My name is Robyn and I am autistic. Two years ago, I started work on an autism-friendly guide to periods. I’m a very matter-of-fact person, and I decided that we needed a guide that adopted that attitude when it comes to talking about periods. After all, so many books out there are quite twee, feminine, or overlook some of the bigger issues. As part of my work as an honorary research associate at UCL, I put together a survey and interview project to compare autistic and non-autistic people’s experiences of periods and period education.
What I learnt was that there were huge gaps in my interviewees’ knowledge. Some would even worry that they were pregnant if they hadn’t had sex, and they didn’t know why their menstrual cycle might vary in length. While autistic people might be more prone to having trouble in these areas, a lack of knowledge about this subject affects everyone. Often, people are too embarrassed to talk about periods, leading to situations where they don’t know what basic body parts like a cervix look like. For me, periods were actually a relatively easy thing to get to grips with because my mum was a biology teacher. As a toddler, I would watch her change sanitary pads, but I have found that many children don’t get this kind of practical education. This fired a passion in me to try and make something that might inspire change, using my autistic stance to help others see differently. First off, the most commonly available period products – like pads and tampons – are often a problem. Many autistic people take in a lot more sensory information, such as smells and textures, and the scents often used in these products would overwhelm them. Autistic people also often struggle with executive functioning, meaning that planning and doing things in the right order at the right time is difficult, so it was important to highlight that you can wear period underwear or other longer-use products all day, which is much easier. I also commissioned some photos that gave a step-by-step guide to changing a pad. In my research, I found that photos are much more effective at explaining processes like these than cartoons, which are so often used. The photos were taken over my shoulder, so that readers didn’t need to flip the image – making allowances for autistic people who have trouble with images rotated at odd angles.
I also included photos of what periods look like, showing examples of spots of fake blood in your underwear in the pictures, as children starting periods may have previously only seen blood when they are hurt. This can mean it’s really scary when they get their first period, as they think something is terribly wrong and they are injured. Autistic people can also often be overwhelmed by too much information, so in the book I also created a grid of flaps that can be cut out and placed over the pages with pictures, to make it more user friendly. You can lift up a flap to see a picture and then put the flap down. It also felt it was important that everyone understands how big the reproductive system is in comparison to everyday objects. Above all, this is because it is the best way to solve any anxiety that a tampon will get lost in you, a worry for many of the autistic children that I spoke to. I was told by an expert that the womb is the same size as a lemon, the vagina is the same size as a tube of travel toothpaste. As for the Fallopian tubes, each are a similar size to a long key, and each ovary is the size of a two pence piece. I also stress in the book that periods are part of a menstrual cycle. This means that you’re always somewhere within the cycle, and each part has emotional and physical symptoms that can be managed.
Knowing the probable emotional and physical symptoms of periods can help you understand why your body is doing what it’s doing. Many autistic people are very detail-orientated, so anything that is not explicit can lead to stress and confusion. Above all, what I felt we needed was a guide to periods that was written in as plain language as possible, to promote complete understanding. This guide is for everyone – including boys, men and people who aren’t autistic – and I hope the opportunity to learn more of the facts around periods takes the shame and unanswered questions out of the equation.
By Robyn Steward, The Metro, Saturday 30 Mar 2019
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