Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Helping Aspergers Children Eliminate “Thinking Errors”

Philosophers have long known that your thoughts can be your own worst enemy. As Shakespeare once said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Children and teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism are especially vulnerable to such “thinking errors” due to a phenomenon called “mind-blindness."

Mind-Blindness can be described as a cognitive deficit in which the Aspergers child is unable to attribute mental states to self and others. The ability to develop a mental awareness of what is in the mind of someone else is known as the “theory of mind,” which allows a person to attribute behavior and actions to various mental states (e.g., emotions and intentions). Generally speaking, mind-blindness leads to a lack of social insight and an inability to put yourself "into someone else's shoes,” to imagine their thoughts and feelings. Aspergers kids often can’t conceptualize, understand, or predict emotional states in other people. This, in turn, leads these children to “fill-in the blanks” with assumptions that are usually inaccurate (i.e., a thinking error).

Parents can help their Aspergers child recognize when her own negative thoughts are pushing her into anger, depression or anxiety. Let’s look at some examples of popular thinking errors used by kids on the spectrum, and how parents can help these children view their situation more accurately (I’ve provided some examples, but you will want to use examples “specific” to your unique circumstances):

Over-generalization: The child extrapolates her future based on a single event. For example, the child figures that if she fails a Math test on the first try, she will never be any good at Math …or she says to herself, “My teacher yelled at me. She’s always yelling at me. She must not like me.” Over-generalizing is taking isolated cases and using them to make false assumptions about similar cases. You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: If, for example, your child is heart-sick over a bad grade, explain that many students have made an “F” on a hard test, but have been able to get much better grades on subsequent tests on the same or similar subject. If you convince yourself you're going to fail, you'll have no motivation to study.

Minimizing and maximizing: The child inflates his errors and discounts his accomplishments. He focuses on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinks that a situation is unbearable or impossible (e.g., “I can’t stand this”), when it is really just uncomfortable. For example, the child makes two mistakes on his spelling assignment, so he tells himself he has blown the whole assignment and doesn’t even turn-in the assignment to the teacher.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Have your child ask himself, “What would happen if I did stand this (e.g., turn in the assignment with a couple of mistakes)?” … “How specifically is ‘turning in an assignment with a couple of mistakes’ so bad?” …  “Compared to what?”

Emotional reasoning: The child gets lost in his emotions. Because something "feels" bad, it must truly "be" bad. This thinking error is where you make decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. Aspergers children who allow themselves to get caught up in emotional reasoning can become completely blinded to the difference between feelings and facts.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Help your child to make the connection between (a) feeling bad, and (b) personal choice. For example, “X makes me mad. How does what I do cause me to choose to feel mad?”

Fortune-telling: This thinking error is assuming something negative where there is actually no evidence to support it. The child arbitrarily concludes that someone is reacting negatively to her, and so she doesn’t bother to check it out. She predicts that things will turn out badly, no matter what she says or does. For example, her new boyfriend that she met at school last week does not call her on Saturday as promised, so she spends the weekend convinced he has broken up with her.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Have your child ask herself, “How do I know that (e.g., that my new boyfriend has broken up with me)?” Help her check out “supporting facts” with an open mind: “How do you know it will turn out in that way?”  “What evidence do you have to support your belief?” “How did you arrive at that understanding?” “What other conclusion might this evidence support?” “How does this conclusion serve you?” “If you continue to think that way, what will happen?” Also, help your child to let go of her need for approval (e.g., “You can’t please everyone all the time”).

All or nothing thinking: Also called black and white thinking, this is where the Aspergers child thinks of things in absolute terms (e.g., “always,” “every,” “never,” etc.) and has difficulty seeing any middle ground. For example, the child loses at a game of checkers, and as a result, views himself as a total failure. Then, to camouflage the feeling of being a “loser,” he gets mad at his opponent.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Explain to your child that few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. Nothing is 100%. No one is all successful, or all failure. Have you child ask himself, “Has there ever been a time when it was NOT that way (e.g., that I didn't lose at a game)?” All or nothing thinking does not allow exceptions, so if even one exception can be found, then it’s no longer “all” or “nothing.”


lgspence said...

Needed this info today! This is so true for my son and I have tried to show him that it's not ALL or NOTHING in this world...but, that there are so many varying degrees of love and kindness that can be explored. Thank you for all these helpful emails, too!

laura jo said...

Thank you for pinpointing this! I've seen this is my child on many occasions, but never really noticed what, exactly, was going on. For a long time, for example, she was thoroughly convinced she had bad luck. It wasn't just an off-hand comment, but a belief that was very real and upsetting to her. It took me quite awhile to realize just how real this was to her and to see that she was focused and "stuck" on a certain past event or feeling that was affecting her current approach to dealing with new experiences. This article brings attention to something that can be easily overlooked by a parent of an asperger child. A clearer understanding of our child's thought patterns can assist us in helping him/her gain a more accurate and positive self-concept and approach to life, in general!

Patty Connery said...

We really enjoy your emails. We get some great ideas from you as well as affirmation we are on the right track with many of our social skills groups. Thank you very much.

Conundrum Kids said...

Thank you so much for explaining this in better terms. I am familiar with thinking errors and mind-blindness, but sometimes it is harder to recognize individual patterns. My 11 yo has regular meltdowns and displays all five errors at the same time. Reading this article, and linking to it in my blog post, has helped me understand him better. Hopefully I can find some ways to help him rethink, and correct the errors.

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