By Raising Children Network
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Teenaged girl checking her face in the mirror credit © Ron Sumners
Children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might need longer to understand that their bodies will change in puberty. You can help your child get used to the idea by starting preparations early.

Preparing for puberty: when to start

Most parents wonder when to start talking about puberty with their child. You might be worried that you’ll confuse your child with information that she doesn’t need yet.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) often need longer to adjust to and understand changes in their lives than typically developing children. If your child isn’t prepared for the body changes that happen in puberty, he might feel confused, or frightened that there’s something wrong with him.

You know your child best, so you’re the best person to decide how much preparation time she needs. There might also be other things that influence your decision. If your child has a behaviour or habit that would be best changed before puberty starts – for example, taking her clothes off – you might start a bit earlier. She’ll need extra help to understand why she can’t take her top off any more.

As a guide, puberty usually begins around:

  • 10-11 years for girls
  • 11-13 years for boys.

But it’s normal for the start of puberty to range from 8-13 years in girls and 9-14 years in boys. Every child is different. Genetics, nutrition and social factors all play a role in the onset of puberty. There’s no way of knowing exactly when your child will start puberty.

ASD doesn’t affect when puberty starts.

Video Puberty and ASD

This short video is about puberty and ASD. You’ll find out why it’s a good idea to talk about puberty early with your child with ASD to give her time to adjust to changes. You’ll also hear from parents who share their stories and experiences of a child with ASD going through puberty.
Before you start, you might like to talk to your child’s school about what they’ve already covered and what they’ll be covering in class. By working with the school, you’ll be able to make sure you’re giving the same messages at home and school. You’ll also be able to check that the lessons are right for your child – for example, that they don’t go too fast or assume your child understands certain things when she doesn’t.

What to say about puberty

Perhaps your child has noticed how older people are physically different from him. This is a great starting point for discussion. Young children can link having a beard, breasts or underarm hair with ‘having an adult body’.

For older primary-age children, you can use the word ‘puberty’. You might say, ‘Puberty is when a child’s body changes into an adult body’. Then when your child notices physical differences in other people, you can talk about them in relation to ‘puberty’. This can help your child understand the change from child to adult.

Children with ASD might understand what happens to other people, but find it hard to apply this understanding to themselves. It can help to make clear statements like, ‘As you change into an adult, you’ll also have underarm hair’.

An ‘All about me’ book can help your child see how she changes over time. It could include pictures of your child now and when she was younger.

It will also help to explain that boys and girls develop differently – for example, a boy won’t grow breasts. Your child might also have the wrong idea about some issues, so you need to watch out for things that need more explanation. For example, extra hair just grows on the underarms and pubic area in women, and also on the chest and chin of a man – but not all over the body.

Language and terminology

You might need to be careful about your use of language, particularly if your child takes things literally. For example, if you describe your son’s voice as ‘breaking’, your child might find this worrying. Instead you could say something like, ‘Your voice is changing and will get deeper’. You could also explain that men’s voices are usually deeper than women’s. Your child’s father’s voice, or his older brother’s, could be good examples.

Giving your child both the formal terms and the everyday words for body parts might be useful – for example, ‘boobs’ refer to breasts. Or people talk about a voice ‘breaking’ when they mean a voice getting deeper.

Tricky questions

If your child asks awkward or tricky questions, try to be patient and honest. It’s OK to say, ‘I don't really know – let’s work it out or look it up together’.

If your child asks questions at inappropriate moments, it might help to have a standard response that everyone in the family can use – for example, ‘That’s a good question, but let’s talk about it once we get home’. Your child needs to know, though, so remember to deal with the question when you get home.

You can also help your child feel good about himself and develop a positive self-image by reassuring him that physical and sexual changes are a natural part of growing up.

Visual supports

Showing your child pictures of yourself at different ages to see how you looked different can help your child understand when puberty occurs.

You could also use drawings of a body to show how it looks at different ages. Label the body parts and highlight the changes that will happen – from getting taller to growing pubic hair.

Social Stories™

You can create Social Stories™ for all sorts of topics to do with puberty.

If you have a daughter, Social Stories™ might cover developing breasts and widening hips, starting periods and so on. For example:

  • The shape of my body will change.
  • I will start to have periods.

If you have a son, Social Stories™ might cover penis and testicle growth, erections, wet dreams and voice changes:

  • My body will look different.
  • My body will do new things.
  • My voice will sound different.

Here’s an example of a Social Story™ specifically on wet dreams:

  • When I am sleeping, I might have a dream. When I wake up, my sheets might be sticky and wet. This is called a wet dream.
  • When I have a wet dream, I should always wash my testicles (balls) and penis when I wake up.
  • Wet dreams happen to lots of boys.

Boys can be unsettled when they see semen for the first time, so it’s a good idea to explain about erections and wet dreams before they happen. Let your boy know it’s normal and will stop. Relating wet dreams and erections to the other changes he’s noticing, such as growing hair, can help him understand that it’s a normal part of growing up.

Books and resources

You can get some great books and resources to help your child before and during puberty. Some of these are available as a puberty kit from Amaze. If you can’t get them from Amaze, they are available separately.

You will probably need to go over these messages many times with your child. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. You might find it helpful to share experiences and get support from other parents in our forum for parents of children with ASD.
  • Last updated or reviewed 21-11-2013
  • Acknowledgements This article has been created using material from the National Autistic Society, Amaze and La Trobe University and in collaboration with Diane Jacobs at La Trobe University.