My daughter Lily is 11 years old. That might seem early to be concerning myself with the potential challenges her teen years may bring, but I assure you it’s not. With possible issues both emotional and physical, this single dad is attempting to get ahead of the curve … to survive.
Puberty isn’t a picnic for any kid. Mood swings, voice changes, and temper tantrums can test the limits of parenting patience. But for kids on the spectrum, everything goes to 11.
Lily’s system exists in a sort of delicate equilibrium. When she’s healthy and rested, she gets along reasonably well with just about anyone. But any little upset completely tips her over the edge. I can usually spot a common cold coming in two weeks because of her decreased appetite, sleeplessness, or mood swings, pulling my hair out for days waiting for that first sneeze. What will happen when she begins going through puberty?
This issue is real but usually goes undiscussed. It’s sensitive, private, and can be embarrassing to talk about. But they’re our kids. How can I prepare as my daughter starts to grow up?
1. The development gap
One of the subtler effects of growth is the widening development gap between kids and their peers. The older they get, the more pronounced our children’s particular issues can appear. When Lily was 3 years old, she didn’t seem all that different from the other 3-year-olds. When she was 8, there was a marked difference, but the kids were still young and had each other’s back. Kids were supportive of each other despite differences.
Now Lily is 11. Although she attends a school with other kids who share similar challenges, the average kid her age is almost a teenager, curious about dating, parties, fashion, and their own bodies.
Meanwhile, Lily remains content watching “The Wiggles”and rocking her princess lunchbox. Teenagers become more socially aware. They notice these differences. They joke about them. They use them to score points with their friends at the expense of others.
Social skills can already be challenging for children with autism, but now stack dating, romance, and teen snark on top of it?
You can advocate. You can educate. But there will be bad days at school for your child. Home needs to be a safe place if nothing else.
2. The physical changes
Our babies are growing up. And apart from the obvious differences — hair, hair everywhere! — I now also must consider the fact that my daughter is heading for her period. And as a single dad I’m the one who’s going to have to guide her through that.
One way I’m preparing for this is by consulting her pediatrician. Options exist for children who aren’t able to fully manage their self-care. You can find out about them from their doctor. For example, you can start buying absorbent Pull-Ups-style undergarments specifically designed for menstrual cycles so you’re ready for that first day surprise. There are also period tracker apps that can help with maintenance moving forward.
Communicate with their pediatrician, school, and other caregivers. Have a plan in place when it comes to explanations.
3. The self-care
Not everyone on the spectrum is as reliant upon their caregiver as Lily is. For those who are able, self-care will rapidly become one of the most important factors in their lives. Shaving, using deodorant, tracking periods, using deodorant, cleaning properly, and using deodorant. Yeah, I repeated deodorant. No one wants to be singled out by their peers as “the smelly one.” They already have enough to worry about.
Reminders, cues, and open dialogue about what “too much” and “too little” mean (not enough soap might be preferable to too much perfume, especially to kids with sensory aversions) are essential going forward.
4. The hunger pangs
Teenagers get hungry. And when Lily gets hungry … she gets hangry. Having easy-to-grab food around for snacking or easy meals to prepare for more independent kids can be a game changer — both for their mood and your sanity. Buy microwaveable foods, packaged foods. Things that can tide them over until dinner. Or second dinner.
5. The unmentionables
Okay … are you ready? Masturbation. You said you were ready! I think I can say with authority you need to start thinking right now about how you’re going to approach this topic with your teen when it arises. What are some ground rules? When is it appropriate? Where is it appropriate? Think about that. Be ready to talk about it.
Most kids are curious about this topic, and kids who have autism can be very blunt. It may not be a big deal in their mind to raise their hand and ask a teacher. It might be best that you provide that message and control how it’s relayed.
6. The internet
That brings me to internet safety. Social media can be a blessing for kids with social difficulties. They can take their time answering questions, filter out the distraction of facial expressions, and gloss over speech problems via typing. The screen can also be a great barrier between social awkwardness and a cool conversation. But the filter of the screen also offers anonymity to less savory types. Kids who’re noted for being trusting and literal can put themselves into bad positions without realizing it.
Pictures and videos are shared and saved. And what are they sharing? Who are they sharing with? The internet is forever. Kids’ internet use has to be monitored not only for stranger danger but for the ready access to sexual imagery and pornography. Parents need to be ready to have frank conversations about sexuality and intimacy — what it is, what it should be, and how that may differ from person to person whom they stumble across online.
The bottom line
The challenges of preparing for your child’s teen years can be overwhelming and I’m sure I’m leaving a few out. In many cases, though, a solution may be as simple as the old Boy Scout mantra: “Be prepared.”
These are big, uncomfortable issues, and there’s no manual that tells you the right way to handle them. But if you approach them open-mindedly, calmly, and from a place of love, then the discussions you have with your growing child will teach them they can come back to you to discuss them again. And having a plan in place could help you prevent unpleasant situations before they happen.
This doesn’t have to be embarrassing or awkward — it’s just biology.