And now, the part that you’ve all been waiting for (I know, because I was, too) – dealing with emotional immaturity during puberty. This is the crux of the matter, I think. This is what makes us wonder what is going on with our ASD kids, why they fly off the handle, why they indicate an interest in dating even though they’re nowhere near ready for it. I went to the Autism and Puberty seminar seeking advice about these points, and I understand a lot more now than I did before.
So far I’ve been able to determine two main issues contributing to problem behaviors during puberty:
1) Learning to deal with hormones. It’s hard enough for NT kids to handle their surging hormones, and for ASD kids, it’s even more difficult. And ASD children who had severe sensory issues when they were younger are going to have a harder time. It took my son, who is now 14, years to learn how to filter out all the sounds and other sensory issues that were agonizing to him as a younger child. Similarly, it took him about a year to learn to filter or “deal with” all the new hormones surging through his body once puberty hit. He seems to have reached a (probably temporary) plateau at the moment, but prior to a few months ago, he was frequently agitated, short-tempered, and volatile. He seems to have adjusted to the hormones, although I’m bracing myself for future “surges” as we get through the rest of puberty. Hormonal changes are also said to possibly trigger seizures in kids who had not previously had them, up to 1 in 4. (The presenter at the seminar explained that seizures in young ASD kids are caused by a different type of brain activity.)
2) Emotional immaturity. What exactly does this mean? As we know, autism is categorized as a developmental disability, a pervasive one that affects many different areas of development. As ASD kids get older, many of them do develop language and communication abilities, cognitive development improves, and sensory integration can as well. But social and emotional development usually lags behind, even in the presence of high cognitive ability. How behind? It varies, and it depends on something called emotional age. Emotional age is the level on which your child relates to others, and it is usually determined at your child’s school. For example, when Nigel was in fourth grade, his teacher explained to me that his emotional age was four. Yes, four, when he was ten years old. What do they base that on? Usually they do observational testing, but parents can figure it out themselves simply by looking at what age group of children your child seems to relate to the best. At the time, Nigel was relating to preschoolers, and he often acted like one. Over the past four years, he has progressed. He has friends that are his own age, but he does not fully relate to them and they do not relate to him. They like him, they spend time with him, but they have a hard time understanding him. However, there is an 8-to-9-year-old boy in the neighborhood Nigel plays with, and they seem to be on the same level emotionally. This makes me believe that Nigel’s current emotional age is about eight.
I think about what it would be like to be eight years old and going through bodily changes and dealing with hormones, starting to have sexual feelings and not having the maturity to handle them. My son sees his peers interested in girls, he sees his age group being portrayed a certain way in the media, and so he thinks he should be that way because he wants to fit in. Of course, all teens want to fit in. But a 14-year-old with an emotional age of 8 is going to have a much tougher time. And he isn’t ready because he hasn’t even hit adolescence yet.
In the next post: emotional age and adolescence, and what to teach older teens.