Puberty is so much Harder for Children with Autism
Takeaway: Children with autism WILL find puberty so much harder because they struggle to make sense of what’s happening to them. Their brains are wired differently from birth, and the wiring changes even more during puberty. But as a parent, you can help by preparing them for these changes ahead of time. And where necessary, you can consult a specialist for extra help.
Puberty is a challenging time for all children because they go through a series of changes that are hard to process.
Children have so much to deal with during puberty. They go through visible physical changes. Then there are hormonal changes — girls start menstruating, and both boys and girls gradually begin to develop a sex drive. And of course, there are the other physical, mental and emotional changes.
Now, imagine how tough these changes can be for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
Autism is a developmental difference that changes the way a person engages with the world. So, the brain of an autistic child develops uniquely, which results in certain autistic traits. For example, children with autism have problems communicating — they find it harder to recognise and process emotions, struggle to read nonverbal signals and body language, and can’t easily keep a conversation going. They thrive on order and routine — e.g., eating the same breakfast every day, playing with the same toys in exactly the same way, etc. And can get agitated if this routine is changed. Also, they show repetitive behaviour like continually rocking back and forth. And they’re often highly sensitive to sights, sounds, smells, and other sensory input. (Learn more about the autism spectrum.)
These differences mean children with autism experience puberty more intensely than other children do.
Pubertal changes are more pronounced for children with autism because they inherently don’t like change. And since they have trouble communicating and connecting with others, they often don’t have the same supportive social network their classmates have developed.Girls with autism, in particular, suffer further because teenage girls’ interactions are much more intricate and nuanced than boys’.
Puberty magnifies the already vast social differences.
A child with autism at age 3 might be slightly different to other 3-year-olds, but not much. This difference grows by the time she’s 7. But by 13, there are so many new variables that her differences are glaringly obvious. And the intensity of coping with all of this will take a toll on her mental health. Close to 70% of teenagers with autism struggle with mental health issues like depression and anxiety. That’s compared to 20% of non ASD teenagers. And a study of 5000+ adolescents showed that the more ASD traits teenage girls showed, the more likely they were to have an eating disorder.
Children with autism their brains develop differently during early childhood, but there’s another developmental shift during puberty, too.
An adolescent’s brain rewires itself by getting rid of unused neural pathways to make place for new ones. That is, her brain cells begin to form new connections that help upgrade her ability to control impulses, make smart decisions, regulate her emotions, and so on. (These are the sorts of skills you see in adults but not in young children.) But in addition to new pathways, the structure of these brain cells also starts to change. They lay down extra fat over their nerve fibres to help transmit electrical impulses better. But these changes often don’t happen in quite the same way with autistic children — which separates them even more from their classmates. Note: Adolescent brain changes might also explain why many teenagers with autism develop epilepsy, another phenomenon that researchers are trying to understand. Up to 13% of young children with autism have epilepsy, but this increases to 26% during puberty.
So what does it feel like to be an unsupported autistic child during puberty?
Without proper support, children with autism are at risk for the following:
- Mood swings and intense emotions. The emotional rollercoaster ride a teenager experiences is even more unpredictable for children with autism. And the trouble is they find it much harder to make sense of what is happening. Some teens become more aggressive towards others, while some begin to show self-harming behaviours.
- Feeling left out. Children with autism might have problems interacting socially, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to feel included. And if they don’t share the same interests as their friends, they will likely feel isolated and left out.
- Troubles with their sexuality. Autistic teenagers may feel sexual urges but won’t know what to do about it. And this can lead to mistakes. For example, they might talk about sex when it’s not appropriate, or pursue a romantic relationship even if the other person is giving them clear signs they’re not interested. Girls with autism in particular, are more vulnerable to be sexually abused because they might miss some critical warning signs. Thankfully, we can address all these problems through ‘relationship training’. Here, we go beyond mere biology lessons to teach socially appropriate behaviour regarding sex, dating, and personal safety.
- Difficulties at school. Children with autism going through puberty have to deal with biological changes. But there are changes at school, too. Most teenagers have to keep up with increasingly complex books and projects, follow elaborate instructions, and submit their assignments on time. Younger children get help with these sorts of things, but teens don’t. Since autism affects the brain’s executive functions, teens on the autistic spectrum will need extra guidance and support from the adults in their lives.
As a parent, you can help by preparing your child for the changes ahead.
Autistic teens go through more emotional turmoil than others, and this might seem daunting to you. But as a parent, you’re uniquely equipped to help. If you talk to your child in advance about the likely changes, they won’t get caught by surprise. And that makes the whole experience less traumatic. If your child senses that it’s okay to ask you questions and that you’re not going to be embarrassed, she’s more likely to come to you when confused or hurt.
For some of the more difficult changes, though, you might need help from a specialist.
If talking things through with your child isn’t helping, consider consulting a specialist. The Ed Psych Practice offers online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and colleges in London. We have psychologists and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support.
- Phone: +44 (0) 78 3344 7356 / (0) 79 9053 8654
- E-mail: Office@TheEdPsych.com
Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.
- How to Help a Stressed & Anxious Teenager
- Generalised Anxiety Disorder: Why Some Children Constantly Worry
- Auditory Memory & Why Your Child Forgets What She Hears
- Are Online Assessments As Good As In-Person Sessions?
- Sensory Feeding Difficulties: Is Your Child a Picky Eater?
- Who are Orthoptists? And Are They Similar to Ophthalmologists?
- How Do You Diagnose a Global Developmental Delay?
- What is Echolalia? And Can It Hold Your Child Back?
- How Does Poor Working Memory Impact Your Child’s Life?
- Does Autism Mask Some Mental Health Issues?
- 7 Steps to Better Emotional Regulation In Secondary-Age Children