Young child walking through tall grass

By Jeanette Purkis

I have heard that some teachers now use ‘resilience’ as a dismissive response to complaints of bullying or victimisation by the parents of Autistic students. ‘Your child needs to get some resilience, then they won’t be bullied’ they will say to the parents of some poor autistic kid whose had his iPad stolen, as if the theft is his fault for not being tough enough. The statement ‘be more resilient’ is a bit like saying ‘be more intelligent’ or ‘be more Australian’. Children can’t just all of a sudden pluck resilience out of thin air and then stand up for themselves. This article is not about that sort of resilience. Rather, it looks at how to build genuine resilience for young people on the Autism spectrum to help them better navigate their way through the world.

I was diagnosed as being on the Autism spectrum when I was 20, after I had completed school. This meant that I had no assistance at school. I was completely alone in a sometimes hostile and violent world which didn’t appreciate my intellect, quirkiness or creativity. Thirteen years of bullying, with essentially no support impacted severely on my self-esteem and confidence until well into adulthood. I thought that what I went thorough was a normal part of growing up. Most of my teachers told me that ‘bullying builds character’ and ‘you will look back on your school days as the happiest days of your life’. I don’t. I look back on my school days as invalidating and evil and thank heaven that I will never have to repeat them.

Fast forward to 2015. Some parents try to shield their child from any kind of adversity or difficulty. However, living in a world where every difficulty is removed can impact negatively on children’s sense of strength and resilience and create adults who struggle to be independent. This is particularly relevant for children on the Autism spectrum. I am not criticising parents for trying to protect their child - working to shield your Autistic child from any issues that arise is a natural and understandable instinct. However there are steps parents can take to build resilience and independence for children on the Autism spectrum without their child having to go through the kind of educational hell with no support, assistance of protection that myself and so many others of my generation did.

So on the one hand we have the world of my childhood where I was expected to face enormous challenges alone and the situation now, where some theories of parenting advocate shielding children from every possible adversity or difficulty. Neither of these extremes is particularly helpful. One of the common factors in these two scenarios is that both make it very hard for children on the Autism spectrum to learn resilience and self-confidence.

Genuine resilience is a great thing to have. It is one of the most potent weapons in an Autistic person’s arsenal of coping strategies. Resilience is the difference between being knocked down by adversity or learning from it. Resilient people are more able to face challenges, tend to have more confidence and are better at dealing with hardship and/or change. Resilience grows out of facing challenges, and that’s where the tricky bit lies. Some challenges are manageable and overcoming or working through these will build a child’s resilience and mastery in life. Other challenges are seemingly impossible to overcome and can cause psychological damage. Through life, everyone will encounter one or other of these different sorts of challenges. People have a different level of tolerance to adversity and this can change throughout their lifetime. As such, adversity can either be a friend, helping us to build our strength and resilience or it can be a bitter enemy, sapping our confidence and self-worth.

Autistic kids are already more likely to face difficulty and adversity and those difficulties can potentially harm their sense of identity, their self-esteem and confidence. The key to addressing this is to start helping children to learn resilience from a young age and embedding the skill. Parents can start with introducing controlled, small challenges. At first these should be things which the parent is absolutely confident their child will be able to work through but which the child may be hesitant about. They could centre round a game the child enjoys playing, something in connection with a passionate interest or an art or craft activity. Make sure that the challenges are not too hard at first and that the parent can control most or all the variables. For example don’t make school the setting of the first few challenges because there are things beyond your control. Be supportive throughout and if you set a challenge that the child turns out to be unable to do, don’t force them to do it or make a big deal out of it. As the process goes on, if the child is doing well at learning from the challenges and building their confidence, set slightly harder challenges. Be positive and rewarding when the child works through the challenge. This process can work with kids at a variety of ages and developmental stages. Parents should use their judgement and knowledge of their child to guide the process.

Genuine resilience is an amazing thing. For people on the Autism spectrum it promotes self-confidence and independence. Resilient young people are better prepared to stand up for their rights and not fall victim to predatory people. Giving your child the gift of resilience stands them in good stead for the rest of their life. I certainly could have used some resilience when I was growing up.

Here is a video of a talk I gave on Autism and resilience for TEDx Canberra in 2013.

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