"Grandpa, I got pubic hair!" Max's shout to his grandfather gets the expected reaction from his mother and grandparents in this episode of Parenthood and made me laugh out loud. Ah, puberty - with all its surprises, explorations, embarrassments, abortive attempts at discussion and shyness on everyone's part. It's a wonderful time of life for those who can look back at it and laugh over the missteps we made. For parents currently facing it, it's a time to appreciate this important milestone in our child's development and a time of trepidation, too.
How do you approach discussing intimate details of a developing body with your own child? You need to be factual, but also gentle and mindful that they will be squirming the whole time. Kristina already went through this with Haddie, and it sounds like she's very glad it's over. Now it's time for Max to get "the talk" from Adam. While this topic is hard enough for parents of typical pre-teens, it's especially hard for those whose children are on the autism spectrum. Max may not be embarrassed over the facts - indeed he loves facts and is fascinated with them - but he still requires careful guidance in using this new information.
Informed pre-teens already understand the line between what they can discuss with their parents and what they say to their friends in the neighborhood or school. They also learn through media and the Internet. As such, they're able to gauge topics and plan reactions. Although Max may get the same information from his parents, media and the Internet, he doesn't fully understand the application of this information. For him, it is fascinating new info; for society, it's a highly charged topic that comes with heavy responsibilities. If Max can talk about his eyes, ears, elbows, etc., anywhere he goes to whomever he wants, why can't he talk about what intimate areas of his body he's washing or that he hasn't had a wet dream yet?
Max's grandparents accept this as natural and a subject that apparently can be discussed with great enthusiasm (and pride on Zeek's part) in front of extended family. But Kristina understands the wider ramification of Max's new knowledge. Extend this to what many of us in schools see - if Max can talk about this to his family, why not with anyone else? What's the big deal, anyway? It is a big deal, because Max has autism spectrum and cannot appreciate how his classmates would respond when he tells them his new showering routine. "Oh Yuck! Why would you tell us that?? You're weird!" (This would probably be from the girls; the boys would most likely just howl with laughter!)
Children with A.S.D. entering puberty often unknowingly exhibit very embarrassing behaviors in front of others at school or in the community. They touch themselves in inappropriate areas, tell younger children what will happen when they themselves enter puberty (sometimes getting into serious trouble for doing so), ask girls if they have started their periods yet, pass gas in class, pick their nose without the benefit of tissues, unknowingly make statements that have double meanings and sexual connotations, self-stimulate during class, etc. Parents and teachers usually react quickly to defuse the situation. But this often leaves the student clueless as to why others are upset and losing friends over their ineptitude in the social realm.
Max will need concrete directions about how to handle this topic and concrete answers to his ongoing questions about his body's reactions to the progress of puberty. He'll need to understand the various levels of society and what one can say or do in public and what one reserves for private talks with parents.
Puberty brings up another, larger area of discussion as well. It's a rough time for parents of children with A.S.D., since it brings to the forefront questions put on the back burner while dealing with the day-to-day difficulties in parenting this complex child. Kristina and Adam have now hit this time with Max. Like all parents, they have plans for their children's future. Some are realistic, some are romanticized and some are anxiety-provoking. Most parents want their children to grow up, have a successful job, find the love of their lives, marry, and above all, be very, very happy. Many with A.S.D. realize this dream and many do not. We know, for example, that only a small portion of those with A.S.D. marry (which does not necessarily mean, of course, that they are not "happy"). It is now a question that Adam and Kristina will discuss and worry about for years to come as Max develops into an adult.
From the parental viewpoint, we can look back at the time we shepherded our children through puberty and smile. For all adolescents, it will always be a time fraught with uncertainty, missteps and misery. For those with A.S.D., though, everything is magnified to greater heights. Information, guidance, concrete instruction and tons of understanding from family and teachers are critical for a successful trek through puberty.
Written by Sheila Wagner, M.Ed.