Conceal don’t feel, don’t let it show

13 September 2022

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Understanding and Acceptance of Autism Spectrum Condition

We all know the lyrics, right?  And we all know the film Frozen – it’s one of my favourites but one that also fills my children with dread as they know I will burst into song whenever it comes on!

But never did I think I would be linking this to the work I do and singing it in the middle of a training session, however I was compelled to compare the advice given to a great nursery team on how to ‘support’ a neurodivergent child in their care, with the words in this song.   The child was stimming, flapping his hands against his head in excitement and when in distress, and the advice given by an external advisor was to cover his hands and prevent this behaviour ‘as he wouldn’t be able to do this at school’.

Don’t let them in, don’t let them see, be the good girl you always have to be.  Conceal, don’t feel, don’t let them know”. Let it go, Elsa, Frozen.

Allow me to be me

Elsa was forced away from her home, her family and her community because she was different, because she had behaviours didn’t ‘fit’ expectations of what was acceptable, because others didn’t understand.  I was shocked, angry, and upset that in 2022, our neurodivergent children are being ‘forced’ to conceal who they are, to mask their true selves and are still so misunderstood and not accepted in our settings.  And this HAS to change. 

Awareness vs Acceptance

We are now aware of autism spectrum condition, many of you would have attended training on ‘autism awareness’ and within my role as a SEND consultant and trainer and also as a parent of an autistic son, I’m always pleased to hear of more and more educators deepening their knowledge and becoming more aware.  But awareness and acceptance are two very differing things, and I don’t think we are there yet in accepting our neurodivergent children for who they are, the behaviours they show us and their communication styles and methods.  We have to get better at entering their world, allowing them to be themselves without ‘forcing’ them to enter ours based on our ideal of what is socially acceptable. All of this speaks of a requirement for neurodivergent children to be ‘cured’ which is so far removed from the caring, nurturing, supportive, trusting and relational approach we need to be providing.

Impact on mental health

Autistic people who mask more show more signs of anxiety and depression, and the strategy may even be linked to an increase in suicidal behaviours (Cassidy et al. 2018).

Many of our children quickly learn that they are different, they don’t fit in and are not able to respond to certain situations in a way that many of them need to, in ways that are linked to their neurological fight or flight response.  So, they hide, they find other ways to navigate through the stress, the anxiety, or supress it until they are in an emotionally safe space just to protect themselves.  It prevents our children from developing their true identity, building authentic relationships and in many cases entering complete burnout from the energy levels required to maintain this day in day out.

Stress and behaviour

In an overwhelming situation, a high arousal environment, a new or unpredictable change can just be too much and the impact of these sources of stress can be so much more profound for our autistic children.  Our role as compassionate educators is to understand individual children’s stress triggers and to help them navigate through this.

Behaviours we see can also be linked to their early communication methods.  Just recently I was at a nursery observing a young boy, he had an ASC diagnosis, he limited verbal language and was busy engaging with the toy cars and trucks.  We played together for a long while, moving the cars from one place on the table to another with him using sounds, verbalising counting 1-10 each time as they were positioned just right in a line.  They were only able to be the wooden vehicles, he pushed aside the plastic ones.

He indicated to me quite clearly that for him the game had finished, and he’d had enough, he lifted his arms in the air, swept them across the table, knocked all the cars on the floor and walked away. He used his way of communicating to inform and update me of the situation, how he felt and what he wanted to do.

Understand me and enter my world

Know all your children, understand their methods of communication and their stress triggers, meet them where they are by getting to know them, all of them, enabling the sense of belonging in an environment where they feel valued and accepted.

Allow your children the freedom to be able to be true to themselves, just as Elsa did, just maybe minus the ice castle.

Guest blog written by the brilliant Cheryl Bedding who is the Director of Aperion Training. Meet Cheryl at Childcare & Education Expo Midlands who will be taking part in the panel discussion, ‘Understanding and Supporting Children’s Behaviour, Communication and Language Needs’.

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