Getting a period for the first time is a universal milestone for girls. It’s a signal that the body is maturing into that of a woman. Whether the first menstruation cycle is met with joy, anxiety, or disdain, it is bound to happen at some point — that includes girls with autism.
Since autism is so often thought of as a “boys’ disorder,” menstruation may not be a point of common discussion among autism communities. That needs to change, for the sake of our daughters with autism. So let’s talk about that — how you can help a girl prepare to transition into a physical woman as smoothly as possible.
1. Give Her “The Talk” — Early
Entering puberty is rife with all sorts of changes. That’s hard enough for neurotypical kids to handle, and even more so for a special needs child who struggles with change and transition. That being said, make sure to talk to your daughter about tough subjects like puberty, menstruation, and sex before she starts puberty (average age of onset is 10, but it could start as early as age seven or eight).
Be as descriptive, literal, anatomically correct, and thorough in your explanations as possible; it might be helpful to buy her a book that explains these topics so you ensure all bases are covered. But here are a few things to get you started:
- Puberty in general — the physical, emotional, and sexual changes she will undergo
- What sex is and what your family’s values are regarding it, if you have them (i.e. waiting until marriage, saving sex for a committed relationship/the right person, etc.)
- Appropriate versus inappropriate sexual behavior, especially in terms of public versus private settings (e.g. masturbation, touching a significant other, etc.)
- Sexual assault — what it is and what to do if it happens. People with special needs are far more likely to be sexually assaulted or abused than those without, so this is an especially important conversation to have
- What periods are, why they happen, and why they are perfectly normal
- What physically happens to her body when she is on her period
- Where the bleeding will come from
- Normal issues she might experience surrounding her period: cramps, premenstrual syndrome, breast tenderness, etc.
- Menstrual hygiene — that she will need to wear pads or tampons and change them regularly
- Length, frequency, and potential irregularity of menstrual cycles
- When she should talk to a trusted adult for help (e.g. has periods lasting longer than seven days, develops symptoms of Toxic Shock Syndrome, etc.)
- Social etiquette in terms of talking about periods and sex — when, where, and with whom she can speak about the subjects
2. Let Her Know What to Do if Her Period Starts Away from Home
Because the first period may start on any given day or any given time, there is a chance hers will start away from home — like school, for instance. Consider slipping a pad and clean pair of underwear into a small bag that she can store in her backpack just in case she needs it. That, or have her carry those same things in a bag or purse that she takes with her wherever she goes.
If her period starts during a class and she needs to slip away, consider giving her a special card she can give a teacher that indicates she needs to leave and take care of it (and be sure to explain the system to her teacher(s), of course!)
3. Experiment Wearing Feminine Products
Sometimes girls with autism struggle when it comes to feminine hygiene, particularly due to sensory issues; wearing a sanitary pad at all times for seven days can be very uncomfortable! Some parents struggle to get their daughters to wear feminine products at all, which is, of course, unacceptable for sanitary (and laundry!) reasons.
That being said, it’s not a bad idea to figure out what works best for your daughter before her period starts. Try out a few different brands, sizes, and thicknesses of pads to see if she likes the feeling of one over the other. Allow her time to get used to them, too. And if disposable pads just don’t work out for her? Pads made of fabric, special underwear made for periods, adult diapers, and even tampons are viable alternatives to try.
A. Stout received a Bachelor of Arts in Writing through Grand Valley State University, graduating Magna Cum Laude in 2015. In addition to being a passionate autism advocate, she is a member of various fandoms, a study abroad alumna, and an animal lover. She dreams of publishing novels and traveling all over the world someday.