Puberty in Kids with Developmental Disabilities

Puberty is a difficult and confusing time for all children. They may feel awkward or anxious as they try to cope through their mental and physical changes. This milestone can be even more challenging for children with developmental disabilities. If you are the parent of a child with a developmental disability, it is essential that you learn how puberty will affect him/her so that you can guide your child through the process more effectively. In this article, you will find both information and advice to help you and your child through this trying time.

During puberty, many changes occur within a child’s body. His/her skin will begin producing more oil, and he/she may develop acne or body odor. The child grows quickly, and his/her reproductive system becomes active. As a child reaches sexual maturity, he/she will begin to experience attraction to members of the opposite sex, the same sex, or both sexes. He/she will also develop secondary sex characteristics. In a girl, the breasts increase in size, body hair appears in the pubic area and under the arms, and the hips widen. Girls also begin menstruating and experience a change in their weight distribution that causes more fat to be stored around the hips, buttocks, and thighs. In a boy, the voice deepens, shoulders broaden, and hair appears on the face, underarms, chest, and abdomen.

In girls, puberty usually begins around age 11. Your child’s breasts will start to develop first, and then she will experience the growth of pubic and underarm hair. Approximately 2 1/2 years after puberty begins, your daughter will begin to menstruate each month. In boys, puberty typically begins around age 11 1/2. The first sign of puberty in a male child is the enlargement of his testicles, which takes about six months. Next, his penis increases in size and his pubic hair begins to grow. Finally, your son will grow facial hair and his voice will become deeper. Though most children follow the same progression during puberty, some children may begin puberty much earlier than others do. When a girl begins puberty before age eight or a boy begins puberty before age nine, the child is said to have “precocious puberty.” While difficult for any child, precocious puberty can be especially challenging for a child with developmental disabilities. Children with precocious puberty experience greater levels of anxiety about the changes in their bodies, and they may become victims of teasing from peers.

If you are the parent of a child with a developmental disability affecting the brain, such as autism, puberty can be difficult to handle. Your child will experience all of the same physical and emotional changes as his/her peers, but, depending on the severity of the disability, may not understand his/her new sexual urges or attractions to other individuals. A child with a milder autism spectrum disorder, such as Asperger Syndrome, may understand his/her feelings on a higher cognitive level than a child with a more severe disability. However, children with Asperger Syndrome still need help learning hygiene skills, communicating with peers, and recognizing subtle social cues. Children with autism or Asperger’s Syndrome may become frustrated during puberty because they begin to realize that they aren’t like their peers, so it is extremely important to provide emotional support during this time.

If your child has cerebral palsy, he/she will likely understand the process of puberty, but you can still help him/her to cope with the physical and emotional changes. Children with cerebral palsy often begin puberty later than other children, which may result in teasing from peers. If your child is confined to a wheelchair or has an impaired ability to walk, he/she may feel especially self-conscious about his/her body during puberty. Children with cerebral palsy who have trouble controlling their body movements may also experience more awkwardness during puberty as a result of rapid growth and weight gain.

If your child has an intellectual disability, the difficulty of puberty depends on his/her level of disability. Like children with autism, children with intellectual disabilities may not understand the reason for the changes in their bodies. They may also be confused by their new emotions and emerging sexuality. If your child is confused by his/her feelings, teach him/her about hormones and be sure that he/she understands how to behave appropriately toward peers. If your child has a more severe intellectual disability, he/she may need help learning and performing the techniques of proper hygiene. Girls with intellectual disabilities may be frightened or surprised by menstruation, so try to explain the process to your child before she experiences it for the first time. Like all other children, children with developmental disabilities should also learn about safe sexual intercourse.

Children with developmental disabilities tend to be more awkward, scared, and uncomfortable when they go through puberty. As soon as your child shows signs of beginning puberty, talk to him/her about what he/she is experiencing. Explain the process as clearly as possible, and warn him/her of what to expect next. Answer any questions your child poses. Most children with mild developmental disabilities are able to cope with the changes that occur during puberty, but the only way to ensure your child’s success is to teach him/her about puberty and offer guidance on a daily basis. Keep the lines of communication open, and make sure that your child knows that you are there for emotional support whenever he/she needs you.

To learn more about puberty in children with developmental disorders, consult the following links.

Puberty 101 for Parents

Puberty in Teens with Cerebral Palsy

Sexuality Meets Developmental Disability

Asperger’s and Puberty

Sexuality and Intellectual Disability

Precocious Puberty

Puberty in Children with Special Health Care Needs

Strategies for Helping Adolescents with Autism Adjust to Puberty

Educating Children with Intellectual Disabilities about Sexuality

Menstrual Issues in Adolescents with Physical and Developmental Disabilities

Puberty: Adolescent Male

Puberty: Adolescent Female

Puberty & Children on the Autism Spectrum

Secondary Sexual Characteristics in Children with Cerebral Palsy

Sexuality Education for Children and Adolescents with Developmental Disabilities

Teaching Girls How To Manage Menstruation