Resilience is a key strength for autistic people.
I was once told by a preschool assistant that “your son needs to work on his resilience.”
I couldn’t disagree more.
It struck me that so often autistic people, particularly children, are judged by their behaviour. A meltdown is often mistaken for a tantrum. It’s a wonder we don’t spend our whole lives in a meltdown with all the challenges society creates for us!
Before writing this article, I thought I had better double check the exact definition of the word resilience. I read a few and feel below is the best summary:
Resilience: The ability to recover quickly from adversity.
Autistic people don’t need to work on their resilience. The neurotypical people around them may need to work on their empathy.
An autistic child will have had to withstand unimaginable adversity from the moment they started exhibiting behaviours. If they are out of the house in any way, shape, or form then this has taken incredible resilience to get there.
Look at the child, not the behaviour.
As a society, we put a lot of judgement on a child’s behaviours. Most of the time, the behaviour can be directly linked to the internal emotions they are experiencing. At a young age, children need guidance in handling emotions and learning the best way to deal with them so it doesn’t impact too strongly on their behaviour. This in turn, helps with their mental health, as they feel more stable and get positive responses from finding this balance.
It is very different for autistic children, especially before they have received a specific diagnosis. They don’t necessarily experience their emotions first in their mind and then physically. They may only experience them physically, making it very hard to understand what is happening to them. Expecting their behaviour to be managed and controlled to minimize the impact of their emotions is so damaging to their well-being.
If a child with sensory issues is struggling with a bright room and their response is to scream, this is not the time to teach them that screaming isn’t the right way to communicate. Their reaction could be because internally they are already feeling worried about something, their senses become heightened and they become much less tolerant to light, sound and touch.
Imagine a child who has a fear of spiders. They see a spider and react to it. You may then remove the spider and calm them down. That’s fine.
Now imagine that the child with the fear of spiders is the only one who can see the spider. They scream about it but you have no idea what the problem is. How do you react? You probably tell them to calm down and stop screaming, you can’t see what the problem is. They may then calm down but are still feeling the underlying fear and the spider is still there.
Their anxiety levels are now heightened and they are even less tolerant of dealing with the fear. They then go into a different room, in the corner is a spider as big as they are. They scream the house down, you enter the room and again, can’t see the spider.
This is what it is like for autistic children.
They are surrounded by overwhelming sensory input that is invisible to everyone else. They get used to being the only person having that experience, and they know that if they were to point something out, no one else can see it. This leads to children to exist in a constant cycle of fight or flight. They feel unprotected and don’t have the mental capacity to process this — who would?
Now imagine this child, who has grown up with this experience, has simply gotten used to it. The spider is constantly lurking in the corner, and they have learnt not to react, yet are still terrified of it. This child enters a new environment and there is a different spider in the room, it might be bigger this time and they don’t even know where it will be.
When that child has an emotional meltdown, because they just can’t handle the immense fear running through their body, how do the people around them react? They probably think that the child needs to work on their resilience and wonder why they can’t enjoy the lovely environment they have been introduced to.
Resilience beyond their years
Autistic childrens’ resilience, if it could be measured, would be years ahead of their chronological age. Some adults would never reach the levels they have been required to attain at such a young age. That is partly because most people never need to gain such high levels of resilience. It is also important to remember that they don’t have a choice. Just like people who survive traumatic experiences and are described as brave often say, we didn’t have much choice.
The hardest thing for me, being the parent of an autistic child, is seeing them suffer in a way that no child of that age should have to. They have to grow up pretty quickly and on top of that are often seen as being behind their peers socially. They don’t react in the same way to social situations, so they are seen as different.
What they don’t understand is if those same neurotypical children had to tackle the level of adversity the neurodivergent child did then I doubt they would make it out of the front door. This is no slight against neurotypical children, but they simply haven’t had the training.
I wouldn’t want to change my autistic son’s brain, as it is who he is, but I wish he didn’t have quite so much to tackle just by leaving the house. This is a harder pill to swallow when he isn’t seen as a strong, resilient child, and instead is judged by his outward behaviour. If you don’t look beneath the surface, my strong, incredibly resilient child is mistaken for being a nervous, disruptive child.
To anyone out there who knows an autistic child, they may not yet be diagnosed. Remember that they are facing their biggest fears every day and no one can even see them.
Every second that they are able to “behave themselves” is a huge achievement, and next time you see them having a meltdown, please empathize.
I am an Autistic/ADHDer who writes children’s stories. I was recently diagnosed with Autism at the age of 39! I am a proud mum to two boys, aged 5 and 2. They are my inspiration and the reason I started writing children’s stories. I create neurodivergent main characters and use my stories to show children that they are perfect as they are, even if they feel different.
Through my blogs, I want to help raise awareness about neurodiversity and how it can affect so many people who don’t even know it applies to them. I have faced many challenges through being undiagnosed Autistic and if more people understand what to look for, then children can get support much sooner.