Autism + Puberty = Oh, Crap!

Got your attention, didn’t I?

We’ve been in a great rhythm for a while now, and it’s been glorious. Rituals and routines: check. Handy sensory tools to take to outings: check. Restricted diet: check. Digestive enzymes: check. Pre-meltdown signs identified and used to head him off at the pass: check.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the pants my 9 year-old son was wearing just a few days earlier were suddenly three inches too short. Did I use the wrong drier setting…? Then I saw acne. Then peach fuzz above his lip.

“Honey? Your voice sounds funny – are you coming down with a cold? Feeling okay?”

Then it hit me like a brick to the back of the head: big P, here we come.

Having a daughter first that went through full puberty at 8 (ACK!) I really didn’t think I had anything to worry about: I thought I had it in the bag. Easy – whiny, emotional, easily irritated, overreacting to things – then a smooth ride until the following month. Of course boys are different, but when you add precocious puberty with a splash of Autism you get an interesting cocktail. The hormones seem to sneak in and reconfigure many of the connections we’ve worked so hard to attain.

What to expect

Unexpected rage over small incidents. Proper magnitude of a situation was always an issue with us. We’ve really come a long way learning appropriate responses, but with some of these reactions it’s as if we’re now starting all over again.

Sleep schedule run amok. There has been a magnified wave of insomnia in our house, followed by 15-16 hour stretches of sleep for no apparent reason. Our old rituals and occasional use of melatonin are now ineffective.

New food likes / dislikes and  bizarre cravings. Good thing I went to Sam’s Club and bought a giant, industrial-sized box of his favorite snack food… that he suddenly hates :) Ugh. I caught him spreading Nutella on a dog biscuit the other day and slapped it out of his hands in panic! The good news? He’s trying new foods. It’s all about perspective. <Kidding – no child in my house eats dog biscuits!!

Lack of appetite followed by devouring a week’s worth of groceries. I know this one is not unique to children on the Spectrum, it’s part of having a t(w)een boy.  I still found myself quite financially unprepared for living with Garfield. Anyone know a good Gluten-Free lasagna recipe?

Being overly affectionate. This is a sticky-wicket, especially because I’m a single mom. There have been some shockingly inappropriate… acts of curiosity… that I’ve swiftly nipped in the bud! I will probably need some more assistance with this topic, however, as my expertise ends with Judy Blume books and creating the perfect chocolate/salt balance about three days out of the month. Calling all male role models… help! STAT!

Exhibiting desires to control family members and pets. For some reason, my boy is getting some sort of payoff from cornering me or his sister and not letting us pass through a room, blocking us from getting something in the kitchen, and mildly terrorizing the puppy. There is an underlying theme for the sudden desire to be the “capo di famiglia” (head of household). Yeah… that’s not gonna happen. Thank you, drive through!

No desire to keep up hygiene. Both my kids exhibited this strange behavior at the onset of puberty. It takes an Act of Congress to get them into the shower more than once a week. I simply can’t relate… but I have to stick to my guns.

Regression of old behaviors. Some of the old impulsivity is rearing its ugly head, along with stimming, toileting accidents, and blurting out loud noises. It really feels as if he is choosing this behavior; it has a deliberate tone to it. However, when disciplined he is honestly surprised that he is in trouble and is truly not sure what he did. The difference now is that he internalizes it and tells everyone he’s stupid. That’s not good.

What do you do?

Open communication. The number one thing you can do is make sure your child feels safe to talk about anything with you. With Autism, you may hear questions and perspectives you’ve never encountered in this arena. It’s so important to keep an open dialogue about what he is experiencing, this will set a solid foundation that will hold up any future issues and surprises with grace.

Rinse and repeat. It takes time to create new habits. 21 consecutive days, actually. Don’t expect your child to embrace these new hormones and feelings without some confusion and resistance. Remain patient and be prepared to explain, instruct, and remind your child about virtually everything. You will be repeating yourself, so get used to it :)

Gently establish new routines and rituals. Don’t cry over what used to work. Life is meant to be fluid. I used to feel like such a failure when I couldn’t command a successful routine 100% of the time. Now my attitude is, “We’re going to try this for a while and see how it goes.” If it stops working, we make small course changes. It took me almost 40 years to learn that small, consistent adjustments make a much more profound impact than the extreme and rigid ways I would try to enforce a schedule I thought “should” work. Not to mention all the energy expended feeling bad about my “shoulds”. Now that energy is freed and I can focus on our next step. The flow is so much nicer!

Exercise! Physical movement is always a priority, but it’s really critical during puberty. We start off each morning with Superbrain Yoga. Since I work out every morning for my own sanity, my son will sometimes mimic what I’m doing (or his version of it). There are currently no structured sports or activities in our repertoire, so walks with the dog, back yard exploring, and regular trips to the neighborhood bouncy house definitely help. When the weather gets a little less infernal we will be trying some more challenging activities.

Find a creative outlet. If you have a child with Autism, I’m sure you are no stranger to their current obsession. Rather than meeting it with resistance because YOU think the interest is excessive, try expanding on it. For example, my child lives, breathes, and eats Super Mario Brothers. We’ve found a computer program that goes above and beyond playing the various games: he gets to create custom levels. He puts them to music, assigns characters, powers, scenes, dialogue, and criteria to his games like he’s been designing all his life. What an awesome gift!

Establish ‘mommy time’ boundaries. Now more than ever it is imperative that you carve out sacred time for yourself. You may feel selfish and neglectful when you first attempt this, especially if you work. But the benefits are two-fold: you are getting a much needed and deserved break to replenish your spirit, and you are teaching your child how to do the same for himself. Making sure you are balanced and happy is the greatest gift you can give your entire family.

Celebrate the good choices. No matter how small you think it is, it’s a big deal that your child is able to make a connection, follow a thought, and make a positive choice. You may feel as if your child is too old, but throwing a verbal party when you catch him being good will really shift unwanted behaviors quickly!

What about you? Have you ventured down this path yet? What things helped you tame the beast? Feel free to share by commenting below or posting on the SOA Facebook page – I’d love to hear your stories!

45 thoughts on “Autism + Puberty = Oh, Crap!

  1. Connie says:

    What a fantastic article Debi! You take a situation that many parents anticipate with apprehension and empower them with very sensible tips that can make a positive difference. These are also very useful for kids heading for the big P who are not on the spectrum. I particularly like your first tip about open communication. We often fear what we don’t understand. Talking to your child about puberty and what to expect will help alleviate a lot of anxieties when a child starts to experience loss of control over their body and the emotions that go with it. Thanks for your wonderful insight!

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  3. Debi Taylor says:

    Connie, Jean, Kym… thank you for your kind words! I’m so glad my experiences and ideas have been able to inspire and help others with similar situations.

  4. Sue says:

    Debi – this is my first read of your blog and it feels like you’re living in my house dealing with my 14 year old son! Your description is scarily accurate.

    Puberty is proving to be a very difficult time for us – we’re having to re-set boundaries (how did they get forgotten? not by us!), deal with horrendous rage over very small things, and our middle son is copping for all sorts of punishment from YS that he truly doesn’t deserve, but there’s lots of stopping him walk where he wants, invading his bedroom – even destroying his brother’s bedroom.

    Any ideas how soon it passes? Both my other two boys went through puberty with very little angst at all, but neither of them have autism.

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Sue, I feel for you! I think one of the best coping tools may be to find an outlet (or several!) for your son. Physical activity (punching bag, fun exercising) coupled with a permitted way to express the emotions that are running amok may really help channel these hormones until they aren’t quite so raging. There may also be a teen male vitamin from the health food store that may help take the edge off. I don’t know how long they last, unfortunately… my daughter was sooooooo different. I will keep talking to other parents and report my findings!! Good luck!

  5. Heidi says:

    I can so relate to this ! Many people can”t believe my son started going through puberty at 9, on Dr. even wanted to give him hormomes to stop it ! What is the name of the computer program or website where your son can design his own game characters and levels ? My son would that he is into Super Mario too !

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Hi, Heidi – I relate to your story as well! With my daughter the doctors wanted to put her on a hormone to “freeze puberty”… yet the side effects were breast enlargement and six weeks of bleeding… um… WHAT?!?!? You know your child best, glad you are sticking to your guns and letting Mother Nature do her thing, however early she may have arrived! My son downloaded Super Mario Brothers X on his laptop and creates all sorts of custom SMB games and levels. He’s amazing. He even recorded a tutorial for others with Camtasia and posted it to YouTube!! Super Mario Brothers X is for PC only (I have a Mac but my kids have PCs) and it is free. If you can’t find it via Google I’ll get a link to send you! Thanks for sharing!!

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Chris, thanks for your unique insight. With my son being 9, these thoughts had not yet occurred to me. I will try to find out others’ experience in this arena and post any golden nuggets or tips I find from other families.

  6. Rebecca Clausen says:

    Thank you for this great article. I have worked with kids on the autism spectrum for years and the puberty years are such a challenge to the child, family and school. Your down to earth description of the challenges and strategies that you have found helpful are just what so many (including me) have been seeking.

  7. Mary Cavanaugh says:

    Just some thoughts……when my daughter hit puberty her behavior became extremely violent. I was led by a wise vision development Dr. to have her tested for heavy metal toxicity. She was off the charts in copper, magnesium, and very high in manganese. Once I raised her glutathione levels her violent meltdowns disappeared and her anxiety level subsided. She now takes this supplement daily to keep her toxic level depleted.
    Also the shower problem could be that the water pressure of the shower head is too hard on him. Autistic kids have very heightened senses which include touch. Just looking at this could make a difference.

  8. Toni Grubb says:

    OMG, This sounds just like my son! I too am a single mom. My son sometimes still comes to my bed. I also had to quickly stop the inappropriate behaviors. The quick growth spurt, sleep & appetite.. all sounds like my son! Along with lack of hygiene (I have to force the deodorant). Overly affectionate, need for conterol.. I would swear you are living with my son! Thank you for the “mommy-time” encouragement. Sometimes I feel bad about my zumba time, but you are very right.. its needed now more than ever!

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Hi, Toni! My hat’s off to you as another single mom! I am glad to connect with you and happy that you are now inspired to keep up your Zumba :) I think guilt is genetically coded into mommy DNA, and we have to reprogram ourselves for some down time for sure!

  9. Miriam says:

    Great article Debi! I’m studying to become a Education Specialist in California and dream of opening up my own school for Austistic children/adults. This information is incredibly useful and will keep in on hand for my future students and parents. I hope to be a good resource for parents with autistic children and appreciate your article incredibly! Thanks again and keep up the amazing “job” you do with your son :)

  10. michelle says:

    LOL I thought it was it was awesome your son is obsessed with super mario bros too. Shawn even reads the players guides, I say heack it is reaing time and that is his choice. LOL

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Hi, Michelle! That sure does count as reading time! ; ) Just picked up my son’s Halloween costume (last year he was Yoshi, the year before Luigi, this year it’s Mario himself!). I’m sure he’ll be sleeping in it tonight.

      Thanks for commenting!

  11. Eileen Jackson says:

    What a great article Debi!! My son with severe autism just turned 18 years old and it has been a pretty wild last 9 years or so. We are just now seeing a bit more mellow side of him coming through now, he has never been medicated, but is on some herbals and supplements that have helped him tremendously. I also have a grandson on the high end of the spectrum who is 10 and my son and his wife are just beginning this journey. I will forward the article on to them. Thank you again!!

  12. leah stoltz says:

    My son is turning 10 in November. I’ve started putting it in myead that this will be coming up soon. trying to enjoy the relatively simple times of right now.. He’s really been looking at girls for about 6 months, but I didnt really think this could be the start of puberty ( i kinda though he was doing it to be like his dad?) my son has been always very affectionate.. so that hasn’t changed at all.. but i’m guessing it’s coming soon. Do you know is it commmon for our ASD kids to go thru it sooner than NT kids?

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Hi, Leah! Yep, it sounds like it’s coming ; ) I don’t think there’s necessarily a correlation between ASD and precocious puberty. My NT daughter actually went through the FULL deal at 8! ACK! Neither she nor I were prepared. I think it’s something we are seeing in all children due to hormones in the food, in the pollution, chemicals in the environment, etc. Thanks for commenting and sharing about your son… feel free to contact me once you start seeing definitive signs and I can pass on some of our experiences!

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  17. sally says:

    Hi debi, I have just have to say this all makes sense now. I have almost 11 year old asd son who has always had challenging behaviour,but for the last 6 months its been like living in hell. He is so angry all the time and so defensive. He speaks to me and other family members terribly. Doesnt listen, and argues with everything. Its melt down city here.
    I never even considered his hormones, I thought it was something I was doing wrong. Now I feel we can do this,its not me.
    Thank you debi

    • Debi Taylor says:

      Thanks so much for your comment. I am very happy to hear that sharing my experience has helped you with your son! Many times just understanding what’s going on can make a huge shift in the situation. I recently read that all the sensory issues are magnified immensely when puberty enters the picture… like a fire drill going off constantly. It changes the way I respond to his behaviors for sure!

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  19. Debi Taylor says:

    Hi, Mary! My experience with NRT has been with a holistic dr. that uses muscle testing (kinesiology) to find which organs are weak and what substances (foods, metals, other allergies) may be affecting them negatively. Based on the individual’s response supplements and dietary changes may be necessary, as well as staying away from certain materials.

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  21. Mary Cavanaugh says:

    Hi Debi!

    It is so interesting that there are different ways to get to what is causing the problem. A supplement which is a glutathione accelerator was the answer for my daughter as well as me. The stress of ” autism” caused my health to become compromised and glutathione took the brain fog out of my brain and the fibromyalgia out of my body!
    So thankful for practitioners who think out of the box or I would still have a very sick daughter.

  22. Di says:

    Your article is very helpful. It is the first article that I have come across that has actually offered any real discussion on autism and puberty. Many things you discuss in your article sound so familiar to me LOL! I began to notice signs of puberty in my son when he turned 9 he is now 10. Thank you for coming to our rescue.

  23. angiw says:

    Thank you! It is so nice to know that um not in this alone. My son is 10 yrs.and non-verbal. You have gave answers to many questions that have been heavy on my mind. A milling thanks :)

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