Please Don’t Say Autistic People Need to be More Resilient

It’s not unusual for parents to post in our Facebook group having been told that  “your child needs to be more resilient.” This statement usually comes from education or social care professionals, and while it is well-meaning, it displays an alarming ignorance about being neurodivergent in a world full of systems designed for neurotypical people. We say this because autistic people are often judged and assumptions made about them without realising those assumptions are based on neurotypical behaviour, and that autistic young people are being continually gaslit and forced into environments where they are pushed to overload..

What is Resilience?

According to dictionary sources, resilience can be defined as:

“the ability to successfully adapt to stressors, maintaining psychological well-being in the face of adversity. It’s the ability to “bounce back” from difficult experiences.”

But what about when the adversity is not just a one-off but a constant barrage? How resilient does a person need to be when their environment is so stacked against them? Autistic young people don’t need to work on their resilience. Some are already hugely more resilient than their peers just getting through the school day.  But, the neurotypical people around them may need to think more about their levels of understanding and empathy.

The words resilience and resilient frequently end up bullying children into hiding autistic traits because they are some how ‘wrong’- and we know what that does to mental health – and gaslighting their parents into thinking their parenting is somehow deficient.

Think More About Regulation

At least half of autistic people are alexithymic, meaning they have difficulty or are unable to identify and describe emotions. Many of our cohort also have hyper empathy. They can take on the emotions of others. But if they can’t identify the build up of an emotion, they don’t spot it until the feeling is so big it whacks them metaphorically over the head. In these circumstances emotional regulation is really difficult until you’re mature enough to figure out what’s going on and build up some strategies. It’s not – at all – about being resilient or not.

Sensory Overload 

Parents in our Facebook group are often told that their child will ‘get over’ something if they are exposed to it enough times. But if an autistic person is reacting because their body is hypersensitive to particular sensory experiences, this is not something they are ever going to ‘get over’. Their reaction is not irrational. It’s not a fear of something. It’s a physical reaction in their body. It’s absolutely real for them, even if it’s not what you experience. Telling them they are overreacting is gaslighting, ignorant and ableist. Invalidating their experience, saying “oh the light’s not that bright” or “don’t be silly it’s not that loud” teaches them that they won’t be listened to, that they won’t be believed and that the experiences of their own body are somehow wrong. 

The Parent’s Point of View

Likewise parents have had to be resilient and don’t need to hear they should be more so. In many instances at least one parent is neurodivergent themselves, even if they are only just coming to that conclusion. In a survey of the 25,000 members of our Facebook Group in June 2024, 66% identified as neurodivergent, 16% said they were still considering it and only 18% identified as neurotypical. Neurodivergent families will have their own history of trauma and being gaslit, and now have to fight for the rights of their children for an equitable education and place in society.

Empathy is needed for neurodivergent young people

We ask professionals to look beyond the surface.If you see an anxious or a  disruptive child, what has made them that way? As we have demonstrated, there are very good reasons to be anxious if you’re neurodivergent and the neurotypical stigmatises and misunderstands you. Asking a child to be resilient without understanding the strength they show just turning up every day is wrong.

Autistic young people belong to highly stigmatised minority communities that face significant inequities in mental health and well-being. International research has found that autistic youth are at higher risk of anxiety, depression, and suicidality compared to the general youth population, often with poorer mental health than neurotypical peers. If recognised as autistic they have to deal with stigma, with coming to terms with their diagnosis and changed self-identity and their connections with community, and if unrecognised they will still know that they feel different and othered compared to their peers. The need for conformity at the expense of autistic traits may be painful, as is the difficulty maintaining and being rejected by friendship groups. School life is likely to have contained negative and harmful experiences, research shows – 

Figures suggest that between 50-89% of autistic people have been victimised by someone they know1,2, and that this high prevalence is related to poor mental health outcomes for autistic people (Pearson, Rose & Rees, 2022)

Four out of five autistic young people experience mental health issues. (Ambitious About Autism)

Common approaches to suicide screening and prevention in schools do not adequately address issues of mental health, self-harm, and suicidal intent in autism. (Rodriguez et al., 2024)

In 94.3% of cases in this study, school attendance problems were underpinned by significant emotional distress, with often harrowing accounts of this distress provided by parents. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10556686/)

92.1% of Children and Young People in this study who were currently experiencing School Distress were described as neurodivergent (ND) and 83.4% as autistic. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC10556686/)

The report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Autism found 82% of autistic adults and 86% of families found the process of getting support from mental health services took too long.

Fewer than half of autistic children and young people say they are happy at school (Ambitious About Autism)

Only 35% of autistic young people attending mainstream schools feel listened to when decisions are being made about the support they get in education. (Ambitious About Autism)

Less than one in 12 (8%) of autistic children and young people think other pupils and students know enough about autism. (Ambitious About Autism)

79% of autistic people and 70% of family members feel socially isolated (NAS)

50% of autistic people and family members said they sometimes or often don’t go out because they’re worried about how people will react to their autism (NAS)

Neurodivergent pupils, those with mental health issues and those who self harm are much more likely to miss school than their peers. (John et al., 2021)

Neurodivergent people are more than twice as likely to be hypermobile and feel more pain. (CSecs et al., 2022)

90% of autistic people have sensory issues (Liddane, 2021)

Children with ADHD receive 20,000 more negative messages than their peers by age 10  (Jellinek, 2010)

Autistic women are 20-35 times more likely to meet the criteria for anorexia but services don’t help them. (Babb et al, 2020)

Research links neurodivergence, SEND, mental health & self harm with exclusion & persistent absence from school. (John et al, 2022)

SEND pupils are 70% of permanent exclusions. (Sproston et al, 2017)

Excluded children are more likely to develop mental health problems. (Ford & Amass, 2022)

66% of autistic adults have considered taking their own life. (CHS Healthcare Autism & ADHD Report)

Attempted suicide is 5 times more common in those with ADHD than those without. (CHS Healthcare Autism & ADHD Report)

Women and girls with ADHD are significantly more likely to be underdiagnosed, despite being almost 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than men (24% vs. 9%). (CHS Healthcare Autism & ADHD Report)

Autistic women are significantly more likely to meet the criteria for PTSD. (Reuben, Stanzione & Singleton, 2022)

1 in 5 mental health patients are undiagnosed autistics. (Nyrenius et al, 2022)

There was a 77% increase in the number of children needing specialist care for serious and urgent issues like self-harm and eating disorders. (The Independent, 4 Feb 2022)

40% of those who die by suicide are estimated to be autistic people. (Cassidy et al, 2022)

80% of autistic people experience mental health problems throughout their life. (Cassidy et al 2022)

Autistic women are between 2-3 times more likely to have been sexually assaulted than non-autistic women, and are more likely to experience abuse. (Cavalis et al., 2022)

At least 50% of autistic people are alexithymic, having difficulty identifying and expressing emotions. (Kinnaird et al., 2019)

Research shows that autistic people often have lower self-esteem and sense of power in their lives than neurotypical people. (Nguyen et al., 2020).

A study of autistic children in 2019 found that youth who received an autism diagnosis after the age of 11 were significantly more likely to engage in self-harm (Hosozawa et al., 2021). In fact, self-harm is 3 times more likely in autistic people than non-autistic people. (Blanchard et al., 2021)

If you read all that, we hope you will understand why we don’t want anyone using the words ‘be more resilient’ to neurodivergent young people. To anyone who does, we say ‘educate yourself and have more empathy’.