In a blog post on her website, connectautismconsultancy.com, Laura Crowley refers to children as “the hidden collateral of this time”.
Laura has worked within autism services in Cork for the past 20 years, more recently balancing her day job with her own Connect Autism Consultancy, in which she focuses on social skills, along with a heavy emphasis on the barriers which prevent social engagement.
She recently launched her Social Connect Series, which provides practical and positive resources for children to allow them to feel in control, rather than lost in their emotions.
While her expertise comes from her extensive experience in autism circles — she is also a lecturer on UCC’s Diploma in Autism Studies — the tools of the programme will be useful to any child presenting with anxiety and best suited to those aged six to 14.
As it turns out, her inspiration and knowledge is deeply personal, as she only realised as an adult that she has suffered from anxiety her whole life. In the past year, the mother-of-two noticed the signs of anxiety in another precious family member too, thus motivating her to devise her programme.
Laura, a Glounthaune resident, explains: “Back in March of last year, when we were in the height of lockdown and I was trying to work from home with my then two-year-old and one-year-old, my eldest daughter started to show signs of anxiety and it brought back a lot of memories from my own childhood.
Laura describes her own childhood as “extremely happy”, but looking back on it with fresh, wisdom-enhanced eyes, she now recognises the anxiety she felt and the impact it had on her.
“Anxiety caused me to miss out on so much. I quit activities because they were going to do an exam or there was going to be a show. I’d make up excuses as to why I didn’t want to go back. I have always had a fear of rejection and judgement by others. I was bullied in school and I think that’s where the social anxiety aspect comes from,” she says.
Laura can even trace back those negative feelings to her pre-school days.
“Had you known me as a child, I seemed gregarious but I was very fearful inside a lot of the time. It kept me from so much as a child and I just don’t want that for my daughter.”
She never spoke to her parents about it as a child because she thought it was a normal feeling.
Even much later, as a married woman, her husband was unaware of her struggles. After the birth of her first child, however, things came to a head. She was silently suffering post-natal anxiety, filled with irrational thoughts of her baby falling from her hands as she walked downstairs or tumbling from her car seat and flying through the window. Her child had been born in May, 2017, but she only told her husband how she was feeling the following October and began seeing a counsellor. Nobody would have suspected she had any difficulties during those first months of motherhood.
“I looked like I was coping so well. I never stayed in my PJs once. I was up and dressed with my make-up on every single morning. I’m very good at masking, so I take on a persona and use that as a mask.
With the birth of her second child in December, 2018, her anxiety surfaced again.
“I had a section, so it was quite a tough recovery and I had a toddler as well, so I did fall into quite a bad depression,” she reveals.
The following March, she was diagnosed with post-natal anxiety and depression, which was when she revealed to her husband — who was working long hours at the time — how she was feeling.
When the post-natal depression diagnosis came and she was prescribed medication, she realised she had probably suffered with bouts of depression throughout her life, but because she was capable of getting up and getting on with her day, she had never analysed it.
Fortunately, she has now become much better at communicating her feelings. “It’s only in the last five years I have given my husband a glimpse into how my mind works and how anxious I can actually be. He’s absolutely amazing; he’s been my rock.”
Her anxiety is still there to varying degrees, but she has developed strategies to cope. She explains: “On a good day, it’s like a sock is sliding down your shoe. You’re aware of it and it’s slightly annoying but you’re still smiling and you haven’t told anybody. On a bad day it’s really like a swan furiously pedalling underneath the water and you’re trying to stay serene. With my anxiety attacks, I feel like someone is sitting on my chest. It makes it quite hard for me to breathe. I’m inhaling but feeling like I’m getting nowhere. The other thing is racing thoughts.
“When my anxiety is really bad, often there is not a clear reason as to why. So what I have to do is stop, I name it and I frame it. By name it, I say ‘I’m feeling really anxious’. I frame it by figuring out why.”
Then she does something about it.
“If you sit on anxiety it gets worse, so I’ll try to take a walk or take time out with a coffee, do some mindfulness or listen to an audiobook and try to breathe and relax,” she says.
There was a further awakening for Laura when she received a diagnosis of autism last August, which initially left her with mixed feelings, especially given her working credentials.
"Even though I had suspected it, suspecting and confirming are two different things. To know and be diagnosed is to retrospectively analyse life from a completely different viewpoint. I found it so draining and exhausting — and confrontational in ways, because I was confronting my own demons.”
It finally made sense of what she had always called her ‘Laura-isms’: her clumsiness, her sensitivity to noise, sensitivity to smells (spiced beef is banned in her house), her aversion to certain tastes and textures (she can’t have yogurt with ‘bits’ in it and all fruit is off the menu), and her light sensitivity (she wears sunglasses all year round).
While it answered questions for her, she did still wonder how it was not spotted sooner.
“It took me about three months to process it and now I am very proud to be autistic, I’m very proud of how far I have come and I’m very proud that I can use my own knowledge to help students to understand themselves more and how they can function in society and be of value. People of different neurotypes are a huge value to our society and it’s completely underrated. They’re a gift.”
Within her Social Connect Series are strategies she has road-tested in her everyday dealings with anxiety. Containing three elements, it starts with a short and snappy, easy-to-follow parent/instructor leaflet. Secondly, there is a full colour workbook with research-based activities exploring what anxiety is, the symptoms and how to manage it.
“I make it really clear in the workbook that anxiety is not something we get rid of,” Laura clarifies.
“I’m also very clear that sometimes anxiety does win over but, for me, when the sun sets on that day I wipe the slate clean. The next day I wake up and try to do something positive to ensure that day is different. So it’s a realistic view of living with anxiety.”
The third element in her programme is anxiety cards that children can reach for when they feel anxious; tools to use in the moment of crisis. Some children freeze in those moments and are unable to verbalize how they are feeling. By handing cards over to their support person, it allows the carer to help children when they can’t help themselves.
The programme includes a high level of visuals to aid comprehension for those who are visual learners. Laura designed it all herself and then sent it to four families as a trial and to professionals, who all reacted positively. She decided to take the plunge and offer her programme to the public.
“It is a passion project and I care so deeply about it; it’s not just a programme to me. It’s putting myself out there, bearing my soul really. But I’m so glad I did.”
Laura’s plan is to create a suite of resources addressing all the barriers and challenges that children can experience. The next one, Connect to Calm (featuring tools to deal with anger), is on trial with families at the moment, while she has also created a Connect to Success journal to remind children they have overcome big obstacles previously, so when they are experiencing difficult times they can look over their successes and realise they can overcome challenges again.