By Marci Hammel
Puberty: possibly one of the scariest words a parent must deal with. However, puberty will happen whether we want it to or not. With some preparation and good strategies, you and your family can get through this period with your wits intact. After working in the field for over 25 years, I have found that the more prepared we are and the more we pre-teach, the more smooth the transition can be.
In my workshops, I get parents used to saying the words “penis,” “masturbation,” “testicles,” “pubic hairs,” “vagina,” “breasts” and “menstruation” by saying them out loud as a group. Once people get past this, the subject suddenly becomes less stressful.
Be proactive. It is never too early to begin.
As parents, it is natural to want to insulate our children from the harsh realities of puberty and sexuality. However, urges and desires happen; bodies mature and it cannot be repressed. Talking about these things early eases the process significantly, makes it more a part of life and can make the difficult conversations more comfortable. When your child is younger, teach the difference between public and private. This can be in regards to body parts, places and behaviors. A good time to teach body parts is during bath time when you can also decipher private and public.
As your child grows older, definitions can become more specific, evolve or even change. Take hugging for example: there are times in life when it is acceptable to hug and other times when it is not. As a person progresses through the different stages of life, hugging changes. It is OK when you are younger but peers generally stop hugging each other around second grade and can begin again in middle and high school.
Adjusting to your child’s needs and continuing the conversation throughout the different ages and stages will ease the difficulty of bringing up subjects that can be difficult. If your child engages in a private activity or conversation in public, interrupt or move to a more private area to model where these types of conversations should take place.
Children on the spectrum should continue to learn and be aware about abuse and what is an appropriate and what is an inappropriate behavior. Activities such as touching their private parts in public or putting hands down their pants should not be punished or shamed, however demonstrate real life situations whenever possible to give clear distinctions.
What is being used with typical peers and can I adapt it for my child with ASD?
Often parents express concern that if they bring up the subject of sex it will encourage thoughts of engaging in it, however, there is no positive correlation between knowledge of and interest in sex. When we fail to discuss the issues of sexuality, we may be actually put children in harm’s way. It creates vulnerability and can set them up for bullying with a greater risk of exploitation.
Information and skill development instead of crisis intervention can change a person’s life. By teaching your child about sex and relationships you can keep them safer and provide information that can help them make better choices. Children on the spectrum typically don’t learn through the means such as friends, peers and aren’t able to pick up on the subtleties of relationships as easy. This makes sex education more important.
What do we have to look forward to in puberty?
Puberty brings many exciting changes in a child’s body. Here are some of the changes your adolescent may experience:
- Acne starts to develop so the need to wash their face more often
- Their hair becomes greasier, body odor begins and body and facial hair begins to develop
- These changes add the need shower more often, shave and to use deodorant
- In males, their voice begins to change, an Adam’s apple appears, and their body becomes broader
- Erections and wet dreams begin
- Parents of girls can prepare to discuss menstruation, developing breasts and wearing a bra
- Most importantly, your adolescent will be capable of reproduction. For girls, this is once they start menstruating; for boys once they are fully developed and the testicles can produce sperm
Explain that showering daily is much more important now and wearing clean clothes will be important for others to want to be near. It may be time to move from products for children to products for adults (ideas might be to put in their favorite shampoo bottle or watch for teens on TV using the product). Also evaluate your own environment: do you incorporate privacy into the home daily? Begin practicing closing the door when dressing and wearing a robe after exiting the shower or to and from the bathroom.
How to start the conversation
Before beginning the process of talking about puberty and sexuality with your child, examine your attitudes, values and beliefs towards sexuality so you can be and concise. Find out what your child knows by asking open-ended questions such as:
- What have you heard about…?
- What did they tell you in school about…?
- Have you heard the word ___?
This open discussion begins to show what misconceptions or lack of information needs to be clarified. Talk openly and honestly and use correct terminology when teaching (however, it is important to teach slang phrases also).
Use the same teaching strategies that you have used to teach your child other skills (visuals, charts, social narratives, lists and videos). Teach the “why” so your child knows why these things happen or are necessary to do. Teach in small steps and check in with the child during the conversation to ensure they understand. Keep it positive and acknowledge a job well done or a really good effort.
After working with so many adolescents and adults with ASD, I have found one thing for sure: the need to masturbate cannot be repressed—it is a normal part of life. The part we, as parents, can control is where and when to do it. I teach people to show a visual that says, “at home, in bed.” I prefer visuals because they do not draw attention to the behavior since we don’t want our children interpreting sex or their behaviors as negative. A behavior is not as likely to be excessive if it is accepted.
Adolescence is a period marked by curiosity, independence and exploration—all very healthy! Individuals on the autism spectrum often have difficulties with “theory of mind” so keep this in mind when teaching the “why” about a certain behavior.
Ignorance can breed fear and supplying information, at whatever level, can empower a person to develop his or her own judgment. Puberty is a time about learning who they are, gaining control and being their own person to develop health lifelong habits.
Marci Hammel is an Autism Specialist and a foster parent of a child with ASD. Before becoming an Autism Specialist, Marci was a classroom teacher and worked with students with severe disabilities ranging in age from elementary to high school as well as adult transition programs. Since 1989, Marci has been involved with Autistic Community Activity Program (ACAP) and has served as the Program Director since 1995 as well as serving on the Board of Directors for the Autism Society of Oregon (ASO). She has given numerous workshops, classes, webinars, and staff education series about ASD through Columbia Regional Program, North Clackamas University as well as guest lecturing at PSU, PCC and various other colleges throughout the area.