Raising Healthy Kids

Autism and Puberty: A Parent’s Guide

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

The teen years have been described as a period of “storm and stress.” But for a child with autism and their families, this developmental stage can be even tougher to navigate.

Puberty is natural and normal — but filled with physical and emotional changes. All children need information about the way their bodies are changing and help understanding and handling their sexuality. It is also vital that special needs children have good information in order to avoid exploitation and bullying, explains Leslie Scobie, a licensed social worker and board-certified behavioral analyst at Henry Ford Health System.

“Providing a child with this education will improve his or her quality of life, and lead to greater independence,” says Scobie.

One barrier that parents of children with autism may encounter in obtaining assistance with puberty or sexuality education is the “myth of the eternal child,” or the common misconception or belief that a special needs child will always remain a child and not have sexual needs or interest.

“It’s an unintentional bias that is sometimes placed on these children — that they have no capacity or motivation to understand their bodies,” says Scobie.

How to Begin Talking About and Preparing for Puberty
Since autism spectrum disorder (ASD) encompasses a wide range of functioning and skills, an individualized approach is key. You need to meet each child at his or her level.

Explaining private vs. public parts of the body is a good first step. For example, does the child understand that changing clothes should be done in a private space, such as the bedroom or bathroom? Understanding privacy leads to discussion appropriate and inappropriate touching. This is important for children to understand to help prevent exploitation by others.

Scobie also notes that, as with any child entering puberty, hygiene issues change and come to the forefront. Don’t wait to manage hygiene issues. For example, boys will need instruction on shaving skills and girls will need to know how and where to change a menstrual pad. Both tasks require multiple steps to accomplish, as well as sufficient motor skills. Advance preparation is vital.

Families dealing with ASD may encounter an array of medical professionals, therapists and school personnel. It’s vital to have health care providers who are willing to partner with the parent or caregiver and the child to provide comprehensive medical care to help navigate the needed health services leading up to and throughout puberty and the teen years.

“It’s important to use a team approach that the parents feel comfortable with,” says Scobie.

To make an appointment with a Henry Ford Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities specialist, call (313) 916-4665 or visit henryford.com for information.

Leslie Scobie, LCSW, BCBA, works with children and families affected by autism and developmental disabilities at Henry Ford Health System.