Autistic children's mental health
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Autistic people feel intensely, we live in the extremes. It is no wonder we face mental health problems when our brain is normally all or nothing. Pebbles on the ground become our mount Everest and a bad day takes over our month.
Card 2: I noticed Jenson looking at the image on card 2 on my computer screen one day and asked him what he thought Brainy was feeling. He replied, “he is finding things hard and is sad, that is me at school”. While the reply broke my heart, it struck me as being very raw and honest about his feelings, without upsetting or distressing him. In talking about Brainy he had told me his feelings about school.
Card 5: I then showed Jenson the emotion of happy Brainy on card 5 and he got excited and said he liked that one as Brainy looked happy and silly.
I then asked him what feelings he felt were missing. The rest of this pack of mood cards was designed off his replies.
For an autistic person, feelings are confusing, they are overwhelming. I prefer a tangible way to express them, I’ve used numbers before, I use songs as an adult. These cards are designed to aid autistic children in expressing their feelings, when they may be unable to find the words. Intense emotions often lead to being non-verbal for many of us (myself and Jenson included).
Jenson’s replies for the missing feelings, and to him what these cards represent are:
Card 6: His first feeling to mention was anger. Jenson is not an outwardly aggressive child, but this response showed me he must feel angry a lot, perhaps at the situation he is in.
Card 3: He said sometimes Brainy would pretend to be happy, even when he is not. Another response that broke my heart. Upon me querying why Brainy would want to do this, his response was maybe Brainy didn’t want to talk about it, that it was easier for people to think he was happy. As an adult I tell my friends when I don’t want to talk about things. No, I’m not okay but I need time before I’m ready to talk. It is important children have this same control to delay a talk about feelings if they need time to process something. If they need to pretend everything is okay and try to ignore a problem for a little bit, that’s okay (within reason). I would rather Jenson showed me, or our mum, Card 3 than try to hide it from us.
Card 4: The next feeling Jenson said was worrying about things, being scared about something. Jenson is a very anxious child, as are many autistic people, as children and as adults. He isn’t always brilliant at letting us know that he is worried about something. We will often figure it out after a meltdown has occurred or he has got upset. This card can be used to show they are worrying, and they may either want your help figuring it out, or it may help just saying what it is and getting it off their mind.
Card 1: Jenson then said Brainy would sometimes be none of these emotions. He wouldn’t be as happy as 5, or as sad as 2. He would just be okay.
My advice is to use the cards as a method of prompting a discussion about feelings with the child. How do they think Brainy feels in that picture? When do they feel like this? This allows them to know that all of the 6 emotions are okay.
It’s important to know what they would like you to do in response to each emotion. Do they want to be left alone if they show Card 2 or do they want a cuddle? If they show Card 3 would they like to bring it up when they are ready to talk, or should you ask them later? This may be change over time or depending on who they show the card to.
Obviously, this discussion needs to happen when the child is in a state to do so, so they can use them when they are less able to communicate. It happened with Jenson so naturally when he came across the image of Brainy when he is sad.
Discussing the cards when they are calm allows you to set boundaries, to explain that feeling angry is okay and it is natural to feel angry sometimes but hurting yourself/others and breaking things is unacceptable at any time. Work with them to come up with healthy ways of venting this anger.
As teenager’s mental health becomes a huge challenge and awareness and support starts to occur later in teenage years. I believe that is too late, especially for autistic children.
Children may be young, but they feel the same way adults do. They just need the help and support to manage their feelings, especially for autistic children who feel so intensely. Building a healthy dialogue around how they are feeling could prove crucial as they grow up. Jenson might stop using these cards in a few years, but I hope he never stops knowing he can trust us with any and every emotion he feels. We will always work with him to figure it out.
Children’s mental health is just as important as adults.
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