Kids with Aspergers (high functioning autism) have a much harder time with their self-esteem. They often perceive the constant correction of their behaviors and their social interactions as criticism. The frequent visits to doctors, or speech therapists, or OTs, the testing and the stream of interventions that we try with them can easily leave them feeling like they're under the microscope, a specimen that warrants investigation, a child who needs fixing.
Communication problems also have a direct impact on an Aspie's self-esteem. Understanding subtle jokes and participating in human interplay (actions natural to his non-Aspergers friends) further increase feelings of “not fitting in” and erode self-esteem.
Combine all this with the expectations of siblings and the all-too-frequent bullying interactions from many peers, and it's easy to understand how devastated an Aspergers kid can feel.
By definition, self-esteem is the way in which a child perceives herself – her own thoughts and feelings about herself and her ability to achieve in ways that are important to her. This self-esteem is shaped not only by a kid's own perceptions and expectations, but also by the perceptions and expectations of significant people in her life – how she is thought of and treated by parents, teachers and peers. The closer her perceived self (i.e., how she sees herself) comes to her ideal self (i.e., how she would like to be), the higher her self-esteem.
Here is how we can help our Aspergers children to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem:
1. Accepting mistakes and failure— Your youngster needs to feel comfortable, not defeated, when she makes mistakes or fails. Explain that these hurdles or setbacks are a normal part of living and learning, and that she can learn or benefit from them. Let your supportive, constructive feedback and your recognition of her effort overpower any sense of failure, guilt, or shame she might be feeling, giving her renewed motivation and hope. Again, make your feedback specific ("If you throw the ball like this, it might help") and not negative and personal ("You are so clumsy," "You'll never make it").
2. Belonging— Your child needs to feel accepted and loved by others, beginning with the family and then extending to groups such as friends, schoolmates, sports teams, a church or temple and even a neighborhood or community. Without this acceptance or group identity, she may feel rejected, lonely, and adrift without a "home," "family" or "group."
3. Contribution— Your youngster will develop a sense of importance and commitment if you give her opportunities to participate and contribute in a meaningful way to an activity. Let her know that she really counts.
4. Encouragement, support and reward— Not only does your youngster need to achieve, but she also needs positive feedback and recognition - a real message that she is doing well, pleasing others and "making it." Encourage and praise her, not only for achieving a set goal but also for her efforts, and for even small increments of change and improvement. ("I like the way you waited for your turn," "Good try; you're working harder," "Good girl!") Give her feedback as soon as possible to reinforce her self-esteem and to help her connect your comments to the activity involved.
5. Family self-esteem— Your youngster's self-esteem initially develops within the family and thus is influenced greatly by the feelings and perceptions that a family has of itself. Some of the preceding comments apply to the family in building its self-esteem. Also, bear in mind that family pride is essential to self-esteem and can be nourished and maintained in many ways, including participation or involvement in community activities, tracing a family's heritage and ancestors, or caring for extended family members. Families fare better when members focus on each other's strengths, avoid excessive criticism and stick up for one another outside the family setting. Family members believe in and trust each other, respect their individual differences and show their affection for each other. They make time for being together, whether to share holidays, special events or just to have fun.
6. Making real choices and decisions— Your youngster will feel empowered and in control of events when she is able to make or influence decisions that she considers important. These choices and decisions need to be appropriate for her age and abilities, and for the family's values.
7. Personal competence and pride— Your youngster should feel confident in her ability to meet the challenges in her life. This sense of personal power evolves from having successful life experiences in solving problems independently, being creative and getting results for her efforts. Setting appropriate expectations, not too low and not too high, is critical to developing competence and confidence. If you are overprotecting her, and if she is too dependent on you, or if expectations are so high she never succeeds, she may feel powerless and incapable of controlling the circumstances in her life.
8. Purpose— Your youngster should have goals that give her purpose and direction and an avenue for channeling her energy toward achievement and self-expression. If she lacks a sense of purpose, she may feel bored, aimless, and even resentful at being pushed in certain directions by you or others.
9. Responsibility— Give your youngster a chance to show what she is capable of doing. Allow her to take on tasks without being checked on all the time. This shows trust on your part, a sort of "letting go" with a sense of faith.
10. Security— Your youngster must feel secure about herself and her future. ("What will become of me?")
11. Self-discipline and self-control— As your youngster is striving to achieve and gain more independence, she needs and wants to feel that she can make it on her own. Once you give her expectations, guidelines, and opportunities in which to test herself, she can reflect, reason, problem-solve and consider the consequences of the actions she may choose. This kind of self-awareness is critical for her future growth.
12. Trust— Your youngster needs to feel trust in you and in herself. Toward this goal, you should keep promises, be supportive and give your youngster opportunities to be trustworthy. This means believing your youngster, and treating her as an honest person.
Building self-esteem starts with the parents examining their own ideas of how they view children with Aspergers. We, as parents, must believe in our children’s value ourselves before we can ever change their minds. These children know when we're faking our compliments or arbitrarily handing out encouragement.
Building self-esteem involves empathy and walking in their shoes rather than sympathy – no one wants to be felt sorry for. Unfortunately, it is very common for parents to feel sorry for their Aspergers child, and as a result, adopt an "over-protective" parenting style. However, this type of parenting hinders the child's ability to develop "self-reliance" which, in turn, promotes poor self-esteem.
Each Aspergers youngster is a gift, with his own special qualities. We just need to look for these special gifts, tune into the youngster with our hearts, and bring his essence out.
The Aspergers Comprehensive Handbook