As parents, we are naturally protective of our children at every stage of their life, but some of the toughest years are when a child reaches adolescence, and in my opinion, this is particularly challenging for parents of young girls.
It is likely a preteen/teenage girl on the autism spectrum may have a more difficult and unique experience than the typical teenage girl. To make puberty a successful experience rather than a scary one, the key elements to remember are preparation, trust, and knowledge.
In my experience, most people’s greatest fear is the unknown. For this reason and others, it is crucial to provide step-by-step instructions during this stage in a child’s life, so that when puberty begins, he/she is prepared.
Here are a few further tips drawn from my experiences as a mom of two girls on the spectrum:
Offer your child reassurance
Adolescent girls often feel insecure and might be embarrassed about their bodies. They could feel uncomfortable about the size of their breasts, nervous about their menstrual cycles, and upset about their acne. Helping girls understand puberty is a natural life process that is uncomfortable, but will change soon, can make the overall outlook more positive.
Daily affirmations and reassurances that every girl will experience similar growing pains go a long way. A resource that helped my children and I is the book The American Girl. It provided me with the tools to prepare my daughters for the stages of puberty and their developmental growth. The book displayed illustrations and explanations that made it easier for my girls to understand, creating an open dialogue for them to voice their feelings.
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Become familiar with your daughter’s social circles
During adolescence, some girls with autism may develop an infatuation with boys. Developing attraction is natural at this age but, for children on the spectrum, interests can sometimes turn into obsessions. If an infatuation with boys (or indeed, an attraction to people of any gender) occurs, it should be managed at the very moment it’s recognized; it can get out of hand before you know it! It is important you monitor who your daughter is around and that you are comfortable with who she is talking to. This may feel overbearing and uncomfortable as parents, but children with autism may be more gullible than your typical teenage girl and could unintentionally put themselves in vulnerable situations.
Ensure safe use of social media
It is also important to remember this generation of teenagers is exposed to social media and technology, which makes it easier for them to get entangled with the wrong group of people. Unfortunately, predators prey on the vulnerable, such as girls on the spectrum, because they think it is easier to control them. Make sure your daughter is aware of certain dangers as she transitions to adulthood and starts to explore relationships.
Many autistic children are “people pleasers,” so they might do things that make them uncomfortable just to please someone, even though they know it is wrong. Pleasing someone of the opposite (or indeed, the same) sex without really understanding her decision can have a lifelong effect on a young girl, especially one on the spectrum. Our children are taught “stranger danger,” during their toddler years, but an adolescent girl with autism may only see a stranger as someone who needs help. As parents of children with autism, we must be more vigilant and make a greater effort to understand technology and know who they are talking to. The adolescent years can be their best or worst years of life based on the experiences they have and the knowledge they are provided.
This article was featured in Issue 116 – Enhancing Communication Skills