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Could your teen with anxiety also have autism or SEN? Here’s what you need to know.

Sometimes, when we’re focussed on the anxiety we may find that we’ve overlooked something else. The teenage years are undoubtedly testing times but is there something more at play?

What are special needs?

Each teenager and child will have different physical, social and emotional needs. They may also struggle with mental health conditions such as anxiety. But, as a parent or carer, what do you do if you suspect your child may have a special educational need (potentially including autism, other neurological differences like ADHD or emotional difficulties)? What if the anxiety is created by a wider need?

The charity Family Lives note that ‘’The term ‘Special Educational Needs’ is used to describe learning difficulties or disabilities that make it harder for children to learn than most children of the same age. Children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) are likely to need extra or different help from that given to other children their age. This help is known as special educational provision.’’

Children including teens can have different difficulties that can be classified as SEN by an accredited practitioner such as a psychiatrist, educational psychologist, occupational or speech therapist or a SENDCO inclusion leader in the school. Difficulties can include emotional and behavioural, such as low self esteem and lack of confidence, an inability to follow class instructions and ‘acting out’ at school/ aggression. In some cases, there may be anxiety and panic attacks or depression. Or, as we experienced, very few obvious difficulties until mental health issues arose, due to autistic ‘masking’. We’ll explain a bit more about that in a moment.

Children & teens may struggle with the academic side of school, struggling with reading, spelling, maths or grasping abstract concepts. Class activities can be difficult for a variety of reasons, especially if your child has a learning need. Some children also have speech and language or communication needs, and may have delays in this area, finding it hard to communicate with their peers or teacher and relate to other people. Others have a physical disability which makes life trickier for them to be in class or study at the same level. 

However, help is at hand!

In this blog, we will look at what to do if you think your teen has emotional difficulties and what to do if you suspect their level of anxiety could be related to autism.

Firstly it is important to note that in the UK education system, each child has the right to access learning at their own level. They must receive a balanced and wide curriculum, which can be differentiated, from Early Years to the later key stages at age 16-18. Most children with SEN will be educated in a mainstream school (some are home schooled or in specialist schools as it depends on each child). 

If you are concerned about your child/ teen:

1) Speak to the class teacher and school SENDCO to express your concerns

It is vital to have a good dialogue with the class teacher, who sees your child every day. It is important to express concerns about your child’s behaviour or mental health if it comes up and if they are struggling academically or with their peers. The teacher can set up a meeting with the school SEN Coordinator and this may give you greater clarity, especially if your child is falling behind other children. 

They can put into place plans of action, known as Individualised Education Plans (IEPs) to help your child in class. The teacher may recommend that your child needs one to one support from a teaching assistant, who will carry out the action points of the IEP.

If they are really struggling, in consultation with you, the SENCO may apply for an EHCP (formerly known as a statement of needs), where the school receives funding to best support the person, for example by hiring their own teaching assistant or equipment to help in class.

If your teen is under a psychiatrist, it is important to involve them separately to assess what is going on and note their symptoms. 

2)  See their GP and specialist: What if their anxiety is because of autism? How do I realise?

Raisingchildren.net.au  says that ‘Anxiety is a normal part of children’s development, but children and teenagers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can experience anxiety more intensely and more often than other children.’

They also comment, ‘Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) feel many of the same worries and fears as other children. But when children and teenagers with ASD get worried or anxious, the way they show their anxiety can look a lot like common characteristics of ASD.

If you are concerned your child may be on the autism spectrum, it is best to speak to your GP and get a referral to a specialist.

Symptoms of anxiety (and other conditions) can also be very similar to autism. These include:

  • Insisting on routine
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Tantrums and meltdowns
  • Social withdrawal
  • Obsessions and rituals   
  • Stimming (self stimulation) by rocking, spinning or flapping hands
  • Self harm eg biting, scratching, headbanging

You can get your teen assessed and it is best to rely on the advice of professionals such as GP doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, SENCOs and any therapists involved in your child’s care. It is also important to trust your gut feeling too as a parent.

There are a number of ways to assist with anxiety including exposure therapy, CBT, social stories to prepare for social situations. An occupational therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist can assist with this after an assessment.

Not all teenagers with anxiety will have autism. If your teen is struggling badly with anxiety, they can access medication and counselling through their GP or psychiatrist.

As a parent or carer, it is important to note your teens behaviour patterns and if you have a strong feeling that more support is needed or your teen is distressed and asking for further help , reach out for it. 

Some helpful charities;

YoungMinds
Stem 4
Mind
The Princes Trust
Heads Together

Other useful organisations;

Time to Change
Place 2 Be
SAMH

Teen Calm is a new subscription box for teens struggling with anxiety. Find out more here.

9 Ways To Ease Lockdown For Your Autistic Child

Parents of all autistic children will know – change is rarely easy for their little (and big) ones. But the last few weeks have bought a cataclysm of change unprecedented in our lifetime and it’s hard. 

Every autistic child is different so I can’t predict how your child will react. I can’t even predict how my own will react. But I know it will be hard to process and it’s likely there will be delayed reaction. And while so much is out of our control, I’m going to share with you 9 things you CAN do to mitigate the impact of the lockdown for your autistic child.

MY daughter, like all her peers I’m sure, will be bored at home very quickly. But unlike most of her peers, she finds self-regulation of her emotions very difficult, and heightened stress with all the change means it’s going to have to spill out somewhere.

She was already at home but this week all her groups have been cancelled, and the whole family has been at home, taking up space, breathing her air, crowding her kitchen, disturbing her solitude. She doesn’t like it. It makes her anxious and very uncomfortable. And in the past, being this anxious has led to unhealthy ways of coping so we, like many other SEN parents around the country and indeed the world, are trying, unsuccessfully it must be said, to keep everything as normal as it can be.

But how can life be normal when your favoured way to self-regulate is to go to the supermarket (yes, we know!)? When you are hostage to OCD, with no treatment of it for two years, but suddenly everyone is telling you to wash your hands? When the professionals you rely on and have been part of your recovery are no longer available and the groups which brought you back into the world cease to run?

Well the answer is of course that it can’t. For any of us.

The world is topsy turvy and just not RIGHT at the moment. And it’s scary. If it’s scary for adults, imagine how scary it is for a child who relies on everything being just as it’s meant to be in order to have low anxiety. Things are very much NOT as they are meant to be. And while this continues, parents of autistic and other neurodiverse children are likely to see behaviours that reflect that anxiety. Behaviour is communication, and even if your child can’t necessarily articulate to you what’s wrong, they are telling you with their behaviour. 

So how can we help?

9 Ways To Ease Lockdown For Your Autistic Child

#1 Communicate The Facts

Be honest about what’s going on (without going into too much detail, depending on the age of your child). Simple facts can be processed without too much emotional baggage going with them. You will know the best way to do this for your child. Bear in mind teens can find out anything and may see some scary things on social media, so it’s better to come clean (pun intended).

#2 Get That Routine Going Quickly

Quickly establish a new routine, and be clear that it’s important there are no sudden changes as much as possible. How varied your routine is will depend on the needs of your autistic child and their siblings. We have a comprehensive resource list here: https://teencalm.com/home-schooling-during-the-coronavirus-pandemic/

#3 Try to Keep As Much As Possible The Same

It’s likely your autistic child is made anxious by change. Keep as much constant as possible. Although it may not seem important that a particular drink is drunk at a certain time, there is little enough stability to hold on to at the moment.

#4 Use More Than Words

Neurodiverse children are likely to be visual learners, and possibly have issues with short term memory, so make a visual timetable, tailored to your child as detailed or illustrated as they like it. Stick to this timetable every day.

#5 Screentime is Downtime Now

Relax your usual screen time rules, especially if this is one of your autistic child’s means of self-soothing. After all, we bet your social media usage has gone up too?

#6 Use Social Stories

Social stories are visual short stories with teach a lesson about a specific social situation. They can be a great way to help autistic children understand new social situations, as long as they are done properly. Here’s a good resource to learn about them: https://carolgraysocialstories.com/social-stories/what-is-it/ Create a social story to help your child process all of this change (there are some examples for COVID-19 particularly in our home education resources).

#7 Make Sure They Understand the Importance of Washing Hands

Many autistic children are demand-avoidant, and just telling them to wash their hands for 20 seconds is not going to work. They need to understand why and how, and one of the videos circulating on social media where someone uses a coloured soap or substance to show all the parts of the hand which are usually missed is a perfect example.
Alternatively show them handwashing while singing Mr Brightside!

#8 Help Them Understand Why We Can’t Go Out

The Teen Calm household has two autistic teens. One of them would live like a hermit most of the time if he could. He gets his socialising from online gaming and he’s (mostly) happy with that. For him, not going to school is a pleasure and being isolated at home is a habitual choice.
For the other, going out is part of her self-regulation. Therefore keeping her in is already proving difficult and is likely to become a lot more so. Despite the fact that this is all out of our hands, she needs to feel listened to when she moans about it. Visual animations about social distancing have helped – we recommend you make all explanations as visual as possible. And keep some distraction projects up your sleeve for further down the line.

#9 Cultivate Sainthood

As hard as it is, your children need you to be even more patient than normal!

The world may seem as if it has gone slightly bonkers, but what our children are going to remember of this time is not news reports or empty shelves in the supermarket but their time at home with us. Let’s make it memorable for the right reasons.

Welcome to Teen Calm

Are you a teenager struggling with anxiety or depression? Want to feel part of a wider community of friends? Look no further than Teen Calm!

Teen Calm is a new subscription box for anxious teens, created by 13 year old Freya and her mum Cathy, who are based in the UK. Freya was diagnosed with autism last year in the midst of a mental health crisis of depression and anxiety. She is now recovering but both Freya and Cathy want to do something to help other teenagers in the UK and globally.

Children’s mental health services (CAMHS) in the UK are overstretched and often underfunded. Although mental health staff try their best and there is some good care available, there are long waiting lists and young people can slip through the net unless they are in crisis. Cathy and Freya wanted to make a product, Teen Calm, that is not only a home business, but can actually have an impact on those who are struggling.

‘Both Freya and I feel strongly, through our experience, that there is a major problem with children’s mental health services, and that there are tweens and teens all over the country who are anxious or depressed, and not getting the help they need. Of course, a subscription box can’t give them that help. But it can help let them know they are not alone, and give them techniques to lessen the impact.’

Cathy continues ‘Teen Calm is also something Freya and I could do together which got her off the sofa when things were bad with her depression.’

The main aims of Teen Calm subscription box are to help anxious teens feel more confident, giving them a sense of belonging. The box will be sent out monthly, containing positive products to help reduce anxiety such as a stress ball, fidget toy, bath bomb, notepad, pens, colouring sheet, pins, fairy lights, plus a motivational card. These can all be aids to help improve daily anxiety.

Boxes will start being sent out in February 2020 and will be customised each month. Soon you can buy gift cards for friends and family through the upcoming website. The aim is to go global and help teens with anxiety all over the world. Knowing you are part of a worldwide, supportive community can help other teens feel connected and less alone.

Teen Calm is a very personal project. As well as her mental health needs, creator Freya’s diagnosis of autism meant that she requires special educational needs support (SEND) for her school work and life needs. This is greatly expensive and sometimes, hard to access. Cathy told us,

‘Teen Calm also symbolises our very difficult mental health journey as a family, where the lack of SEND funding has made everything a battle and already vulnerable families are made more stressed and more oppressed. So many people feel like they are alone in going through this, and then they find the right Facebook group and realise they are NOT alone. That there are anxious children all over the country who are being failed by ‘the system’. Teen Calm can’t fix that. But we can help in a small way. And we can help to build a community and show people that they are not alone.’

Freya and Cathy hope to build a supportive network through Teen Calm,which in turn will help Freya, who has anxiety herself, too.

If you are a parent/ guardian and feel that a subscription to Teen Calm can help your child, please do get in touch. We aim for the boxes to be affordable and to provide a glimmer of hope to families up and down the country, whose teens may be struggling.

While our subscription box doesn’t replace medical intervention, we hope it can help brighten the lives of children and young people, forming a positive, proactive community that everyone can learn from and grow with. Battling anxiety and loneliness , one box at a time.

For more about Teen Calm see the website and follow us on social media.

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