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blue daisy

please help - autism + puberty

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So my 12 year old son is on the autism spectrum and we've definitely noticed an increase in big emotions and him not being able to handle them.  He is extremely touchy with noise and busyness in the house, and having 3 younger, very boisterous siblings really sets him off easily.  He just got into a screaming match with my 7 year old over something fairly trivial.  He just blows up so easily these days (and he was not like this at all growing up....he was usually a pretty even-keeled kid).  I tried to talk him through the conflict but he was so upset and angry he couldn't listen and he ran to his room to cool down.  I guess I'm asking for some ideas of what I can do to help him through these big emotions that he doesn't know how to handle.  Maybe he needs more exercise? More one on one time?  I don't know... He tends to shut down when we try to talk to him. If you've helped an autistic child through the teen years, what tips do you have?

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Will he go to his room (relatively calmly) if he's having a shutdown, or do you have to move around a shutdown lump in the middle of the house? We've tried to make it okay to shutdown in a different area, but not somewhere that the shutdown child is sucking the life out of the rest of us or where we're having to literally function around the shutdown child.

 

I would try to save the talking for when he's not upset. Shutting down is often the only way these kids can not rage when they feel so out of sync.

 

I would give more alone time if alone time helps--for instance, time to just be in his room and sort legos, listen to music, listen to a book, or whatever is restorative. I would not do screen time for this though. It needs to be something that he can see as self-care and talk about it as self-care. I would save 1:1 time for positive things that mean something to him. If he needs to isolate to recharge, you can always let him know you care by taking him a snack, checking in on him, etc. 

Oh, and food is such a big thing at this age--miss a meal, and you can expect total irrationality and meltdowns, at least in our house. "Missing" a meal can mean later than usual plus not enough breakfast--really, the definition is broad, but eating, eating, eating is necessary here. But my son has always been a really big eater and has zero weight issues (on the wiry side). 

 

If you've ever done OT for sensory, you might need to pull out a few tools for a refresher--bodies sometimes regress a bit during big changes.

 

Our experience is that the blow-ups are a bit different around this age, and you might make a big deal about appropriate ways to handle them when things are calm, but once they are there, you can't really make a big deal out of the blow-up itself. Neurotypical kids have a lot of angst at this age too. 

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He usually runs to his room yelling angrily that he's "never going to " xyz "again!"  or "going to stay in his room forever and ever!"  I leave him alone until he's had time to calm down and then I tend to get distracted by everyone else and need to work on making an intentional effort to go back and have a conversation. If my husband is home, I send him because he tends to be better at diffusing the situation than I am.  Lately, he has not wanted to talk about the problems even later on when he's calm.    I totally get that all kids have to learn to deal with the big emotions that come with puberty (honestly, for my 7 year old, just learning about how to handle emotions at all is a struggle and she does not have autism). I guess we have some work to do with learning appropriate ways to handle those emotions.

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Our behaviorist has warned us puberty will make things much harder. I think it's not a good strategy to try to talk through problems when someone on the spectrum is not calm. Talking to him is more input and it's not helping him calm. It would be a better strategy to take a break, let him go to his quiet place, and let him calm back and try to problem solve when he's calm. And you can just have a rule, if we're yellow zone, we take a break till we're calm. If we're red zone, we take a break till we're calm. (Zones of Regulation)

 

It sounds like he would benefit from having a behaviorist, someone trained in Zones of Regulation, to talk with. If they're skillful in autism and Zones, they can be an outside person, putting words to what he's feeling. 

 

Usually/often when you work with a person on the spectrum about hard things, stressful things, it can be agitating. So when they work on emotions, etc. with my ds, they might do it during art therapy, where there's this gentle pace, another focus distracting from the intensity of the emotion itself you're talking about. Or if the behaviorist is doing it, she'll put him in a swing or play catch or do sensory input while she's doing it, just to keep his body calm. Or in another group I take my ds to, they do OT and have an OT in the room to make sure everyone's bodies are staying calm. When people are calm, it's much easier to talk through things.

 

Yes, he probably needs your normal puberty supports like more exercise. He's got all the normal puberty angst AND his sensory issues AND the self-regulation issues. 

 

It sounds like the other dynamic you've got going is this distracting, maybe almost chaotic environment. Maybe it's not that way to you, but maybe it *feels* that way to him, kwim? He might be happier in a school, honestly. Demands are increasing, and you're distracted by lots of other kids. He's having to deal with constant changes, chaos, problems. School has a consistent structure, lots of supports. He could have an IEP or go to an autism charter. It would be consistent and predictable. It might lessen that stress. It might be a nice time to put it on the table. It's not about you failing but just that he's growing up and trying to do more and it's a hard environment to do that in.

 

So yes to Zones of Regulation and getting behavioral help. Yes to your normal puberty answers like exercise. And consider what you can do to decrease his stress and make his situation more consistent, predictable, and structured.

 

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My son has really struggled with the onset of puberty. We didn't see what now appear to be major problems with flexibility prior, and while he struggled with emotional regulation in pre-school, that came back with great force.

 

We started with OT, and I think you may well need that to deal with possible sensory issues. Now my son is working with therapists and behaviorists. We're hitting emotional regulation with everything we can. He's making progress now. But it's been so hard for him, for all of us. 

 

I think you're on the right track thinking about exercise. Pay attention to keeping him fed and as rested as you can. Is your son sensitive to screen time? I would also think about how you can make the environment less stressful. For example, would noise canceling headphones help? 

 

For my son working on regulation/calming skills throughout the day lowers his set point, so to speak, so he's less likely to lose it when something goes "wrong". If he's, say, doing progressive relaxation a few times a day, he handles life better generally. We're working on calming skills and helping him see he's headed toward meltdown before he gets there. (That's been a long road with mine/we're still in process). But, generally, it's been better to try to work on things at the front end. Once my son is overwhelmed or melting down, it's not going to resolve quickly and he's not going to learn. 

 

 

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My dd is 12, and this is exactly what we recently experienced. We are seeing a psychologist who specializes in autism and ABA. She's only been twice. He gave us the yellow light, red light strategy. It helps sometimes, but we need more practice. I have to anticipate when she is entering a situation that may cause a blowup and coach her/remind her how to use the strategy--just in case. 

 

Interestingly, she has been much better--I'd say just in the last six weeks. I expect as hormones fluctuate, we'll see worsening behaviors again. I'm expecting a roller coaster. 

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DD is 15 and I can't say we've mastered this because she is currently enrolled in a therapeutic boarding school but in my experience teaching your child to recognize he's getting overwhelmed before he gets to the point of blowing up is going to be key to controlling his emotions. In the short term, earplugs or head phones and music. These work really well for DD. Also if he does not have his own space for school work, set up up a cubicle for him, even if its just three sides of a cardboard box where he can focus without visual distractions. DD gets mad as a hornet if her school work is interrupted by boisterous peers.

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I thought of something else that's helped here. A therapist recommended tapping and, as weird as I first thought it was, it has helped my son with managing all sorts of heightened emotions. My husband even uses it frequently and I do it as well occasionally. . It's better, as are all techniques, to use it when the emotion is building. Recognizing that point and bringing himself back will be a key goal I imagine, as it is for my son. But I've seen tapping bring my son from a 10 level anger to a 1 (it does similar for his anxiety fwiw) with tapping. The book I got to start us was https://www.amazon.com/Tap-into-Joy-Emotional-Techniques/dp/0595419623 Once you get used to the technique, you can do it your own way in terms of wording-my son made his own scripts.

Edited by sbgrace

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Thank you everyone.  I am realizing that one of the biggest things I need to do is help him be more self aware of emotions, particularly feeling overwhelmed, and learning to take a break before that happens.  I need to be better at noticing when he's going down that route and helping him learn it too.  He and I had a good talk this week about how he's been feeling and we're working on some strategies for recognizing those overwhelming feelings, particularly when siblings are stressing him out, letting mom know when he needs a break, and actually taking those breaks when needed.  He has a quiet, calm place to go to (he has his own room) so we need to utilize that more.  I'm going to reread everyone's suggestions and take some notes for more ideas.  Thank you again!

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Something else that helped us is we hung a calendar in DD's room and got some emoticon stickers. Every day we had her choose a sticker that represented the day. If it was an angry or sad face we had her identify the trigger. It helped us to be aware that nearly all of DDs worst meltdowns happened on Sundays (transition back to school) and snow days (change in schedule).  So we could be extra vigilent then.

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