I meet many autistic children and young people (CYP) in schools. Some have a formal diagnosis, some self-identify and some are unaware. Autistic CYP are often referred to counselling due to heightened anxiety levels.
Working with autistic CYP in the therapy room I notice that many present with an internalised sense of 'difference'. This feeling, alongside certain sensory processing issues and the energy used in 'masking' can be so challenging for them. I am passionate about celebrating neurodivergence and working with pupils to create a space for therapeutic expression and personal growth.
Image source: Rebecca Burgess (2019)
Currently, I find that there is a lot of stigma attached to the word Autistic. This is largely due to the medicalisation of the term 'Autism Spectrum Disorder' within the diagnostic manuals ICD-10 & DSM5. The simplest explanation is that it is a 'different cognitive and sensory state' (Beardon 2019).
It's so important for you as parents and for your child to have actual autistic role models and advocates. There is a large autistic community that is full of people that champion autism positively. Here are some listed for you...
For children & young people
For parents & carers
11 year old Author of "The Secret Life of Rose: Inside an Autistic Head" along with her Mum Jodie Smitten, an autistic consultant who supports families.
Dr Luke Beardon
Support on the journey after formal diagnosis or self-identification - Dr Luke Beardon (my fab uni tutor!) Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Childhood: For parents and carers of the newly diagnosed (Overcoming Common Problems)
Many Autistic children have anxiety. I wholly recommend Dr Luke Beardon's book on 'Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children.
Terra Vance is an industrial and organizational psychology consultant and founder and CEO of NeuroClastic, Inc. Free PDF Download of her NeuroInclusive Social Story: On Chatting and Infodumping.
Author of 'All Cats are on the Autistic Spectrum' - a great picture book explaining Autism to children. Read more about the book here.
Dr Damian Milton is an Autistic academic and father. He proposes a different interpretation for the disconnection between Autistic and non-autistic people, which he calls the ‘double empathy problem’. Read more here
Image source: AUsome Ireland
I always recommend exploring a child's sensory profile to understand how their environment impacts their wellbeing. Many autistic children and young people (CYP) report sensory processing issues. Environments can easily be adjusted and this is a statutory requirement for anyone with a diagnosis of special educational needs or disabilities (SEND) according to the Equality Act (2010).
There are 8 senses that need to be explored to understand how they impact your child.
1. Sight - There can be over stimulation from too much visual input. There are many triggers to visual stress, one example can be from lots of colour/displays on classroom walls.
2. Sound - Auditory Processing can be an issue. Your child may have sound sensitivities known as Hyperacusis that may need further investigation - visit your GP to ask to see a hearing specialist. Noise cancelling earphones or Calmer ear buds may help. There could also be an Auditory Processing Disorder (APD).
3. Smell - Known as Olfactory: there can be an overresponsive or under responsive system here. Some children may report that certain smells are overpowering and they can have a physical reaction to these. Others may seek out intense odours to receive this sensory input.
4. Taste - Some CYP may limit themselves to bland foods or crave very strong-tasting food. Either way texture can play a big part of the sensory input your child receives from food. Swallowing can also by affected - Dysphagia (swallowing disorder). Some children may have ARFID - Avoidant and Restrictive Food Intake Disorder.
5. Touch - This sense can be heightened where your child maybe oversensitive, eg: may not tolerate touch from others or find certain clothes/socks unbearable. Or they could be undersensitive where they do not feel pain. They may seek out things to chew to receive the sensory input they need. Or feel calmed by a weighted blanket.
Read Rebecca's comic strip cartoon on Understanding The Spectrum. Share with anyone who would like to learn more about Autism.
Image source: Jodi Murphy (2018)
If you would like support with identification / diagnosis of Autism please click here for further information.
"But they don't look autistic?" - This is the stigma we need to move away from as a society. This is what prevents people seeking a formal identification. The energy used to 'mask' their authentic self is debilitating. Read more here on the effects of masking.
6. Vestibular - this system is our sense of balance. There could be a need to have sensory input here - eg: spinning/rocking. Over sensitivity can be shown with CYP who may suffer with car sickness or have a difficulty with sports.
7. Proprioception - awareness of your body in a space. If your child is undersensitive they may find they stand too close to people or bump into others. If they are hypersensitive they may struggle with fine motor skills such as tying shoelaces or doing up buttons.
8. Interoception - is an awareness of sensations within the body, such as the feeling of needing to go to the toilet; feeling hunger/thirst or even how a feeling is experienced inside. Some autistic people have Alexithymia - which is an inability to identify and describe their emotions.
Image source: University of Leeds
AUTISTIC ROLE MODELS
It is so important to understand how the sensory environment effects autistic children and young people. Too much sensory input can cause physical pain or anxiety for some autistic CYP. With an appropriate professional you can assess the senses to ascertain whether certain senses require soothing or input to support emotional regulation.
For more information on the sensory system and anxiety click here