Let's address the elephant in the room, shall we? No? Not ready? Ha ha, yeh me too....I don't think I will ever be. Which parent is? Puberty can be awkward and embarrassing for most people. BUT you know what? It shouldn't be - It's just BIOLOGY. Right? Right.
Puberty is no walk in the park, and for some special needs children and their parents it seems puberty is one hundred times worse, way more sensitive, exaggerated, and intense....know what I mean?
My son is almost twelve years old and I'm literally facing the elephant in the room. He was happily going along his merry pubescent way and I thought woohooo this isn’t so bad - just a lil jog in the park...I thought wow I GOT THIS...without even preparing.
Slow and steady was his pace....until summer. Summer came and BOOM another growth spurt then BOOM BOOM BOOM real, proper puberty and all the stuff that comes with it...and yes, this mama was not prepared.
Don't make the same mistake people. Be prepared, get ahead of the curve because they don’t stay young forever...EVERYBODY grows up...who knew? haha But seriously, no matter who you are, autism or no autism, puberty is inevitable. It’s the same in some ways and a little different in other ways. But the bottom line is that ALL children grow up...it is what it is. It is the great equalizer.
So what will puberty be like for my ASD child? I honestly don't know as it is different for every child...kind of like autism?! Just be prepared for the same things that happen with typical children to happen to your ASD child...I know, yikes. So how do we prepare?? i.don't.know! All I know is what I have gathered so far, and IF it can help you? Awesome.
Emotions Emotions Emotions
Get ready for some emotional outbursts, mood swings, aggression, arguing and defiance. Thankfully I haven't experienced all of that. What I have experienced is a bit of moodiness and a lot of that good old defiance. Time to get ready for school - "NO”, Time to have a bath - "NO I DON'T WANT TO". This might not seem like much but when you're used to a usually compliant child and suddenly you're getting "Nos" for everything that is a huge change. My advice? Pick your battles, and for issues that are not so important just let them go...for your sanity's sake.
Just so you know, if your child is like mine, almost twelve and still walking around with stuffed toys and blankets, still watching shows like “Thomas the Train” and “Little Einstein’s”, the same shows they watched when they were three years old, DON’T be fooled. Don't get blind sided. Don’t think they haven’t started puberty and that you have time. Nope...don't do that...trust me... it’s either right around the corner or happening right under your nose! While they might not be developing like their peers socially or emotionally, best believe they are developing physically. I’m serious...my little boy is not a child anymore. So check for those subtle signs. You've been there, you know them, and if you've forgotten, now's the time to use that awesome search engine Google to refresh your memory. Visit the paediatrician if you need to and get some guidance. Talk to your child's school, teachers and teacher/shadow assistants, have a plan in place and just mentally prepare yourself already!
So your kiddos are older now, no longer five or six...think about this for a minute. Go ahead think about it, I'll wait. Ready? Ok, now think about their peers. I know you see it...the now very noticeable development gap. As I mentioned earlier my son is still walking around with stuffed toys and watching “Thomas the Train” etc. - that and all the other differences are now glaringly obvious.
Here's the problem, as kids get older and become teens they become more socially aware. What's in, what's not, what's cool and what's definitely not. They now notice how different their special needs peers are, they might even joke about these differences, unfortunately. It's sad, but the reality is that some teens are mean. Social skills are already challenging for our children on the spectrum, but stack that mean teen on top of that and what do you end up with? 99 problems kinda problems. So what do you do? Easy, what you've already been doing - advocate advocate advocate! Continue to raise awareness and encourage kindness and acceptance in spite of differences and pray for the best. Be prepared for those bad days and BE THERE for your child...BE PRESENT.
I don't know about you but because my pre-teen is able, I'm all about encouraging independence. I'm not going to be around forever, and he needs to be able to take care of himself - so long as he is able to do so.
When he says he's had a "bath" but then he comes in close for a hug and you're all "sniff sniff gahhhh ehhhrmagadd"...Why? PUBERTY of course, it's no walk in a wonderfully smelling park. It's awkward, its confusing and yup stinky.
So what can you do? For me, right now it's just "gentle" reminders to bathe properly, PUT ON YOUR DEODORANT, brush your teeth, and put on deodorant. Did I say deodorant already? Twice? Yeah....apparently I don't say it enough, so hear I go again, put on your deodorant! Grrrr...sigh it's just, you know...those pesky hormones...you can't make them win and there’s really no need for our kiddos to be singled out because of this. These are manageable issues. Issues you can work on at home where your child is comfortable.
At some point I'll have to deal with hair growth and shaving and all the sensory issues that come with that, but not now...thank GOD. Right now that's not on my plate - small mercies!
All this growing equals non-stop eating. So just be prepared and have those hopefully healthy snacks ready for in between meals.
Those "Other" Issues
I don't need to spell it our for you. You know what I'm talking about. I wasn't planning on discussing that online with you. The plan was to just gloss over it. Because for one, that stuff is PRIVATE and maybe, just maybe my boy would cringe at the thought of me even mentioning this topic. So respecting his assumed wishes, all I'm going to say is you need to start thinking about how you will manage this issue. If your child is verbal, think about what and how to discuss it when it arises. If your child isn't verbal or only slightly verbal, think about how to actually "discuss" it with them given their verbal limitations, or if you will even be able to discuss it with them. Probably not. You will need to establish what the ground rules are, the Whens and the Wheres, i.e. when it's appropriate and when it's absolutely not, where it's appropriate and where it's absolutely not.
Bottom line? We all want to keep our kiddos safe. I have no clue what my child even understands about puberty, what is happening to him or what he is feeling BUT I want to keep him safe, so giving him skills to deal with all of this is my priority. That and praying for the best outcome and then watching over him like a hawk...that's my strategy. It's all I can do. But when I leave this earth what then, who will do this for me? This is when I start feeling overwhelmed and emotional and I have to remind myself - "one day at a time DBM, one day at a time..."
Parenting is challenging and preparing for puberty can be overwhelming - I haven't even scratched the surface with this post! Clearly I’ll have more to add later.
For now though, maybe think about these issues, if you’re not thinking about it already, and just be ready for it. You have no control over hormones and puberty but you can control the information your child receives initially and more importantly how this information is given.
"I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher." - Temple Grandin
I See You...I see what you Are Doing.
I see you early in the morning waiting to greet my son at school. I see you smile when he tells you good morning. I see how you guide him and how you keep a watchful eye on him to make sure he is always safe. I see the extra work you do to prepare him to learn.
I know that you have been there for my child especially when he’s frustrated. I know you’ve taught him to speak positive words over himself, that he is a smart boy and that he can do this, to help calm his overwhelmed mind.
You have learned about his personality, his little quirks, his strengths and his weaknesses. You know him...i can see that. I see you building a connection...building his trust, pouring yourself into my child’s development, knowing that there’s a lot of potential - we just have to be patient. Without me having to tell you, You already know my child is brilliant. That he can sense compassion and knows immediately when someone isn’t being genuine. You know he needs to feel comfortable with the people around him to learn properly. Thank you for helping to create that kind of atmosphere for him. Thank you for caring for him and loving him so well.
I know you have days that are rewarding and days that are exhausting and so very discouraging. But still you press on. Thank you for not giving up.
Your hard work does not go unnoticed. My child notices you. I notice you and I want you to know that I see YOU and what you are doing, and I am grateful.
I've never really been a "stop and smell the roses” kind of person. In our family that person is my daughter. We'll be in a rush but not her, she's the one lagging behind looking at butterflies or anything interesting - just taking it all in while we're desperately needing to leave to get where we need to be. But that's her and we've grown to appreciate her and her process - we know who she is and we learn from her. This ability which she has acquired naturally, is not so natural for others, some of us need to be taught to slow down and appreciate beauty that surrounds us, some of us need to take a break and smell the roses at some point in our lives.
So yes we think we know our daughter...and we think we know our son. Well, maybe only a little bit...but what if we are wrong about what we “know”?
Here we are making assumptions about our children, thinking that we know them and what do they do? They turn around and surprise us...boom just like that they do something out of the box that makes you think ok clearly we’ve got this thing wrong.
For instance the other day when my daughter was outside playing with neighbourhood friends, making plans to use flowers to make perfumes. My son and I were also outside while they were busy running up and down collecting flowers. I was just watching, making sure everything was ok and my son was running around, singing and drumming on his chest - usual scenario...or so I thought. After a couple of minutes of running around, my son went over to a hibiscus plant and shouted out to my daughter, "look at the flowers...Do you see the flowers? Do you see the flowers over here?"
I think I was in shock and so was my daughter because it took her a few seconds to register what he was saying and to respond. She came over looked at the flowers and said “thank you, these are beautiful!” Then she glanced up at me beaming probably trying to convey something like "did you see that Mommy...did you hear that?!
I couldn’t stop beaming as well!
Since that evening I've been thinking about that little flower conversation. What was I meant to learn from it? That as much as my son seems like he is in his own world at times he is in fact very much aware of what’s going on? Or that he knows his sister and knows that she loves flowers, so wanted to show them to her? Or both?
I really don’t know, but it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that with regard to my son and his autism, I KNOW NOTHING - like John Snow from Game of Thrones. (yep here I am, a hopeless fan #sorrynotsorry).
One thing I do know though is that both of My children are growing up, evolving and changing and basically we the Parents, are still figuring things out. So while we continue figuring things out and our children keep growing like weeds we’re going to appreciate the small things and smell the roses and the flowers. We’re going to do some cloud gazing and point out what we see, we’re going to look at butterflies and ladybugs and all things that make us appreciate life, because at the end of the day it’s the moments...those little things, that will be appreciated and cherished the most.
this is me
”I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
'Cause we don't want your broken parts
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one'll love you as you are...
But I won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are glorious...
”...When the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me...
...Look out 'cause here I come
And I'm marching on to the beat I drum
I'm not scared to be seen
I make no apologies, this is me...” - Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
This song means so much to me. Every time I hear it I think, and then I think some more and I shed a few tears for my son, for everyone who at some point in their lives felt or still feels left out, like an odd ball, that they don't quite fit in.
How many times have we heard "why fit in when you were born to stand out"? You know it's true but the reality is that it is hard...standing out when no one is accepting you for YOU? It's all well and good us encouraging our kiddos to be themselves, that it's ok to be different, that they should march or dance to the beat of their own drum, but if the world is not accepting, then what? If the world continues to be a heartless and cruel place, what then?
Yeah so tears...
As always, my focus during Autism Awareness Month is to not just raise awareness, but to also promote acceptance.
Everyday I encourage myself and my children to shine brightly, I tell them that it's ok to be a poppy in a field of daffodils. BUT Is it really ok...will they be ok? I hope so...but I can’t just sit around and hope, and neither can you! We have a responsibility to promote kindness and acceptance wherever we go. We need to stress the absolute importance of it in the whole "it's ok to be different" equation. It should go hand in hand...right? It MUST...right?
But unfortunately it hasn’t been like that and that’s sad.
Truth is we’re all different, some more than others but to BE DIFFERENT and live happily, the world needs to BE ACCEPTING and this requires us to BE KIND....that is how we survive, that is how we coexist.
Kindness and acceptance - it’s as simple as that and it starts right there and with you...encourage your family and your friends and let’s make this world better!
Teaching children to brush their teeth and managing a trip to the dentist can be a bit challenging, especially when your child has autism.
Some autistic children are hypersensitive, like my son. They feel things differently than a typically developing child. There's no escaping this. So if you're a parent of a child with autism just embrace this fact and work with it or around it.
When i'm trying to get my son to brush his teeth I have to always remember how overwhelming it is for him and the need to be patient. The sensory overload from the taste and smell of toothpaste, and the texture of the toothbrush is probably a bit too much for him. Worse when he has to go to the dentist. The strange smells, the loud noises, the sharp looking tools and that strange masked person hovering over him with those sharp looking tools. When you really think about the whole thing, you have to acknowledge how scary the process must seem to children, even more so for those on the spectrum. They don't know what's going to happen or how long it will take and all of this contributes to making the experience difficult for you and your child...but especially your child.
My son no longer has an issue with brushing his teeth and will brush his teeth when told to do so. He will also allow me to assist when his teeth need a bit more attention.
Going to the dentist however is a completely different story. With never-ending negotiations and me exercising the patience of Job and then at the end of the session only accomplishing him saying hi to the dentist and going up and down in the chair. It used to be extremely frustrating, but not anymore!
My son's last visit was a success. While he did not allow the hygienist to use the ultrasonic tool that removes tarter, he actually gave her the green light to use the mirror, count his teeth, use her polishing tool on a few of his teeth and use gauze to clean the rest of his teeth. I call this a HUGE win. Of course there were negotiations, isn't there always?? Sonic the Hedgehog (his favourite toy) had to be present and I had to promise he'd get my phone right after to play with, but at the end of the session we were all happy to note the amazing progress he made.
So what did we do? How did we make such progress? BLOOD, SWEAT AND TEARS! Ha ha, I'm just kidding, there was no blood. There were a few tears though, and lots of sweat!
With guidance from therapists and tips online we made a plan and stuck with it.
Here are a few tips and guidelines we found helpful:
- Introduce/encourage teeth brushing from early;
- Make sure to start with a soft bristle toothbrush;
- Use visual supports or schedules, for example take photographs of the tooth brushing steps, print the photos and then laminate them in a table format. You can then use a dry erase marker to check off each step;
- Establish a routine - for example, 1/2 hour before bedtime, dress for bed, brush teeth, read a book then it is bed time;
- Sing a song every time your child has to brush his teeth. We always started with this song: "Brush your teeth, brush your teeth make them clean. Brush your teeth brush your teeth make them clean. Brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth, brush your teeth brush your teeth, make them clean." (Sang to the tune of that sunday school song "Oh be careful little eyes what you see".);
- Use visual timers. There are tons of apps online to help with this. We also invested in the Philips Sonic Care Toothbrush for children - it has a really cool sparkly kids toothbrush app which helped turn brushing time into fun time!;
- Try to take turns brushing teeth. Allow your child to brush your teeth and then you brush his teeth etc
- Try Hand over hand brushing. It works especially in the beginning stages.
- Choose a dentist who has some experience with children with autism. Ask around for recommendations. Bonus if they have a fantastic hygienist working with them.
- Plan ahead, talk to your child's therapist ask them for assistance as they can help with establishing a step-by-step plan or a social story with rewards.
- Leading up to the visit you, your child and the therapist should go through the steps i.e. check in, wait in waiting room for name to be called, meet the hygienist and dentist, sit in the chair etc etc
- Reinforce or reward for EVERYTHING, even if your child was only able to say hi to the dentist -the point is to make going to the dentist FUN!
There are many more tips and guidelines online to help parents and caregivers encourage teeth brushing and successfully manage a trip to the dentist. My suggestions above are only that...suggestions. They worked for my child but may not work for yours. Remember each child is different, so do your research and try everything until you find the right formula for you and your child.
It may take a couple of visits to get to the point of the dentist counting teeth, even longer for an actual cleaning, but it will come. So, DON'T GIVE UP and always always always remember to be patient.