Teenage years and special needs: from angel to devil and back again

Puberty with any teenager can be a tricky business and a time of immense change for everyone in the family. If your child has special needs on top of that, the flood of teenage hormones can become overwhelming to you and the young person.  You may even find you that need extra support to help you to get through this time.

Mark Brown knows exactly how hard some families can find this transformational time. He's worked with people with special needs for 30 years, both in the NHS and in direct work with parents and families.

Mark founded Special Help 4 Special Needs in 2010 and works with a range of individuals with various special needs, including children and adolescents who have a diagnosis of Autism/Asperger's Syndrome. One of Mark's specialist areas is sexuality and puberty including sexualised behaviour and today he's written for us from his experience.

Teenage years and special needs: From Angel to Devil and back again

Teenage years and special needs – from angel to devil and back

We have all been through it and teenagers round the world will continue going through it; even the most severely disabled child will have the “pleasure” of puberty with the see-sawing emotions of adolescence.  Unfortunately, like it or not, puberty and sexual issues eventually have to be dealt with.

For many, the subject of puberty and sex is not one that is easily talked about openly. But as the frustration and anxiety experienced by the teenager continues and increases, greater consideration is needed about the required support.  Remember: having special needs is not a defence in court for inappropriate behaviour.

What is it all about?

Puberty is a time of unstructured contradictions, during which teenagers attempt to become more independent, while still needing love, acceptance and the protection that they have always had.  Preparing for adulthood relies upon us to ensure the teenager safely develops the skills needed to live in the adult world.  Throughout this time, there are a number of key considerations that need to be made in order to support everyone through this period of life.

  • Cognitive Development

As a child, life is very much based upon concrete thinking with life centring upon the basics of life. However teenager years become more abstract with increased use of emotions.  This move can often result in problems that will impact into the wider social arena.  In addition, research has shown how some teenagers with special needs, especially those with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, can show a marked deterioration in their mental state during adolescence.

Often this manifests itself as an increase in autistic behaviours and may be to do with the increased expectations that society places upon them as they become teenagers. This can result in higher levels of anxiety and a subsequent need to utilise coping mechanisms such as obsessional behaviours.

  • Social Development

Social development in teenagers is closely connected to their cognitive development due to its reliance on the thought processes involved with social interaction and the abstract side of life.  Becoming a teenager normally results in a heightened awareness of self and increased development of the teenager’s identity, something that adolescents with special needs frequently have difficulties with.  Often this results in them looking around for other people’s identities- often siblings or television characters.

To overcome these difficulties, the teenager needs to recognise facets of their own character and develop new interests and activities.  Additionally, the increased pressures linked with understanding and identifying with the experiences and feelings of others becomes of utmost importance as the teenager moves from being in the family group, into that of peer groups within which there is experimentation in forming pairs.  This is not necessarily in a sexual way, but will involve the increased need to socialise with others.

  • Sexual Development and Behaviour

This is often the part of puberty that people most worry about.  Once puberty commences, a greater variety of sexual expression occurs which continues to develop during puberty, including:

  • explicit sexual discussion amongst peers
  • increased use of swear words, obscene jokes, sexual innuendo
  • Flirtatious behaviour – mutual and consenting sexual behaviour e.g. Kissing, fondling
  • Masturbation

However, in the realms of special needs, going through these aspects is full of difficulties and worries, starting with determining what the “norm” is for a teenager, resulting in misinformation or no information being available.  In such situations, the teenager with special needs will often seek out alternative role models including soap operas or piece together the information on their own.

It is important to remember that many teenagers with special needs and especially those with autism or Asperger’s syndrome need to be taught all aspects in a prescriptive, structured manner.  It is this prescriptive, structured teaching that is often absent when a teenager with special needs displays inappropriate sexualised behaviour leading to them being labelled as some sort of 'deviant'.

What to do now?

This has been a whirlwind run through puberty, but it is hoped that it has provided some insight.  To provide some further guidance here are a few specific points:

  • Ascertain what is being taught at school by talking with the teachers, a good sex education programme is not just about sex it should be about all aspects including relationships and consent.
  • Assess your own embarrassment and knowledge level as this will have a direct impact upon how you support your child. If you feel that this will be difficult for you to do then look to others for your child to talk to, although often this depends upon the teenager as to whom they feel most comfortable talking with.
  • Utilise the wide ranging resources available including DVD’s appropriate for teenagers with special needs.
  • As with all behaviours, be clear about what the issues are and possible reasoning behind what is happening. It will not have started without a reason, whether it is something someone has said or your child has seen on television.  This will then provide guidance as to what is required.  Remember you do not want your teenager to learn inappropriately and so get deeper in to difficulty.
  • Always look at what can be done appropriately and safely, remembering that resources and information you will have may need to be individualised for your particular teenager. This should include taking into account their level of communication; even for someone with severe learning disabilities it is possible to provide some teaching in this area even if it is on a very basic level.
  • Frequently using visual cues will help reinforce what has been discussed and so promote appropriate behaviour.
  • Once all this is in place it is important to look at the time and place for the conversations and work to commence. This may be dictated by the teenager who may prefer a specific location where they feel safe, such as their bedroom, and away from certain people such as their siblings.

As Mark wrote this is a whirlwind look at puberty but there are some invaluable tips there to help and support you and your young person and if further help is required then be sure to look up Mark, whose details are on his website www.shsn.co.uk .

For a related post, read Justin Price's recent article about teaching social context to young people with autism

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Angela Kelly
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Angela Kelly

Psychotherapist & SEND parent at Emotions Counselling & Psychotherapy
Angela Kelly is a practising psychotherapist in Surrey. She is the parent of two sons who have autism and ADHD. Angela is Special Needs Jungle's Mental Health Editor
Angela Kelly
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