Puberty can be a time of mixed feelings for the young person on the autism spectrum and their parents/carers. Parents often experience a combination of pride and trepidation in relation to the inevitable changes that occur as their child begins developing into an adult. The characteristics associated with autism can compound the challenges experienced by children during puberty.
As a result of these characteristics, children with autism may benefit from individualised support to help them understand and manage the changes. The information sheet titled Puberty and Autism Spectrum Disorders provides practical advice regarding preparing your child for puberty, explaining the changes to your child, and useful strategies to assist with physical changes, emotional changes, social expectations, manners, maturity and personal hygiene.
It is advised that preparation for the changes of puberty begin before the child begins to show physical changes.
Preparing for the changes of puberty
Effective preparation for puberty prevents children on the autism spectrum from feeling confused or frightened that there is something wrong with them as their bodies change. There is no way of knowing exactly when your child will start puberty. The start of puberty ranges from 8-13 years in girls and 9-14 years in boys.
Here are some general suggestions for preparing your child for the changes of puberty:
- Follow your child’s lead (start talking about puberty when your child starts noticing differences in themselves and others)
- Prepare your child before they start being fearful of changes they are already experiencing
- Introduce terminology when it is right for you
- Introduce the term “puberty” before it happens, then as changes occur they can be related to a familiar word. A useful explanation: “puberty is when a child’s body changes into an adult body. This happens to everyone.”
- Preparation (when and how) will depend on your values and context
- Show your child pictures of familiar adults at different ages
- Use line drawings – level of detail can vary according to age and level of awareness/readiness
- Terminology – teach anatomical terms (medical) as well as other common terms
- e.g. ‘girls grow breasts as they turn into an adult. You are a boy and you will not grow breasts’Use clear and direct language – just because your child notices the changes in others, don’t assume they understand these changes will also happen to them
- e.g. ‘as you change into an adult, you will also have underarm hair’.
- Try to pre-empt what your child might worry about
- e.g. Explain explicitly where extra hair will grow (not everywhere!)
- Link observations about older people’s physical differences to “having an adult body”
- e.g. ‘The girl has those bumps on her chest because she is turning into an adult’. ‘The woman has the bumps because she is already an adult’.
- Give your child an approximate age range of when to expect changes
- Girls: as young as 8, but more commonly 11+
- Boys: as young as 9, but more commonly 12+
- Provide books and opportunities to discuss the content. Clearly explain that this is “private” and who they should discuss it with. Provide a safe place to keep books so that your child can access it when needed.
Individualising information on puberty
It is important that the specific information provided and the methods of explanation be individualised for each child to suit their intellectual abilities and preferred communication style. Visual strategies build on children with autism’s strong visual learning and thinking style and can be an effective way in which to communicate upcoming changes. Several useful resources are available:
- The workbook ‘Talking Together About Growing Up’ utilises a range of approaches including timelines and line drawings to teach children about puberty. It is suited to various ages and levels of understanding.
- A booklet called ‘Let’s Talk About Puberty’ (published by the Down Syndrome Society of Scotland but intended for use by any young person with additional needs), covers many topics with accompanying visuals.
More Puberty Resources
- The Amaze/Autism Tasmania Information Sheet ‘Puberty and Autism Spectrum Disorders’ contains further suggestions and resources which may be helpful, including two animated video resources for explaining puberty to girls; ‘Kylie’s Private World’, and boys ‘Jason’s Private World’. Please note: As these videos are not autism specific and also include topics such as gaining sexual consent, the act of intercourse, contraception and safe sex, it is noted “ It is strongly recommended that parents view the video prior to letting their son/daughter watch it, so they can determine how much information to let him/her view.”
- Autism Tasmania offers information sessions for parents, friends and family members of children on the autism spectrum which may include topics related to Puberty, Health & Social Safety. Please contact us to register your interest in future sessions.
- The Raising Children’s Network website: Puberty and Autism Spectrum Disorders has helpful information and videos on a range of relevant topics
- Positive Partnerships workshops include information sessions on Sexuality, Personal Health and Hygiene. These sessions include facilitated discussion, written materials, additional readings and recommended references. This can also be accessed online via membership registration on the Positive Partnerships website.
- The Disability Services Unit of Family Planning Tasmania (FPT) are able to support parents/carers and individuals with autism through individually planned or group sessions to address the topics of puberty and adolescence, relationships, possible behavioural issues, sexual health and sexual safety. Family Planning also utilise a visual program called SoSAFE!, aiming to develop protective behaviours and social safety for people with moderate to severe intellectual disability or Autism.
- FPT are also able to provide a free resource kit titled DASHING (Disability and Sexual Health Information Networking Guide) – a sexual health and relationship resource for professionals working in the education, health and disability sectors who work with young people with intellectual and/or additional needs. This resource contains information and recommendations on best practice and refers to resources and articles from other service providers that may be helpful.