Autism and puberty: my 10-year-old is growing up, and I'm not ready

September 16 | Guest post by E.
little girl/big city
Photo by: jessicalsmyersCC BY 2.0

My ten-year-old daughter with Asperger's syndrome just got her period. When my daughter was diagnosed several years ago as being on the Autism spectrum, I only thought so far as the toddler/elementary school years. Everyday things like getting dressed and playing with other kids were already such challenges, I just couldn't wrap my head around what would happen when my daughter, you know, becomes a woman.

Call it denial if you will, but even though I knew one day my girl would get her period, I expected that to happen to a 12 or 13-year-old girl, a girl who was developmentally much further than where my daughter is. Not my 10-year-old, whose world still revolves around stuffed animals, Thomas the Train and water color painting.

Imagine taking your daughter to a store to try on bras and then rewarding her with Play Doh.

A year or so ago I watched my little girl begin her transformation from having a typical little-kid-body to getting curves, watching her baby fat move from her belly to her hips. And finally, came her breasts. She went over night from being flat-as-a-pancake to having C-cups.

Still, seeing the signs last year, I didn't do what I originally wanted to do, which was bury my head in the sand and start drinking heavily. I started Googling and started talking to her about the changes in her body, giving her facts but leaving out details that I didn't think she could understand, like where babies come from.

As her body continued to transform, I spoke to her pediatrician about how long it might be until she got her period. Her doctor said usually within a year from the time you start to see the physical signs.

Crap.

So, I started talking to her about her period, again sticking to facts, telling her it was nothing to be scared of. I crossed one of my enormous deal breakers and left the bathroom door open while I had my period just so my visually oriented daughter could see me take care of myself and see that it was no big deal.

And one day, just as the doctor predicted, it came. My daughter had been out grocery shopping with her dad and when she came in, I noticed a stain on her skirt. I sat my daughter down and reminded her of when we talked about when a girl gets her period and that it might happen to her. Her eyes focused downward, she nodded her head. I reminded her of how I told her it was nothing to worry about, that we just had to go and change her clothes and underpants.

After a few days she did get the hang of it herself and began taking care of herself with me just reminding her every so often to change it. As hard as I thought the period would be, it's actually the easy part of all this.

What's enormously harder is the way I see people look at my daughter now, this woman-child with full on breasts who clutches her gingham checked teddy bear. Or my daughter's gym teacher who sent a note home asking me to buy sports bras for my daughter because her breasts jiggle too much when she runs.

Of all the issues I thought I would have to deal with as the mother of a child on the autistic spectrum, jiggling breasts on my 10-year-old did not figure into my list.

But… it's our reality.

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  1. I'm going through the same thing- with a 10 year old boy. I knew the day would come when he started getting hair in weird places and would start to like girls, but I am so sad it came so fast. I'm not completely shocked though- both is dad and I were early bloomers, and being 10 and 5 foot already, I knew it was only a matter of time. I think you've handled it very well, and your daughter is extremely lucky to have a momma like you!

    2 agree
  2. I think that anyone who reaches puberty at that age has it a little rough.

    My sister hit puberty at about 10 or 11, and looking back (I'm younger) it was very tough on her, and she's completely neurotypical.

    I, on the other hand, didn't have my period until I was 15, although at that point I had already had hips for about 2-3 years. I was much better equipped to deal with it simply because I believe I was the last of my friends to get their period.

    8 agree
    • I'll second that as someone who went through puberty early on – it's hard, no matter the circumstances. I was "posthumously" diagnosed with HFA in college, and I can tell you that no matter how mature my body and intellect were at 10, my emotional state was NOT ready for the hormone changes that come with puberty.

      I have this incredibly vivid memory of my mother forcing me to learn to shave under my arms in time for the pool party for my eighth birthday (between 2nd and 3rd grades), but that's nothing compared to the memories of the other girls calling me "monkey girl" for the amount of hair on my eight-year-old legs later that year. My stunted social skills were nowhere near ready to deal with the reactions of my classmates when I was suddenly the tallest in the class (4th grade), the first to have noticeable (C-cup) breasts at ten years old (5th grade), or the first to need to constantly ask to go to the bathroom to take care of my period (also 5th grade).

      With that said, however, I can also say that I survived. It could have been worse.

      17 agree
    • You're probably right about that, anyone going through puberty at age 10, autism or not, is no walk in the park. Thanks so much for reading and for your comment.

      4 agree
  3. I'm assuming that I'm missing something here because I'm not well-enough informed on how autism affects children, so please forgive what may sound like malice: What does getting her period have to do with her autism?

    Reading this post, my thoughts were, "Wow, that does sound frustrating. I wonder if that's similar to how my mom felt when I got my period. I wonder if this early development is related to the hormones in food." But I apparently missed the connection to her autism. Aren't most ten-year-olds unprepared for the realities of puberty? Don't "normal" kids still like Play-Doh and teddy bears at 10? What's different for an autistic girl?

    • My husband has Aspergers and we have often discussed that parents of kids with Aspergers sometimes confuse regular parent/ kid challenges with Asperger challenges. As someone that is married to an Aspie, I understand that explaining things in a way that an Aspie can understand can be challenging and reminding them about things they are not interested in dealing with can be on going but…10 is too young to cope with breasts and periods for almost any girl, I know, I developed breasts early and got my period at 10 and everything you are describing about your daughter seems like the same problems any 10 year old would have including me and I am NT. At age 10 you are just not ready to deal with it. Sometimes I would forget to check my pads often enough, I was 10, I was busy climbing trees and racing around with friends and I HATED that I had my period. As a total tomboy going through puberty early sucked! The challenges you are having with your daughter that has Aspergers are exactly the same challenges my mom had with me in regards to early puberty.

      1 agrees
    • You raise a good point. To be honest, I am not sure that my daughter's experience is all that vastly different from any 10 year old dealing with getting her period. I personally make the link toward my daughter's Aspergers because my daughter is very immature for her age. She has the maturity of a 7 year old, even though she is 10, so it feels even earlier than it is. I guess I was also comparing it to my own puberty experience, I developed breasts around 14 because even though I didn't really understand much at 14, I saw girls around me getting breasts and I wanted them too. Thanks so much for reading.

      1 agrees
    • I only know teen boys with aspergers, and as a spectrum disorder every child is different, so I'll just tell you what I know, and hope it relates.

      It's very difficult to explain things like bodily functions to a child with aspergers, although they'd probably have no issues with understanding the biology, aspies love routine and things to say the same. The concept that your body will change and you have no control over it whatsover, that you can't stop it and it's likely to be uncomfortable and cause mess you also can't control is more than just annoying, for an aspie it's deeply unsettling and causes high levels of stress.

      Although some 10 year olds are happy playing with teddies (probably less watching thomas), 10 is around the age that fitting in with your peers really takes off. Between 10 and 12 is the age where you don't want to be associated with any 'baby stuff' like toys. Most aspies don't have a concept of fitting in with thier peers, they don't pretend to like one direction because their friends do – so you can have a 10 year old with breasts rolling around on the grass or swinging upside from a tree like they did at 6, and who just can't understand that they're now being viewed in a sexual way and that society will judge them for having their skirt flapping round their ears or their breasts jiggling – people won't see a 10 year old with a social age of a young child, they'll see a 'teen' with the typical large aspie vocabulary who is acting inappropriately

      Aspergers kids can get fixated on some topics, so while you can explain 'you will bleed a little' to an atypical child, and get 'normal' questions like 'will it hurt?' and 'for how long?' an aspie kid could get completely sidetracked into one aspect and ask 100 questions like 'how much blood, will you die, has anyone ever died, how does the blood come out, where does the blood come from, what colour is the blood…' and forget all about wearing a pad or get frustrated when its sore and they can't remember why despite the fact that you'd tried to explain it. They'd also be more inclined to have 'inappropriate' conversations with strangers and classmates about having a period as many aspies don't have a concept of peer pressure – it seems completely reasonable to tell your class mate you have to go and change your tampon, because it's the truth -Too Much Information is something aspergers children really need to work on understanding.

      1 agrees
      • Oh my god! Yeah, I knew some of that (kind of like saying, "Hey, I saw the tip of that iceberg!") but that's… insane, frustrating, confusing, and a bunch of other things that make life way more difficult. I can't even imagine how "normal" people would relate enough to pass on information. If that's what the OP went through trying to explain puberty, I can TOTALLY understand why that's more difficult that a "normal" child. Holy crap!

        4 agree
        • I suspect that I'm somewhere on the spectrum – I grew up in a smallish town right when Aspergers and the like were just starting to crop up. I was just the weird, smart girl that had some language problems (I was sort of ESL, sort of not). I tested as "gifted", and will probably get a proper diagnosis if I can afford it one day.

          Anyway – my parents had a fantastic deflection method. I asked questions a lot, but I knew they didn't know everything…that books were my answer to everything. I was the kid that would take out 20-30 books a week. Stacks of the stuff, and it was never censored…which I appreciate immensely. (Such as reading Crichton's Jurassic Park when I was 6, though I have clear memories of giggling about the swearwords in the schoolyard with other kids)

          Puberty was just like bug metamorphosis for my inside bits, so while I was gross about keeping things clean, it was theoretically really damn cool!

          (On the other hand, earrings and shaving my armpits put me in crying fits every time we tried for years. I won't pretend it's all fun and games.)

          2 agree
          • Well, it sounds like whatever you are doing, diagnosis or not you are doing great! Thanks for reading and for sharing your story.

      • Every paragraph here puts into words something I experienced as an aspie in puberty (and even somewhat as a young adult) and have never been able to put into words. Just so much THIS.

        6 agree
    • I got mine at the same age, and I definitely wasn't interested in play doh (although my stuffed tigger hung around until I moved in with my boyfriend at 20). I was interested in lip gloss and nail polish with lots of glitter, and heath ledger!

      5 agree
    • Cassie,
      with Autism a young girl or boy may not notice the signs of puberty such as getting their period, voice changes, and what is appropriate and what isn't. I went through puberty early which runs in genetically on my mother's side of the family and this has hit home…especially since I have a 5 year old girl. I have spoken to our pedicstiona and she has already given me the information and name of the Teen OB/GYN our little one will be seening in 5 years….yeah she figures either 9 or 10 it will hit her like it hit me @ 9 years old….but I disgress.

      With Autism, one of the key issues is missing social cues and self care which is very important. Here are some links that may help you better:
      http://www.thinkingautismguide.com/2013/05/puberty-resources-girls-guide-to.html

      http://www.autismspeaks.org/blog/2013/04/26/why-has-our-daughter-become-violent

      http://kc.vanderbilt.edu/healthybodies/girls.html

      Hope this helps everyone understand what the author and parents like this have gone through and what we may go through in the near future.

      3 agree
  4. Wow what a timely post. I was just mentioned my puberty worries to my husband yesterday. I have just started noticing that his 9 year old daughter's body is starting to change. She has gone from being a bean-pole to having hips. Her breasts are only starting to change.

    I agree that puberty can be difficult for any child. But I SO relate to your worries about having to deal with autism and puberty. The kiddo has Asperger's and some other issues, so I am worried that on top of the body changes she won't have any way to handle the emotional and hormonal issues either. We have enough time dealing with her frustrations when she is too hot or can't focus in class. Luckily since it is only starting, we have some time to prepare ourselves the way you did. And we can revisit the whole body as we change thing. We informed her how a woman's body works early on because she was curious about her mother's pregnancy. Hopefully the transition continues to go so smoothly for you, now that you have a handle on it.

    3 agree
  5. Gosh. I'm an aspie and went through that stuff at 10, too. I was still playing with my Thomas the Tank Engine toys, too, and could not handle the sudden expectations from people around me and changes that were happening. I didn't understand what was happening to me at all. And I remember not being interested in makeup at age 11 and running away from girls in the bathroom at a school dance who wanted to do me up and a teacher catching me running and me not being able to express why I was running in the hall. It's taken me ten or so years, but I finally am beginning to feel caught up. I still don't/can't do all the expected things for my age (one night stands, constant texting, etc.) and I do still play with legos and sleep with stuffed animals, but I have caught up to taking care of myself and moving towards adulthood. I'm even getting better at communicating under stress, which has always been a big issue for me.

    1 agrees
    • Thanks so much for sharing a little bit of your story. It's so helpful for me as a mom to hear about the experiences of others that are going through the same things as my daughter and how they come out the other side. It certainly sounds to me like you are handling things very well. Thank you so much for reading and for your comment.

      1 agrees
    • This is a bit off topic but my husband has only been learning more about being an Aspie for the last year or so and it is very exciting for both of us. Learning to articulate things that bother him has been a big part of that and he is getting really good at it with people he is comfortable with.
      Congrats on working on communication. I find he is able to deal with situations better when he can articulate what is bothering him or we can find a compromise that will work for both of us because we can talk about it.

      3 agree
    • G, One-night-stands are NOT expected (they're not abnormal to be fair, but I would stop short of saying it's standard behavior of a college age person!). In college I barely even kissed any guy I wasn't formally dating. As for texting, it depends on the person. Point being, from what you say it seems you're doing just fine ๐Ÿ˜‰

      8 agree
    • You did great communicating here! Every time I read a response from an adult on the spectrum, it so helpful! Thank you!

      3 agree
  6. My brother has Asperger's. My parents did all they could to try and ignore his differences growing up. Dad was dead set on the idea that he was just a little different, that's all. That lead to my brother missing out on so many things that could have helped him learn better how to cope. He's now 22, didn't graduate High School, can't get the help he needs with getting a GED, has never & will never have a job, living with my grandmother, and has no concept of how to function in the world. Long, involved, and sad story.
    When he started going through puberty, I don't think they every made any real attempt to talk to him about those kind of things (they never had 'the talk' with any of the rest of us for that matter). He would walk around in his boxers and specifically try to draw attention to his parts. He thought it was funny that he had this thing that would grow when he touched it and didn't have any concept of maybe you don't do that in front of people…they might take it the wrong way. He ended up getting into a great bit of trouble at school due to people taking advantage of his not understanding. The rest of us were never talked to about our brother either. I have to admit that seeing a sibling walking around in his underpants proudly displaying his boner is….weird.
    I guess the moral of my story is talk to your kids. Accept when they need special help. Don't ignore touchy subjects just because they make you uncomfortable. Imagine how your kid feels trying to figure out an already confusing situation.

    3 agree
    • Thanks for sharing your brother's story. It's challenging to raise a child with Aspergers, some things are extremely challenging. It is also not easy to be the brother or sister of a child/adult with special needs.

      1 agrees
    • This really makes me sad ๐Ÿ™ My cousin has a 4 year old who clearly needs help. My aunts are in fact child specialists and have said he certainly lands somewhere on the autism spectrum. My cousin does not acknowledge that there is a problem and if anyone even hints toward him needing help my cousin flips out. He should have started school this month but she won't send him. I wish she would just get him help so that we could find out how to handle his tantrums and his ritual behaviours, and he could get help with speech and learn how to socialize. He's missing out on so much because he isn't getting help.

      1 agrees
      • Jay, I am so sorry to hear this. Autism or any special needs are a tough thing to accept as a parent. It is shocking (even if you know something is wrong), you go through a mourning process for the kind of child you thought you would have as opposed to a child that has problems. It's tough to handle and even now, 6 years on from diagnosis, there are times where that heartbreak shows itself over in over in loads of little ways. So, while it must be frustrating to see this, know that it is very difficult for your cousin. It takes longer for some to accept than others. The best thing you can do is not get frustrated but try whatever way you can to gently support your cousin. Whatever their experiencing can't be easy.

        3 agree
  7. My sister has Autism and Downs Syndrome. It was very weird when she went through puberty because mentally she is only 9 months old even though physically she is 16. I understand what you mean about stuffed animals. I still buy elmo for my sister and all the toys we buy for her are for under 2 years old. She is non verbal and has many behavior problems like self injuring. When she was little, her behavior problems got looks from people, but it's nothing compared to the looks we get now. A 16 year old woman having a full blown infant-like tantrums in a store is quite an unusual sight (for most people). And after puberty, getting her to do something or go somewhere she doesn't want to is very difficult just because, she's so much bigger than when she was a baby! It's difficult for my family, to say the least. Oddly the period issue wasn't too big of a deal for her, because she still wears diapers and doesn't even know the difference.

    2 agree
    • Seriously, I mean… I bloomed early myself and had enormous shame over my breasts as it was. I was constantly afraid that they were bouncing when I walked or ran. You know what… I have a supportive bra now and they still bounce and as an adult I've decided that I don't care. That's other people's problems.

      It's one thing to say, "hey, this might cause other kids to notice." But I can't help but feel that there's some shaming happening there and it's so sad.

      5 agree
      • So funny because I felt the same awkwardness, but from the other end. I was a late bloomer, and didn't develop anything resembling breasts until high school. But I remember gym class in 6 grade, when a friend pointed at a classmate and whispered to me, "Ugh, Danika doesn't wear a bra. That's SO gross." I felt super self conscious because I wasn't wearing a bra. I stressed about it for days, and even considered improvising faux bra straps (which, at the time, was the only thing that "showed" that a girl was wearing a bra) that would show underneath my shirt on my shoulders so that it would at least LOOK like I had a bra on. I remember I finally wrote a mortifying note to my mom asking for a bra. She bought me a simple training bra, and then I felt much better. Still self conscious about not having breast though….later, when they finally DID come in, one developed so much faster than the others that I felt the need to stuff the other side of the bra so that no one would know. PUBERTY SUCKED.

        6 agree
    • I don't know how the note was worded or what the PE teacher's intend was, but suggesting getting a sports bra for a 10 year old whose breasts jiggle when she runs doesn't seem like an unreasonable thing to me.

      Having your breasts bounce when you run can be uncomfortable (ESPECIALLY when they are still growing and are tender. Or if they get tender around your period) and the girl may not know enough to know that a sports bra would help the problem or could be embarrassed to ask for one.

      1 agrees
    • Just to clarify the PE teacher was not being rude or insensitive in any way. He broached the subject politely and in a concerned and positive way, he was concerned that boys were noticing her breasts and would make fun of her and suggested a sports bra, that's all.

      1 agrees
  8. My 11yr so is diagnosed with HFA (High Functioning Autism). Just last week, he announced to me, "Hey Mommy, guess what?? I have hair growing on my pee-pee!!" I said, "Wow, you know what that means?? Means you're growing up." He said, "Does that mean I get to start watching inappropriate things on Cartoon Network, you know, like, Adult Swim??!!" I was like, "Umm, NO…". I got so tickled with him. You never know what's gonna come out of his mouth!

    1 agrees
  9. Somewhat tangential, but just in case it's useful:

    My skin is super sensitive to rough textures and anything that digs into my skin. This causes me a lot of problems with bras. I know that hyper-sensitivity is also common in Autism spectrum folks, so I thought I'd share what I've learned about comfy bras, in case it is relevant to either the original poster's daughter or anyone else reading this.

    Look for bras with as few seems is possible. And no lace. Lace is scratchy. Lace is the enemy.

    Beware the straps. Many bras have cups made from nice, silky material and then have straps that are made from really scratchy elastic 0_o. Look for bras where the nice fabric extends as far up the straps as you can find. Also, the wider the straps, the less they will dig into your shoulders.

    If your breasts aren't too big for them, try bras that don't have clasps or adjustable straps. A sports bra may be fore comfortable for daily wear than a regular bra.

    These are my current favorite bras. I wear them inside out so that the hemming and the seem a the shoulder don't dig in: http://www.baliintimates.com/panties/styles/?style=103J&color=DWS

    The Ahh Bra and the Genie Bra are similar in design. I find the material they are made from a little scratchier, but they are a little more supportive and will accommodate larger breasts (I learned when I got pregnant and my breasts outgrew my nice, comfy microfiber crop tops).

    I also recommend trying different brands and styles of pads to find the ones that are the least uncomfortable.

    1 agrees
    • I like the Playtex 18 hour bras, especially the ones with "comfort straps" which is silky inside a very wide strap. It feels more like a sports bra than conventional underwire and lace monstrosities, but provides a shape more like a regular bra.

      Also, I tend to get trapped in sports bras and then I freak out (I have no idea if this is linked to my hypersensitivity or some other issue), so I like zip front sports bras because they are easy to put on and I never get stuck or have weird moments with elastic around my face.

      1 agrees
      • My asd girl hates the elastic around the face circumstances and panics. She hates anything on her face. Thank you for giving your perspective.

  10. Not to belittle your situation– BTW major respect for the hard work you do as a mom both of a child on the spectrum and just in general– but I just wanted to share my two cents on the bit about your daughter still playing with "kids' toys" in spite of her age.

    Background: I am not on the spectrum.

    As an only child I played by myself a lot. I had a ton of toys I loved. I'd sit for hours using them to play out stories from imaginary lands, as kinds do. I also loved cartoons. I'd watch them, I'd draw pictures of the characters, I'd print out screenshots and tape them to my bedroom walls. I was lucky enough to be raised by a mom who did not push me to grow up too fast, so even into middle school I played with my beanie babies and rushed home to catch the latest episode of Sailor Moon. In high school, while most of my peers covered their walls with posters of boy bands mine were covered with posters of anime characters.

    Now, I will admit, I got bullied a bit for my "childlike" interests. But I am so thankful my mom didn't force me to grow up, or give up things I loved for hobbies that were more trendy just to fit in. In the long run I feel much more free to be myself now as an adult because I was able to grow up in my own time.

    Of course, I don't pretend to know your daughter or her situation just from this blog post. Nor do I think you can apply my experience directly or fully to raising her. But, I guess my point is when it comes to her being interested in things that may be viewed as "childish" as opposed to trendy, there is some wiggle room and I wouldn't stress so much about how people view her.

    A side note: One of my BEST friends has Aspergers. Though I know she does face some struggles due to the different way she perceives the world, she is an incredibly capable, well-rounded adult. A bit of a late-bloomer, at 28 she just started dating her first boyfriend and they are a fantastic and adorable couple. Let her be proof to you that the challenges you face are not impossible. Good luck!

    2 agree
  11. Exactly. I went to a public university with about 30,000 students. None of my friends had one night stands. I'm sure some of my classmates and acquaintances did, but I think that the media greatly exaggerates "hook up culture" because sex sells. Also, I still won't wear makeup unless I'm a bridesmaid and the bride requests it, and at my wedding we used LEGOs for the place card holders. I think that's all within the realm of awesome normal individuality for people in their twenties, thirties, or teens. ๐Ÿ™‚

    3 agree
  12. I am so glad I am not the only one going through this. My daughter was diagnosed at 7 and is now almost 10 and starting to develop quickly. I have felt a bit isolated as there is not the best support system here for mothers with ASD daughters. I have had a hard enough time explaining to her why she is different so trying to explain periods was comparatively easy. I think she has handled the idea of puberty better than being different than her peers, she still has to deal with being different everyday. At least I can prepare her and help her with puberty but i can't protect her from the teasing she gets from her peers at school as hard as i try.

  13. I have an 11 year old daughter on the spectrum. She started her period 6 months ago, and I did prepare her for this happening using the American Girl books about the body. They were very helpful. However, she requires me to change the pads, and I really want her to do this herself. Any ideas on getting her to be able to do this herself? She is very sensitive about touching things. She will not touch toilets or anything that she thinks may have germs, so something with blood on it repels her. Also, she will not wear a bra and is very sensitive about clothing. This sensitivity seems to be worse than when she was younger. When she was under eight, I could get her to wear skirts or dresses. Now, she only wants to wear tshirts and sweatpants. It is difficult when others judge me and think I don't buy her clothes because she insists on wearing the same outfit all the time. I buy her clothes, but she won't wear them. Any ideas on getting her to wear a bra? She needs to wear one and i think she is a 32b or 30c. Any brand recommendation for touch sensitive aspie girls? I am glad I found your blog. I am feeling so alone. I home school because of bullying at school. We used to go to a home school group, but they slowly excluded us and suggested I start a group for kids on the spectrum. I am very alone.

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