Ideas for supporting children on the spectrum as they enter puberty, navigate hormones and explore relationships.
As a working mom of three children, ranging from ages four to 15, it is safe to say that I have a lot on my plate. The thing is, all parents have a lot on their plates. We must be the therapist, the referee, the chef, the housekeeper, and too many more things to name. But, I believe that wearing those different hats is what it takes to be a great parent. Parents of children on the spectrum must be all of those things while supporting the social, emotional, and developmental differences in their children.
My oldest child was determined to be high-functioning on the autism spectrum around the age of four. He is smart and well-spoken about his interests. However, he has difficulty expressing his feelings and is awkward in social situations.
We had it kind of tough in his early years, as I was a single mom trying to navigate the unknown while still trying to support his health and development. As difficult as it was for me to learn the ins and outs of what was happening with my child, he still managed to be the sweetest, kindest, and most well-behaved child I had ever known.
My son made it easy for me to be a mom. Even as a pre-teen, we rarely had many outbursts that couldn’t be resolved with some therapeutic conversation and breathing strategies we had learned from ABA therapists.
Now, he is a huge 15-year-old with high intelligence and an even higher level of hormones. I never got around to planning for raising a teenager. Furthermore, I never realized that my baby would not always be my baby and that his interests would change. Who knew?!
Meet my son
To understand my struggle, you must first understand my son’s personality. At a whopping six feet and 220 pounds, my son is a gentle giant. He would give the shirt off his back to anyone in need. He is an avid reader of non-fiction literary works and has a photographic memory. While not the type to spark up a conversation, when you spark his interest he will give you all the greatest facts about just about any topic. My son is shy, kind, and just all around a great guy.
Which makes it all the more difficult to handle situations regarding hormones, relationships, and sex. The average teenager his age will begin to show interests in sex and relationships while pursuing such mutual relationships in high school. An adolescent on the spectrum will likely have more trouble gaining those types of emotional connections with the objects of their affection.
It can be difficult for them to understand and lonely for them to go through. Often, that level of loneliness they experience can lead to less-acceptable behaviors such as viewing pornography. This can be a slippery slope for teenagers on the spectrum because their understanding of sex can be greatly misconstrued.
As adults, we know that pornography does not provide a valid interpretation of what sex is. Our children are even more misguided as they don’t understand the emotional connections and the safety precautions that are required when engaging in such activities. How, then, do we carefully navigate this stage in autistic adolescent development without tarnishing our teen’s ideas or experiences with relationships?
There aren’t enough books published or blogs posted or articles written on this earth to help parents navigate each and every possible scenario. However, I have taken a few steps to help my son navigate his own personal experiences thus far, and I must say it has shown great promise.
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Steps which helped my son navigate his personal experiences
Keeping the door open for communication is essential during this time in your child’s life. They may feel misunderstood. So, reaching out to the child and initiating the conversation may work better than waiting for him/her to come to you.
One way to open the door to the conversation would be to purchase helpful books or magazines that will help explain hormonal changes and what is happening to his/her body. Sex is not a bad word and your adolescent should not feel bad about thinking about it or talking about it.
Contacting a therapist or enlisting therapists already in your child’s life to help navigate through puberty and beyond is a great way to help both the parent and the child understand what is happening. It is not an easy task having conversations about sex and relationships with an adolescent on the spectrum. In some cases, it is best to get a professional to help guide the conversations effectively.
As mentioned above, supply your teen with plenty of literature to refer to. Give them options on ways they can find out more about sex and relationships. I would steer clear of having them search online as this can lead to more confusion than clarification. A good practice is to read the materials with your kids and even pick chapters or sections that are most relevant to your child and use them as talking points while discussing the book.
Both parent and teen support groups can effectively help you get through this time in your child’s life by providing a shoulder to lean on when times get difficult or confusing for either of you. My son and I were in a group that supported both parents and teens in their own respective groups. I found out through that group that my son was not the only child struggling with understanding sex. It feels better knowing you are not alone.
Regardless of all the effort we put into teaching our children, while they are in this stage of their lives, it is likely that they will still be curious. That is normal. However, it is imperative that we keep them safe. Monitoring cell phone activity is important. Using parental controls on all devices will help reduce their chances of finding unsavory content or even coming in contact with online predators.
Utilize your TV provider’s parental security to minimize the possibility of your teen watching inappropriate programs and movies. Children are resourceful and will likely find ways around many of these security blocks. The idea is that once security has been breached, you will likely be alerted. This will give you the opportunity to initiate the conversation about what is happening, how they are feeling, and what is safe and unsafe.
Our babies will always be our babies, but we are raising them to be productive adults in a world that does not always understand them. As parents of children on the spectrum, it is our job to stay in the know and, and even more importantly, to keep our children in the know. “When you know better, you do better”.
This article was featured in Issue 126 – Romantic Relationships and Autism