Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children
Dr Luke Beardon
Dr Luke Beardon is a passionate autism advocate, particularly, as is evident in this book, the well-being of autistic children. To that end he writes through the autism lens, something that is rarely done, so that readers feel as though they’re wearing the shoes of a child with autism, while directing his wise words to each and every one of us PNTs (Predominant neurotypes) – his term for what other writers might refer to as neurotypicals. I say this for although the book is aimed primarily at parents who have an autistic child, we all, especially those of us in education, need the best possible understanding of autism we can develop, if we aren’t unwittingly to contribute to a child’s distress. Teachers in particular, one hopes, understand that unless a child’s mental well-being is central to their educational experience, no learner, let alone an autistic child will thrive: all else depends upon it.
Who better to put the case for anxiety avoidance that the author, who has a deep and acute sense of understanding of autism acquired through many years of observation, and research (qualitative, I surmise) at Sheffield University’s Autism Centre. Using a ‘difference not deficit’ model, what Dr Luke has written is a distillation of that wisdom and those insights of his. For instance, he strongly makes the case that no two autistic children are exactly the same – why would one expect them so to be – consequently too much generalisation is to be avoided. To this end, he includes in his narrative, many first-person comments and excerpts from case studies.
Central to his approach is child empowerment – the better informed the child, the lower is the risk of anxiety- and he builds upon his foundational ‘autism + environment = outcome’ equation. I was particularly interested to see the comment in the ‘School’ chapter that ‘some children would actually be better suited to doctoral-style learning that secondary-age educational systems’ … ‘if a child is given access to uninterrupted learning … for extended periods of time – then he might be far more able to learn effectively.’ (As a teacher whose preferred age group is the foundation stage wherein even now for the most part, this is what happens, I’ve always wondered why as any child progresses through the education system s/he is subjected to an increasingly -often unnecessarily in my opinion – fragmented curriculum driven by testing and scores.)
Another issue explored is the child’s fear of getting it wrong and the way this can all too easily lead to the individual becoming so inhibited s/he won’t take those vital risks inherent in learning, or indeed try anything new.
Reading this highly accessible, optimistic book, not through the lens of a parent, but a teacher I have tended so far to focus on the school issues, however, every chapter is full of wise words be they related to behaviour, sensory issues (both hypo and hyper sensitivities are discussed), communication, social challenges and well-being, or meltdowns and shutdowns. In the latter chapter, it’s worth stressing these words from one individual relating to meltdowns, “I don’t know when it will happen. I don’t have any warning, and I can’t do anything about it. I live in constant fear because, despite not knowing when it might happen, I know all too well what happens when it does, and there’s nothing I can do about it.’ Just imagine being a child living in constant fear of such an event, which might happen if blame is the reaction of the adult parent/teacher or carer. Reassuringly though Dr Beardon states ‘Your child is not to be blamed for a meltdown: it cannot be helped.’
He also provides some personal stories about reducing anxiety in the same chapter wherein individuals mention meditation, deep breathing, a red card/green card system at school, certain physical activities including trampolining and strimming movements like flapping, rocking and twirling, and being out in nature as being personally helpful in avoidance of anxiety; but the importance of ‘being allowed to be me’ must never be overlooked for as one girl says, “it’s like I’m looked down on just for being myself … I don’t see what’s so bad about me. I like me, why can’t anyone else?” Heart breaking words indeed, but balanced by those of another boy, “Until you’ve been accepted for who you are, you won’t know what an absolute joy it can be!”
The author too ends on an upbeat note, ‘my perspective is that one can absolutely be autistic and in a state of genuine happiness.’ … ‘Never underestimate anxiety, Never underestimate the impact the pure joy of being able to live without it. Never underestimate the impact you can have on your child.’ Now if that doesn’t fly the flag for each and every one of us to increase our understanding of autism, then I don’t know what will.
So yes, this book’s for parents, but it’s also for every member of society, whoever, wherever they are.