Learning Disability Today
Supporting professionals working in learning disability and autism services

Overcoming separation anxiety

I have the privilege of working with some of the most inspiring and unique young people at Aurora Hanley School in Stoke.

“Understanding what may have resulted in separation anxiety is incredibly important and should never be about blame.”

Every day I’m moved by their capacity to overcome the communications challenges they face with the right help and guidance.

Excessive anxiety

One of the areas we help our students work through is separation anxiety. Separation anxiety refers to excessive fear or anxiety about separation from home or an attachment figure. This can seriously affect a child’s schooling and in some cases may have kept them out of education for years.

The causes of separation anxiety can be very complex and can range from negative experiences during childhood such as a significant loss, to the impact of certain parenting approaches. What is clear is that understanding what may have resulted in separation anxiety is incredibly important as it will involve a number of factors, and should never be about blame.

This often misunderstood condition can compound the obstacles a young person faces if not handled correctly and so at Aurora Hanley we have learnt to support our students in a way that is right for them as an individual – and that really is the key.

Something as complex and wide ranging as separation anxiety cannot be solved with a one size fits all approach. What is required, certainly in the first instance, is simply to listen and observe – only then can we ask the right questions to find the right solutions.

So how does separation anxiety present, what does it look like in a young person living with communication difficulties or neurodevelopmental conditions?

Well, for some young people it may mean not being able to be outside the family home or away from key people, resulting in years of school avoidance. For others it could manifest in physical symptoms, such as tummy problems and headaches.

The worrying thing is that symptoms can often be missed if the child isn’t in a setting where separation anxiety is properly understood. When we receive referrals here at Aurora Hanley we are very aware that this can be a major factor in school attendance.

When young people come to a specialised school such as Aurora Hanley we strive to assess, understand and work with them closely so that we can put a plan in place to best support that young person in the best possible way.

Structure and flexibility

In my experience as a Clinical Psychologist I feel that we must always strike the right balance in creating a safe environment that is both simultaneously predictable and relaxed.

What do I mean by this?

Well of course we are first and foremost a school, so that means we have timetables, structure and routine – and all of these are essential to help a young person feel protected and safe.

However, and this is where mistakes are made in a mainstream setting, if that structure is so rigid that it doesn’t allow for a child to take time out when they need it or to perhaps wear something different because it’s more comforting, then that inflexibility may trigger symptoms of separation anxiety within the school environment.

To build such a flexible type of environment and culture takes time and patience but it means we can truly meet the needs of each child, no matter what type of day they are having.

For instance, some of our students at Aurora Hanley find it difficult to eat in the dining room at lunchtime with the other students. Since we opened last September they have avoided this social setting because it involved interacting with so many people all at the same time. We could have made a big issue of this and tried repeatedly to encourage them to attend.

Instead we have focused on what they are enjoying at school, what they are learning and how their confidence is growing in smaller social settings.

The result? Months later they are now naturally wanting to sit in the dining room by choice. Their anxieties about being around new people have lessened and they feel safe and secure to venture in to these new experiences. Sometimes when you focus on a particular symptom of anxiety you merely perpetuate it. Put the focus elsewhere and that situation can naturally resolve itself.

Of course, issues of separation anxiety can be more acute in young people with a neurodevelopmental condition such as Autism, but with the right support and approach wonderful and inspiring transformations can occur. All the staff here at Aurora are 100% behind this approach and committed to supporting our students in this way.

I see this in our school every day and it’s something that never ceases to inspire me.

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