The Development of “Resilience” Requires Attachment and Nurture, Not Desensitisation

A young boy, snuggles into a woman's arms.

Written by Alex*

This is the second blog in a trilogy challenging commonly held misconceptions regarding Independence, Resilience and Self-Advocacy. The author’s unifying theme is that the wellbeing of all children – especially those who are Autistic – is dependent on understanding and honouring developmental needs, within an attachment relationship. Relational safety, encompassing an individualised approach based in mutual respect, is the prerequisite for success.

CW: relational trauma, suicide, ABA, intensive therapies, eating disorders, mental illness

Everyone keeps wondering why kids today have alarmingly poor mental health, with hitherto unseen rates of anxiety and depression. If you ask me, we are failing in our duty to protect them.

Our capitalist society Godzilla is damaging our children, and instead of slaying the monster, we are handing our smallest people inappropriately heavy swords and expecting them to be able to wield them. Swords with names like “Resilience”, a protective quality which we must cultivate in our children, the sooner the better, with “early intervention” top-down, cognitive-based resilience building programs being rolled out across Australia.

Further testament to our societal decline, any corner of the school curriculum that isn’t stuffed with academia et. al. is earmarked for all the things parents and caregivers have outsourced. One example is resilience-building activities, which emphasise the practices of gratitude, empathy, and mindfulness.

Results of pilot studies conducted by The Resilience Project to assess the efficacy of their school-based program have demonstrated an arrest in the rapid rate of mental health decline witnessed in our school students during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, no amount of explicit teaching of cognitive methodologies can substitute for the organic development of resilience.

By this I refer to the protective effects of strong attachment relationships on the developing psyche; the provision of a safe landing such that adverse experiences can be processed as opportunities for growth and empowerment.

These relationships, this nurture, and the understanding and acceptance that there may be a much lower threshold for psychiatric distress in Autistic people, are of particular importance to our community.

For many of us, the everyday neurotypical world presents challenge sufficient for building resilience.

Peopling in bright lights or sunshine, multiple background noises, pretending to maintain eye contact, dealing with emotionally challenging content as a highly sensitive individual, struggling with the irrelevance yet apparent importance of a social script – basically, anything which is taxing and demands us to exist as another version of ourselves, suppressing our needs – is building resilience.

We don’t need to go looking for difficult experiences. They find us, every day.

And when something “significant” hits us (a neurotypical person’s 8/10 on an adversity scale, eg. a bad exam grade or a failed teenage relationship), it takes us out. Our scale is calibrated differently; exquisitely sensitively. NT tremors are experienced as earthquakes. We have a different Richter scale.

Not only is our scale inherently different, but we also incur what any human would experience as trauma – the trauma of suppressing our identity, our needs. The old adage “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is dangerously inaccurate. A shockingly disproportionate number of Autistic lives are lost through suicide, with the aetiology heavily weighted towards the traumatic impact of neuronormative conversion therapy.

Please note that I’m not referring exclusively to ABA. Autists, from birth, marinate in insidious, subversive, implicitly behaviorist toxicity born of ableist expectations.

We must suppress significant difference/discomfort/outright pain in order to become broken versions of “normal” people. Successful masking is actually intended to be mistaken for resilience.

If you’re doing it right, then people think you’re coping with everything.

The consummate maskers are the children whose parents are repeatedly told by well-meaning (but ultimately dismissive, gaslighting-through-ignorance) teachers: “There is nothing wrong. Your child is the perfect student. Maybe you need more boundaries at home”. The child’s genuine reaction to difficulty is internalised, only to surface when it can be safely expressed. 

Witness the birth of After School Restraint Collapse, aka “The Coke Bottle Effect”. You shake the Coke bottle all day, and the pressure builds up, with the lid firmly on. (Mask firmly in place). At home (or even as soon as the carpark), where the lid can be safely removed, the explosion occurs. It may not even be as overt as an explosion, but rather, insidious but tangible signs of an accumulation of stress to the nervous system – expressed as: 

  • repetitive questioning,
  • increased stimming and sensory-seeking behaviours,
  • violent outbursts,
  • hypervigilance,
  • nightmares,
  • regression,
  • revisiting events of the day and expressing distress … the list goes on.

As connected and coregulating parents, we pick up the pieces from six hours of masking, a lack of relational safety, an abundance of unmet needs, and unreasonable expectations from educators. Yet we are held responsible for the inevitable outcome of being in an environment mismatched to needs.

I’m just grateful that my children know they can express their distress. Imagine those who have to hold it in 24/7. Eventually it is going to crack – with disastrous consequences. Teenage eating disorders, suicide, unmet potential, adults who end up with diagnoses of depression, anxiety, bipolar affective disorder, borderline personality disorder, cPTSD, postnatal anxiety and depression, “nervous breakdown” – all the way through the lifespan.

Clearly there is “something to see here”. The kid may have looked “resilient”– but looks can be deceiving.

One of the Oxford definitions of resilience is:

“The ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity”.

If an Autistic person wishes to stretch and subsequently recoil, in a world that is far from ideal, they actually can – they just need to do it incrementally.

Gradual, well-scaffolded stretch, controlled by the individual, when they are ready, and within their window of tolerance, is how resilience is truly developed.

We cannot continue to yank Autistic children like neurotypical elastic bands because sooner or later they will break.

But they can, and will, grow along their own beautiful developmental trajectories if we listen to them, look for clues with genuine caring curiosity (without an agenda based on “abolishing antecedents” and “extinction of behaviours”) and support them to listen to themselves and honour their needs.

Furthermore, Autists are inherently capable of flexibility if we are not exposed to the toxic attitudes and expectations that make us brittle. Accommodations enhance and promote flexibility. Again, it’s really helpful to remember that just existing in the neurotypical world is its own kind of exposure “therapy”, naturally building flexibility as long as the need for rest and signals of impending burnout are understood and observed. This is one reason well-supported Autistic people may “look less Autistic”, in terms of displaying less rigid behaviours. If the environment fits our needs, we do not seek to control it.

How many late-identified Autistic adults can relate to “toughness” (aka resilience) as something we have had to cultivate and wear like armour? How many of us are now painstakingly, and painfully, attempting to peel off those layers of defence – or finding ourselves suddenly and unexpectedly denuded of them?

That’s the difference – resilience is supposed to be an integrated part of the psyche, not merely a poorly rendered exoskeleton, crumbling as the years go by, stressed by environmental demands that exceed capacity, until it cracks wide open, revealing the rawest of nerve endings which can no longer be ignored … aka burnout.

Autistic resilience development, done right, is analogous to a deep wound healing by primary intention. Little by little, from the bottom up, at its own pace, protected by specialised dressings (aka scaffolded support, attachment relationships) which maintain an ideal environment. This approach will result in a functional outcome – healthy skin, which can stretch and protect.

The alternative is for the wound to resolve via a thick, superficial, crusty scab (looks impressive, tough even, but will leave unsightly scar tissue, not flexible and elastic skin). Scaffolding, in sync with a child’s intrinsic developmental mud map, as opposed to whacking on the mask, taking up the “Sword of Resilience” and being shoved into the fray.

* The author has chosen to publish under a pen name. Many of our writers only feel safe disclosing their Autistic identity to a select few due to the enduring stigma and prejudice faced by Autistic individuals. We hope by sharing their stories, together, we can help dismantle this stigma and one day, achieve true Autism acceptance.

Read the first blog in this trilogy, ‘Why “Independence” Is a Loaded Concept – and the Critical Role Dependence Plays in Wellbeing’.


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Always was, always will be Aboriginal land.

The Reframing Autism team would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners of the lands on which we have the privilege to learn, work, and grow. Whilst we gather on many different parts of this Country, the RA team walk on the land of the Amangu, Awabakal, Bindjareb, Birpai, Whadjak, Wiradjuri and Yugambeh peoples.

We are committed to honouring the rich culture of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of this Country, and the diversity and learning opportunities with which they provide us. We extend our gratitude and respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and to all Elders past and present, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.

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