Periods and autistic children
Autistic children go through many changes in puberty, just as all children do. First periods are one of the most significant milestones.
Most children get their first period when they’re between 11 and 14½ years, but anywhere from 9-16 years is considered normal. If a child has a major growth spurt and has grown some underarm hair, periods are likely to be just around the corner.
Autism doesn’t affect when children start their periods.
When to start talking about periods with autistic children
Autistic children might need time to understand and adjust to the physical changes of puberty. And because you can’t know exactly when your child will get their first period, it’s a good idea to start talking about periods early.
Also, if children don’t understand periods, they could be frightened that something is wrong with them or that they’re hurt. It can help to make sure your child is prepared.
How to prepare autistic children for periods
Social stories can help you and your child get ready for periods. Here’s an example.
Social story: I will begin to have my period
As my body changes I will get my period.
When I get my period, blood comes out through my vagina.
I will need to use special underpants, a pad or a tampon so my clothes don’t get stained.
Periods usually come every 28 days. Sometimes it might be sooner or later. This is OK.
A few days before I get my period, I might feel more upset about things. I might feel angry, I might feel sad, I might feel frustrated, or I might feel other emotions. Feeling this way is normal and usually stops when my period starts.
My breasts, stomach and the lower part of my back might feel sore at this time. This is normal.
Putting a hot water bottle on my stomach and having some pain relief medicine can help me feel less sore.
I might have my period for 4-7 days. It might be shorter. This is OK.
If my period goes for longer than 7 days, I will talk to an adult who cares about me.
Practical preparations for periods
Your child will need to know what sanitary pads, period-proof underpants, tampons and menstrual cups look like and how to use them. You could go to the supermarket and choose some pads or tampons together or look at these items online.
If your child keeps their period-proof underwear, pads and tampons in a particular drawer in their bedroom or the bathroom, your child will know where these things are when they need them.
A visual schedule that shows the steps involved in changing period-proof underwear, pads or tampons can help. It can also help to show your child where to attach a sanitary pad. You could mark their underwear to show where it goes.
Once your child’s periods have started, you could show your child how to use a calendar or an app to plan when their period is due.
You might need to tell your child what to do and who to go to if they get their period at school – for example, the school nurse.
Mood changes or emotional symptoms before and during periods
Like any child, autistic children might experience mood changes just before or during the first few days of their periods. But if your child has difficulty communicating or regulating their emotions, this time might be particularly challenging.
You can help your child to manage mood changes and emotional symptoms by letting them know that they might:
- feel irritable
- have trouble concentrating
- feel depressed
- feel sleepy.
Pictures to illustrate these feelings might be useful.
If your child understands why they’re having these symptoms and how long the symptoms are likely to last, it can help your child feel more in control of their changing body. At first you could note your child’s behaviour and make the link for them. For example, ‘You seem a bit grumpy today. I wonder if your period is coming soon’.
A social story specific to your child’s emotional symptoms might also help. Here’s an example.
Social story: how I feel when I’m getting my period
For the first two weeks after my period, I feel fine.
In the third week, I start getting headaches, feel tired, have trouble concentrating and get annoyed more often.
I know this means I will probably get my period in a few days.
I know these feelings will go away and that I will feel better soon.
If your child’s symptoms seem to be severe or are stopping them from doing their usual activities, talk to a GP about medical and other options for managing the symptoms.
You’ll probably need to go over these messages many times with your child. Try to be patient with your child – and yourself. It might help to share experiences and get support from other parents. You could try online or face-to-face support groups.