Puberty of autistic children – what challenges parents face


“It is avoided to talk about the sexuality of people with disabilities. But these things exist and they are very important. One gets the impression that people with disabilities are often treated as if something is not possible for them. For example, if we see teenagers with normal development hugging at school, no one will pay too much attention, but if one or both of them have a disability, it is likely to be looked at askance. These are the same teenagers who are maturing and discovering their bodies, but our task is to help them understand and behave properly”, says B. Veselienė in a press release.

According to G. Sabaliauskienė, who conducts sexuality training for young people, sexuality is the same for all children, both neurotypical and non-neurotypical: “They are interested in the same topics, the same body changes occur for both boys and girls. However, the difference is that neurotypical children, like other skills, learn from the environment, from other children, talk to their parents about the issue they care about, look for information on the Internet, in books, etc. And autistic children do not have such abilities due to their lack of communication, social skills, lack of understanding of social context, and in some cases, intellectual disability.”

“One of the most important reasons why it is necessary to talk about sexuality education with autistic children is because they are at high risk of being exploited. For example, research shows that the prevalence of sexual abuse can be up to three times higher among women on the autism spectrum compared to those without it. Sexuality education does not begin when body changes are already obvious, but much earlier, so that children learn to distinguish what is intimate, what can touch their body, how to behave in a public place, etc., says B. Veselienė.

Tips for parents

According to B. Veselienė, the most important thing is that parents should be able to talk with their children about intimate topics and changes. For some parents, puberty “happens” unexpectedly, while others prepare for it in advance. The first aid is the book “Growing Up” published by the Lithuanian autism association “Lietaus vaikii”, which provides very understandable information for an autistic child: who I am, what my environment is, what are the norms, who can touch me, what things are personal, what are common – it explains the general basics and gives tips on how to explain puberty.

“One way to help autistic children understand body changes is to use simplified, very clear language, without any figurative meanings. Visual aids, illustrations, which clearly show what is happening with their bodies, how to act in one or another situation also help. This is especially important if the child also has an intellectual disability. When conducting classes for autistic children, I select exercises taking into account individual sensory needs, the child’s age and level of understanding. The most important thing is to apply those exercises every day, it’s the same as taking a vitamin pill, if we don’t take it, we won’t get results,” commented the occupational therapist in a press release.

According to B. Veselienė, even if the parents think that their child’s behavior when discovering their body is inappropriate, it is not necessarily inappropriate in general, the most important thing is not to deny that maturation processes are taking place, that children are growing up, getting acquainted with changes: “A person with a disability has the right to all bodily things. What parents can do is explain and guide them in a safe and appropriate direction, create a safe environment and remain trustworthy so that children feel safe communicating about their puberty.”

Sensory Challenge: Masturbation

Each person receives a lot of information through sensory systems on a daily basis about what is happening in the environment, what is happening with our body. According to G. Sabaliauskienė, a person’s well-being and mood also depend on sensorics. When we are angry, it means that our sensory system is not functioning as well as it would like today. What do we do to cheer ourselves up? There are a lot of different things, and everyone is different: some go for sports, others listen to loud music, others eat a piece of cake, etc. This ability to find a pleasant thing that lifts our mood and allows us to be good and productive again is called self-regulation.

“Children with autism spectrum disorder lack self-regulation, so they try to calm themselves down in their own ways. Since most of them also have a sensory integration disorder, that calmness is precisely responded to through sensorics. Science says that toddlers suck their thumbs to soothe themselves, and children with sensory disabilities may find it pleasant to touch their genitals to soothe themselves. And this can become a habit, a compulsive behavior,” explains the occupational therapist.

G. Sabaliauskienė points out that if an autistic child masturbates – it cannot be forbidden, you need to try to find out the reasons why he behaves like this: he imitates, seeks the attention of his parents, engages in self-stimulation, because the methods of help are different: “I had a case where a teenager masturbated for a long time at home , the parents were very annoyed by this, they did not agree. We found out that he does this not for self-regulation, but simply for the attention of his parents, he wanted to spend more time with them in common activities. Here’s a way to help you too. If we find out that they do this because of sensory and self-regulation, then my help is to create an individual exercise program for that child, based on the sensory results obtained.”

The article is in Lithuanian


Tags: Puberty autistic children challenges parents face


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