How Stressful Life Events Affect Kids With Special Needs
Stressful life events can range from loss, difficulty with relationships, family instability, difficulty at home or school, new life transitions, and physical or medical struggles. In addition to these common life stressors, some children experience trauma, defined by the American Psychiatric Association as “exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury or sexual violence.” Stressful and traumatic life events are known to have negative effects on mental health in the general population, but studies are beginning to show that children with special needs may be at higher risk for negative outcomes due to stressful life events.
Children with special needs may be predisposed to higher levels of stress due to their disorders. For example, to a special needs child, things like unexpected schedule changes, the prevention or discouragement of repetitive or preferred behaviors, and sensory sensitivities could be perceived as stressful and even traumatic depending on the severity and frequency. Non-verbal children may be unable to communicate their distress, but still feel it sharply.
More than their neurotypical peers, high functioning autistic adolescents may be distressed by feelings of loneliness, ostracism, and low self esteem due to negative perceptions of ASD. They may experience bullying, peer victimization or rejection. This difficulty with socialization could lead to increased social anxiety and depression.
A 2016 study by Kristen Berg (Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology)
Alarmingly, a 2016 study by Kristen Berg published in Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology found that children on the autism spectrum are more likely to experience traumatic and stressful life events than neurotypical children. Children with ASD are more likely to be victims of maltreatment, and witness violence both at home and in their neighborhoods. Parents of autistic children are more likely to experience mental health challenges, substance abuse, domestic violence, and divorce. This stress and trauma can have a lasting impact on the mental health of any child, but it is heartbreaking to find it more prevalent among already vulnerable children with special needs.
Life for a special needs child has more than its share of challenges. The additional challenges of stress and trauma can and does have long term effects on mental health including severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal behaviors.
As parents and caregivers, we may not know the full range or impact of the stress affecting our children, so be aware of your children’s mental health. Behaviors to look out for include: irritability, aggressiveness, clinginess, nightmares, physical complaints, school avoidance, poor concentration, and withdrawal from activities and friends.
Caregivers should contact a professional if children exhibit significant changes in behavior for more than two weeks.
Final note to parents
Always remember, things can improve or at the very least minimize the challenges when a strong support team of individuals from school, therapist, medical professionals, family and support of other parents who share similar challenges are all part of your support system.
Alpha School an private special education school in New Jersey
Our Mission at The Alpha School is to help all of our special needs students with the learning, social, language, and behavioral support they deserve. Our highly skilled staff are committed daily to helping each student to becoming the best they can while providing a safe and nurturing educational environment.
We would be more than happy to discuss your child’s specific needs and challenges, so please call us at 732.370.1150, or request a tour of Alpha School of Jackson, NJ located just minutes off of Route 9 and Route 195 in Ocean County.
— John Gonzalez, Principal-Alpha School, Jackson, NJ