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Autism and Puberty Aggression: What You Need to Know

May 31, 2024

As a teenager going through puberty, I experienced a rough time. There were bouts of frustration, anger, and aggression. It was incredibly difficult to control my emotions. I remember it being some of the hardest transitions of my life, and I’m considered neurotypical.

For children on the autism spectrum, that transition can be even more challenging. Autism and puberty aggression can be even more pronounced. It can also be tough on the parents. However, there are ways to respond to help children navigate aggressive behavior during puberty.

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Autism in Teens: Puberty, Expectations, Symptoms, and Treatments

How does autism affect puberty?

Puberty is defined as a natural biological process as children cross from childhood into adolescence. While everyone will experience physical and hormonal changes during puberty, autism tends to add some unique challenges during this time in a child’s life.

These include:

Sensory sensitivities

During puberty, autistic children can experience heightened sensory sensitivities that lead to them becoming more overwhelmed easily.

If an autistic child already struggles with social interaction, these struggles may become more obvious. They may exhibit more aggressive behavior in an attempt to escape the sensory triggers.

Many children with autism spectrum disorders may exhibit increased anxiety or discomfort. It’s important for parents to help create a supportive environment for children with autism to help manage any sensory overload.

Communication skills

Social interactions tend to become more complex during puberty, which can lead to communication challenges, especially for those children with autism who may be nonverbal or verbally limited.

These communication struggles can make it harder for a child to maintain the friendships they experienced as younger kids. The child’s behavior may become more aggressive during puberty due to their communication skills struggles.

Social skills

Social skills and social interaction can tie in with communication skills when it comes to difficulty during puberty for children with autism spectrum disorder. Autistic children may miss nonverbal cues, leading to difficult circumstances.

Teenage boy talking to a therapist https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-and-puberty-aggression/

However, there are social skills training, speech therapies, and other individualized supports designed to help autistic kids with both sets of skills.

Emotional and self-regulation

Anyone who has been through puberty can tell you that it can wreak havoc on your emotions and behavior. This can be doubly true for children with autism spectrum disorders, as mood swings can be very common.

Many of them already struggle with emotional regulation before hormones start impacting aggressive behavior. While it will be difficult, there are coping strategies that can be individualized to help a child with autism and puberty aggression.

Puberty is a difficult transition, but providing autistic kids with the necessary resources and interventions can help them have something resembling an ordinary family life.

What causes puberty aggression in autism?

The simplest answer for a cause for puberty aggression in autism is hormonal changes. Autism research suggests these hormonal changes, which everyone experiences, can lead to autistic children reacting more aggressively.

That’s because the hormones may be exacerbating anxiety and sensory issues the child already experiences. This is especially true if the child with autism has higher support needs and then starts exhibiting more aggressive behavior.

On top of these hormonal changes, issues with sensory input and processing may become more noticeable. Communication challenges may become more profound, too.

Children with autism spectrum disorder may also demonstrate aggressive behavior as routines are changed. 

Unfortunately, this is a part of becoming young adults, so it’s not something children with autism can avoid. They will need guidance through this transition.

What impact does puberty aggression have on daily life?

Unfortunately, aggression during puberty can have a negative impact on family dynamics. Some children with autism may lose impulse control and start lashing out physically at other family members.

Some parents reported an increased risk of self-injury if the children with autism didn’t start hitting others.

My younger son recently turned nine years old and has already demonstrated an increase in aggressive behavior. It’s causing a bit of a rift between him and his brother. I can’t imagine that’s going to get better as he experiences the hormonal changes of puberty.

While I will work on coping strategies with him to try to encourage self-control, I still hope his brother will recognize that it’s autism and not anger leading to aggressive behaviors. The best reaction I can hope for is, “That’s just my brother.”


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Managing autism and puberty aggression

Aggression related to puberty and autism can lead to some unusual emotional reactions from children. However, there are ways to help regulate and manage emotions and behavior during this time in your child’s life.

These include managing sensory challenges and creating a supportive environment.

Managing sensory challenges

As mentioned, children with autism going through puberty may experience heightened sensory issues. This may include hypersensitivity to touch, smells, or sounds.

However, there are ways to help children with autism be more comfortable. These include:

  • providing a calm and quiet space,
  • using sensory tools,
  • and establishing predictable routines.

These coping strategies can help children with autism not feel overwhelmed by sensory challenges and help them self-regulate.

Creating a supportive environment

Children with autism may experience emotional struggles, communication struggles, and social struggles while going through puberty. It’s a time that can feel isolating for neurotypical children, so the same can be expected for most children with autism.

These are some strategies you can use to help create a supportive environment for them:

  • develop clear schedules,
  • encourage communication,
  • promote social skills,
  • encourage social interaction.

Implementing these strategies can help parents, caregivers, and other family members guide children with autism as they experience the changes of puberty.

Don’t forget to take care of yourself

Puberty is a trying time for all children as they make the transition to adolescence. That trying time appears to be heightened for children with autism.

Many of them won’t understand the physical changes their bodies are experiencing, but parents can help them address this physical maturation. However, parents can’t allow their focus on helping their child to impact their own health.

Take the time you need to make sure you are in the right frame of mind to help your child. If you remember puberty, you will also remember that you weren’t always in the best place to make certain decisions due to the hormonal changes.

Mother trying to comfort her daughter https://www.autismparentingmagazine.com/autism-and-puberty-aggression/

Taking care of yourself will allow you to be in the best place to help your children with autism, who may not understand the hormonal and physical changes they are going through.

Still, as parents, we want what’s best for our children with autism. We can help them reach that goal and curtail physical aggression by being in the best place for them. It’s a lot of work, but it’ll be rewarding as your children become young adults.

FAQs

Q: Does autism get worse during puberty?

A: In a traditional sense, autism is not worse as children enter puberty. However, the struggles they experienced during early childhood may become more pronounced as they experience changes in hormones.

Q: Is aggression common in autism?

A: Research suggests aggression can be incredibly common among children with autism. More than half of the children involved in a recent study were aggressive toward caregivers, while nearly a third were aggressive toward non-caregivers.

Q: Can autism cause mood swings during puberty?

A: Children with autism are more likely to experience mood swings during puberty. All children are at a higher risk of mental health issues during the hormonal changes, even though many are temporary.

Q: What can make autism worse?

A: While nothing has been found to make autism itself worse, some triggers can lead to worsening behaviors linked to autism. These include sensory overload, routine changes, lack of support, and environmental factors.

References:

Fitzpatrick SE, Srivorakiat L, Wink LK, Pedapati EV, Erickson CA. Aggression in autism spectrum disorder: presentation and treatment options. Neuropsychiatr Dis Treat. 2016 Jun 23;12:1525-38. doi: 10.2147/NDT.S84585. PMID: 27382295; PMCID: PMC4922773.

Kanne, S.M., Mazurek, M.O. Aggression in Children and Adolescents with ASD: Prevalence and Risk Factors. J Autism Dev Disord 41, 926–937 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-010-1118-4

Brown, C.E., Borduin, C.M., Dopp, A.R. and Mazurek, M.O. (2019), The social ecology of aggression in youths with autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 12: 1636-1647. https://doi.org/10.1002/aur.2157

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