Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are more likely to have mental health issues due to their struggle in social communication, processing information and restrictive and repetitive patterns of behaviour. This can make the outside world a daunting place for them where they are consistently misunderstood and find it difficult to relate to their peers. While awareness of autism is increasing, an autistic child is very likely to experience feelings of isolation at school, on the playground, and generally in life. Making sure our children feel understood and safe at home is the first line of defense against these uncontrollable factors. A child’s relationship with their parent is vital to their cognitive, emotional, and social development. How a parent reacts to and handles meltdowns and negative behaviours can make drastic differences in an autistic child’s mental health, and even advance their interventions and therapies.
I want to preface by saying from my experience witnessing parents raise autistic children both personally and in clinical settings, I know how challenging it can be. It can be very draining and can impact your mental health as a parent. One of the best things a parent can do for their child’s mental health is to take care of themselves and better their own mental health. Take breaks from your child, when necessary, even if this means leaving your child in whatever negative behaviour they are displaying. This can look like simply pausing, closing your eyes and allowing yourself to feel your frustration, control it, and then react. It can also look like leaving a room completely if you feel overstimulated to calm down before you react. These efforts go a long way to improving an autistic child's mental health and distressing behaviour.
The next step is understanding their unique behaviours and learning how to respond to them, giving your child a safe space and sense of belonging. One important thing is a child should not understand their autism as a disability. Autism may feel like a disability, but this is because the world is not designed for their neurological differences. Children are like sponges, hearing that they are disadvantaged from a young age could have very damaging effects on their self-esteem and confidence. Children should be taught that they are different on a neurological level the same way some kids run faster than others.
Moreover, knowing the difference between what behaviours should be reprimanded and what behaviours should be accepted as a unique form of expression can greatly reduce stress levels in an autistic child and reduce chances of masking (which is where children act as neurotypical people and suppress their true selves). I understand that the nature of a parent is to want your child to fit in and have as little difficulties in the world as possible,which is why many parents try and teach their autistic children to behave neurotypically. However, this is very damaging to an autistic child and can lead to masking. While this one-way designed world may be easier for them to navigate through, hiding their true selves will be exhausting and their mental health will suffer. It is important for parents and caregivers to reflect on the nature of different behaviours to assess if there is a real need to correct these or if these are natural and harmless to your child’s functioning.
For instance, autistic children are commonly reprimanded for their meltdowns. However, writing this off as bad behaviour is harmful to a child’s mental health. These meltdowns are not the same as temper tantrums. Autistic children commonly experience sensory overload, and a meltdown is somewhat an automatic response for them. They can also be having meltdowns due to feelings of frustration for not being able to communicate their needs. Try to comfort your child through these experiences, understand what it is that upset them to try and help them avoid it happening again. Behaviours like these should not necessarily be discouraged but understood to teach them better ways to cope with their emotions and communicate. When they replace it with positive behaviour, celebrate and encourage it. This will create a safe environment for an autistic child. This will really improve their mental health and help them feel understood in their home.
Just remember that this is a work in progress and if you ever feel overwhelmed, you are not alone. Take care of yourself so that you can take care of your children’s mental health. Join support groups, listen to autistic adults' experiences, do your research, listen to your child, and learn. If your child is part of interventions or therapies, I would highly recommend learning what is happening in those sessions and applying it at home to create a sense of consistency and further their progress. I would also go as far as explaining this to any siblings they may have to cement healthy relationships and a safe environment in their homes.