Autism: A Journey of Discovery as a Parent and Psychologist

Raelene Dundon is a parent, a psychologist and the author of  Talking with Your Child about Their Autism Diagnosis: A Guide for Parents. In this piece, Raelene tells her personal story of how she came to write this book, and what she hopes it will achieve. You can also read an edited extract from the book on our blog, here

Looking back on where this book really started, I would have to say that it was 10 years in the making. It was about 10 years ago that my son Aaron was diagnosed with Autism, and I was launched into a world of speech therapy, behavioural intervention, visual supports and questions – lots of questions.

parent autism

I was already a registered Psychologist at the time, and had been working with children with Autism and other developmental disabilities in an early intervention program in Melbourne, Australia. While with hindsight I can honestly say that my experience of being a parent to a child with Autism has been a challenging but overwhelmingly positive one, I can still remember the moment I was told that Aaron had Autism and my reaction was one I have since seen many other parents go through – fear, sadness, and confusion.

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Happiness & Positive Psychology for Young People with Autism – author Q&A

Victoria Honeybourne is a senior advisory teacher, trainer and writer with a particular interest in promoting wellbeing amongst young people on the autism spectrum. We caught up with Victoria upon the publication of her latest book, A Practical Guide to Happiness in Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrumto ask a few questions about how it came about. 

happiness autism

What motivated you to write A Practical Guide to Happiness in Children and Teens on the Autism Spectrum and who is the book for?

There has been a lot of interest recently in using findings from the positive psychology movement to improve happiness, wellbeing and resilience in children and young people.  However, I realised that many of the strategies advised were not always the most appropriate for those on the autism spectrum.  I wanted to write a book which looked at these issues from an autistic point of view.  The book is for anybody working with children and young people on the autism spectrum – mainstream teachers, teaching assistants, mentors, speech and language therapists, and parents.

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How To Tell Your Child They Have Autism

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New book Talking With Your Child About Their Autism Diagnosis is a guide to aid discussion and understanding between parents and children. In this blog, edited and adapted from Chapter 3 of the book, author Raelene Dundon breaks down the reasons why she recommends being open and honest with your child about autism. 

child autism

Is it important to tell a child they have autism? Do they need to know? Will they figure it out for themselves? What does the future look like if they don’t know?

These are questions that parents of children with autism may ask themselves many times from the time their child receives their diagnosis, and the answer is not a straightforward one. Depending on who you talk to, there are different opinions on whether it is necessary to tell your child about their autism or not.

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Top five tips for parents on developing resilience in their autistic child

All children need help to bounce back from life’s challenges, but having autism can sometimes make this more difficult. Building resilience and independence in children with autism can be hugely beneficial in helping them live an independent and rewarding life. Dr Emma Goodall and Jeanette Purkis have written The Parents’ Practical Guide to Resilience for Children aged 2-10 on the Autism Spectrum to help parents, teachers and carers support and empower the young people in their lives. 

autistic children

Parents of autistic children can worry about their child’s future. Parents are often given a long list of the barriers to their autistic child’s potential, or even told that their child will not finish school, get a job or live the kind of life parents tend to want for their children. Whilst well supported autistic adults usually achieve a happy and fulfilled life, many autistic people can struggle to find their confidence and resilience to respond to every day events.

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Looking after the Mental Health of Girls with Autism

A Guide to Mental Health Issues in Girls and Young Women on the Autism Spectrum: Diagnosis, Intervention and Family Support is the first book to look specifically at how mental health issues relate to girls and young women with autism, covering theory, research and tailored interventions for support.

In this extract, taken from Chapter 6 on Anxiety and Depression, author Dr Judy Eaton explores the results of a number of studies into anxious behaviour in girls and young women on the autistic spectrum. 

Evidence suggests that an estimated 40 per cent of individuals on the autism spectrum will suffer from high levels of anxiety (Van Steensel, Bögels and Perrin 2011). Clinical experience would suggest that this figure is likely to be higher, particularly amongst those with the pathological (or extreme) demand avoidance profile. In an earlier version of the DSM, DSM-III (APA 1980), ‘sudden excessive anxiety’ and ‘unexplained panic attacks’ were included amongst the core criteria for a diagnosis of autism. However, subsequent versions of the DSM (IV and V) do not include this. The reason for this is not entirely clear. Hallett et al. (2013) cite the meta-analysis by White et al. (2009) which found that between 11 per cent and 84 per cent of children with a diagnosis of autism display anxiety. Of the 31 studies analysed 30 per cent were diagnosed with specific phobias, 17 per cent had obsessive compulsive disorder, 17 per cent had social anxiety and 15 per cent reported features of ‘generalised’ anxiety. Their results suggested that children with autism were twice as likely to develop anxiety disorders compared with their neuro-typical peers. High levels of anxiety have a negative impact upon education, social relationships and social participation and on other members of the immediate family group (Reaven 2011). There is also an increased likelihood that these anxiety disorders will persist into adulthood.

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Mental health – a trans partner’s perspective

Jo Green, founder of Distinction Trans Partner Support and the author of The Trans Partner Handbook, explores the importance of talking openly about mental health when you are in a relationship with a trans individual.

As Jo notes in the extract below, trans people are more likely than cis people to experience mental health issues, but communication is key for both parties to feel fully supported throughout transition. In this extract, we hear from the partners of trans people on their experiences of dealing with mental health issues. 

Trans people are more likely than the cis population to have mental health issues, which are caused by a long history of gender dysphoria and/or chronic minority stress rather than by being trans (World Professional Association for Transgender Health, 2011). Minority stress is the increased stress of being part of a minority group, and it is due to the lack of awareness in the general population and consequent discrimination faced by people in a minority.
“I think the worst of this aspect was when my partner was growing up and the times when she contemplated suicide. This was at a time when there was no internet or groups visibly available. I feel very fortunate that my partner confided in me very early in our relationship, and the past 15 years, it has been a journey we have made together. I do have to reassure her that [I] will always be there for her, which I will be, and have given it lots of thought to be sure that this is a situation I can cope with and am happy to be in.” (Avril)
According to the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), trans people can present with a number of mental health concerns, such as depression, anxiety and self-harm. They also present with compulsivity, substance abuse or sexual concerns, as well as being more likely to have suffered a history of abuse or neglect. Trans people are also more likely to suffer personality disorders, eating disorders or psychotic disorders. WPATH also notes that trans people are more likely to present with autistic spectrum disorders.

“I have learned to work with my partner’s mental health needs. [I] have learned cues that help me know when he is feeling anxious or stressed, and [I] encourage him to talk if he needs to or to seek medical assistance if there’s a need for that kind of support. It’s definitely not something to be ignored or avoided, and in most cases, it’s a requirement for the transition process.” (Julia)

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JKP Author Honored as Book Award Finalist

JKP Author Dr. Lee A. Wilkinson was recently honored as an Award-Winning Finalist in the “Psychology/Mental Health” category of the 13th Annual Best Book Awards for his book, Overcoming Anxiety on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. Selected from more than 2,000 entries from traditional and independent publishers, 400 winners and finalists were announced in over 100 categories. This is the second award for Dr. Wilkinson whose JKP book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools was selected as the winner in the Educational/Academic category of the Next Generation Indie Book awards.

About Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum

Dr. Lee A. Wilkinson’s award-winning book presents strategies derived from cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), adapted specifically for adults on the higher end of the autism spectrum, to help them overcome anxiety and depression, and improve their psychological well-being. The author takes the best of CBT therapeutic techniques to facilitate greater self-understanding, self-advocacy, and better decision-making in life-span activities such as employment and interpersonal relationships.

Accessible and easy-to-read, this self-help guide provides evidence-based tools that can be used to learn new self-fulfilling ways of thinking, feeling, and doing. It includes questionnaires, forms, worksheets, and exercises to help the reader:

  • Evaluate his or her autistic traits and discover their cognitive style.
  • Identify and modify the thoughts and beliefs that underlie and maintain the cycles of anxiety, depression, and anger.
  • Apply therapeutic techniques such as mindfulness, positive self-talk, guided imagery, and problem-solving.
  • Accept the past and achieve unconditional self-acceptance.
  • Deal effectively with perfectionism and low frustration tolerance.
  • Avoid procrastination and learn to maintain the positive changes to their progress.

Used alone or in combination with therapy, Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT is an essential self-help book for adults on the higher end of the spectrum looking for ways to understand and cope with their emotional challenges and improve their psychological well-being. It is also appropriate for adults who recognize their autistic traits, even though they may not have experienced major social difficulties and clinical impairment, but who want to improve their emotional well-being. Family members, friends, and others touched by autism will find this self-help book a valuable resource as well.

About the Author

Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a scientist, researcher, and practitioner. He is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, chartered educational psychologist, registered psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is also a university educator and trainer, and has published widely on the topic of autism spectrum disorders both in the US and internationally. Dr. Wilkinson is author of the award-winning book, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools, also published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers and editor of a best-selling text in the American Psychological Association (APA) School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book from JKP is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).

5 things about conversation that everyone on the autism spectrum should know


Starting a conversation and then maintaining one can be difficult for teenagers and young adults on the autism spectrum. In the following blog Paul Jordan, the author of  How to start, carry on and end conversations: Scripts for social situations for people on the autism spectrum offers up advice on making sense of everyday social situations and gives us 5 top tips on maintaining a good conversation with someone.

  • Maintain eye contact with the other person
    This is extremely important for successful conversations, especially with neurotypicals (people without autism). This is arguably because, their brains which are wired conventionally, tell them that you are giving them your attention when you are looking at them.  Continue reading

Tony Attwood on autism – how our understanding and approach has developed over the last 30 years

To mark JKP’s 30th anniversary year Tony Attwood has written about JKP’s role in developing the world’s understanding of and approach to autism. In this article he also touches upon his own experiences as a clinical psychologist/author, and what he thinks will be the key areas of discovery in the future.  Continue reading

What happens when your female partner of 20 years transitions to become male?

‘Transitioning Together’ is the story of Wenn and Beatrice Lawson, an eye-opening account of a couple’s experience of gender transition. After 20 years together, Wenn decided to transition from female to male. This book explores the emotional, psychological and physical challenges that come with transition, told from both Wenn and Beatrice’s perspectives. We asked Wenn a few questions about the couples’ journey.

 Why did you decide to tell your story from both perspectives?

We decided to tell our story from both perspectives because we are a couple and whatever happens for one of us has repercussions for both of us. Also, as we began our journey it would have been great to chat with other couples to get some insights into what to expect. But, we couldn’t find any other couples who were available to share with in person. The only ones we found were over the internet and not accessible to chat to in person. Although we each had a counsellor to share with, a person who most definitely was committed to our best, they were not experienced either. We and they are learning on the job!

You and Beatrice were together for many years before you decided to transition. How do you think this influenced both of your experiences of transitioning?

In many ways it’s much harder on Beatrice because she loved a woman and was never primed for me to be male. Her love and commitment to me has won out over the gender barrier but she grieves for her loss each day. It’s only been 4 years since the decision on that day, but, to her it feels like an eternity. I get what and who I’m designed to be, she loses what she always had. I know she had a man (inside that’s who I’ve always been) but neither of us knew that then. She was used to the rounder, softer contours of my body. These have been replaced with a squarer form and one that is hairier, bonier and has a much lower voice. So, although the male me is growing on Beatrice, she still looks for the smile she knew, or the tilt of my head, symbolic of the old me she knew, and for other things that let her know I’m still me. Whereas I look for the evidence that the old form is gone and I rejoice in the release of the person I really am.

What has been the biggest challenge for you during your transition?

For me the biggest challenge has been defending the man I’m becoming to my wife who has lost the woman she once had. At times it seemed that the ‘male’ me was being blamed for everything. I didn’t want to be defending myself all the time but learning to separate out ‘relational’ issues from ‘the gender’ ones has been quite a challenge.

And for Beatrice?

The biggest challenge for Beatrice has been seeing the Wenn she loves while not being side tracked by the male image Wenn is projected through. Beatrice’s experiences of the males in her life were not positive and this coloured her perceptions. The more Wenn grew in confidence and seemed to need Beatrice less, the more Beatrice felt unimportant and this was an echo of her past. Learning to trust in Wenn’s love is the biggest challenge.

In the book you describe the turmoil you felt as a Christian who had fallen in love with another woman, and the reaction of the Church and Church members to your relationship with Beatrice. Did your relationship with your faith change when you refused to deny your feelings for Beatrice?

I can honestly say that my faith hasn’t changed. My Heavenly Father is the same and I know He loves and accepts me, just the way I am. What has changed is I can no longer share and rejoice with the community of others that I was once part of. The church family were everything to me. That has gone now and I miss them.

Both you and Beatrice are on the autism spectrum. Do you think your autism has affected how you’ve responded to the challenges that come with transitioning?

Oh most definitely. I have a number of sensory issues that I live with. Some of these have increased. For example, if you sit to pee the urine smell probably isn’t overwhelming. But, when you stand to pee the urine smell gets right up your nose. I very much enjoy standing to pee but I dislike the way it smells. It’s a similar story with body odour. Mine became stronger as a male, but, it seems to have calmed down now. I coped well with the changes to my physical body and can look in the mirror now… I avoided this before. My whole body is now available to Beatrice whereas there were parts that were out of bounds before. We also think that being autistic has helped us in other ways because we tend to be literal, black & white in our thinking. That was then, this is now, kind of stuff. Our loyalty to one another probably has its roots in autism too.

Was there an ‘aha!’ moment when you realised that you were transgender? Or is it something you have always been aware of?

For me there definitely was an ‘aha’ moment when the light went on. I really was surprised and shocked when this happened. I did not know I was transgender before…. I knew I always liked ‘boys’ stuff growing up and was much more at home in the male world, so to speak. My mates were male more than female and I didn’t think or act like females do. However, I’m very maternal and loved being Mum to my kids. Joining the dots has probably been delayed due to our autism, but, once that light went on, there was no turning back.

You have three grown-up children, and grandchildren too. How did they react when you told them about transitioning?

My children were not at all surprised and, even though I’m sure it’s tough on them, they are with me 100%. My kids are very accepting of difference, despite their own autism, and we just get on with the job of being a family. It’s the same with the grand-kids. They love us for who we are… not Nanna anymore but Grandpa Wenn.

Transitioning Together is out now – click here for more information.

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