Back to school can be an exciting time for many kids but it can also be an anxious time for children, parents and educators. This past 18 months has been a most unusual time for all of us and many of us are worried about the impact it has had an our children. Autistic children experience high levels of anxiety and this has been amplified by Covid and our response to it, in many instances. But what can we do to alleviate anxiety for Autistic children?
Well, firstly we need to understand where their anxiety comes from in the first place. Many people accept anxiety as a natural part of being Autistic. But anxiety by definition means being alert to threats in our environment and so to understand anxiety in Autistic children we must look to their environment.
When we assess the environment Autistic children grow up in we must assess how Autistic children are viewed, described, spoken to and spoken about. Autistic children are highly sensitive to their environment so that not only includes lighting, sounds, textures and so on but also how other people interact with them.
Autistic children are often described as “disordered” , “badly behaved”, “having deficits in social skills” , “lacking empathy” and so on. So if this is how Autistic kids are described then this filters through to how people communicate and interact with them. And because they are so sensitive they pick up on all this negativity.
Imagine growing up hearing that almost everything you do is wrong. Imagine what it must be like when people don’t understand your natural way of communicating, your sensitivities and your emotional responses. Imagine what it’s like when people not only fail to respect or understand your natural way of communicating but totally ignore it and train you to act in ways that they deem “appropriate”. Unfortunately that is the reality for many Autistic children.
Autism is partly defined as having deficits in social communication. This was an idea or theory that was created decades ago but was never tested until 2019. When research was carried out in Edinburgh University it actually showed that Autistic people are highly effective communicators. In essence, Autistic people don’t actually have faulty social skills but a different set of social skills. When we look at how Autistic children communicate instead of seeing their communication as something defective then wonderful things can happen.
Anxiety leads to more problems for Autistic children and much of the “behaviour” we see in schools is a sign of high anxiety rather than “autism”. Anxiety impacts how Autistic children think and motivate themselves. It impacts how they feel about themselves. It makes an already hostile sensory environment even more difficult to cope with and it impacts how they communicate with others. So naturally transitions, trying new things and change are often difficult for Autistic children.
Autistic children need not have such high levels of anxiety. There are some very simple things everyone can do to change this. This all begins with how we think about Autistic children. If we reframe our thinking then this will filter through to how we interact with them.