Puberty can be daunting for any young person. Puberty wafts into a teen’s or pre-teen’s life with physical changes, as well as changes that are unseen, such as increased cortisol levels that often lead to shifts in emotions and struggles with behavior regulation. An adolescent can switch from having a happy and low-stress day to crying within minutes. These changes can be even more difficult for autistic young people who typically deal with sensory challenges.
Going Through Puberty with Autism – Studies
Studies on the effects of puberty on autistic individuals are limited. But we have found several that report outcomes relating to sensory challenges.
The study, A Two-Hit Model of Autism: Adolescence as the Second hit (Corbett and Simon 2014), reports that 30% of individuals with autism show a marked decline in adaptive functioning during adolescence. The “first hit” in this study is the neural development challenges of autism, and the “second hit” is puberty – hormones, neural changes, and increasing social demands during adolescence.
Interestingly, the study also found that adolescent autistics appear to be less susceptible to the influence of peers in the pursuit of risky behavior (e.g., car accidents, drug use, binge drinking). The study attributes this to a decreased sensitivity to social rewards.
The article, Adolescence, Stress, and Cortisol in Autism Spectrum Disorders (Picci and Scherf 2015), reports that autism symptoms and maladaptive behaviors during puberty tend to improve over long periods of time during and following puberty, and especially after high school ends.
Most biological reactivity is cortisol related, according to the study. The rise in adolescent cortisol is associated with changes in cognitive processes, which in turn contributes to more worry in advance of perceived social stressors. “Enhanced responsivity may help prepare the individual to adapt to increased demands and new challenges.”
At RDI®, we see ‘enhanced responsivity’ in direct relation to the development of mental resources, Dynamic Intelligence, which helps autistic individuals cope with stressful situations, tackle tough tasks, make difficult decisions, and solve perplexing problems – the critical pivot points around which our success in life depends.
The Struggles of Puberty
The struggles of puberty include both physical and biological changes that can produce behavioral and sensory challenges for autistics.
Preparing your pre-teen for the life changes that come with puberty is the best antidote to ease down their upcoming challenges and possible sensory issues, and this can be accomplished by guiding your child through the six areas of Dynamic Intelligence – Emotional Referencing, Social Coordination, Declarative Language, Flexible Thinking, Relational Information Processing, and Foresight and Hindsight:
The halls and classrooms in junior and high school will be busier (compared to elementary school), louder, with more mature students, and with different ideas of socializing. “It is okay to feel awkward or uncomfortable, this is what I did (and what I still do).” Work with your child to share past experiences and anticipate future scenarios.
Your body will change. You will grow taller and stronger. You will grow hair in your pubic areas and under your arms. You will grow hair on your face as a young man, and your voice will change. Your penis will grow. As a girl, your breasts will grow. “This is normal – we all go through these physical changes together.” Use correct words and openly teach your child about the physical changes that they will experience.
Your clothes may begin to feel uncomfortable. You may not want to wear a bra. “You do not have to wear what everyone else is wearing. You can be yourself and be appropriately comfortable.”
Teach your child that they will experience sexual feelings and that it is not something to be ashamed of. Teach them what is appropriate, and how to say no. Discuss specifics, such as private behaviors (taking off clothing, touching oneself, masturbation) vs. what is acceptable in public.
Teach your child about sexual safety, both in their immediate environment and online.
Teach your child how to be hygienic as a person in puberty. This can bring on a new level of sensory challenges with shaving, deodorants, more frequent bathing, pimples, skin products, and sanitary products for menstruation. Consider using visual aids that depict personal hygiene, but also be exact with naming private body parts. Share the journey you had with hygiene products and practices, “I did not like this product either, so we can try this one. I struggled with wearing a pad when I was your age too, so let’s try this instead.”
Promote Open Curiosity and Communication
Do not assume that your child possesses every piece of knowledge. Prompt your child to ask questions, and be prepared to be an open and honest guide. This can help your child avoid feelings of isolation, “I am strange, and I am the only one dealing with this.”
Prepare your child for social changes in puberty. “People change and so do friends. Someday, you may need to seek out new friends, or a new best friend, one that is aligned with their interests and values. It happens to all of us.”
“Everyone has a mountain to climb and autism has not been my mountain, it has been my opportunity for victory.” – Rachel Barcellona
You Are Not Alone in This
Autism leaves us all feeling insecure and uncertain, especially as we face life changes. Always be patient and forgiving with yourself.
You do not have to do this alone. Our online learning community is designed for parents, and adult autistics, to find connection and support with others, with access to the most current resources, and an open door to reach out for professional consultation if additional help is needed.