The power of a positive self-image
Today is the start of Anti-Bullying Week, something which we feel strongly about here at NeonDaisy, especially as both I and my daughter have experienced bullying first-hand.
The sad truth is, autistic children, especially autistic girls, are much more at risk of being bullied than other children. Difficulties in understanding social norms, or seeming a bit different from others, can make them stand out and appear an easy target. Bullying can be subtle, including the withdrawal of friendship or kindness as a way of manipulating others, as well as overt name-calling, or other, more noticeable ways of intimidation.
So what can we do?
The key to helping our girls cope with whatever life throws at them, including if they are subjected to bullying, is to help them to accept and feel positive about who they are, just as they are. So much of the time our girls get the message that they have to change to be accepted, either by suppressing their stims or making eye contact and copying the body language of others. This tells them that there is something wrong with the way they naturally communicate or behave, because it is not the same as the neurotypical population around them.
But the reason behind NeonDaisy’s very existence is to help autistic girls to feel part of a group and to know that they are not failed neurotypicals, they are neurodivergent, and so their brains work in a totally different and unique way. As the adults in their life, we can all help them with this in several ways:
1. Giving our girls the opportunity to make connections and form friendships with other neurodivergent girls. In meeting others who have similar needs and similar communication styles, there is less need to try to ‘fit in’ and more chance of making genuine friendships. There may also be more crossover of the things they are interested in, and fewer demands on them to conform to others’ expectations of what a friendship may look like. There are many opportunities to meet up, and events advertised via the NeonDaisy Facebook group, including monthly sessions at Incredible Kids which are just for girls.
2. Creating a positive conversation around neurodiversity, and giving our girls the vocabulary to describe themselves in a positive and non-judgemental way. We can help them to stop comparing themselves to others and focus on their strengths and interests. As parents and carers, our attitudes and views hold an enormous amount of weight in the way that our children think of themselves. If we are positive about neurodiversity and give our girls the most affirming ways to think of themselves, then this will have a huge benefit as they grow older. Reading websites and listening to content by autistic adults will also help as it models how to navigate adult life as an autistic person. I wrote a blog post a while back about my favourites – you can read it here.
3. Understanding our girls’ sensory needs. By this, I mean, understanding when she feels overwhelmed by noise, bright lights, physical sensations such as itchy clothes labels, and helping her to reduce the effects of these rather than trying to tell her it’s not that loud/bright/itchy. We can also help by noticing when she has a need for sensory input – e.g. when she needs to spin, move or wiggle, or when she craves a sensation or deep pressure from a weighted blanket. All of these are perfectly normal and need to be talked about as normal and positive, and to be accommodated to help her to feel ok.
4. Connecting with other families through the NeonDaisy Facebook Community. Our group provides a platform for parents and carers to arrange meet-ups, ask questions and provide peer support to one another. This then has a beneficial effect on the entire family, as well as giving the girls a chance to find others like them.
5. Telling our girls' schools about the LEANS Project, which aims to create a positive dialogue in schools around the topic of neurodiversity.
When our autistic girls feel positive about themselves, they are less likely to be targeted by bullies. And even if they are, they are more likely to be able to cope and not to take it all to heart, because they know that they are not defective neurotypicals, they are wonderful neurodivergents. There is a post that was on Facebook a while back, which described this perfectly, called Sparrows and Penguins. (Please excuse the swear word!)
Developing this positive mindset around neurodiversity can be difficult, particularly if we have been surrounded by messages of doom and gloom, or been trying to get help for our girls through deficit-focused systems such as diagnostic assessments, EHCP or DLA applications. However, accepting that our girls have strengths and positives due to their neurodivergence will help them in the longer term. Passing on these positive messages to them will boost their self-esteem and help them to be confident and self-assured. And let’s face it, that’s what we all really want for our girls as they grow up.
You can find out more about Anti-Bullying Week by going to the Anti-Bullying Alliance website.
Laura Webb is a director of NeonDaisy