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Free talk to help parents, educators build toolbox of skill to help neurodivergent children

Knowing a child is in need, but not knowing how to help can be one of the hardest things for any parent to address—an issue complicated even more when those same children are neurodivergent.

Getting the right evidence-based information that has rigorous scientific methodology behind it can be critical to the well-being of neurodivergent children, especially in a world where social media trends and well-meaning but misinformed influencer advice can cause serious and lasting harm.

“Sometimes there’s a bit of self-blame, and wondering what could I have done to have contributed to this. But then also getting more to what can I do to help. For all those reasons, it’s really critical,” said Dr. Paul Arnold, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, and the Director of the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research and Education, at the Hotchkiss Brain Institute at the University of Calgary.

“In terms of mental health and neurodevelopment, there is the potential for getting the wrong information depending on what sources you use.”

Dr. Arnold, along with award-winning author and mental health advocate Jan Stewart, will be the co-speakers at an upcoming Nov. 21 event to provide parents, educators, and the public with knowledge and resources to help children with mental health issues.

The talk is being hosted by the Mathison Centre, the Perlin Foundation, and Alberta Health Services’ Community Education Service as a free event.

“The idea is to talk about the context of the work of the Mathison Center, through the lens of Jan’s story as a parent with two children with a combination of mental illness and neurodivergence,” said Stacey Perlin, Chairperson for the Perlin Foundation for Wellbeing.

“His work is strongly correlated to giving parents hope, and how we create working relationships to manage these conditions. [Jan has] written a book about the process of finding support, getting the diagnosis and working through those things. So it’s a great way to talk about the work of trying to humanize the story,” Perlin said.

Registrations to attend Navigating Mental Illness in Children and its Impact on Parenting: Struggles, Hopes & Triumphs can be made through the University of Calgary at events.ucalgary.ca/mathison-centre/event/452526-navigating-mental-illness-in-children-and-its.

The talk starts at 7 p.m. on Nov. 21, through Zoom.

Unique position to help children

Neurodivergence can cover a broad spectrum of different conditions, including autism, attention deficit hyper disorder (ADHD), conditions leading to learning disabilities, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, and mental health issues.

Many of those conditions can be difficult for parents and caregivers, and as in the case of Stewart, who will be sharing her story, can lead to situations like babysitters refusing to provide care leading to even more difficulties.

Sharing those stories helps to humanize the experiences that others go through, Perlin said, and to make Calgarians aware that they’re not alone when they are trying to care for children.

“The idea is that generally talking about the emotional impact, the exhaustion, the frustrations, so that hopefully those parents, those family members, and teachers can be inspired to go, ‘OK, what if I get frustrated? There’s a number I can reach out to call, there’s an organization I can build a relationship with,'” Perlin said.

“I think at the end of the day, the way that we’d like it to be taken is ultimately it’s helping people take responsibility for their situations, and in the improvement of those situations.”

She said that the talk would not just be limited to caregivers, but that youth were also invited to attend.

The goal was to start having open and caring conversations about how to help, outside of when a crisis is actually occurring, Perlin said.

“Calgary is a unique environment in Canada, and around the world, because we are this nexus point of research, and mobilization to bring or to improve the accessibility and equitable relationships around health information, especially with for mental health and youth,” she said.

“We have Calgary’s first mental health park, we have The Summit, the first major center for youth mental health, places so that parents and families can go to have conversations, get the support that they need, and to take it outside of that emergency room, take it outside of a phone call to the mental health crisis line.”

Lived experience a powerful way to help

Dr. Arnold said that having Stewart provide her experiences was a powerful way to engage within the conversation around mental health.

Lived experiences, he said, had become part of his practice at the Mathison Center.

“We have a core member of our team who has a family counselor, works with families, but we also have parent groups who can meet together and learn from each other. As an example, like in our clinic, I primarily treat children with obsessive-compulsive disorder, we really have for many years or decades made that a critical component of what we do,” Arnold said.

“In some cases, they’re receiving education at the same time, but also they’re learning from each other. There’s that sense of universality, kind of like, ‘Hey, I’m not the only one who has this.’ There’s lots of other parents who are struggling with some of the same issues they’ve had, and felt alone, but they weren’t.”

He said that part of that conversation is helping parents to understand that many of these conditions that children face are common, but that haven’t always been openly discussed. Stewart’s discussion of what has worked and what has not can be a useful way to help parents navigate getting the right care for their children.