I started out wanting to write about changes that I’ve noticed in Mike, and how this, to me anyway, signaled a positive step forward in his journey with autism. On further reflection though, it reminds me that although he has taken some steps forward, like everyone else, he might very well encounter some obstacles along the way.
Mike is 12 and is entering puberty, and he is noticing the changes in his body. We too have noticed how he is starting to sprout pubic hair and has begun to notice girls. My wife laughed hysterically when, upon discovering said pubic hair, he exclaimed, “I’m turning into a sasquatch!!” In the past six months we have noticed that he has asked more than one ‘girl’ to kiss him, including his married after-school teacher among them. So yes, we are kind of freaking out about puberty.
Perhaps we were unglued because his two older brothers were (comparatively) less demonstrative in noticing the fairer sex upon entering puberty. Or maybe because autism did not give Mike a ‘filter’ that neurotypical children have when expressing themselves; he just says what’s on his mind. As parents of an autistic child, any verbal expression (appropriate or not) is like gold; we just want to keep hearing it. So we have begun weaving social stories about girls and kissing and appropriate behavior. Personally, I hope this works for at least a little while; I don’t think I’m ready to give Mike ‘The Talk’.
Puberty, in and of itself, may have unintended effects on his developing brain and cognitive ability. Research has shown that there is an association between fetal testosterone and autistic traits. To many in the research community, it is not simply a coincidence that a diagnosis of autism is made four times more often in boys than in girls. To this end, I worry about what effect the influx of testosterone during puberty will have on Mike. Could it ‘worsen’ his autistic traits? Could it blunt his cognitive development? Could it make him more aggressive?
These are certainly possibilities that tend to keep us up at night, but are comforted in part by knowing that Mike is learning to be empathetic, and has a degree of self-awareness. Just like noticing the physical changes in his body, he knows when he becomes angry with others, and is apologetic and often embarrassed by it. He readily takes note of babies and younger children who are crying and wants to “make them happy again.” He has initiated greeting our neighbors, and has asked to play with some of the neighborhood kids.
Not all of change is bad per se; his verbal and comprehension skills have markedly improved in school and his brief chats with us have slowly progressed to often conversational proportions. His teacher confided that she is thinking of submitting him for consideration for a self-contained class in a General Ed school (otherwise known as a satellite program). Mike has shown he has the capacity to do more academic school work, as opposed to being vocationally-inclined only. With this thrilling possibility brings change, and change always brings the possibility of failure and regression. Mike has thrived and become transformed at his current (out of district) school for the past three years after languishing in-district as the Special Ed department struggled to develop its resources and plans. The thought of returning him to a similar setting is tempering our enthusiasm but reinforces our feeling as parents that our son has more possibilities open to him now. I have quietly begun to think that Mike is inching toward the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum.
His desire to someday become a paleontologist/chef/zoo keeper/book writer is not so far-fetched after all. Big change indeed.
It seems Mike is poised and ready for bigger and better things, despite all the pitfalls inherent with puberty. My little boy is growing up. I hope his mom and I are ready.