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Taking Care of Your Child’s Mental Health: Autism, Special Needs, and Covid-19

Did you know that according to a recent study, it’s estimated that about 50 million children in India suffer from serious mental health concerns? This statistic does not include adolescents, who make up about a fifth of India’s population.

When it comes to children’s development, there are many milestones in place. Of course, these milestones aren’t set in stone, and any number of socio-economic factors, biological factors, and genetic predispositions can shift these milestones for your kids.

However, it's important to keep an eye on your child's behavior and not write it off as 'childish' or 'teenager' behavior and attitude.

To help understand the delicate minds of children, Rupsa Das, an RCI-Registered Rehabilitation Psychologist and School Counselor, has kindly answered some of the most pertinent questions related to mental health concerns of children and young adults in India.

Q: As a school counselor, what are some things you wish parents understood better about the world at large and their child’s place in it?

A: Not only parents, I believe all of us must acknowledge and prioritize our mental health. As for this question, I wish parents at first consider their children as children first before putting them into the rat race that we all are a part of!

Q: Special needs education is severely lacking in most Indian schools. What is the effect of this on a child’s mental health and self-esteem?

A: Well, not being included in regular schools has a drastic impact on children with special needs. It affects their confidence level in a very negative way that stops them from performing well, even when they have the potential to grow.

Q: Due to a lack of understanding of special needs, children may often go years without a diagnosis or without seeing a specialist. What can educational institutions do to spread awareness of different mental health, development, and behavioral concerns among kids and their warning signs?

A: Many schools hold orientation programs for parents in which they discuss the various developmental milestones for children. Such programs can deliver a lot of necessary information to parents for early recognition of various mental health conditions.

Q: Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is extremely misunderstood by society at large as every autistic person is unique. Additionally, there are lots of parents who want a ‘cure’ for autism. How can we spread awareness, accurate information, and access to resources and support groups for people with ASD and their family members?

A: Different awareness programs can run for making people aware of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Social and electronic media can be utilized to popularize different slogans and advertisements about what autism actually is.

Q: Speaking of autism, there have been numerous studies showing that autism presents differently in girls and women, due to which it is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Can you talk about some symptoms of ASD in girls?

A: Stereotypes about typical male and female behaviors can cause some people to miss some symptoms. 

Many people think of girls as naturally quiet or more content to play alone than boys. However, speaking less and preferring to spend time alone can both be symptoms of autism. Girls may hide their symptoms or put more time and energy into learning social norms. 

Autistic girls are also more likely to be able to form friendships than autistic boys. This can mask autism because many people see difficulty socializing as one of the key symptoms of autism. 

Girls are more likely to react to stress in ways that people may not notice immediately, such as self-harm. Boys may be more likely to react to stress outwardly — for example, by becoming angry or misbehaving. This behavior is more visible and may flag up autism sooner. 

Girls may have more self-awareness and be more conscious of ‘fitting in’ socially. This can mean that they are able to hide the symptoms of autism in childhood.

Q: The Covid-19 pandemic has been rough on children and parents alike. In your experience, what are the most immediate effects of a lack of structure, socialization, and schedules on children’s mental health and behavior?

A: Children are likely to be experiencing worry, anxiety, and fear. This can include the types of fears that are very similar to those experienced by adults, for instance, fear of dying, fear of their relatives dying, or fear of what it means to receive medical treatment. 

On top of this, schools have closed as part of necessary Covid measures. Due to this, children no longer have that sense of structure and stimulation that is provided by that environment. They also have less opportunity to be with their friends and get that social support that is essential for mental well-being.

Q: As a continuation, what do you suspect will be the long-term impact on children and adolescents with regard to a global pandemic and subsequent lockdowns? How can we get ahead of these issues and mitigate them?

A: The containment measures, like school and activity center closures for long periods, expose children and youth to many debilitating effects on their educational, psychological, and developmental attainment as they experience loneliness, anxiety, and uncertainty. 

Compulsive use of internet gaming and social media puts them at higher risk. Children and adolescents with mental health conditions are not used to variation in the environment. Hence, there could be an exacerbation in symptoms and behavioral problems. The children who receive training, therapy, and other treatments, are at high risk of being derailed from therapy and special educations. 

Economically underprivileged children are particularly prone to exploitation and abuse. Children quarantined are at high risk for developing mental health-related challenges.

There is a need to improve children’s and adolescents’ access to mental health services by using both face-to-face as well as digital platforms. For this, a collaborative network of parents, psychiatrists, psychologists, pediatricians, community volunteers, and NGOs is required. There is a need for tele-mental health services to be accessible to the public at large. 

It’s high time we start paying attention to not just our mental health but also those of our kids and dependents. Their young minds are like sponges and, if taken care of, they can bloom into intelligent, self-sufficient adults filled with empathy and compassion.

Remember, your kid is a mini human being, and they notice a lot more than you think.

To book a session with Rupsa Das, please click here. You can consult her for both adult and child mental health services.


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