Mental health and neurodiversity in young people: what can we do?

The picture currently painted by NHS Digital1 in England is clear; sadly the scale of poor mental health in our population of children and young people is staggering.  In their report dated November 22 from the MHCYP 2017 survey, which has data from 2017, 2020 and 2021, 18% of children between 7 and 16 and an even higher 22% of 17 – 24-year-olds had a probable mental problem. The trend is rising, with 1 in 9 children affected in 2017 to 1 in 6 in 2022.

Writing in CBT today2, Anjali Mehta Chandar agrees that in our young population mental health problems are increasing, with 1 in 3 experiencing some form of issue. This rate doubles for those who are neurodiverse to 1 in 2, so many practitioners will be working with this particular group. It’s possible that this percentage is even bigger. The population of neurodiverse people in the UK is estimated at 15%4 but there may be many more people who are unaware that they fall into the neurodiverse category.

drawing on paper torn in two with a child on one side and their cuddly toy on the other

What do we mean by neurodiversity?

This is a fairly recent term used to describe people who show differences in the way their brain functions from a ‘typical’ person. Neurodiversity includes presentations of autism, ADHD, dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. In the past neurodiversity has often been described as a ‘disorder’ of some description however today there is much more emphasis on how these particular skills and aptitudes can be appreciated. For example people with dyscalculia, sometimes called maths dyslexia, are often exceptionally good at reading, writing and spelling although they find concepts of numbers such as bigger or smaller more challenging. Qualities that are valued in neurodiverse people may include high levels of concentration and attention to detail, reliability, persistence and great creativity because they see the world around them from a different perspective.

Image of a child hiding underneath cushions on a sofa

Effect of the Covid pandemic on neurodiverse children

The specific needs of children on the Autistic Spectrum have been failed in the UK due to a lack of representation in policy spheres, according to an article written by paediatricians in the BMJ in November 213. Children and young people with autism experienced additional health challenges as a result of Covid restrictions, in particular the disruption of familiar routines and structure. As a result, 75% of children with autism reported increased feelings of anxiety and their behaviour changed with increases in hypersensitivity, aggression, appetite changes, poor sleep and tics.  All of these issues mean that these children are now likely to need better mental health support in the near future.

child looking at butterfly

A different approach

Although it’s easy to generalise rather than approach each person in need as a unique individual, there are good practices that mean therapists and councillors can work better to help people who are neurodiverse, often in collaboration with teachers, other health professionals, parents and the young people themselves. Changing the environment and the way we approach therapy will support many of these youngsters to reach their full potential and take an active and fulfilling part in society.

The underlying principles of ACT therapy, that because lives are messy we have to learn to adapt the way we approach new challenges in a positive and embracing way, can be enormously beneficial for young people who have experienced a huge amount of change in a short space of time. If you’d like to become better at supporting autistic youngsters, and would like to learn some new practical strategies and adaptions to your practice, we recommend joining our workshop, ACT for Young People on the Autistic Spectrum with Jodie Wassner.

 

 

References

  1. Newlove-Delgado T, Marcheselli F, Williams T, Mandalia D, Davis J, McManus S, Savic M, Treloar W, Ford T. (2022) Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2022. NHS Digital, Leeds.
  2. CBT Today, December 22 edition
  3. BMJ2021;375:n2711
  4. Doyle, N. (2020). Neurodiversity at work: a biopsychosocial model and the impact on working adults. British Medical Bulletin, 135(1), 108-125.

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