Michelle Garnett talks about her background, new books Having Fun with Feelings on the Autism Spectrum and 10 Steps to Reducing Your Child’s Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum, as well as how to cope with the added pressure and anxiety we may all be feeling at the moment.

Hi Michelle, great to talk with you. Can you briefly outline your background for us?

I am a clinical psychologist and have specialized in autism for over 25 years. I co-wrote the first screening tool for Asperger’s syndrome with Prof Tony Attwood in 1993, and for girls and women in 2011. I have now co-authored six books on autism, and have also published my research in peer reviewed journal articles. I founded Minds & Hearts, a specialist autism clinic in Brisbane, Australia in 2005, and still consult there. I provide training and supervision in autism via live and online workshops globally. I love what I do and I am passionate about increasing awareness about autism and as a result, being part of better outcomes for people with autism. I am also an accredited Yoga Teacher and I am passionate about my family, friends, Yoga and cats.

What was the inspiration behind the Having Fun with Feelings programme?

fun with feelings

Increasingly Tony Attwood and I have realized how important it is to help people with autism recognize and understand their own thoughts and feelings, as well as to recognize emotional states in others. The earlier we start this learning journey, the easier it is, and the benefits will come sooner.  I don’t treat autism in my clinical practice, I treat the devastating effects of having clinical levels of worry, stress, anger, and depression, in addition to having autism. I am inspired to help people on the autism spectrum manage these difficult feelings, hence Having Fun with Feelings was originally developed as a group programme for children with autism and anxiety by Dr Louise Ford, and we ran it for years at Minds & Hearts. Dr Stef Plow evaluated the programme in her research, and found it to be effective for reducing anxiety and anger in young children with autism.

I am also inspired to help families, teachers, professionals and members of the community understand people with autism, so as to increase acceptance and inclusion in our community.  Social interaction takes two, we can teach people with autism all the social skills in the World, but this will not be helpful if non-autistic people do not understand autism. Hence, the group programme evolved into the form it is now, a guide for a parent, teacher or health professional to understand autism and anxiety, and how to help the child they love or work with to thrive. Dr Julia Cook co-wrote and researched this form of the programme and we were delighted to discover it was not only just as effective when delivered by parents at home, but also empowering for parents to have the knowledge and strategies to guide their child.

What are some key lessons children and adults can learn from these books?

The programme is a lot of fun. The kids get to meet their main feelings, Happiness, Sadness, Worry, Relaxation, Anger and Love through fruit characters Henry, Sally, Wanda, Ryan, Alan and Lulu. My daughter Manon created the figures for the programme when she was 8 years old, and they are very relatable. Kids learn how to recognize when these feelings arise in their bodies, and what to do with the feelings. Parents learn why their child has such strong emotions and how to help their child understand and manage these emotions, including positive ones.  The outcome for the child is increased resilience because of greater emotional understanding. 

During present times, emotions are running higher than usual. What are some ways adults can best support emotional regulation and development during this time?

One of the best ways adults can assist their autistic child to manage their emotions is to recognize their own emotions. As an emotion arises, label what it is, and say out loud what they could do to manage their own emotions, in a gentle voice. If we as parents can demonstrate what to do, this is far more powerful than telling children what to do. For example, many kids on the autism spectrum do not have an inner soothing voice or the capacity to reappraise a situation. Instead they seem to go straight from calm to intense rage or ‘meltdown’ in half a second. If we can demonstrate that it is possible to tune in to an emotion before it gets to 10/10 and calm ourselves with a soothing voice and strategies, our children will start to use our voice as their inner voice, and learn to stay calm, even in very difficult moments. Of course, to be able to this, we as parents need our own Emotional Toolbox.

Do you have any advice for parents, teachers, and other adults to help spectrum kids adjust to the changes COVID continues to cause?

Acknowledge and validate worry and fear, as these are natural emotions to have. Model strong coping with these emotions.  Talk about how to make the most of this unusual time: what activities the family can do together, how to embrace and enjoy increased alone time for projects, consider if there is anything they can do for others in need. As parents, limit watching the news to only a once per day for a brief catch up. It is not helpful for  children to see ‘doom and gloom’ stories daily on the news programmes. Keep a routine going that prioritises good health. Children with autism need routine and predictability. In their routine they need healthy food, fresh air, time in nature, physical exercise, some social time, some alone time, relaxation, and time pursuing activities they love.

There are heaps more strategies for dealing with your child’s worry and fear in Having Fun with Feelings on the Autism Spectrum and the accompanying parent’s manual 10 Steps to Reducing Your Child’s Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum.

Professor Tony Attwood and I also run online courses in autism for parents and professionals. There is more information about these, as well as more information and resources on our webpage: https://attwoodandgarnettevents.com/

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