by Gary Spencer
"Be YOUnique!” – this has been the theme to consider throughout October as part of Mental Health Month here in NSW. While the theme calls for all of us to consider our strengths, differences and challenges, I think the focus on uniqueness this year was particularly pertinent for people who have Autism. Members of our community living with ASD often feel as if they belong on another planet, and this can lead to anxiety and depression. My goal this month has been to explore how we can actively help those with ASD towards good mental health throughout their lives, without forgetting to celebrate and nurture their uniqueness.
Earlier this month, I attended Professor Tony Attwood and Dr Michelle Garnett’s Seminar, “Emotion Management for Children and Teens with ASD”. I was inspired by Professor Attwood’s approach, which encourages people with Aspergers, for instance, to be a “first rate Aspie” not a “second-rate Neurotypical”. With this goal in mind, lets take a look at some tips for guarding the "hearts and minds" of those with ASD.
1. Ensure the parents/carers of children with ASD have time for their own emotional health
Children with ASD (and sometimes without!) are quite often like little radars, detecting any small change in the emotional state of their parents. I know this first hand. A while back, when my work situation was very stressful, our son’s emotional state mirrored my own. It made for a very fragile family. When the storm passed for me, things began to settle with him. I cannot overemphasise the importance of putting on your own oxygen mask, even before any signs of turbulence, on Flight ASD. This may mean making difficult choices which may include cutting back on the hours you work, or even changing jobs.
2. Consider How to Achieve Adequate Sleep and a Healthy Diet for the Whole Family
There is a lot of research to support the idea that sleep and a healthy diet are fundamental to good mental health. This will be the topic for a whole new blog later on.
3. Incorporate Physical Activity into Daily Life
More than anything else, my boy loves curling up in a corner with a good book, and as a parent, it would be easy to just let him stay there in the wonderful world of literature. But I know how powerful physical activity can be for all of us, and especially for those with ASD. As hard as it is, I drag him away from his books and take him to play soccer, and backyard cricket. We should never underestimate the power of physical activity to increase serotonin and organize the chemistry in the nervous system.
4. Allow time to commune with nature for the whole family
Whatever it may be – the crashing of waves against one’s body, the freedom to run wildly on the sand, the quietness of the country, even taking care of a pet - these experiences can refresh and calm the mind. Find what it is in nature that helps the nervous system of your ASD child/friend rebound (actually, do this for the whole family!).
5. Help those with ASD to develop their own toolkit for managing general day to day stress
We have taught our son to pray, and hope that this will always be something he can do when he is feeling anxiety. Breathing techniques can also be helpful. I can recommend a wonderful free app called “Smiling Mind” for relaxation through mindfulness.
6. Allow those with ASD to "Be YOUnique" and access their special interests
We all know that special interests can be a challenge and become all-consuming when there is ASD in the picture. I will never forget the mountains of paper aeroplanes filling our living room when our son was into making them. Now, my wife struggles to get him to school because his special interest is reading and he becomes so engrossed in his books.
However, within reason, we must allow those with ASD to engage in their favourite activities. It is all part of their "uniqueness" after all. Their special interests help form their identity. Further, focusing attention on one’s favourite activities increases dopamine (the feel-good chemical), and this helps calm and organise the nervous system.
Tony Attwood shared this quote from a person with ASD talking about their special interest:
“When I engage in my special interest in my own, I can access a greater emotional realm and landscape that is wonderful and safe for me, in that context.”
What if that special interest is computers? I have always been concerned about the impact of too much technology on our children. However, I have learnt that it is not all bad. According to Bill Nason of the Autism Discussion Page:
“For many children on the spectrum, computer technology is a blessing. It fits their learning style perfectly (visual, focus on detail/patterns, minimal social interaction, immediate feedback, and very stimulating to the executive functioning part of the brain)…Essentially, computers allow many people on the spectrum to let their talents shine and develop. It is natural that they would feel safe and competent using technology. Whereas for many NT (Neurotypical) children computer technology may actually be hampering direct social skills and possibly fostering a dependency on highly visual stimulation, for kids on the spectrum this technology can actually foster social skills and offer a medium to use their skills.” (Nason, p 200)
So, allowing time for special interests, even if they involve technology, will give you a happier child. Professor Attwood suggested that It may even be a reason for them to get up in the morning when they are down.
7. Teach those with ASD to navigate their social worlds
Parents of children with ASD do not always draw a correlation between difficult behaviours, increased anxiety, and struggles that their child is having in a social sense during their day at school. Mental health is directly related to a person's social skills and social experiences. I look forward to exploring this further in my next blog, but would like to suggest here that we as parents need to get educated about helping our children with ASD navigate their social worlds.
While those on the spectrum do need coaching with social skills so that they can have a chance at understanding and being accepted in the world of neurotypicals, it is equally important they they actually learn to appreciate and celebrate their unique qualities. We must be careful not to squash their identity.
As Mental Health Month draws to a close, it is my hope that we will continue to help each other towards good mental health - in our homes, in our schools, in our workplaces and communities. But especially for those in our community with ASD, we need to encourage them in their strengths by supporting them with their emotional needs. So many famous people in the worlds of the arts and science may have been on the spectrum. The world is a better place because of them. Let us just support them and appreciate their uniqueness, and not let mental health get in the way of them achieving their potential.
(1) Nason, B. (2014) The Autism Discussion Page on Anxiety, Behavior, School, and Parenting Strategies. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.