Wednesday 20 May 2020

Book Review: 'Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children' by Dr Luke Beardon

Book Review: 'Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children: A Guide for Autistic Wellbeing' by Dr Luke Beardon. Published by Sheldon Press. ISBN-10: 1529394767. ISBN-13: 978-1529394764. Paperback: £10.99. Kindle: £7.49. Available from 10 December 2020. Pre-ordering available on Amazon.

I was sent an advance copy of this new book by Luke Beardon. I was initially cautious about reviewing it, because I am hardly an expert on children. However, it soon became obvious that I am in fact perfectly well qualified, because I was an autistic child myself once and can remember that experience in detail! So, here is my review:

The very existence of this book is a mark of how far we have come as a society in our understanding of autism. This will be small comfort to the many thousands of autistic people whose anxiety levels remain high, because the lessons Dr Beardon teaches us have not yet been learned by wider society. Indeed, the book begins with a powerful statement by the author, who hopes that it will "swiftly but surely get removed from the bookshelves" as its insights reduce anxiety. This is probably a distant dream, because anxiety remains such an enormous issue, and not just amongst children. 

‘Avoiding Anxiety in Autistic Children’ is written with Luke Beardon's trademark mix of a highly readable style that is approachable for non-academic readers, coupled with a deep understanding of autism built over many years of research and observation carried out at The Autism Centre in Sheffield Hallam University. He distils the wisdom of autistic experiences in a way that speaks directly to the individual reader. He is keen to emphasize the differences between autistic children and so avoid falling into a trap of over-generalisation. To achieve this, he supports his text with numerous first-person case studies from autistic people. This leads to a remarkable book that alternates between moments of deep recognition and precious insights. 

Beardon expands his foundational equation "autism + environment = outcome" with new ones, such as: "the level of enthusiasm shown for a passionate interest = the amount of pleasure a child gets from it" and "the better informed the child is = lower risk of anxiety". These principles underpin a series of calls to action or advice for parents and educators and anyone involved with autistic children. Since these recommendations come from a position which seeks to improve life for autistic people, they invariably make sense to this reader. My most frequent reaction was a wistful "if only people had understood that when I was growing up!"

To take just two examples from the many that stood out for me: he includes "fear of getting it wrong" as a common cause of autistic anxiety and demonstrates with many supporting examples how it can lead to a dangerous state of affairs in which the child is inhibited from trying anything new; he also describes very well the destructive tension between a strict adherence to the rules (e.g. following a timetable to the second) and not knowing what the rules are (e.g. the unwritten rules that bedevil social interaction).

One particular interesting comment was the suggestion that autistic children "would actually be better suited at Doctoral style learning than secondary age educational systems". This led me to speculate what an autism-friendly curriculum, which actively encourages intensely focused interests, might look like. I also would have liked to see even more discussion of exams, which are such enormous sources of anxiety for all children but often especially for autistic children. To what extent is the increased testing regime which permeates education a cause of increased anxiety in autistic youngsters?

The general methodology in this book is to explore the extent to which external factors influence autistic people. This is a positive approach, because it shows how important environment can be for anxiety regulation. It teaches adaptability and flexibility and advocates passionately for an increased understanding of autistic children. It is of some comfort to realise that there is now a significant work by one of the leading experts on autism that elegantly summarises the important issues in such a readable and authoritative way.