Resilience is the ability to ‘bounce back’ during or after difficult times and get back to feeling as good as before.
It’s also the ability to adapt to difficult circumstances that you can’t change and keep on thriving. In fact, when you’re resilient, you can often learn from difficult situations.
Children might be better at showing resilience in some situations than others. Their resilience can go up and down at different times. It can get ‘used up’ in a challenging situation or by the end of a difficult day. And for autistic children, it can be affected by their physical environment.
All children can build resilience. You can help your autistic child to build resilience by:
- creating an environment that supports resilience
- helping your child learn skills for resilience, like positive thinking, problem-solving, and emotional, social and organisational skills.
Why autistic children and teenagers need resilience
All teenagers and children face everyday challenges like disappointing test results or sporting losses.
For autistic children and teenagers, everyday challenges can also include things like friendships and relationships with peers, changes in routine, loud noises, uncomfortable clothes and unfamiliar teachers. They’re also more likely than other children and teenagers to face serious challenges like bullying and mental health difficulties like depression and anxiety.
Autistic children need resilience to manage and bounce back from these challenges.
Physical environments that support resilience for autistic children and teenagers
A safe, nurturing and predictable physical environment can reduce autistic children’s stress levels, help them stay calm, and make it easier for them to manage challenges and show resilience.
At home, you might be able to create a calming environment for your child in the following ways:
- Paint your child’s room in colours they find soothing.
- Put comfortable lighting in your child’s room.
- Give your child headphones, and avoid sounds that upset your child.
- Put visual schedules of your child’s day on the wall.
At school, there might be ways that staff can create a calming environment. For example:
- Reduce the number of pictures on classroom walls.
- Give your child a designated seat, so they can sit in the same spot every day.
- Make a safe place for your child to go if they feel overwhelmed.
- Reduce lighting and use natural light where possible.
Adjustments like these can help your child learn, socialise and participate in recreational activities, which can all help your child to build resilience.
Positive thinking habits to help autistic children and teenagers with resilience
Resilience can come from positive thinking habits like being realistic, looking on the bright side, expecting things to go well and moving forward, even when things seem bad.
You can make positive thinking part of your autistic child’s daily routines. For example:
- Regularly practise positive thinking exercises with your child.
- Add a positive thinking exercise to your child’s visual schedule for the day.
- At family meals, ask each family member to share one positive thing from their day.
You can also help your child get a perspective on bad things in their life. That is, one bad thing doesn’t mean everything is bad. For example, a poor exam result won’t stop your child from playing weekend sport or going out with friends.
You’re a role model for your child. Let your child see you using coping skills like positive self-talk, self-compassion, and problem-solving. When you use these coping skills and look after yourself, it can help to create a calm, low-stress family environment too.
Problem-solving skills to help autistic children and teenagers with resilience
When children have skills to solve everyday problems, they’re more empowered to deal with difficult situations and get through challenging times.
You can help your autistic child develop problem-solving skills by introducing small problem-solving challenges and activities to your child’s day. For example:
- Do jigsaw puzzles with your child. You can choose jigsaws that are appropriate to your child’s level of development and that suit their interests.
- Give your child a ‘problem jar’. Fill the jar with scenarios written on pieces of paper. Your child chooses a scenario, and you and your child brainstorm potential solutions.
It’s also good to encourage your child to put their problems into words if you notice they’re getting frustrated or struggling.
Emotional skills to help autistic children and teenagers with resilience
When autistic children experience strong emotions and can calm down, they learn that these emotions don’t last forever and they’ll be OK soon. This means that recognising and managing emotions is an important part of resilience.
Your autistic child might need support to recognise their emotions. You can help with this by pointing out and labelling your child’s emotions. For example, ‘You’re smiling. You must be happy’. You can also help your child work out how their body feels when they’re feeling an emotion. For example, ‘You look nervous. Do you have a funny feeling in your tummy?’
And when your child needs to take a break or calm down during or after strong emotions, some enjoyable and calming activities can help. Depending on your child’s interests, these activities might include reading a book, listening to music, kicking a ball, or playing with a favourite toy.
Visual prompts can help your child remember to use their calming activities. For example, you could put pictures of the activities on your child’s bedroom wall or list the activities on a reminder card for your child.
Social skills to help autistic children and teenagers with resilience
Social skills are an important building block for resilience.
This is because social skills help your child develop good school relationships and make and keep friends. This gives your child a sense of belonging and a support network to help them get through tough times.
For younger autistic children, play is a great way to learn and practise early social skills, like turn-taking, sharing and seeing things from other people’s points of view. For example, you can practise taking turns while you’re kicking a ball or doing a puzzle together.
For autistic teenagers, social and recreational activities and groups can be good opportunities to develop social skills in adolescence, like working out what other people are thinking, understanding facial expressions and having conversations. These activities can also help your child make friends through shared interests and structured activities.
Organisational skills to help autistic children and teenagers with resilience
Organisational skills include goal-setting, planning, and being self-disciplined, hard-working and resourceful. These skills build resilience because they help autistic children feel confident, capable and prepared.
You and your child can start working on these skills by:
- identifying your child’s specific strengths
- setting goals that use their strengths
- planning how to achieve these goals.
For example, your child might be good at singing or music. You and your child could come up with a list of goals that match their musical strengths. The goals might include things like joining the school band, writing a song, starting their own band and so on. A plan to achieve these goals might include things like talking to the school bandmaster or advertising for bandmates.
Another way to help your child develop skills and feel capable is by making them responsible for specific tasks around your home, like setting the dinner table, loading the dishwasher, feeding your pets and so on. As children get older, they might want to take on a leadership role at school, a volunteering role or part-time job.
Confidence comes from feeling accepted, worthwhile and valued. Warm and loving relationships in your family lay the foundation for this. You and your child could also do practical activities like creating an ‘All about me’ book, which includes pictures of things your child likes, pictures of friends, words to describe themselves and their strengths, and things about their hobbies and achievements.
Therapies and supports to help autistic children and teenagers with resilience
The Resourceful Adolescent Program helps autistic older children and teenagers build resilience by using the ‘Three little pigs’ story. Older children and teenagers are encouraged to build their houses using personal resource bricks like keeping calm bricks, problem-solving bricks and personal strength bricks.
Animal-assisted therapy can also help autistic children learn to manage their emotions, learn communication skills and practise socialising.