My son, Jake, who lives with autism, is almost 19 years old. When he reached a certain age, I was on the lookout for signs of puberty.
Not knowing when he’d actually develop, I started to prepare him for what was to come:
“You are going to grow hair on your body,” I said and then gave some specifics.
“No,” Jake replied.
“One day,” I continued determinedly, “you will shave your face like Daddy does.”
“No,” Jake asserted.
I ended up taking Jake to the same pediatric urologist who saw him as a newborn. The doctor assured me and my husband that puberty was, indeed, on the way.
As with all new processes for Jake, the beginning involves lots of protest; then, the protest fades as he gets comfortable with the new process. Fast forward a couple of years, and Jake notices the new hair growth I warned him about. He did not seem surprised or angered—only matter of fact. Luckily, leg hair grows slowly, so Jake had time to recognize that it was there to stay.
Jake has since graduated to partial face shaving with his Dad. My husband started the process by shaving in front of Jake and encouraging him to try. The teaching has been working well, but Jake has trouble holding the razor at the correct angle. There are many razors on the market, so if we need to make a change, we will.
Deodorant use was introduced to Jake as puberty began. To remind him, I used a CD-ROM with PECS [picture exchange communication system] from Pyramid in Newark. Jake’s underarm hair serves as a target for where to rub the deodorant, and he likes a verbal prompt. The picture has been added to the list of things for him to do each day. Now, the PECs pictures serve as a reminder for Jake: If it’s on the schedule, he has to do it. (No stinky teenage boy here!)
For parents, the most difficult part of their children’s puberty is the sexuality aspect: How much do you tell them? And how do you tell them?
Describing the mechanics of sex needs tailoring to each individual’s level of understanding. What a child can handle today will be different next year, so keep the conversation going.
With Jake, I have never been certain that he would understand the “sex talk.” I don’t expect that Jake will ever be in a typical relationship, but he needs to be aware so that no one can take advantage of him.
For help, I recommend reaching out to other parents going through the same stage or those whose children are a little ahead. The insight and knowledge will be invaluable as you navigate with your child through puberty.
I’ve noticed that, as my son was developing, I got used to the slow progress. As a parent, this slowness was a comfort and made me forget that puberty was coming, no matter what age Jake may be developmentally.
Recently, I talked to parents who have kids with special needs about how they approached the topic of masturbation. Although the act is natural, some teens need guidance. In fact, some boys have behavioral outbursts that can be aided by learning how to masturbate. With direction from your child’s doctor or other professional in his life, you can get the information you need.
One family I spoke to had a security camera in the son’s room from the time he was small because of the severity of his seizures. With the other monitor in the kitchen, it soon became common practice to turn the monitor off when the boy needed privacy.
This conversation brought up the idea of teaching the appropriate location for masturbation: Do you limit it to the bedroom? Or do you encourage using the bathroom? The more experienced parents shot down the bathroom. Why? Because our guys use public bathrooms in the community. If one bathroom is an acceptable place to masturbate, then any bathroom would seem appropriate. To avoid any unintended displays, these parents advised the use of the bedroom. This reasoning makes sense to me, but every family has to find what works for them.
Wishing us all good luck with each and every situation!
Sun contributor Jen Nardo is a parent mentor and long-time Autism Delaware™ volunteer as well as a dedicated member of Autism Delaware’s newsletter committee.
This text was edited for consistency of language and message and appears in the July–September 2017 issue of the Autism Delaware quarterly newsletter, The Sun.