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Autism

How to Better Support Autistic Children

Strategies include offering respect, hope, perseverance, and inclusivity.

Key points

  • Autistic individuals are very sensitive to emotional contagion (the tendency to absorb, catch, or be influenced by other people’s feelings).
  • Reasonable accommodations do not require lowering performance standards or removing essential functions for growth.
  • It is important for a child and their parents to feel understood, and for treatment approaches to be flexible.

In addition to autistic individuals developing new skills to promote their well-being, acceptance and understanding from others are needed. A curious approach that entails a desire to understand and see autistic people as having equal rights, value, and worth is essential.

Guidepost One: Navigate With Emotional Attunement

Autistic individuals are susceptible to emotional contagion (the tendency to absorb, catch, or be influenced by other people’s feelings). An autistic child can distinguish very subtle cues that others would not. Professor Tony Attwood described this as a sixth sense and likened this experience to the analogy of a negative tone of voice infecting a neuro-typical person at the strength of a cold.

In contrast, the autistic child is infected at the strength of the flu. This can be an overwhelming experience for an autistic child. Emotional dismissal and/or misattunement is crippling for autistic children who cannot easily bypass contempt and strongly need a deep and authentic connection. Autistic children are highly aware of their surroundings and need someone to validate their experiences. Demonstrating emotional attunement (a desire to understand and an ability to respect the child’s inner world) influences social and emotional development (self-regulation, attachment, and a sense of self).

Autistic individuals possess difficulties with the theory of mind, however not with affective empathy (Dziobeket., 2007). While empathy is known as emotional perspective-taking, the theory of mind is defined as cognitive perspective-taking (the ability to understand that others have beliefs, desires, and intentions different from one’s own). A young autistic child may become upset if someone does not know the answer to a question or experience difficulty anticipating what others will say or do in various situations.

Conversely, I have learned from years of clinical practice that autistic individuals experience deep empathy beyond comparison. When you hear people using the term ‘on the spectrum’ as a way of explaining something else, please correct them and break down incorrect myths.

Guidepost Two: Masking Goals Are Adverse for Mental Health

Please do not request goals that require autistic children to mask continually. Many autistic children learn to mask their behaviors to fit in and be accepted by their peers and/or due to an assumption that neurotypical social skills are the only way to succeed in life. Time off without the mask is physically and emotionally exhausting (which can lead to burnout). It is particularly adverse for mental health (anxiety, depression), self-perception, and self-esteem. Time spent without masking and a passage of time to recover may be needed.

An essential first step to removing the mask is acceptance before we can identify and embrace the many strengths and beauty of the autistic person. When we can accept our whole selves, we can remove the mask that makes us feel hidden, rejected, and disconnected. Please do not remove sensory breaks due to the child no longer asking for them. Autistic adults continue to need sensory breaks and report how helpful and necessary it is to rest, recover and recharge. “Autistic burnout is a state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and diminished capacity to manage life skills, sensory input, and/or social interactions” (Raymaker, M.D. Autistic Women’s Network ).

Guidepost Three: Exposures Alone Will Not Always Work

As with any child, if they become controlling of their environment as a way of coping (which is not due to symptoms of autism spectrum disorder), then it may be beneficial to continue with an exposure to allow the child to develop skills or strategies so they can manage their emotions when faced with such triggers. For example, all children need to learn to sit with their emotions until they dissipate on their own accord and cope with triggers for later success, socially, emotionally, and academically. Unlike a neurotypical child, repeated exposures to a situation will not always benefit an autistic child. Repeated negative exposures will do more harm than good.

The symptoms of autism spectrum disorder must be addressed, and developmental gains also need to be considered. The distinction I make about being more flexible is if it is a hypersensitivity that is causing the child to feel overwhelmed or can’t understand or cope with a situation because their brain works differently. In these situations, you must address the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder by providing therapeutic intervention and/or appropriate accommodations (e.g., a social story to help understand what is expected of them).

Reasonable accommodations do not require lowering performance standards or removing essential functions for growth. Ultimately, we want to empower autistic individuals to feel comfortable to ask for the accommodations and support they need.

Guidepost Four: Dig Deep to Look Beyond Behaviours

I have witnessed people making unfair judgemental assumptions that an autistic child is defiant, does not listen, or is lazy. This can result in professionals feeling the need to lecture parents on parenting their child without a supportive plan in place. Open-minded people seek to understand. Regardless of the expertise of a professional, hope and perseverance are essential when working with autistic children to ensure decisions are not overly reactive to a specific situation and parents are provided with research-informed suggestions.

It is crucially important for the child and their parents to feel understood, and treatment approaches flexibly to the individual child and families’ goals/needs. Mona Delahooke, titled 'Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children's Behavioral Challenges,' is a valuable resource.

Guidepost Five: One of the Difficulties Expressed About Being Autistic Is the Expectation of Repeating Your Best Day

Please don’t assume that because the child could do something the day before, they can cope. There could be a myriad of factors that may be influencing the child. Hope, perseverance, and flexibility are crucial in supporting people who feel the weight of symptoms of autism spectrum disorder as they work incredibly hard to center the mind and body. With early intervention and support, the child will flourish and become empowered to overcome these challenges.

Please don’t assume a parent is lax by not picking up on every little thing. Things need to be worked on in ways conducive to the child (intervention is likely required) and only when the child is in a suitable space. Remember, families are doing their best on any given day, and the struggle can be invisible. A child’s parent is a valuable resource, as they know their child best.

A good teacher will tell you where to look. However, they will not insist on what you must see. Parents of children with special needs greatly appreciate this. The reality of most autistic individuals/families is a calendar full of appointments that may range from Occupational Therapy, Speech Therapy, Psychology, Dietician, Physiotherapy, Pediatrician, early intervention, support plans, multi-disciplinary meetings, group therapy, private swimming lessons, etc.

Guidepost Six: Celebrate Inclusive Practices

The successful collaboration of educators, allied health professionals, and the autistic community (autistic individuals and their loved ones) has led to a wealth of early interventions that have demonstrated significant therapeutic outcomes for autistic children.

Guidepost Seven: A Strengths-Based Approach

Autistic children are loyal, honest, fun, caring, and articulate children who have active and curious minds. Autistic children often have a zest and hunger for learning and are fascinated by facts. Their acute sensitivity to sensory experiences and stimuli gives them a remarkable view of the world.

References

Dziobek, I., Rogers, K., Fleck, S., Bahnemmann, M., Hauke, R., Heekeren, H.R., Wolf, O.T & Convit, A. (2007). Dissociation of cognitive and emotional empathy in adults with Asperger Syndrome using mutifacted empathy test (MET). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38, 464-473.

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