Written by Alex*
This is the first 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
“Leave her to cry – she’ll never learn to self-settle if you are always picking her up.”
“My 2 year old hates it when the swimming teacher submerges him, but if we pull him out of classes, we’ll just reinforce his fear.”
“You’re fine, stop crying, just shake it off.”
It is, therefore, a total paradox that children’s attempts to express their needs are shut down by our society’s vested interest in forging early independence and producing superficially resilient humans.
As we continue to “evolve” in terms of our collective ability to make more stuff, use more resources, and digitalise everything, we are devastatingly divorcing ourselves from our basic human needs.
Social and emotional attachment has become markedly devalued in our pursuit of productivity and materialism, which prioritises “toughening up” from early childhood.
From birth, it seems it is no longer okay for our children to be dependent. In legal terms, they are precisely that – our “dependents”. But, because we don’t co-sleep or even cohabitate for the majority of the day, because we rush to childcare/school drop off, work, and extracurricular activities, we emphasize “independence”.
We “teach” our babies to sleep through the night with no input from us because being up all night is incompatible with the demands imposed by modern living. Our pre-schoolers must “learn”, despite neurobiologically appropriate anxiety, to separate from us and attend a chaotic daycare environment, so we can slot into the machine of big corporate.
Empathising with our children’s discomforts (derided as “coddling”, “helicoptering”) is a no-no because this “reinforces” the anxiety, the fear, the sadness – we are endorsing it, validating it, giving it oxygen and making it a thing, instead of negating it which will make it go away.
A baby’s continued crying after being fed and changed constitutes a communication of other unmet needs – including the need for emotional connection, and possibly additional needs of an Autistic infant with sensory differences. Failing to validate these earliest self-advocacy attempts (for example, employing barbaric cry-it-out “extinction” techniques whereby the nursery door is shut at 7 pm and not opened again until 7 am), is where gaslighting begins and, worse still, becomes internalised. The lesson “learnt” is that our needs are baseless, invalid.
We learn to ignore our interoceptive cues and quash our emotional needs (for example, the need for a parent to be present whilst a young child is going to sleep or when they wake in the night, due to developmental fears of the dark or monsters) because we are “just being silly” and we need to “learn” to be more resilient.
There are certain biological imperatives which we ignore at our peril. Babies and young children need to spend most of their time with a caregiver who is prioritising them front and centre. This is not pandering or spoiling. This is how their brains develop best.
This is the basis of attachment theory. And it is most critical for our neurodivergent children, who are so exquisitely sensitive to changes in their internal and external mileau, as well as being on a different developmental trajectory.
(I remember my mum staying on with me at primary school parties when the other kids’ parents dropped them off.) Resilience develops through having one’s needs met consistently, lovingly, and with genuine best intentions, over and over again, ideally in a one-to-one, trusting relationship, so the child learns that the world is a good place where good things happen to them. This co-regulation develops secure attachments that enable increasing degrees of exploration from a safe base.
The shameful reality is that attached parents are criticised and blamed as overinvolved, enmeshed and co-dependent “helicopter parents” whose children “feed off our anxiety”. In actual fact, we are not causing the anxiety, but rather, appropriately responding to it and validating our child’s experience of the world. This is how we build security and resilience. Our children learn to trust their feeling and instincts.
I am not a psychologist, but I am an Autistic parent who was once an Autistic child. It seems to me that if we parent an Autistic child in a dismissive way, they may develop an outward veneer of “independence” or “resilience”, aka masking, but this will likely be concealing an insecure attachment.
Neurodivergent children, more than their neurotypical peers, depend on the relational safety borne from secure attachment because they exist in a world that is literally unsafe for their neurology. This is not an ethereal concept but a very tangible threat to their mental health and wellbeing. Cognitive behavioural techniques are not effective for Autistic anxiety which is firmly grounded in neuroceptive reality.
I don’t know how many times my school-refusing, 5-year-old son and I read about silly old, overactive amygdalae before I realised that the sensory overload he was experiencing in a mainstream school environment, coupled with the behaviourist methodologies of his Reception teacher, were actually a genuine danger to his wellbeing and did, in fact, inflict significant harm.
As for avoidance reinforcing anxiety – it is actually quite the opposite for Autistic people. We are warned that allowing children to dodge their fears will make the fears grow bigger. I don’t know how many times I’ve witnessed toddlers in swimming lessons undergoing repeated forced immersion despite self-advocating otherwise (exhibiting clear signs of distress). This is effectively a “flooding” exposure technique with the aim of achieving “desensitisation”. The expectation is that the child will “learn” not to be anxious. However, this kind of traumatic experience leads to lifelong fears and phobias.
For Autists displaying significant anxiety in response to a trigger (which incidentally may not be perceived as a threat by a neurotypical person), avoidance is necessary until arousal returns to baseline. Trauma may need to be healed, by reducing demands and honouring needs. It is then incumbent on us to follow the Autistic child’s cues and readiness as to how, when, and to what degree they re-engage with the trigger. This essentially constitutes a child-led form of graded exposure, towards independent mastery of various skills and situations.
Finally, I’d like to note that independence in all things is not be a realistic or desirable end point for anyone, Autistic or otherwise, high or low support needs.
We live in communities. If we have high support needs, our goals for living well may include depending on any number of people who help us meet our needs. Independence is not always the holy grail, and a period of dependence, at least in our formative years, is critical to our wellbeing and our human identity.
* 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.
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 Birpai, Awabakal, Wattamattagal, Whadjak, Amangu, Bunurong and Kaurna Yarta 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, present, and emerging, for their wisdom, their resilience, and for helping this Country to heal.