When to start preparing autistic children for puberty
Autistic children often need more time than typically developing children to adjust to and understand changes in their lives. If your child is well prepared for the physical changes that happen in puberty, your child is less likely to feel confused, or worry that there’s something wrong.
You know your child best, so you’re the best person to decide how much preparation time your child needs.
There might also be other things that influence your decision. For example, if your child has a behaviour or habit – for example, taking their clothes off – that would be best changed before puberty starts, you might start a bit earlier. Your child will need extra help to understand why they can’t take their clothes 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. So there’s no way of knowing exactly when your child will start puberty.
Autism doesn’t affect when puberty starts.
You might like to talk with staff at your child’s school about what they’re covering in class. By working with school staff, you can make sure your child is getting the same messages at home and school. You can also check that school lessons don’t go too fast or assume your child understands certain things when they don’t.
What to say about puberty to autistic children
For younger children, the differences between adult bodies and their bodies can be a great starting point. Children can link having a beard, breasts or underarm hair to the idea of ‘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.
Autistic children 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 they change over time. It could include pictures of your child now and when they were 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.
Being careful with language about puberty
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 son’s father’s voice, or his older brother’s, could be good examples.
It’s best to use formal terms like ‘breasts’ or ‘penis’ for body parts. But it’s also a good idea to teach your child other informal words that they might hear at school or other places – for example, ‘boobs’ for breasts. You could also explain that people talk about a voice ‘breaking’ when they mean a voice getting deeper.
Tricky questions about puberty from autistic children
If your autistic 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 when 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 themselves and develop a positive self-image by reassuring your child that physical and sexual changes are a natural part of growing up.
Visual supports to help autistic children understand puberty
You could show your child pictures of yourself at different ages so your child can see how you looked different. This can help your child understand when puberty happens.
You could also use drawings of a body to show how puberty looks at different ages. Label the body parts and highlight the changes that will happen – from getting taller to growing pubic hair.
Social stories to help autistic children understand puberty
You can create social stories for many puberty topics.
If you have an autistic 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 an autistic 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 on wet dreams:
When I’m 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 many 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 son know it’s normal. If you relate wet dreams and erections to the other changes your son is noticing, like more hair, this can help him understand that it’s a normal part of growing up.
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.