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October 05, 2022

Where Every Family Matters

Puberty is Harder for Kids with Autism

A Vanderbilt study on adolescence aims to shed light on this thorny period in life.

When Johnny Porowski — a typically developing kid — started sprouting hair in his armpits, his mom ran out and bought a copy of My Body, My Self (William Morrow; 2007) and tossed it on his bed. She told Johnny that if he had questions about what he read he could direct those to his dad. Aghast, Johnny grappled with his pubescent body like most kids do: on his own, through hit and miss Q&As with peers and by picking up what he could in embarrassing sex education class.


Puberty — the time in life when a boy or girl becomes sexually mature — is a process that usually happens between ages 10 – 14 for girls and 12 – 16 for boys, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. Marked by physical and psychological changes brought on by hormonal changes, puberty may cause mood swings, long periods of time spent on personal care, a deep desire to be more independent and more. It may be a difficult rite of passage for kids and parents, and even more so for kids on the autism spectrum, since the disorder includes problems with social interaction and communication. Not a whole lot is known about the whys and wherefores of puberty for kids on the spectrum, and that’s where the SENSE Lab at Vanderbilt Kennedy Center comes in. Last year, a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health permitted Vanderbilt to launch a five-year study aimed at examining this crucial period of development in kids. The study’s investigators are currently seeking typical kids as well as kids on the spectrum for their work. Blythe Corbett, Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences and psychology who’s also a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center investigator, heads up the study. “We are looking at development from both a biological and behavioral perspective,” Corbett says. Ultimately, the study will identify what factors contribute to resiliency and the healthy transition into adulthood — all things parents want to know more about.


In order to further understand this vital time in teen development, the SENSE Lab needs kids ages 10 – 13 on the autism spectrum as well as those who are typically developing to participate in the study. Kids in the study will have two to three hours of psychological testing, two to three hours of social interaction and four follow-up assessments over the course of four years (one a year).


While puberty causes typical kids to experience enhanced arousal, kids on the autism spectrum can experience intense anxiety about it, according to Autism Speaks (, the national organization dedicated to advancing research into the causes and treatment of autism spectrum disorders. If puberty causes typical kids to lash out, slam doors and act in overly emotional ways, imagine what it may be like for kids on the spectrum and their parents. We can only help our kids when we understand them. The SENSE Lab study will take that understanding to a whole new level.


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About the Author

Susan Swindell Day, Editor

Susan Swindell Day is the editor in chief of Nashville Parent and the mom of four amazing kids.