presence of someone else, and quite honestly, there is nothing wrong with involving someone you can trust.
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 for both boys and girls and their functions. You may not see the benefit of this immediately, but it helps in the long run.
Also, be careful how you refer to things like ‘the voice breaking’ because your child might take it literally and this may cause him or her anxiety. It is better to explain through illustrations. For example, refer to someone who is older, so the changes and differences are clearly visible.
The bottom line
You need to be the first person your child will feel confident in approaching for information at this difficult time. 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.
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.