Connecting with your autistic child
by Rowena Mahmud
It’s children’s mental health awareness week, and my thoughts have turned to the mental health of autistic children.
As a marginalised and often misunderstood group, these children’s mental health can take a daily battering. Not only do they have to contend with the neurotypical challenges that growing up entails, but they are also deluged with sensory overload just by waking up, if indeed they have managed to sleep at all. Which then of course heavily impacts on their carer’s sleep, and ability to get through the day.
They live in a world that is simply not designed for them. In recent years awareness has grown, changes have been made, but we still have a long way to go. As it is, the environment itself is disabling for autistics that must navigate life in an ableist society.
An autistic child in school is faced with many more challenges than a neurotypical child may encounter. Sensory overload, multiple transitions, masking to get through the day, navigating friendships, suppressing stims that are needed to soothe, the list goes on.
If they continue to face this never-ending obstacle course, without compassionate and individualised support, this can almost inevitably lead to meltdown, shutdown and ultimately burn out.
But there is hope, and it lies, I think, in the theme of this year’s children’s mental health week: ‘Let’s connect’.
Your child is held in the relationship between you. This is true for all children, no matter what neurotype. Connection can so often be dropped due to our own burn out, overload and the expectations we hold ourselves to. In fact, neurotypical expectations can be traumatising in themselves.
So, if you are on the path less travelled, can you make your own rules? Can family life revolve around your own family’s needs, rather than outwardly imposed expectations? Maybe you don’t need to have hot meal every mealtime, but a pick and mix buffet of ‘safe’ foods works just fine. Or maybe your child can come to the meal when they are ready, rather than be forced into another’s timetable. Often ‘low demand’ or ‘low arousal parenting’ can offer an alternative way of living, allowing for restoration and healing.
Can you let yourself know what you and your family need? What ingrained beliefs from your family of origin and/or society may you need to challenge? What past trauma in family scripts can be laid to rest? Maybe something your parent’s held in great value turns out to be utterly not right for your family.
What is your child’s passion, also called ‘special interest’, and can you join them in that somehow? Even just a few moments of connection can have more meaning than attempting a big day out, and all that that entails. Snuggling on the sofa watching clips on road signs was perhaps not quite how you envisioned parenting your four-year-old, but it will improve your driving no end!
It can be a process of discovery, albeit not always sparkles and unicorns, but perhaps more aligned with what you and your unique family need.
Here’s to better mental health for all children, their carers, and their fabulous, sparkly unicorns.
This year’s clinical conference topic is ‘Creating Space: Psychotherapy with Neurodivergent Minds’. The event will take place on Saturday 13th May – more information to follow soon, see our Events page for details. All profits from our events are channelled into our Bridge in Schools service, which helps the most vulnerable children and young people access psychotherapy from our highly trained staff, where mainstream support is inaccessible or unavailable.