How to Talk to Your Child with Autism about Physical and Emotional Changes in the Teen Years

September 21, 2020

Maggie Imlay

AnswersNow BCBA

Talking to our children about puberty can be awkward and stressful no matter the child. As parents, all we can do is our best to prepare ourselves and our kids for the changes that come with puberty and to try to make it a positive experience. Even if your child’s developmental age is much lower than their physical age it is important to teach them about the physical and emotional changes that will accompany puberty. Children with autism often struggle with change, so it is important to start having these discussions in advance to allow your child time to process, ask questions, and feel comfortable with the transitions ahead.

When you begin these discussions, be prepared for your child to ask questions. Be patient and positive. If you don’t know the answer to a question your child asks, it’s ok to tell them that, and give them an answer later. You want to make sure you are providing truthful and accurate information so as to not cause confusion. If your child is asking questions at an inappropriate time, consider developing a phrase you can use to let your child know you will talk to them about it later. For example, you could say, “that’s a great question, Tommy. Let’s talk about it tonight after dinner.” 

Teach your child that their body is something to be proud of. It is important we keep our bodies healthy and safe. Puberty is not bad; it is simply a stage of development that happens to all of us. Help your child develop and learn healthy hygiene routines, such as putting on deodorant, washing themselves thoroughly, treating acne, etc. Depending on your child’s needs, varying strategies can be used to teach and reinforce these new activities. Your child may need you to model steps of each activity and/or to use a visual aid that outlines the steps. It will be important to build these new activities into your child’s routine just as you would another hygiene activity like brushing teeth. 

There are physical, social, and emotional changes that occur with puberty and all of these will likely need to be addressed. As a parent, I think the physical changes that occur for boys and girls are the ones that are most obvious to us and include: hair growth, acne, body odor, menstruation, and masturbation. It is important we teach our children about these physical changes, but we should not forget the social and emotional challenges that may occur. Your child might find they have romantic interests and may need help navigating this new social situation. Due to increased hormones your child might experience increased sadness, anxiety, or find they are struggling with self-esteem or identity issues. If we discuss these experiences ahead of time, our children will not be surprised if and/or when they are faced with such challenges. 

Another subject to consider discussing is public versus private behavior. What does private mean? Typically, private means in your bedroom or bathroom with the door closed, so no one can see. But appropriate private places may be different for each child. Examples of public would be in the classroom, at a friend’s house, in the car, or at a park. Behavior that should occur in private includes using the restroom, taking a shower, adjusting your private parts, picking your nose, changing your feminine hygiene product, masturbating, and changing your clothes. 

Do you find yourself thinking, where do I begin? If so, using a book with illustrations to help guide the conversation can be very helpful. Books can provide accurate information and create an opportunity for your child to ask questions. The following books by Kate E. Reynolds can be purchased on Amazon and other retailers: What’s Happening to Tom and What’s Happening to Ellie

While I hope this framework can offer some help, it is near impossible to cover everything related to preparing your child for puberty in a short blog. I encourage parents to seek out additional resources and work with an AnswersNow BCBA to develop a plan to meet your child’s specific needs. Visit getanswersnow.com to learn more about us and to check your insurance eligibility.


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