Autism can be a difficult season of parenting. The tantrums, obsessing about a specific line of toys or objects, the endless lectures – and that’s if your kid is verbal. All that and then you throw in absolutely no social filters….and then puberty.
Parenting a child in the throes of puberty is hard enough without autism. Autism brings with it a certain difficulty that most parents of tweens and teens just don’t understand.
When my son Sam (now 21) was going through puberty, thanks to his high-functioning autism and no sense of social filter, he was in trouble a lot for inappropriate touching, ohh-la-la cattle calls, whistles – even commenting that a teacher looked particularly fine a particular morning.
Parents of male teens with autism, listen: your son (more than likely) has a very typically-developed sex drive. The problem is the lack of social filter (because of the autism) makes him do things that all teen boys think of doing but don’t – usually. This makes a male with autism particularly at risk of being bullied by other males and targeted by sexually adventurous teen girls.
Now before we lock up all our young men with autism, there are ways to cope with this.
Make sure autistic teens (of both genders) understand that “bathing suit areas” are not to be exposed at school, church, in public, period – and no one other than the doctor while a nurse and his/her guardian are in the room is to touch those bathing suit areas. This is for their safety. If necessary, write a social story about it.
Also make sure tweens and teens understand (again, pulling out the social stories) that they are not to touch someone else’s bathing suit areas. In or out of clothing, no matter the age of the person. Teaching a young person with autism about the inherent value of a person in the eyes of God, that all of us are fearfully and wonderfully made – warrants a certain level of respect for others and God’s creation. Plus, there are some things we just don’t do — the conversations I had with Sam on this! – we just don’t touch a girl’s butt or breasts. We just don’t. We just don’t ask someone if she would have sex with you. We just don’t.
Coping with puberty and autism isn’t just about social filters, sex and being exposed to others at school. It’s also about smell. There is not much in the world more rank than a boy going through puberty who has not learned the benefits of deodorant, showering regularly, showering correctly, or not wearing the same clothes every day for a week. This is where graphic visual organizers are handy, to print out and tape to the bathroom mirror the order in which we dress for the day. We shower, brush hair, apply deodorant, and get dressed. If you write down the order in which your child gets ready in the morning (or the way in which you want him to get ready), and make a visual schedule for this, it will help. At least, it will help you cope with it.
It’s hard for a teen with autism to argue with the schedule when he lives and breathes by order out of chaos. So instead of getting more and more frustrated saying “What did I tell you?” you point out simply, “What is next on the schedule?” This forces him to look at the visual schedule and realize he didn’t put on deodorant. Or brush hair, teeth, right shoe or underwear.
Visual schedules can be works in progress.
And that is okay.
There’s a book I used a lot with Sam that detailed in social story format things like showering, shaving, periods for girls, even masturbation. While I understand this last word may have just made a parent of a tween with autism spit coffee out of her mouth and all over her laptop, the realization is this: parenting a young person who faces autism every day, then adding puberty on top of that, is not for the faint of heart. My son has high-functioning autism and is 21 years old. I’ve been fighting autistic battles for a long time now, and many of those battles revolve around the m-word. “Taking Care of Myself: A Hygiene, Puberty and Personal Curriculum for Young People with Autism” by Mary Wrobel has been my go-to book for about 10 years now regarding all things puberty-and-autism related.
Puberty for any one is emotional, frustrating, and angry…and the kids face these same emotions. We as parents must realize that girls with autism do not understand why her body bleeds every month. To her, blood is bad – a medical emergency. It’s not “normal” to bleed once a week every single month … think about that from an autistic point of view. What kind of animal bleeds for a week and lives?
Sam said to me once, “I just don’t understand what is wrong with me.” Most kids going through puberty face this question. Some kids with autism also approach this – it depends on the level of autism and self-awareness. With Sam, I told him that he is fearfully and wonderfully made, by God, for some great purpose – despite and because of autism. It’s also despite and because of autism that we as parents will grow the most in our parenting skills during the season of puberty.
Terrie McKee blogs at NearYourAltar.com and AutismTrainBlog.com. A writer and speaker, she helps parents all over the world who have children with autism. She is married with four special needs children aged 21, 18, 17 and 6.
Be sure to follow along with Coping Skills for Families Living with Autism to receive continued encouragement throughout the month of April as you journey along this special needs path with autism.