I was walking and venting with my friend Cathy after a rough day. My son Matthew, who has autism, had been sent home from school for knocking over one of his classmates at recess.
"She was wearing a yellow shirt!" he wailed in defense. "Yellow looks bad."
"You think you've got problems now," said my friend Cathy, whose son was also autistic. "Just wait until he goes though puberty!" Cathy’s son was now fifteen. "Let me tell you, it’s not pretty."
"Matthew is just eleven now," I said," and so far I haven't had any problems."
"Eleven! That's when it hits!" she chuckled.
I just didn’t want to hear it. I had decided long ago not to be concerned with issues I didn't have to deal with in the present. I had so much to worry about as it was.
"I think Matthew is going to be a late bloomer," I said, "He's still a little boy. Besides, I heard that sometimes people with autism actually calm down during adolescence."
Cathy laughed out loud. "You are so funny!" she said. "Thank God for your sense of humor. It's the only thing that will get you through."
I laughed weakly in return.
Maybe I just dreamed that puberty calms them down.
The following Sunday, our family went to church. Matthew usually went to Sunday school with a teen volunteer that helped keep him under control, but today was "Family Worship Sunday," when the children remained with the adults throughout the service.
Our family usually stayed home from church on "Family Worship Sunday" because it was a challenge for Matthew to sit still for a full hour. He'd stretch his arms over his head, and lean back lazily. A pencil and a pad of paper was always on hand to occupy him when he got squirmy, but he often got so excited by what he was drawing that he would squeal and laugh. Our congregation had known Matthew since toddlerhood and those who knew him were tolerant of him, but I couldn't blame them for snickering and frowning from time to time when he disrupted their religious concentration with his outbursts.
The five of us took our seats, and I studied the order of worship.
"Oh good," I told my husband, Peter, "it's Communion Sunday. We can sneak out after communion if Matthew gets restless."
In our church, Communion is served while parishioners sit in the pews. Deacons circulate large silver trays of bread and thimble sized glasses of grape juice.
But when it came time for Communion, the deacons didn't march to the front of the church with the trays.
"Today," said our pastor, "we are going to try something new. We will celebrate Communion through the practice of intinction. We'd like to invite you to come forward and partake of the elements and then return to your seat."
Peter rolled his eyes.
"Maybe you should just sit here with Matthew," he whispered.
"NO," Matthew yelled, "I want to be like everyone else! I want to get the bread and juice!"
"Shhhh," I whispered. "That's fine. Just be a good boy."
"I will!" he yelled back, drawing stares.
We were sitting at the back of the church, so we had to wait a while for our turn.
A deep throaty and unfamiliar laugh erupted from Matthew, and when I shushed him again, I noticed it. At first I thought he must have stuck the pencil in his pants to cause the fabric to strain so dangerously.
"Matthew, take the pencil out of your pants," I whispered.
Matthews brown eyes found mine.
"It’s not a pencil," he replied, grinning broadly.
Peter had just stood up obliviously and was heading down the aisle with Matthew’s younger brothers, Andy and John.
"Matthew," I whispered desperately. "We have to stay here..." but it was too late. He stood up -- I couldn't believe my eyes -- and started to walk down the aisle.
"Matthew, you need to stand right next to me." I looked down as we walked. Now what I had first looked like a pencil more closely resembled a flagpole.
God? Please help me. Please let Matthew be invisible just for a few minutes.
The best I could do was walk forward, avoiding all eye contact, with a straight face. When Matthew and I got to the altar, I glanced at him again.
It was still there. He still had that goofy grin.
Matthew darted ahead of me and took a piece of bread, dipped it into the grape juice, and snickered his way back to the pew. I could just hear Peter saying later "Oh, I’m sure no one noticed," and I would tell him Oh yes they did, and what the hell.
"Shall we sneak out?" I asked Peter once we were all seated after Communion.
"Matthew seems to be doing fine," was his answer, and I thought about what Cathy had said earlier that week.
I realized my life was entering a new phase.
Puberty is a confusing time for parents and children alike. Parents of neurotypical children tend to wait until it is absolutely necessary to talk to their children about the changes that are going on with their bodies (and minds!), but when you are the parent of a child with autism, it's best to be a few steps ahead to prepare your sensory-sensitive child for what lies ahead:
- Ask your child’s pediatrician or developmental specialist talk to your child about puberty candidly. The impact of the message depends on the messenger!
- Be open questions about puberty, no matter how crudely and honestly they are expressed.
- Answer questions in a soothing tone and keep you sense of humor. Just last week, Matthew, who is now 24, asked me "who pulled me out of you?"
- Children with autism are well known for masturbating in public. (And who can blame them?) Repeat after me. Respond calmly, do not escalate. "Oops, sweetheart, that's OK only in your room with the door shut."
- Brace yourself. There will be incidents. I was once standing in line at Whole Foods when a police officer called to report that Matthew was, shall I say, acting inappropriately in public. If you are prepared for incidents like this, you can go into problem solving mode rather than hysterical mode.
- Remember. Puberty does not go on forever. And everything gets just a little bit easier as our children age.