Hey guys and welcome back to the Actually Aspling Blog. This blog post is going to be a little different. This post is a collaborative piece written by myself and Thomas from @aspergersgrowth, in which we will be discussing our Autistic experiences of adolescence and puberty; something that isn’t openly talked about often. We are hoping that through sharing our experiences we can educate and support both parents and younger children on the spectrum, and highlight the need to have these often embarrassing conversations.
Now that the brief synopsis is out of the way, I’ll hand over to Thomas to introduce himself!
T: Hey peeps! My name is Thomas Henley, I’m a Commonwealth Gold Taekwondo athlete, an honors graduate in Biomedical Sciences from the University Of Manchester, and an online-content creator. For the past 3 years I’ve been creating videos and podcasts on Youtube and Anchor, under the name ‘Aspergers Growth’ and the ‘Thoughty Auti Podcast’ respectively. Recently, I’ve been working on a big documentary on autism and mental health called ‘Aspergers In Society’ with the intention of inducing social change and influencing policies.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at the age of 10, so I’m very excited to share my experiences with puberty from the autistic male angle! The ‘puberty’ topic is not something most people feel comfortable talking about. Despite this, I believe it’s important to share our experiences, especially considering the traumatic events that occur in the lives of many autistic people at high school!
The transition from primary school to high school
V: For me personally, the transition from primary school to secondary was difficult. I’d gone from being surrounded by friends to being in an unpredictable environment with complete strangers. I had to adjust and fast, something which was challenging. This when I started masking. I had to fit in with the crowds, to try and blend in with those around me, and that meant creating a whole new persona. A persona that was up to date with the latest trends, the latest news, the lot. I’d spend hours researching things just so I had something to talk about the next day, so that I could join in with the conversations.
At that stage of my life things were confusing, the social dynamics had changed and it felt as though everyone got the memo except me. Everyone else knew what was going on, and I was left behind. One of the strategies I used at this time was a social script, something my mum helped me develop. She sat down with me and talked through some of the typical conversations that were had at school, and we developed a set of responses which I could use when things became confusing or too much. This really helped me, as I had a back up, in times where I’d usually freeze or run away I could use a prepared appropriate response.
T: From reading Vicky’s story, I think there are a lot of things that I found equally difficult. It does seem that one summer holiday the whole school had a get together and created a bunch of bizzare rules and social codes that I had no idea about. One way that I’d say my background differed was how I coped or dealt with the changes in the social environment. I used to be quite a friendly, bubbly little kid, but once I felt the sting of social isolation or that stone silence once I joined a conversation… I really wasn’t sure what to do. Instead of working to fit in, I drifted from one group to another, staying quiet and sinking into the background of groups. I spent my time after school gaming to escape reality, desperately messaging people I wanted to be friends with or girls that I was too anxious to talk to. I became very depressed and anxious, having panic attacks most days at school and insecent thoughts about suicide and self-harm on the nights.
I coped with my negative experiences by pouring my heart and soul into my studies and my dream of becoming a Taekwondo fighter. My mother was a strong source of help in the complex social world, and some friends provided a strong anchor to help me enter stressful social situations. I only started to properly work on my social skills once I got to University, but for the most of it high school was a never ending nightmare and I could do nothing but wait it out.
The changes during Adolescence
V: Throughout adolescence everything changed, things were new and I had to adjust pretty quickly. In high school my body was changing, and it was a very confusing time for me. I didn’t particularly process what was happening, and I didn’t understand it either even though I was physically aware that I was changing. We had lessons in school, but it was too much to take in, and honestly my classmates just made a joke of everything so it was difficult to focus.
At this time I also started my period, yet another confusion, something else I didn’t process until I got older. It was something else to deal with, something which heightened my anxiety. I spent my high school days terrified to ask to go to the bathroom, I tried to manage things on my own; but it was a challenge.
Around this time my emotions were all over the show. I became much more emotional, however I couldn’t always identify the feeling, I just felt it. I would spend my mornings crying because I was so scared to go to school, I’d have such emotional outbursts (which I now know are meltdowns and overload).
Adolescence was problematic, and the changes I experienced physically carried over into the social domain. All my friends would talk about their bodies, the transformation they were going through; but honestly those conversations just made me uneasy. I was uncomfortable about things as it was, this added pressure just exacerbated my already bursting anxiety.
T: In terms of physical changes my voice broke a little before most of the other boys in my year. Obviously I was the subject of many jokes from my friend group and family due to my squeaky voice, but it wasn’t really a problem for me as I found it quite funny as well. The main physical changes that caused me problems were the growth pains and the facial hair. From the podcast me and Vicky did a couple of weeks ago I think we both struggled with growing pains and I was often rolling around restlessly at night trying to ignore the pain. It wasn’t a writhing intolerable pain, but I think being on spectrum made that sensory feedback harder to ignore and it made me very irritable when the pains started. I’m sure many of you out there can empathise with just how uncomfortable tags on clothing can be, well imagine that sharp, pointy, annoying feeling all across your neck, chest and face. To be honest the physical changes and their effects on me can’t really be compared to the intensity of female experience during puberty, however being male does have it’s own bag of difficulties.
The emotional changes during puberty really were the epitome of distress and anxiety. A book I recently read highlighted that the adolescent brain becomes hyper-aware of how others perceive them, and I feel that rung true for me quite often. You feel like you are under judgement all the time, like everyone is talking about you. Being on the spectrum and struggling with those subtle changes of body language, facial expressions and vocal tone, can make this experience extremely difficult. Sometimes I would react to minor things that I thought were significant, when in reality it was just a miscommunication or a bad judgement on my part… but other times I would be blissfully unaware of just how much they were ridiculing me, whether it was secretive or directly in front of my face.
I guess the subject of many conversations about puberty revolve around sex, relationships and feelings. I was very obsessed with the whole romanticism aspect of relationships and I based a lot of my efforts to build those relationships on unrealistic films and shows. I had extremely strong urges in my adolescence, and I guess that desire for physical intimacy left me open to a lot of teasing and jokes when I approached girls I was attracted to. Puberty in general for me, is best described as a hell hole of bullying, rumours and social signals that I could only understand with a lot of trial and error.
V: On the flipside to what Thomas has said about sex and relationships, I personally didn’t have any desire to seek out relationships, I was quite happy on my own; however, this was something I was teased about. The fact my friends were getting into romantic relationships and I wasn’t, people always thought I was ‘frigid’ – a word I never understood. I’m a very loving person and make strong attachments with people, but at that point in my life I was more concerned with friendships and being liked than anything romantic.
Does being Autistic impact experiences of puberty?
V: Honestly, I wish I had known I was Autistic in high school, it would have made a huge difference. I think being Autistic intensifies the experience, I mean in terms of sensory processing back then I was so aware of every sensation, and I couldn’t understand or explain why; but now it makes sense. I also think in terms of cognitive processing and social dynamics being Autistic plays a huge part. It would take me so long to process conversations and before I’d have a chance to reply the conversation was over, I’d be left staring into space and be called a ‘weirdo’. At that age I desperately wanted to connect with people, to please people, I sought out friendships; and I was way too trusting too. I couldn’t understand how everyone around me had friends and could be so open, I lacked the basic understanding of what was expected. The experiences I had are similar to NT’s, but how I felt and how I experienced things were definitely heightened in several aspects.
T: Yes, I think that’s the short answer. School is unfortunately about fitting in, and I believe beyond all the sensory difficulties and problems understanding emotions… the main cause of my struggles during puberty were due to external factors. Other people not understanding me, me not understanding them, being teased and bullied by friend or foe, feeling unable to connect with people my own age, hiding on the bus to avoid harassment. The whole secondary or high school experience for me left me with a lot of self-esteem issues, poor mental health and a general dissatisfaction with my social life. Those times were unimaginably traumatic for me, but I guess they taught me a lot of valuable lessons about autism in this society. I don’t think I’d be on this path and have the life goals that I hold dear to me, if I didn’t have such a negative experience. Looking back I’ve come to terms, forgave people and accepted my younger days as they were. There’s nothing I could have done other than tough it out and focus my energy on my dreams.
I used to be the weirdo that nobody really paid much attention to, but now I’m that weirdo with an amazingly supportive family, group of friends, girlfriend, and a brilliant community. Things do work out with time and effort, but nothing can erase the pain I had to endure. We need to work together to eliminate or lessen those negative experiences for other autistic children and teenagers. I’m so grateful that Vicky asked me to come write about my own experiences and I hope you’ve found some of this relatable at the least, and helpful in some way at the most!
Please feel free to check out my YouTube channel ‘Aspergers Growth’, my spotify/apple podcast the ‘Thoughty Auti Podcast’ and my new documentary ‘Aspergers In Society’ on YouTube. For anything else my social media pages are @aspergersgrowth for Facebook, Twitter and Instagram!