Planning for Puberty

by Jenny Keese, M. Ed, BCBA

Puberty is a time for growth, maturity, and testing boundaries.

For young adults on the spectrum this time is no different, but the transition from childhood to adulthood can manifest in many different ways. As professionals, educators and parents it’s up to us to prepare these individuals on this part of life’s journey. You can expect puberty to start the process of physical changes, mental/emotional changes, a shift in societal expectations and usually a re-evaluation of current therapies and goals.

Physical Changes

We know that during puberty the body undergoes major growth and drastic physical changes. Our young adults become taller, bigger, muscle mass starts to increase, and secondary sex characteristics start to develop. At this time it is common for current problem behaviors to increase, or to be perceived as worse (but actually occur at the same rates and intensity) or new behaviors can develop. This can be due to many reasons, the most common being increased frustration from lack of communication skills, and lower tolerance for displeasing circumstance due to changes in hormones. The best course of action for tackling these new challenges is a proactive one, early intervention is key to establishing a communication system and instructional control.

Other treatment options could include:

Allowing more choices

Allow the individual to choose between clothing options, food options, the sequence of doing tasks, and the option to delay tasks.

Re-evaluate the current communication system

It’s possible that the adolescent does not have a communication system that is functional or meaningful for them. Evaluate the likelihood that the individual may not be able to express all of their wants and needs in the detail required to communicate effectively. For instance, the individual may ask for an item clearly articulated, “Can I have some candy?” the quality of the request is poor as it leaves out specific details (what kind of candy, how much, etc..). Working toward less associative and more specific requesting is an important piece of problem behavior reduction, whether the topography be verbal speech, sign language, AC device, writing, or the use of a picture menu.

Mental/Emotional Changes

Puberty is not only a time of physical development, but mental development as well. The brain is maturing and with that can come faster learning, the teen now has more life experiences to draw knowledge from. These changes can bring about increased self-awareness, social awareness and an increase in anxiety.

Try to talk to your teen before their body starts to change, so they are not surprised. Dependent on each adolescent’s learning style; you will need to find the best way to approach this. You can show the individual pictures (when appropriate), talk about the different physical characteristics between children and adults (deep voice, facial hair, etc.) make social stories that highlight changing feelings and newly developed interest in the opposite sex. Many teens on the spectrum struggle with abstract and inferential language, although it can be uncomfortable clear and concise language is recommended. As the individual may become more interested in others, lessons such as staying on topic, how to sustain a conversation, how to take the perspective of others and other higher order social cognitive lessons may help the new teen navigate the social world.

It is possible that as the individual develops they may start to experience increased anxiety as they begin to understand their social world a little more. It’s common for teens to be more emotional (as hormones are changing) but increased anxiety can occur as the individual is developing these advanced social skills. For example, they could worry that they may be teased, that they may get the wrong answer in class, or develop irrational fears and phobias. This type of anxiety can lead to increased problem behavior, withdrawal, compulsive behaviors and depression. It is important to address these behaviors by targeting the core problem, and working through it by systematic desensitization and skill building. Often these problems arise due to the individual only understanding their social world a little, and can lead to the teen “filling in the blanks” by making illogical correlations (If I wear a yellow shirt, no one will talk to me).

Societal Changes

As our teens continue to mature physically and mentally, society starts to view them differently. Behaviors that were deemed cute and socially accepted when they were younger, now can be viewed as a potential threat. A 14 year old that jumps repetitively, flaps their hands, and vocalizes loudly is likely to be viewed as very disruptive. A 3 year old that engages in the exact same behavior is granted a pass by society, as they are viewed as young and not expected to “know better”. As your child is on the verge of puberty, it’s important to address such issues as personal space, holding hands in public, what items are allowed in public (A 16 year old with a teddy bear is stigmatizing), how to use a public restroom, what areas of the body are private and should remain covered, Hands in pants behavior may also need to be addressed, it’s recommended to allow the individual to engage in this behavior when they are alone (in their room). Other self-advocacy and independence goals may need to be evaluated at this time, such as showering alone, a task analysis for changing a feminine napkin, cooking, study skills, etc..

Puberty is a time of transition for the individual and the entire family unit. Planning and preparation can ease this transition to adulthood.

Keese, Jenny. “Planning for Puberty.” National Autism Association of North Texas Vol. 11, Issue 3: 8-9. Print.