As we normalize conversations about mental health, how do we support neurodiverse kids?

I love watching T and kids play tag. I’m amused by how they apply “TO” (timeout) – whenever they don’t want to be tagged or need a rest.

As I thought about this more, kids should be encouraged to take a TO whenever they need.

During our recent roadtrip, T asked to listen to Shawn Mendes’ “When You’re Gone.”

Mendes made headlines recently when he cancelled his world tour, citing the need to focus on his mental health struggles.

In the past, this would’ve been a career-ending move, but he’s getting praise and support.

I think it’s fantastic he’s sending a message to his young fans that normalizes mental wellbeing.

Growing up, I seldom heard mental health discussed – at least, not in positive ways.

As T’s parent, I often think about how mental health issues can affect people with FASD.

This Edmonton Fetal Alcohol Network post provides sobering facts:

  • 90% of people with FASD experience an additional mental health diagnosis.
  • Individuals with FASD may be at a higher risk of suicidal thoughts.
  • A disproportionate number of people in conflict with the law have FASD.

I firmly believe T is on his own journey. Nonetheless, these stats sometimes make it feel like the odds are stacked against him.

A few weeks ago, T started telling us that “everyone in the world doesn’t like him.”

T is often a happy and happy-go-lucky kid. So it made me sad hearing this.

The hubby and I since observed T makes this comment when he is told not to do something – e.g. getting in personal space – or when someone he wants to play with wants to be left alone, because he is so intense.

We try to explain to T that many people like and love him – but they do not like being talked to rudely, him getting into their personal space or repeatedly doing something after being asked not to, and that people sometimes need peace and quiet – especially when he’s disregulated.

It’s a message we need to keep repeating, because it’s important for him to distinguish between people liking him for who he is and him needing to build social and regulation skills.

I understand and empathize deeply with how kids like T can develop low self esteem and negative self talk when they feel treated as a “problem child.”

We can’t shield T from feeling hurt, misunderstood or sad. It’s a part of life, neurodiverse or not.

We can, however, help him develop skills to build mental and emotional resiliency – to help him live his best life, despite the ups and downs.

I don’t pretend to be an expert – I am getting lots of hands on learning though! – and this is too complex of a topic to cover in one post.

So I’ll share a few recent ways the hubby and I are approaching this:

  1. Be clear of why we correct/redirect him or take away privileges (e.g. tablet time) and it’s never because we don’t like him.
  2. Talk to him – at bedtime, post meltdown, car rides, etc. – and try to coach him about social situations, as this is where he struggles and ends up alienating others.
  3. Advocate and raise awareness with family, friends, school and daycare staff about FASD to create understanding and empathy about T’s exhibited behaviour.
  4. Encourage T to express his emotions (T is a kid who’ll tell you what’s on his mind whether you want to hear it or not!) and tell him it’s ok to not feel ok sometimes and that feeling bored, sad, or angry are normal.
  5. Encourage T to find calmer ways to express his anger, such as walking away to his room for “peace and quiet” – and preferably without slamming doors!
  6. Find ways to create fun and joyful moments every day – as simple as playground time to more complex plans like a roadtrip – as I genuinely believe happy memories help us get through stormy times.
  7. All of us, especially kids, need reassurance. We try to start and end each day on a positive note – and remind T he is loved.
  8. We still haven’t shared T’s FASD diagnosis with him yet. We hope to do so soon and I believe this will help him understand himself better.

We try to be kind with each other and ourselves when we don’t get it right – we often don’t! – because the FASD journey is unbelievably hard!

How do you build emotional resiliency? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

As mental health matters become normalized, it will build awareness and empathy, increase advocacy and resources, and reduce stigma.

In turn, I hope those distressing aforementioned stats will decrease over time.

As T’s parent – and “external brain” – it is essential I also prioritize my mental health.

There are many ways I do this – self care, hiking, setting boundaries with people, not taking on things I don’t have capacity for, counseling, blogging – that I’ll write about in a future post.

I started this post on the last day of our three-week vacation and I felt thankful for the rest and recharge – and the fun times we had with T.

On Friday afternoon, I took T to the outdoor pool. He loves it there and enjoys splashing, jumping into the water, doing front and back flips, and playing “shark chase.”

As I “chased” him in the water (a parent moves slowly like Michael Myers in Halloween when playing tag with kids), T made his way as fast as he could to the side of the pool, laughing excitedly.

As his hand touched the pavement deck, and I was inches away, he screamed, “T-O!”

“Hold on

I don’t wanna know what it’s like when you’re gone

I don’t wanna move on

I don’t wanna know what it’s like when you’re gone for good

You’re slipping through my fingertips

A little bit by a little bit

I didn’t know that loving you was the happiest I’ve ever been

So I’m just trying to hold on…”

– Shawn Mendes, “When You’re Gone”

15 thoughts on “Timeout

  1. The term mental health was never discussed when I was growing up either. I’m glad to hear that it’s being talked about a lot more broadly and that it’s no longer seen as something negative. It’s sad to hear that T thinks no one likes him sometimes. I think your overarching approach to having clear communication is key. As a kid I used to hate it when I was told to do something just “because”.

    1. Thanks Linda. Kids keep us on our toes and I’m sure it’ll continue to be ups and downs over the next few years but it’s good that there is generally a better sense of mental well-being as a priority. I’m glad it’s the world that T is growing up in. And even as an adult, the just because thing is an issue. 😆

  2. Blogs like yours help build awareness among us about challenges different kids face. In the past, when our understanding about the brain was still very limited, people often labelled some kids as problematic, without trying to understand why they behaved the way they did. It’s good that science helps us get a better picture of why things are the way they are, so we can focus on what needs to be done. I hope over time T will understand when things are not like what he wants them to be it doesn’t mean the world is against him.

    1. Thank you, Bama, for the always supportive comments. I think education is the key for sure to building awareness and empathy. Happy to do my very small part. 🙂 And I hope so too that as he matures, he will distinguish the two as well. 🙏 Hope you are having a good week!

  3. I’m always in awe of your parenting! For me I think what helped me most for emotional resilience has been the CBT technique of reframing. Basically it is identifying automatic thoughts and replacing them with more balanced thoughts. It takes practice but it has helped me a lot with the negative self talk from my anxiety. Also from your description it pretty much sounds like you are already implementing it but maybe looking into reframing and cognitive distortions will help you find more language to use.

    1. Thank you! I really like your approach to reframing automatic thoughts with more balanced thoughts. I do foresee this being a challenge with T who goes from 0 to 100 in seconds and has emotional regulation issues. But it is definitely worth trying especially when he’s young and not as “set in his ways.” Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

  4. Hey! So I have a friend, Helen Simpson Orcutt. She is an adult living with an FASD. SHE IS a success story. She has written a2 childrens book about having an FASD. I am shooting over the links. The Way I am is Different: A Children’s Book about a boy with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder https://a.co/d/60VT7Pv. Be Different, Dare To Be https://a.co/d/6Idwsbn

    1. Thank you, Rebecca. These two books look great. I will look into them.

      And I’m glad you took the time to share success stories as well as they are so important for everyone to see as part of the larger picture of FASD!

  5. Your list of 8 approaches you are using is amazing. The work you and your hubby are doing – deep, understanding and I believe matters so much. You question about how to build emotional resiliency is such a good one. I’ve noticed with my kids – they have such a bigger chance of taking things negatively to heart or not being able to find the reflection if they are hungry, tired or uncomfortable. Often I try to circle back like you do after the moment and we’ve resolved the other conditions.

    Love this post — and the amazing parenting you do, Ab!

    1. Thank you as always for the supportive words, Wynne!

      Very good point around the importance of timing, such as when kids are hungry or tired. Tired definitely makes a difference in our T and especially a triggering factor.

      Hope you are enjoying your vacation!

  6. Your wise words should be shared with other parents of children with FASD and other children who are neurodiverse. Your expertise may not be from your degree, but your hands-on parenting experience is so insightful and valuable to others. Great Piece…

    1. Thank you, Vickie. 😊 It’s very helpful to use writing as a way to process and reflect – and as you said, share as well. My time is so limited with work, parenting, other responsibilities, but perhaps one day I’ll have the time to broadly share the message more. 😊 Hope you’re taking good care!

  7. Right now, I am teaching a Summer academic enrichment program for young elementary school students (specifically, students entering second grade). I have one student who is, for lack of a better word, particularly “intense” (loud, relentlessly energetic, impulsive, struggles with boundaries and personal space) — and today was a challenging day. I have also observed how sometimes this intensity pushes other students away.

    Even as a neurodivergent individual myself, sometimes I struggle as an educator with patience when I work with my more “intense” students. Your post helped ground me back in the perspective of this young child and his family — the place of empathy and compassion I am committed to being in — and I am thankful for that as we finish up our Summer session this week.

    Social situations can be so complex, in ways that many neurotypical people take for granted, and especially for young children who are developmentally still at a point where they struggle to conceptualize others’ point of view. I often felt overwhelmed and lost navigating them, even though I did very much want to be friends. I cannot overstate how pivotal learning my diagnosis was in helping me to understand those interactions and my place in them, and to learning how to work through them effectively. As emotionally complex as learning one’s diagnosis can be, I hope T can find the same understanding and empowerment.

    1. Hi E, thank you for sharing this very thoughtful and empathetic note. That is great that you work with kids during the summer – and how wonderful that you can draw from your own experience to help others as well.

      I hear you on the struggle with patience. Although I am not neurodivergent, I know that there are days when I should exercise more patience, when I know it’s “brain not behaviour.” We are all human at the end of the day. I’m glad to hear you’re ending the summer session this week on a positive note.

      Social situations are where it all seems to fall apart for kids like T, because all others see are the behaviours and not the underlying reason – and the child does not understand the reason people are reacting that way. It truly is hard to watch. I agree with you that sharing the diagnosis will hopefully raise understanding and empowerment for our little guy.

      Thanks for commenting.

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