HomeASDMaking Menstruation More Positive for Special Needs Girls

Shortly before I had my first period at the ripe old age of 13, my mom gave me a book about menstruation, pointed out our menstrual supplies and trusted me to figure the rest out on my own. It worked out, and I’ve never been ashamed of my period.

by Eli DeFaria

However, the entire experience of menstruation can be uniquely difficult for girls with SPD and/or autism. In honor of today’s #womenslives prompt of Health for the #TeachHer initiative, I decided to do a little research and share possible solutions for common problems.

Stay Honest and Positive
A huge part of the fear many girls experience when they start bleeding is the simple fact they don’t know what’s happening. They’re hurting and they’re bleeding? Something must be terribly wrong!

The only other times we see blood are when we’re injured or desperately ill. When a girl starts bleeding and those are the only contexts she has to work off of, panic is a natural reaction. That fear is then compounded by potential communication problems, sensory problems and already high anxiety levels.

Learning about the biological processes early might prepare her for when it happens. If she can understand why it’s happening, and that almost everyone with a uterus experiences it, the first period might not be that frightening.

There are many ways to give her age appropriate education. Between the plethora of books and videos available, you should be able to find something to assist you in teaching her. There are other ways to normalize the experience early on, too. For instance, if you have a menstruating woman in the immediate family who’s willing to share how to track the monthly cycle, it may help prepare your girl to do the same.

This article over at Ability Path has some great suggestions. Putting red food coloring in panties, marking where the pad goes and establishing a set routine for changing pads when the period does start are all practical ways of giving her a tangible idea of what to expect.

If she likes technology, help her check out some of the apps for tracking the menstrual cycle.

I’ve been using a free app called MyDays to track my cycle for close to a year. It helps me estimate when I’m due to ovulate and when bleeding is likely to start. You can also track mood, weight, body temperature and when birth control is taken with it. There are other options available, though, and I strongly encourage you to shop around.

Talk to the School
When your child reaches puberty, or even a little before, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with their school about what sort of policies they have about attending menstruating special needs students. Each district has their own rules, and with school budget cuts, not all have nurses anymore.

One-on-one aides may be able to help your daughter change her pad during the day when given written permission, or you may be able to get special permission to home school her during menstruation days until she’s able to handle the routine on her own.

Preparation and communication are the best ways to keep the experience as non-traumatic as possible. However, this is all dependent on each district’s policies and your daughter’s individual situation.

Hygiene Options
One of the biggest issues people on the autism spectrum and with SPD have is with tactile sensitivity, which can turn commercial pads or tampons into impossibilities. One of these options may be a better alternative.

Fittingly enough, my camouflage pad is missing.

Cloth Pads
Depending on comfort and ability level, cloth pads can be a great alternative to
the store bought variety. Most are made out of natural fabrics, and have flaps with a snap, button or Velcro to hold them in place. They also come in different shapes, colors and sizes to accommodate different flows, and many have moisture barriers to prevent bleed through.

I use them for part of my cycle, and noticed they also reduce cramping for me. I don’t know why they help get rid of some pain, but others experience the same thing.

They can messier to deal with than disposable pads, since you need to rinse them out with cold water before laundering them, and seal them up in a baggie to take home when you change them in public. You should also research what goes into how they’re made as well to make sure they meet your girl’s unique needs.

Menstrual Cups
Another option is the menstrual cup, commonly sold under the brand names of Diva Cup and Moon Cup. It’s a silicone cup you fold, then insert much like a tampon, and forms a seal to prevent leakage once it opens again. It doesn’t need to be changed as often as other options and is relatively easy to keep clean.

However, your girl needs a certain amount of comfort with her body, which can be tricky with cultural pressures and sensory issues. Those issues could be compounded by the initial discomfort that comes with learning how to properly use the cup.

These cups are also more expensive initially than other options, though in the long run, you save money because you don’t need to replace it every month. I have seen some disposable versions in the store before, so it may be worthwhile to try the less expensive disposable cups before springing for the more expensive variant.

It’s worth noting that I have yet to try this option myself, but almost all of the women I’ve spoken with who have tried it love it.

Menstrual Underwear
This is another option I’ve never tried, simply because I hadn’t heard about it until recently. There are multiple companies online that offer various forms of underwear with extra padding, or a place to insert an absorbent layer, to make menstruation a bit easier to handle.

I don’t know if they have seams that may irritate someone with tactile sensitivity, or how well they actually work, but they still might be worth checking out. 

Birth control pills.
By ParentingPatch (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Hormonal Birth Control
One of the less expected problems a lot of girls on the spectrum experience is an uptick in symptoms due to hormonal changes. For some girls, SPD and anxiety symptoms skyrocket when their estrogen levels go up, while the absence of hormones may cause problems for others.

For some girls, hormonal birth control might help them regulate moods and symptoms. Many different forms of birth control will also limit how many periods they get per year, and most of them should help regulate the cycle enough to set a definite routine every month.

It is worth mentioning that side effects could always be a problem, and some of them can be serious. Hormonal birth control can cause changes in mood, clotting issues and even migraines in some women. Serious side effects are relatively rare, but be sure to discuss them with the doctor, and do your research.

There’s also a fair amount of controversy around putting teenagers on birth control, partly because of the general political-social climate around the pill, but also because many believe hormones should be allowed to balance themselves naturally before medical intervention. It’s up to each girl and their family to decide what’s best for them.

Personally, I don’t think menstruation is anything to be ashamed or afraid of. It is true that it can be incredibly uncomfortable to experience, and developmental issues could make it harder to address, but it can ultimately be a positive experience for everyone involved when handled properly.

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