PUBERTY & SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT FOR CHILDREN ON THE AUTISTIC SPECTRUM:
WELL-ADJUSTED VS SELF-ADJUSTED:
Puberty is a critical stage in the social development of children. They go from individuals
whose actions are largely inconsequential to “well-adjusted” and responsible adults seemingly
in an instant. Being well adjusted basically means that the adolescent observes older peers and
adults and picks up on the glorified behaviors of the era and masters them. Essentially by
observing rewarded vs. frowned upon behaviors, she learns the standard operating procedures
for socializing while largely suppressing her emotions in the process. Once that is
accomplished she receives a pat on the back from everyone in sight and is ushered in to the
world of adults. This is something that works quite well for the neurotypical kid who finds it
easier to replace natural tendencies with socially accepted codes of behavior.
This wide scale substitution of inherent behavioral tendencies in favor of social constructs is
not an area of proficiency for the autistic adolescent. In fact many spectrum children in an
attempt to fit in, try doing exactly that. They try to set aside who they are and end up
increasingly miserable, anxious, demoralized and depressed. Autistic kids need (& ought to be
encouraged) to observe their inner self and grow in tandem with their inherent driving forces,
wherever these may lead. Parents ought to teach their autistic children to explore what their
own constitution is telling them about every social activity and every rule and code they
The body constantly gives signs to reflect how comfortable it is with our actions. Signs of
incompatibility include headache after a late night at a crowded dance, tummy aches and
diarrhea around summer camp, emotional turmoil, temper flares, withdrawal, increased
clumsiness, regression of behavior to a younger less mature age, anxiety, depression etc…
Parents ought to teach their children to connect these signs to recent or upcoming activities as
an incentive for the kid to explore the most suitable activities for him or her. Suitable activities
are the ones that give your adolescent peace and even mood. These activities may or may not
conform to what is considered “hip” and popular at the time. In fact parents ought to
encourage their kids to spend less time discerning “cool” activities and more time going for
activities, clothing, style and vocabulary that keep the kid at ease. What is glamorous in the
eyes of neighbors and peers is irrelevant in making these choices. An autistic child is typically
not going for a popularity contest at school but for a comfortable way to make a connection
with one or two friends. Parents may wonder if their child’s individuality may provoke
taunting and bullying. Well, that might very well happen but its long-term consequences on the
psyche are infinitesimal compared to suppressing natural tendencies and following the herd.
While an autistic kid with a budding social life is usually struggling with making these choices
a little bit of encouragement and validation by the parents goes a very long way. All
adolescents are emotionally volatile, but autistic adolescents are even more emotionally
vulnerable. An autistic adolescent may not be consciously aware of the need to customize her
lifestyle and activities. She may only realize that things happening around her are making her
life difficult to maneuver. This is an added responsibility for parents to observe their child’s
misery and defuse any feelings of inadequacy that might grip their child in addition to pointing
out the presence of other options the kid can explore.
The resulting customized style developed in tandem with who this kid is, represents the
concept of becoming ‘self-adjusted’ or ‘auto-adjusted’ as opposed to the glorified well-
adjusted or adjusted-to-social-norms. The future is bright for those autistic kids who learn
early on to customize their life and preferences to their own individual liking. Living a custom
life takes away plenty of the emotional struggles that would otherwise hold the child back
from academic achievement, independence and a personal identity.
INDIVIDUAL IDENTITY VS EXTENDED ADOLESCENCE:
For a neurotypical adolescent, the road to developing personal identity is pretty much mapped
out. Basically, once puberty hits, she make enemies of her parents, their friends and most of
her teachers. Next, she inserts herself into a small group of similarly aged peers whom she
admires and over identifies with. She closely observes the leader of the pack to get the cues
for what is socially glorified and what is not. In the process she develops mad crushes on few
public figures that she idealizes and tries to model herself after. She does that typically on the
recommendation of the pack. By going through this process she finds herself picking up a
cohort of behaviors deemed appropriate and glorified for the times. She makes this cohort her
own through trial and error. By the conclusion of the process, she has formed an identity. At
this stage she is convinced that one need not fundamentally process social and emotional input
to be “cool” or thriving. She concludes that one can thrive on the graces of following the
behaviors of trend-setters. Furthermore, the dangerous proposition she comes out with is that
fundamental processing of information makes her less cool and threatens her “plugged-in”
status; since the burden of processing academic or emotional input consumes energy
otherwise necessary to keep up the established social posture. The often consequential
shallowness, mediocrity and apathy toward core human issues that grip much of the
neurotypical community are by no means a sign of deficient or incomplete development. To
the contrary, these are consequences of a popular choice taken by fully able, sound minded
What about autistic spectrum kids and identity formation? Well, the process for autistics is not
nearly as straightforward or as accessible. We start with some basic questions an autistic
adolescent attempting to form an individual identity ought to ask herself,
Do you like me because of who I am or because I seem sufficiently malleable for you to mold
me into a mirror image of yourself?
Do I have a crush on this person because he or she validates me and challenges me to grow or
because this person is someone with whom I identify and like to emulate?
Does who I am match other people’s view of someone they would take up as a friend or
intimate or business partner?
Do I want to look for like-minded individuals who accept me for who I am or do I want to
make changes to my disposition and create a social persona to become that match?
Do adults digress from my concept of idealism because they have practically found out that
getting along in real life requires a slightly different set of values or because they are two parts
evil and three parts stupid?
Should I be working constructively toward wider acceptance of who I am and others like me
into the repertoire of healthy personalities or is an ideologic revolution necessary to fix society
Many autistic adolescents grow up relatively quickly in their sense of awareness of removed
societal and political affairs. They develop a sense of identifying with suffering and injustice
across the world. They very quickly develop ideas on the difference between how things are
and how things ought to be in society. However, most autistic adolescents lag behind on
developing a sense of self independent of the immediate surroundings. They may not be nearly
as antagonistic to their parents or teachers as adolescents. This is not something to brag about
as a parent. It is a sign of lingering unanswered questions. Many spectrum kids fail to
comprehend the human meaning of puberty and its personal and social consequences.
Autistic adolescents may not belong to [or seek to belong to] a defined pack that guides their
choices. Instead they randomly and indiscriminately over-identify with any impressive person
they meet. This could cause a lot of confusion which may spill over into many areas of their
life. Many grow up without realizing the difference between emotional intimacy and sexual
encounters for example or between an understanding friend and a predatory acquaintance.
Many autistic adolescents go well into their twenties even thirties before they realize why two
people get together to form a family and have children.
All the meanwhile, many autistic adolescents would be resisting these aforementioned
developmental milestones thus accentuating their isolation. As a parent you want to explore
with your child, if her avoidance of certain social situations begins from past rejection or
stems from her sense of rebellion against social customs. Many autistic kids resist
conventional social settings due to a conviction of absurdity of such settings. We may
intellectually debate whether contemporary social systems are inherently absurd or not.
However, for practical purposes, as a parent you have to show your child by example the
benefits of intimacy and friendships in creating inner peace and tranquility. Showing these
benefits ought to be done through examples acted out and then explained in plain language. For
example, a mother upset about a personal problem, calls on her best friend and speaks with
her about it. At the end of the conversation, the mother is not nearly half as upset since she
has her problem in perspective and has acquired ideas about possible solutions from a sincere
person who is less emotionally invested in the problem. It helps a lot if the adolescent son or
daughter witness the process of problem resolution and are then narrated to in plain matter of
fact language what happened.
Autistic adolescents have to experience for themselves the meaning of forming friendships,
how different this is from being attracted to a person of the opposite sex – or same sex - and
how to turn this attraction into a connection and an intimate and fulfilling relationship. An
autistic kid can form a secure individual identity only during challenging encounters with other
similarly aged adolescents. It will be cruel and other kids who are more in-tuned to “social
norms” will mock her and bully her and antagonize her and shun her away. You cannot love
your child by shielding her from all this or by fueling her rebellion against it either. You can
love your child only by attending to her wounds as they occur. Rest assured that if she keeps
trying to socialize that she will either stumble upon like-minded people who accept her or she
develops sufficient social skills to get along with autistics and neurotypicals alike. As a parent
you can make the process easier by giving her pointers and most crucially by explaining that
rejection and mockery are a natural part of socializing. Many autistic kids when rejected once
or twice tend to take it very personally and lose hope that they ever will be accepted by
anyone. You, as a parent, have to emphasize that social rejection has many reasons most of
which are not related to who she is. Additionally, parents have to explain that everyone goes
through cycles of rejection and acceptance until they finally find their social niche.
Please note that most autistic adolescents need periods of lonesomeness to work through
sensory overload. These are periods of re-building in which she may not want to share her life
with anyone else. These are very healthy retreats from social life as long as they don’t take
over and replace one’s life.
So what are the requirements an autistic kid needs to reach an individual identity and snap out
of adolescence and into adulthood?
1- Autistics need an understanding household that accepts and encourages their
uniqueness and non-conformity
2- They need to be encouraged to accept who they are irrespective of any glorified role
3- Autistic adolescents do not thrive on playing an assigned role. They need to be
encouraged to understand that they are an advanced breed who can only thrive when they
originally design their own social role; and they need to be encouraged to do so. Passive
parental acceptance in NOT sufficient encouragement.
4- They need one or two friends with similar dispositions to validate their paths.
5- They need to keep trying to socialize despite the high probability of rejection.
6- They need to know that other people’s derogatory remarks reflect only the speakers’
mental state and are exclusive of the reality of the spoken of.
7- They need to know that negative comments, bullying and cruelty directed against them
do not define who they are. However, their reactions to these misbehaviors do.
8- They need to mingle on their own terms – only with kids they like to mingle with and
not necessarily ones that are chosen for them.
9- They ought to be discouraged from mingling with adults and focus on their age group.
10- They ought not to follow any pack leaders since that makes them transfer the burden
of growing up to someone else; they become spectators and their development stalls.
11- They need exposure to examples of sensitive people who went against the grain and
succeeded in life despite being different from the insensitive majority. Thomas Jefferson,
Abraham Lincoln and Vincent Van Gogh among others come to mind in this respect. Neither
one lived an especially easy or happy life by conventional terms. However, they overcame
immense adversity to achieve self-sufficiency, satisfaction and a thriving demeanor.
12- Finally, autistic kids need ample time doing all this. Their progress ought not to be
measured against their chronologic age. They typically start late and spend more years honing
their social skills.
One hopes that the outcome of the tortuous social exercise around puberty culminates in the
autistic adolescent finding out who she is, accepting herself and loving everything she stands
for. Failure to get to the point of acceptance reflects badly on self-confidence, capacity for
independence and ability to reach intimacy in personal life. Furthermore, failing to reach
separation of self from environment makes for an erratic, often inconsistent social disposition
and ultimately leads to social isolation and oblivion.
RAMI SERHAN, MD (email@example.com) is a consultant to healthcare
providers on the matters of sensitivity, autism and hormones since 1998. He resides in Renton,
CHILDHOOD & SOCIETY BY ERIC H ERIKSON; W. W. Norton & Company (August 1993)
THE ESSENTIAL JUNG BY CARL GUSTAV JUNG; Princeton Univ. Press 1983
SELF-EFFICACY IN CHANGING SOCIETIES BY ALBERT BANDURA; Cambridge Univ.
Press (May 13, 1997)
COPYRIGHT 2009 RAMI J SERHAN, MD (206) 659-1ASD (273)