OPINION: Emotional scaffolding is at the heart of neurodiversity support

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OPINION: Emotional scaffolding is at the heart of neurodiversity support

By joining an autistic person in their world this Mental Health Awareness Week, you can help reduce the increased risk of mental health challenges

Imaging of the brain on mri scan
Imaging of the brain on mri scan

This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I am reminded again that life is complicated. Whilst progress has been made in reducing the stigma around discussing mental health and advocating for better mental health services, we still have some way to go in ensuring adequate support for those with neurodiversity who are experiencing poor mental health.

At Norwood we see all too often autistic individuals facing a range of mental health conditions. Why does having a neurodiversity create a higher risk of mental health conditions developing? Research tells us approximately 40% of autistic people will experience depression at some point in their lives, and the figure rises to an estimated 70% of autistic people for other mental health challenges, compared to 25% for non-autistic people.

We support many parents of teens with autism whose poor mental health is exacerbated because they feel they don’t fit in.  Many of the young people we see with autism experience low self-esteem, which is often a product of being bullied – as we know this can happen when children are seen as different to their peers.

Heightening the feelings of social anxiety and that others can’t accept you as you, combined with sensory processing issue and low self-esteem can lead to depression, without proper support in place. We are often told that – not for want of trying, in many cases – schools or youth groups are unable to adapt adequately to accommodate their needs and that their peers lack the tools to support them.

Naomi Dickson. Pic: Norwood

Many of us will suffer from depression at some point in our lives, and we know that it can be hard to talk about. For someone with autism, it may present itself through increased irritability or frustration, either directed towards themselves or other people, especially where an individual feels unable to explain or have their feelings understood.

Autistic people may find it harder to articulate feelings, causing further anxiety or frustration, and young people in particular may lack the vocabulary to express themselves.

Our therapists work to help build “emotional scaffolding” for many of the young people we support with neurodiversity, which involves introducing strategies to help them express their feelings and diffuse frustration, empowering them to take the space to process their feelings.

Learning to decode social cues can be exhausting for autistic people, leading to camouflaging or attempts to mask differences to appear ‘normal’.  The young people we work with in our services have told us how draining this can be, further compounding mental exhaustion and in some cases, a tendency to withdraw from social interactions for fear of revealing their struggles to their peers.

Rather than making an autistic person feel the need to adapt to their environment, there are steps at home and at school that can be taken to make any space more accommodating to someone with autism. Sometimes we see that, for example, giving someone permission to take time out when they need can make all the difference, especially within a school or working day.

Each one of us experiences life differently, and we all need someone who understands us, who’s in our corner.  Showing a willingness to learn, and to embrace our peers can help build a link between a person’s internal world and the external world around them. Walking beside them in their world, helping them to feel understood, and adapting to them can ease the feelings of frustration and can make all the difference.

As a society we’ve still got a way to go to ensure support for people with neurodiversity, and whilst we have started our journey towards true inclusivity, there is still work to be done. But each of us can do our part by being mindful of what others need, by helping to create appropriate environments for our peers. Having space – both emotional and physical – is often central to enabling people with autism and neurodiversity to be themselves, to access the support they need, and to participate equally and meaningfully in every aspect of their lives.

If you’re concerned about the impact of neurodiversity on your mental health or that of a loved one, visit Norwood.org.uk or phone 020 8809 8809 to find out about Norwood’s range of support services and how our experts may be able to support you.

  • Naomi Dickson is chief executive of Norwood
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