Supporting your autistic girl’s mental health
It’s Children’s Mental Health Week, which aims to highlight the importance of giving our children support and equipping them to care for their own mental health and that of others around them.
The bad news
Our neurodivergent girls have the message from the world around them often indirectly or subtly, that they are wrong, or defective, or not good enough at connecting or fitting in with others. In a world which is based around neurotypical ways of connecting and doing life, this is not altogether surprising. But it can have a very negative effect on how our lovely neurodivergent girls see themselves, and can lead to them blaming themselves for their perceived shortcomings and to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, self-harm or disordered eating. Even for those who do not appear to have any of these issues, the constant masking of her neurodivergent needs to fit in with others can be exhausting and can eventually lead to burn-out or physical ill-health as well.
The good news - how you can help
But the good news is that there are things that we can all do, particularly as parents and carers, to help our autistic girls to have better mental health. Here are a few suggestions:
Encourage and engage with your girl’s interests and hobbies.
Finding a way to join in (if she would like you to) is a good way to show her that her way of looking at the world is valid. For example, my daughter has recently discovered a game on her iPad which involves making and playing with characters in a virtual town. She was utterly delighted the other night when we realised that there was a ‘Play together’ function, and I downloaded it onto my phone. Even though I am not particularly interested in the game on my own, it has given my Daisy a real sense of joy and a feeling that we are doing something together.
Let go of expectations of how you believe her social interactions should be. Many neurodivergent people (adults included) find that doing a common activity or being alongside others doing similar things is just as meaningful socially as doing something apparently more interactive. Examples of neurodivergent interaction could be collaborative games such as Dungeons and Dragons, or ‘parallel play’ such as doing art or Lego building alongside one another. To give an example from my life, my husband (also autistic) and I often spend our evenings watching a programme together whilst doing separate hobbies. (He likes to play computer games and I like to do puzzles, or crochet). We sometimes have conversation as well – often about our separate activities, which can lead to some interesting combinations of conversation topics!
Find places where your girl can connect with others like her. Meeting other autistic girls or young people with other disabilities and differences is very freeing, and they may well find that they have more in common with each other than with their neurotypical peers. For my Daisy, it has been attending play sessions at Incredible Kids and going to kids’ sessions of Dungeons and Dragons at Geek Retreat in Bristol that have really helped her to embrace herself as she is. Again, these social interactions may look different from what you would conventionally expect, but it does not mean that there is not connection and enjoyment for her.
Find out with your girl what sensory things she finds enjoyable or calming, and find ways for her to incorporate them into her life. Does she like listening to a particular type of music? Or does she enjoy moving in a particular way? My Daisy likes to spin and move, and so a while back we got her a spinning office chair as a birthday present. She likes to spin when she is thinking or need a bit of extra input. Does she like fluffy or other textures? How about deep pressure? Not all neurodivergent people have the same sensory needs, but many find that weighted blankets or compression vests really help them to feel calm. Some neurodivergent people, including my Daisy, like to chew as a way to feel calm. We bought her some silicone ‘chewelry’ which she finds very helpful to fill this need. Sometimes it may take a little detective work and trial and error to find what your girl needs to help her to feel calm and happy, but exploring her sensory needs will definitely be worth it.
And on the flip side, working out what your girl’s sensory triggers are will also make a big difference to her mental health as she will not have the sensory overload that can come with being overly triggered. It is important never to minimise her needs – if she tells you it is too loud, too hot, too bright, etc, then it is for her. Never mind if you don’t sense it in the same way. Finding ways to reduce the impact of these triggers can really make a meaningful difference. Things to try may include ear defenders or ear plugs, sunglasses or visors, or finding times to go to places when they are less busy – such as avoiding shopping centres on Saturday afternoons. Some neurodivergent people cannot cope with seams or labels in their clothes – finding alternatives such as seamless socks can be really helpful. Joining online groups of parents in a similar situation can be really helpful for exchanging ideas - there are many groups on Facebook which do this, including our own NeonDaisy group for parents and carers.
Giving your girl a voice is really important.
For many autistic children, particularly those with a PDA (Pathological Demand Avoidance) profile, having what appear to be arbitrary rules imposed on them by adults can cause a lot of anxiety, and what appears from the outside to be challenging or difficult behaviour. Stepping back and asking yourself if the world will end if a particular rule is questioned will help her a lot. I have always found with my own (non-PDA) autistic Daisy that negotiation works far better than outright command. The reason ‘because I’m an adult and you are a child’ simply does not work. She needs to know why something has to be a particular way and may not comply if she thinks it is illogical or pointless. If you consider that our children spend so much of their time in school being told what to do, and the way it should be done, it really helps for her to have one part of her life at least where she can be listened to and her viewpoint considered.
Helping your girl to feel that she is enough, her needs and wants are valid, that her sensory needs and aversions are real, and that she is heard, will do a lot towards boosting her mental health.
For more information about supporting her, please see the Resources for Families section of our website. And to connect with other families of autistic girls, please consider joining our friendly Facebook peer support group for parents and carers.
Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy