Autism and the “P” Word
Let’s face it: puberty is rough! It can be more challenging for adolescents with Autism or other special needs. Puberty is often filled with a lot of mixed feelings for families. It’s a time to share the joys that a child is developing into an adult, but also a time to prepare for puberty. Parents who have a pre-teen daughter with Autism may struggle with explaining the biological and physical changes happening to her body. Parents seeing their son go from an energetic boy to a young man with facial hair, can feel the sting of anxiety in the pit of their stomach when thinking of their boy shaving.
What’s a parent to do?…
Fret not! We are here to help guide you through the exciting, and often uncharted waters associated with puberty for children.
Forewarned is Forearmed.
I can’t stress this one enough. As the old saying goes, ..”you want the tactical advantage of knowing before possible issues arise. Not after they’ve already risen.” Consult with a Behavior Analyst who specializes in Autism and collaborate with them on how to best target your child’s behaviors associated with puberty.
During this time of uncertainty, emotions and physical changes often run amok. This is perfectly acceptable and perfectly normal. However, there are other special challenges when puberty strikes an adolescent with Autism. Discussing socially-accepted behaviors, dating, masturbation, and nonverbal social nuances should occur frequently and consistently. Set program goals with a Behavior Analyst to ensure that both your kiddo’s behavior and social needs are met.
Use Visual Aids + Verbal Prompts to Speak.
I don’t know about you, but when “the talk” came for my children, I used dozens of educational books, magazines and instructional tools to supplement “the talk”. I mean, “the talk” probably goes down in parent history as a Top-10 for embarrassing situations with our kids! Embarrassment aside, research does support using multiple platforms (verbal, visual) in teaching new concepts to children, especially when first introducing a difficult concept such as puberty. Using multiple platforms such as spoken word, books, and educational/instructional tools can be even more important for introducing the concept of puberty for kids with Autism.
This idea piggybacks on the one above. Basically, you want to be up-front and honest with your child. Use language appropriate for different situations. For example, teach children the medical names of body parts for their own safety and body-awareness. Teach children socially appropriate ways of communicating, based on the people they are speaking with (teachers, parents, friends, medical doctors). Realize that as kids get older, their peers will likely be using words and language that you may not approve of as a parent, but that your child may likely hear. Be prepared for questions or the accidental f-bomb!
Public vs. Private.
Kids should be taught early and consistently on public versus private behaviors. These behaviors become even more concerning during puberty where hormones and emotions may increase behaviors. Social stories are a great way to teach basic concepts and situations that ‘tweens and teens may find themselves experiencing. For example, a social story can be used to help discuss private behaviors versus public behaviors and how to spot the differences between the two.
Good Touch/Bad Touch.
I believe any school-aged child should be educated on simple concepts of appropriate touch for their own safety and body-awareness. Granted, you probably won’t be offering explicit details to your 3-year old, but you may opt for the G-Rated version. Empowering your little one to say “No” and to discriminate between an appropriate vs. inappropriate touch can help protect them and increase their independence in puberty, and beyond.
Consulting with a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and working on goal-setting together can be a dynamic team! Be honest. Voice your concerns and ideas. Collaborate. Set goals. Aim for progress. Track your progress. Discuss. Repeat. This is the secret to success for parents and behavior professionals. Don’t settle for less!
Your friends at,
The Autism Analyst
Annie is Board Certified in Behavior Analysis with 14+ years of clinical training in both neurotypical children and those with Autism.