Things were going along nicely. I had finally seemed to figure life out and made some sense of the school day. Then several things happened that would rock my world.
The first thing that happened was when I went from sixth grade into my seventh, grade year. I went to school back in the day where sixth graders were still at our elementary school and seventh-graders went to the middle school.
The transition from sixth grade to seventh grade was difficult for me. Not only was I changing school buildings and spending my days in an entirely different environment, but I was also changing teachers. I wasn’t just changing one teacher at a time either, because when I entered middle school and got into the seventh grade, we started having multiple teachers. I was no expected to learn the teaching styles of seven or eight different teachers, and that task felt very overwhelming to me.
It is hard for an autistic person to adapt to change. I had become accustomed to having one teacher throughout the school day and only having to switch teachers once per year as I advanced grades.
Now, I was going to have seven or eight different teachers throughout the day and be expected to switch classes every forty to forty-five minutes. That is a lot to ask of any child.
As I got more into my seventh grade, year, I noticed something else starting to change. The children started to change. Their behavior started being different than what it had been the previous seven years in elementary school. They started socializing different and it seemed like there was now a whole new set of social rules that I wasn’t aware of.
I didn’t do so bad in elementary school because there were fewer social skills to learn there than there would be in middle school.
In elementary school if you could run around on the playground and play tag you were doing quite well at fitting in and making friends.
In middle school, I learned there’s a lot more to making friends than playing tag or running around on the playground playing games. Middle school is much more complex, and the social environment and social concepts change as the kids get older.
This change is where I first really started to notice I was different. I would say seventh grade is when I first started to be able to tell that I had Asperger Syndrome even though I had no idea I had it at the time because I was undiagnosed until the age of 22.
Everything about socializing had changed. Kids didn’t run around on the playground at recess anymore. Occasionally some of the boys might have played basketball but mostly the kids just walked around and talked to one another or sat or stood in groups talking.
I couldn’t understand why no one wanted to play games anymore at recess. What was everyone so intently talking about? I didn’t know what was going on. I had no clue what to say and I felt anxious that everyone was sitting around talking and not playing games. Why did they no longer want to play games with me at recess?
There is a social change that takes place in children as they hit puberty and become teenagers. This change starts in the preteen years and can completely rock an autistic child’s world. A child who thinks he has finally figured out the social world of elementary school only to be quickly thrown into a different social world in middle school where he is lost with no clue of how to interact with his peers.
Feeling lost can create a lot of anxiety about going to school. If you don’t know how to socialize or get along with your peers that can make going to school a dread each day.
Some autistic people want to be very social and some don’t. Each approach is perfectly fine as it is preference to who the person is.
I was an autistic kid who wanted to be very social and do all the social activities that the other kids seemed to enjoy. I wanted to go to the school dances and attend the basketball games. I just wanted to be included in what the other kids were doing.
I learned that it takes a lot of good social skills to get included in many of those activities. Sure, anyone can just go to the school dance or show up at a basketball game but if you are going to be a part of the group and hang out with your peers you need to get the hidden curriculum and understand how to socially engage and connect with your peers.
What was leading to all these social changes? It wasn’t just that we had left elementary school and went to middle school. There was something else going on with the children that was causing them to make the social changes.
About the time kids reach the seventh grade, puberty starts to set in for us. This is when we start to develop more advanced feelings for members of the opposite sex and begin to pursue relationships with them. This starts very early on in life now. Some studies suggest puberty is continuing to develop in children earlier and earlier than ever before. No one is sure the exact cause to this, but there are many theories. One theory is the obesity epidemic in America. The human body associates an overweight body as a body that is physically ready for change and entering puberty.
Autistic people will often be late bloomers when it comes to puberty, although there is at least one study I’ve heard of that associates, autism to an earlier onset of puberty than typical kids. I don’t see the value giving too much credit to just this one study and still feel confident in saying that many autistic kids will experience puberty later than their peers.
While our bodies may be reacting to puberty in the same way as are typical peers, our minds do not experience puberty the same way as our peers. At least, our social understanding of what’s going on with our bodies are not identical to that of our typical peers.
Depending on the level of autism there can be several things that happen. The range of emotions that an autistic child might feel during puberty range anything from a child not being aware at all that their body is changing and going through puberty to an autistic child being very in-tune with their changing body and wondering why it is changing.
It is great to support autistic people who want to understand why their body is changing with learning about puberty and sexuality.
Sexuality education starts from a young age. In my opinion, sexuality education starts at the onset of puberty if not before.
With an ever-changing body and a changing social environment, it becomes easy for an autistic child to become frustrated. They feel even more isolated than they ever have before and some may realize that their body is changing and feel awkward about that.
The onset of puberty and the new social environment is likely to trigger some behavior changes in the autistic child. This is a lot of change for their body and mind to adjust to and might feel overwhelming to them.
Any child can experience agitation during puberty, but autistic children may be more prone to aggression during and after puberty than the typical child and there are a few good reasons for this.
One reason is that you have an autistic child who now has an interest in someone of the opposite sex or even possibly someone of the same gender.
Regardless, we have a sexual interest now and the person is interested in going deeper than just friendship even though they may not realize it.
When I say they may not realize it, I mean that they may not be able to understand how to define it. They could be very aware that they like someone on a deeper level now but not in-tune with what the social rules are that would tell them that this means they want someone to be their girlfriend instead of just being their friend.
As an autistic person, I often think of dating as just wanting to be better friends with certain people than with others and that is exactly what dating is when it works out the way it supposed to.
However, in adult relationships we would possibly see a label of more than friends put on a couple who was super close to one another and forming an intense friendship.
The autistic person might not understand this label and may be wondering what it means. They might assume they are just wanting to be good friends with someone and pursue them as a friend because that is how they know how to pursue people but, their feelings want that person to be more than a friend.
The human mind can play tricks on anyone. This happened to me and I suspect the human mind can play tricks on most autistic people.
When you have a changing body and you don’t understand the social rules that come along with that changing body it creates confusion and panic for anyone.
It seemed to me there was a change in social rules along with the onset of puberty. On top of that I was getting a late start from the rest of my typical peers because I didn’t really form an interest in women until I was seventeen or eighteen years old.
This is where we need to talk about emotional puberty. In my opinion there are two parts to puberty. Physical puberty where your body goes through all the physical changes it is supposed to go through in order to go from being a boy into being a man. Then there is emotional puberty and that is where your social and emotional understanding of your body and what you are supposed to do with your body comes into play.
Emotional puberty would be when we start to realize that our bodies have changed, and we are now ready to pursue the opposite sex for a sexual relationship. This is where we would recognize that our emotions towards the opposite sex or same sex if you like the same sex have changed and we no longer think of some of them the same way we used to.
Some members of that opposite sex now stand out and we think of them differently than we used to.
The emotional puberty part would tell us how to interact with that person differently and what to say to them. Emotional puberty is about understanding the type of social relationship you are going to have with someone and communicating with them in that way.
This is what got me into trouble. I had experienced physical puberty close to the same age as my peers did but the emotional puberty took me a lot longer to experience and when I did experience it, I didn’t experience it like my peers.
I didn’t notice women as sexual until I was about seventeen. When I did, I wanted to interact with them but didn’t know how. Instead, I kind of just looked at them and thought to myself “I think she’s very pretty or I like the way she looks today.”
I was so scared that a woman would find out that I liked her and would hate me for liking her. Even before I had ever tried to talk to a woman about dating, I had developed a negative self-esteem about myself. I was already telling myself there is no way a woman would like me or want to be my girlfriend, and this left me paranoid to begin trying to start up conversations with girls in high school.
On top of that I was socially clueless on what to say. I had all this nervous energy of wanting to talk to some of the girls at school, but I didn’t know what to say to them and I was trying to hold all of this in because I knew if I said something to them it would be awkward.
Even as a high schooler I knew I was different. I didn’t know I had Asperger Syndrome, but I knew there was something different about me than my peers. I could pick up on the fact that other kids thought I was weird in normal situations and I couldn’t imagine what they would have thought about me liking girls and trying to interact with them.
I knew that hitting puberty changed things socially, but I was confused as to what to change and how to change.
In elementary school girls always paid attention to me and thought I was nice. Thinking back, I can tell that girls already knew I was different in elementary school but because neither them or myself had gone through puberty, yet it didn’t matter.
Before puberty girls saw me as a project and wanted to nurture me. They wanted to guide me socially in elementary school and this is something I liked. I loved having someone to lead the way and guide me through making social decisions about my day. I looked up to some of the girls who helped me in elementary school and remember thinking that we would be life-long friends.
I didn’t expect the changes to happen like they happened in middle school. The same girls that were my friends and nurtured me in elementary school now saw me as someone completely different.
I guess they grew out of that nurturing phase and hit puberty themselves so its fair to say that they themselves were also different people, but I had also hit puberty and they could tell there was a change in me.
After puberty I have learned that girls must be on guard of interacting with boys because they think the boys might like them and want to date them.
Girls don’t necessarily always want to date every guy that likes them and wants to date them, but they also don’t want to hurt that guy’s feelings.
Another unwritten social rule that happens in middle school and into high school that continues well into adulthood is that women tend to be very careful about being nice to boys or men. I have learned that women must be extremely cautious about being nice to boys or men because often the men will read into it the wrong way and assume that a woman likes him if she is nice to him.
This theory of assumption works both ways and there are good reasons for it to be true. This is a very advanced social concept that took me a long time to understand and it is something I continue to work on understanding.
People aren’t generally nice to someone just to be nice to them. Occasionally people are nice just for the sake of being nice but usually when someone is being nice to someone it is because they like them and you like someone, that means you are going to be wanting something from them.
What are you wanting from the person you like? You are wanting them to like you back. When you really like someone, it is a natural reaction to want to be nice to them and treat them with such respect because you care about them and want them to care about you just as much.
Think of a man sending a woman a dozen roses, he does this because he cares about her and he wants her to know that he cares about her. However, most men don’t just randomly send any women flowers. Usually men only send flowers to women that they are romantically attracted to.
Because of this when a woman receives flowers from a man randomly her first thought must be “I bet he likes me.” This puts women in a difficult situation because there might be a chance that she does not feel the same way about the guy as he does her.
Women do not enjoy being mean, so they do not like to reject people. Instead of rejecting the guy she might just act different around him and not be as friendly with him. She might worry that her friendliness is being perceived by him as her liking him and if she does not like him that is not a good thing and she will try to avoid giving off hints that she might like him.
I have learned all of this about flirting and dating as an adult and it has taken me years to learn. These are very important social concepts for adults on the autism spectrum to learn and understand.
These concepts did not just appear in adulthood however, they were starting to appear in middle school and on into high school.
Therefore, I believe that girls started acting different toward me in middle school than they had in elementary school. They were now more aware that I could possibly like them romantically and want to go on dates with them or court them and if they did not feel the same way about me this would be awkward.
Now I think girls worried that if they were nice to me and nurtured me that it might give off this implied meaning that they liked me and then I would pick up on that and act on it to pursue them.
They were right to be on guard with this because as a teenager and young adult when I did like a girl, I would have pursued her for dating, but it would have been all weird and awkward because I didn’t understand the social nuances of socializing and dating in that way. I would have just clung to that girl and told her I liked her and wanted to marry her with little to no thought and they would have thought I was weird or creepy. I know this because I have done this and experienced being told I was weird and creepy.
Imagine being an autistic teenager going through all these changes with your own body and watching your peers go through all these physical changes as well, but then realizing that they were also going through social and emotional changes in a different way than you were.
I often talk about social context. Context is very important in understanding everything social and this is an aspect of life in which I was experiencing social and emotional change differently than my typical peers.
What used to work for me in relating to my peers in elementary school was no longer working in middle school and I could not figure out for the life of me how to make it work again.
I was growing further away from the friends I had in elementary school and I felt like an innocent bystander sitting by watching all my peers pick up on this awesome social and emotional change in the right way, while I was left trying to understand what was going on.
Add to that, I was a typical teenager in the sense that I was physically starting to go through puberty and had super active hormones which caused me to be so attracted to girls by the time I was seventeen and I was very isolated, frustrated, and confused.
I am quite certain that I acted out numerous times throughout this entire process. I am willing to say that when we see aggression in kids with autism in their teenage years or even preteen years that there might be some relationship to the physical, social, and emotional changes that are going on with puberty.
For me, it felt like puberty almost started my life over. It was like someone picked me up and carried me to this new world and dropped me off in a world I did not understand.
This all happened just as I was beginning to finally understand the first world I was in during elementary school and now it was like someone swept me up and stole me and delivered me to this new foreign country where all the social rules changed again.
Obviously, at the time I did not know I had autism and did not know what I know about autism today, so I was completely baffled and had no idea what was going on.
There was not a lot of awareness about Asperger Syndrome and the higher functioning end of the autism spectrum, so my teachers or parents did not really have a good understanding as to why I was struggling.
For the first part of the change I kept quiet. I kept myself busy in what I now call my special interest of playing the trombone and making music.
I would practice playing my trombone for five or six hour per day when I was in middle school and high school.
I was also involved in numerous musical groups throughout high school that kept me quite busy but also kept me around beautiful girls in which I secretly wanted to interact with.
I did not really talk to anyone about my struggle with understanding the social changes in middle school because I did not really know what to label it as or how to explain it. I just knew that things were different, and I was not adapting to the changes well and felt left out. This left me feeling very sad and frustrated.
This is when my grades started slipping in middle school. I was so consumed with trying to figure out all the changes that were going on with me and my peers that I stopped concentrating on school work. It became impossible for me to sit and focus on a lesson or do homework and there were many times where I just wanted to engage in my special interest of music and playing the trombone instead of doing homework.
I was very concerned with figuring out why things were changing and I did not understand why. This led to a lot of added anxiety which really frustrated me and stressed me out. When I am stressed out, I tend to be grouchier just like you or anyone would be, but I snap at people easier when I am stressed.
I have learned as I got older that I also have bi-polar along with having Asperger Syndrome, so I tend to have a lot of up and down mood swings and when I do not understand something, I am very irritable because I am trying to make my brain focus very hard on learning something new.
Everything was changing. My physical body was changing, and I developed hormones. But I did not have the emotions and social understanding to know what to do with my body.
Things were going along nicely. I had finally seemed to figure life out and made some sense of the school day. Then several things happened that would rock my world.