Putting autistic children at the centre

Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children: A Guide for Autistic Wellbeing (John Murray Press; £10.99), by Luke Beardon; reviewed by Maria Ashworth, Kana Umagami, Danae Malyan and Amber Pryke-Hobbes.

Approximately 70-80 per cent of autistic children are thought to experience anxiety. Luke Beardon’s book, Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children: A Guide for Autistic Wellbeing, is an accessible and comprehensive guide for anyone who interacts with autistic children, written from an autistic perspective. Refreshingly, Beardon puts the autistic child at the centre of his writing, and therefore refers to them simply as children throughout. In comparison, non-autistic people are referred to as the predominant neurotype (PNT).

In line with the ethos demonstrated in his previous work, this book is based on Beardon’s golden equation: autism + environment = outcomes. Beardon argues that the environment has to be changed to accommodate autistic children, rather than altering the child’s behaviour to be more like the behaviour of the PNT. Therefore, autism should not and does not need to have such a strong link to anxiety, and the negative consequences of anxiety on the individual should not be inevitable.

Throughout, Beardon reminds the reader that although being autistic might put the individual at a disadvantage, being autistic is not wrong and that it is extraordinarily challenging to be autistic in a world that is not autism-friendly. For example, when a child is stressed because they want to interact but feel like they don’t fit in, Beardon suggests addressing the situation by ensuring that the child is well informed about their own identity, and the PNT and others should understand and accept the autistic individual.

While this book is about anxiety in autistic children, there are elements that are relevant to many autistic adults. One author of this review, Kana, reflected that reading the book as an autistic adult was reassuring and comforting. There are also many parallels with Kana’s own doctoral research investigating loneliness in autistic adults. Understanding the PNT, and increasing understanding and acceptance in others, may be important for autistic individuals throughout their lifetime in order to navigate the social world in a healthy and realistic way, and to avoid loneliness.

Beardon’s reflections on many years as both practitioner and researcher include many thoughtful (and sometimes humorous) examples based on true stories from the autistic community. These examples add real world context and insight into anxiety-inducing situations as experienced by each child. Beardon also provides alternative scenarios to show how changes to the environment can mitigate anxiety and its harmful outcomes. This practical advice about supporting autistic children is incorporated among chapters that address key topics, such as which education provision is best for each child, and what to say (or not say) when someone is anxious.

This thought-provoking book invites us to reconsider the harmful effects of practices and terminology commonly applied to autistic children; in doing so, we are reminded to reject a deficit-based model of autism and instead turn our attention to the myriad strengths that autistic children have to offer. Simply put, Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children provides a valuable learning opportunity to understand others’ behaviours and become more compassionate to the people around us.

Despite the topic of anxiety and its harmful long-term consequences, the book remains optimistic throughout. Spoiler alert! Beardon ends book ends with: ‘We can’t stop a child from being autistic – but we absolutely can and should change the environment’, emphasising the active role that readers could have. We were left feeling enthusiastic about advocating for autism and neurodiversity, and encouraged about the positive impact changes to overwhelmingly PNT-friendly environments can have for autistic children (and adults).

- Reviewed by Maria Ashworth (PhD student), Kana Umagami (PhD student), Danae Malyan and Amber Pryke-Hobbes (placement students from the University of Kent), all of whom are researchers at the Centre for Research in Autism and Education (CRAE), UCL Institute of Education

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber