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People with autism spectrum disorder are disproportionately affected by co-occurring mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, and OCD. For Autism Awareness Month, Julia McAndrews, lead therapist in Skokie’s Anxiety and Depression Recovery in ASD program, explores ways we can empower children with ASD and celebrate their gifts of neurodiversity.
Julia says that many children who are struggling with their social skills will often also experience greater levels of social anxiety. This increased social anxiety may in turn make it more difficult to practice social skills. The two interlock.
“We try to see the core impairment and help kids feel encouraged or use their strengths,” Julia says. “Often is the core struggle is social and a lot of times it’s because they are misunderstood. A teacher or coach might say ‘they’ll have a hard time with something because of their ASD’, but they don’t give space like they would for a neurotypical child.”
Because of this, bolstering kids’ skill sets in social and emotional situations is an important component of Rogers’ program. Julia describes the ASD program at Rogers as a place that tries to “help people to have mental wellness in the context of autism” and not one that wants to change the person or take away any of their quirks or nuances.
“It’s a diagnosis that can mean so many different things,” she says. “We’re taking the time to understand and ask questions about how they see the world and letting them know that their brain is not wrong or broken, it takes in information and the world in a special way.”
Julia says that people on the autism spectrum have the gift of being able to see the world through a different lens.
Some of her past patients have described seeing the world as a movie where they can rewind and playback memories. Others have had a vivid imagination of their future or think of everything from a mathematical and factual standpoint.
She also points to unique and highly focused interests as another gift of neurodiversity.
“I’ve learned more about cats, elevators, and superheroes than I ever thought I would,” Julia says. “The ability to be fully enamored by something is a huge gift that’s common to people with autism. Not to minimize the difficulties that come with it, but we’re given so many different outlooks because it is a wide spectrum.”
Many places are not setup in a way that is accommodating to neurodiversity. Julia says that a common complaint they hear from kids in the program is that they are frustrated with having to act a certain way and not being able to be themselves in public spaces.
“The first thing we can all do better with is asking kids what they need for different environments,” Julia says. “It can be using headphones or needing a moment to think. Using a pen and paper to draw up their thoughts first. Tools can help someone be able to socially engage in a meaningful way.”
She also says that more can be done to expand thinking around autism being a spectrum and these kids all being unique individuals.
“A lot of people make assumptions about what autism means and what it will mean for a certain person,” she says. “We see this time and time again when kids come to our program after being turned away from therapy or clubs. People assign a meaning to autism instead of understanding what it means to the person who has it.”
For more information on our unique program for treating anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders for children with ASD, visit this page. If your child is struggling with mental health, help is available. To schedule a free, confidential screening:
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