For many of the young people I’ve worked with over the years, their levels of anxiety are by far their biggest barrier to their success. Not only in education but also in life. For some the more traditional features of autism – social interaction, communication difficulties, restricted and repetitive interests – seem on the surface like they have a far lesser impact on their life.
But the truth is those features are playing their part: quietly, discreetly, like a conductor in an orchestra they are controlling the show.
Let’s take them in turn:
Although some young people – ironically often those who suffer the most from heightened anxiety – look incredibly proficient at social interaction, especially by the time they reach their teens, this often comes at a high cost. Many young people ‘play the part’ expected of them. A part learnt from copying the behaviour of others, though often without a full understanding about why the interaction needs to take place in such a way.
The effort it involves to pretend, to mimic what is expected in social situations can be immense and often results in the high anxiety levels we see in young people. Young people who are desperate to fit in with their peers, to be ‘normal’, yet who have often not been taught the skills to enable them to understand the rules being played by.
Skilled social skills interventions at the right time can make an enormous difference. The earlier we tackle anxiety the easier it is to make the worries feel smaller. But it is never to late. One step at a time, proactive teaching and learning really can help, young people both to develop their social understanding and their ability to let you know when they need to take a break.
Although we know that communication difficulties are part of the triad needed for an autism diagnosis, for many of our children on the surface these can look virtually invisible by their teen years. In fact many have vocabularies far wider than their peers, making them appear sophisticated beyond their years.
The reality however is often somewhat different. An encyclopaedic vocabulary often covers up more deep rooted communication difficulties that go un-missed. Think about the times your child is unable to explain their feelings, the Meltdowns that appear from nowhere, the arguments with peers or siblings that they simply have no idea how to resolve. It’s important to remember that communication difficulties extend far beyond the ability to speak, even far beyond vocabulary.
And that the struggles young people have with their ability to communicate effectively have a huge impact on their anxiety levels. Whether that’s concerns about making a mistake in a friendship they care about, concerns about speaking to someone unknown who approaches them when they are out, or worries about how they will know whether their teacher is angry – the impact can be huge.
Speech therapy needs to be about more than just speech. Communication skills need to be actively taught, not only when children are young but as they develop into young people. Teaching these critical skills can make an an enormous difference to our children’s ability to go out confidently into the world.
Restrictive And Repetitive Interests
Although many of my students have a wider range of interests than films like Rain Man would have the general public believe, if I delve below the surface most have a particular interest or interests which mean more to them than the other things they talk about. Over the years Harry Potter, Pokemon, Minecraft and Trains have probably come out top.
Whilst I’m a huge fan of incorporating young people’s special interests into their learning, and regularly use them to actively reduce anxiety, the power that they have means that they can also cause anxiety levels to soar.
Autistic brains process special interests in the same part of the brain that neurotypical brains process love, it therefore isn’t surprising that they are going to provoke strong emotions in young people.
Understanding how to ensure that Special Interests are a positive force that provide enjoyment rather than distress is key for both parents and educators. Yet it’s a topic few understand fully and even fewer write about.
It’s something that needs to change. Special Interests can make an enormous difference on both sides of the coin. They are without any doubt my most exciting teaching tool.
So often you people on the spectrum are dismissed from services because they don’t ‘look autistic’, they don’t meet the threshold for support.
Yet often those who look as though they are coping on the surface are those that are emotionally finding life the most difficult. They like those whose autism looks more prominent need support in order to live the life they deserve to live.
More awareness is desperately needed.
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