When to start preparing autistic children for puberty
Autistic children might need time to understand and adjust to changes in their lives. If your child is well prepared for the physical changes of 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.
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’. And 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.
Some autistic children might understand what happens to other people but need support 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. 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 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 language, particularly if your child takes things literally.
For example, if you describe your child’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 or older brother’s voice could be a good example.
It’s best to use formal terms like ‘breasts’ or ‘penis’ for body parts. But it’s also a good idea to introduce informal names for body parts too – for example, ‘boobs’ for breasts. Your child might hear these words at school or other places.
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 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 come back to the question.
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’ve changed over time. 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.
For example, social stories might cover developing breasts and widening hips, starting periods and so on.
The shape of my body will change.
I will start to have periods.
Or social stories might cover penis and testicle growth, erections and voice changes.
My body will look different.
My body will do new things.
My voice will sound different.
And 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 child know it’s normal. If you relate wet dreams and erections to the other changes your child is noticing, like more hair, this can help them 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.