I love working with autistic children and young people and because I spend a lot of time learning about the autism spectrum and listening to each individual child; it can be really obvious to me that each autistic person is positive, full of strengths and talents and, given the right support, has lots of potential.
But sometimes their lives are pretty tough.
Children and young people with autism can be carers, come from chaotic families, be in care, suffer from being bullied, have other conditions such as epilepsy, can get cancer, have people in their family pass away, get ill…. And also suffer from mental illness.
I want to discuss mental illness for a moment.
Being autistic can mean that they feel more anxious more often than others. Being autistic can mean that the demands of being at school all day cause extreme stress. Being autistic can mean that just coping with the sensory overload in the environment can cause a 'flight' or 'fight' response, withdrawal, brain shutdown or meltdown. These are often caused by the environment and not having the right support at the right time. These can be features of having autism.
Mental illness is not caused by, is not a feature of, and should not be seen as a result of having autism. Please take note.
I went on a course recently about young people and mental illness. The person delivering the course threw in a comment; "a larger percentage of young people with autism and Asperger's are vulnerable to mental illness," and then moved on. On questioning, he had no idea why. (He does now btw).
My plea to you is to look out for the signs of mental illness in children and young people with autism. Below are some websites to start you off. The features are the same as for any child or young person and must be taken seriously and they must be given help and support. At home or in the classroom you can ease off the pressure, increase sensory activity if that helps them and listen to what they have to say. Get help. Yes, make a referral to CAMHS and see if there are any charities that understand mental health and autism in your area. Try the helpline at the National Autistic Society, MIND or YoungMinds to begin with. DON'T brush your instincts away and think it is 'only their autism'.
However, I will say in our area there is currently a 12-18 week wait for CAMHS and some children in great need are being turned away. It is for this reason that Emma and I have booked ourselves on the NAS conference about Autism and Mental Health in May, and are reading all we can about supporting good mental health. We are beginning to see positive progress in some of the pupils we have been supporting and often find that we overlap what CAHMS would do. They are underfunded and overwhelmed, so it is important for parents and all professionals to learn how to spot the early signs and support good mental health so that we can avoid getting to crisis point wherever possible. But when crisis does come, as we all know it can, we are able to support the young person and not blame their autism.
For further reading start here… http://www.autism.org.uk/about/health/mental-health.aspx links to other organisations are included.
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