Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders


Fostering the Development of Self-Reliance in Children on the Autism Spectrum

Parents of a child with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often have trouble knowing how much to help out their “suffering” youngster at certain times in his or her life. However, if they have “stepped-in” time and time again to over-protect and over-assist their youngster, it often results is serious problems for that child later in life. Moms and dads are not doing their youngster any favors by over-assisting – in fact, quite the opposite.

Overprotective parents mean well. After all, it's their job to protect their youngster from harm. But unfortunately, some parents of AS and HFA children go too far. They started out by being their child’s advocate – and this is all well and good – but then they progressed way beyond advocacy to an overprotective parenting style. They figured the more hands-on and involved they are in their “special needs” child’s life, the better – but this is definitely not true.

Some early signs of overprotective parenting include the following: 
  • Being quick to punish transgressions
  • Expectations that the youngster understand adult rules of deference and demeanor
  • Having strict rules of neatness, which do not allow the youngster to get dirt on his clothes or on himself
  • Having unnecessarily strict rules (e.g., remaining in the same room with the mother or father at all times, even at age 5 or 6)
  • Highly structured rules that try to cover every phase of the youngster’s life
  • Immediately running to examine the youngster when she has a simple fall that produces no distress; if a whimper is the worst result, the mother or father may have candy or a toy ready for comfort
  • Over-dependence on a system of rewards and punishments
  • Over-emphasis of academic success
  • Protection from all harm whether physical or emotional

What are some of the negative outcomes related to an overprotective parenting style? Here are just a few:

1. A grown-up gains confidence by working hard and mastering whatever it is he or she seeks to accomplish – and a child gains confidence the same way. But if an overprotective parent (who hates to see her AS or HFA youngster struggle) does tasks FOR him, the child is not given the opportunity to develop his own skills. Thus, he risks going through life with little or no confidence. An overprotective parent inadvertently sends the message that her youngster is not capable of doing an adequate job, or that she doesn't trust her youngster to make the right decisions.

2. One of the most important jobs a parent has is to prepare her youngster to be an independent and productive adult. But an overprotective parent can't let go – even after her older teen or young adult has left home to attend college. Some moms and dads negotiate work contracts on behalf of their “special needs” adult child. And the most extreme parents even attend job interviews with their adult child, which rarely impresses any potential employer.

3. An overprotective parenting style can cause the lack of the development of self-esteem in the AS or HFA youngster. This is because he is not allowed to face challenges without parental intervention. Part of the development of self-esteem in kids comes from surmounting challenges on their own, which can be denied to them by an overprotective mother or father.

4. When a parent does too much “safeguarding” in an effort to make her youngster’s life stress-free, it usually has the opposite effect. The overly-protected youngster eventually becomes depressed and suffers anxiety that he attributes to the obsessed parent. Instead of creating a happy and stress-free environment, the overprotective parent often accomplishes the opposite.

5. An overly protected child may feel that if his parents don’t trust him with the freedom to make mistakes and tackle problems on his own, then he may not have the ability to succeed in life without continued guidance.

So, what can parents do if they have been overly protective down through the years?

They should begin to foster the development of self-reliance in their child, rather than parental-reliance. For kids with AS and HFA, acquiring skills related to self-reliance is especially important. This is because their ability to express themselves clearly or interact with others may look different than what other kids typically do. Some grown-ups may mistakenly provide more support for a youngster on the autism spectrum than she actually needs. When a youngster is consistently prevented from taking even small risks, she will learn to feel helpless and dependent, rather than self-reliant.

Self-reliance is not about letting the child make every single decision that affects his life (e.g., what time to go to bed, deciding not to wear a coat in the winter time, etc.). Kids need very clear expectations, protection from harm, and loving guidance. Self-reliance is about providing opportunities so that AS and HFA kids develop the skills necessary to become independent, as well as to interact freely and joyfully within their environment.

When kids on the autism spectrum grow up, parents want them to have the necessary survival skills (e.g., speaking up and voicing opinions). Self-advocacy (i.e., the ability to speak on one’s own behalf) is an important and powerful outcome for kids with AS and HFA. By learning skills that promote self-reliance as a youngster, parents begin paving the way for her to effectively use her voice or other means to speak up on her own behalf.

Just like a child needs to practice the violin to become proficient, AS and HFA kids need on-going practice to gain skills related to self-reliance. When these young people have numerous opportunities to practice making basic choices or solving simple problems, they build confidence and trust in their own abilities. They also build the competence and ability to master new skills that can last a lifetime.

Below are a few important suggestions for promoting early self-reliance in your child. You can choose the ones that work for you, or adapt some of the suggestions so they match the preferences of your youngster and the rest of the family:

1. Create opportunities for your AS or HFA youngster to see his work, drawings or other art displayed (e.g., proudly show “found treasures,” artwork or other creations on a bulletin board or the refrigerator).

2. Develop routines WITH your youngster. Morning and bedtime are obvious times to come up with predictable routines. Have your child involved in the planning. For example, sit her down and ask, "What can we do to make our mornings go more smoothly?" Chances are your youngster will come up with the same ideas you might have – and since she came up with the idea (rather than you), she will be more likely to follow it. She may even pose some ideas you wouldn't have considered (e.g., having a granola bar for breakfast instead of pancakes). Beyond the morning and night, look for other times that you can come up with a flexible schedule. For example, when your youngster gets home from school, he can be in charge of getting his own snack instead of relying on you.

3. Provide a lot of regular acknowledgement and praise. When your youngster is trying something new, you can nearly guarantee his success by praising his efforts. Kids on the autism spectrum can get easily frustrated, but by cheering on their efforts, they learn that obstacles can be overcome. They need to learn patience as they learn to do something new, and moms and dads need to be patient as they encourage their kids. For example, it may take longer for your child to tie his shoes, so give him plenty of time and don't rush him. In the end, your child will not only learn to do more on his own, but he will become more self-reliant – and grateful that his mom and dad have confidence in his abilities.

4. Help your youngster to become a goal-setter. Autonomy often goes hand-in-hand with self-confidence. When your youngster feels like she has the ability to accomplish something small (e.g., making her own bed), she will then feel more able to do more difficult tasks (e.g., washing dishes, figuring out fractions, etc.). Help along her “sense of self” by teaching her to set goals. These goals don't have to be large tasks, or even for lengthy time periods. And the reward for her efforts should be her own sense of accomplishment. Chores are a good place to start with goal-setting. So, identify with your youngster specific tasks that she can do around the house and in her bedroom. Work with her to develop a chart to mark off each day or week that she gets her tasks done.

5. Of course, supervision is important to ensure that your youngster is safe. But to help her really learn a new skill, it's also important not to hover. Finding that balance can be tricky. That's why taking simple steps toward acquiring a new skill is crucial. Potentially dangerous or messy tasks (e.g., cutting, vacuuming, working with blenders, etc.) require supervision. But make sure that with other tasks (e.g., making beds, fixing simple meals, etc.), you step back and let your child show off her skills.

6. Let your youngster go alone. Are you the first to volunteer to chaperone the school fieldtrip? After all, what if your son forgets his sack lunch …or your daughter leaves her umbrella on the bus? Moms and dads should definitely sign up for one fieldtrip or a couple of classroom volunteer assignments each school year – but should not go to every activity. These activities serve as opportunities for kids to exert their independence while still being under adult supervision. After the activity, ask your youngster about the event. You may notice that he enjoyed going on the fieldtrip, not just because of the horses at the farm, but also because he felt responsible enough to take care of himself outside of school without his mom or dad around.

7. Let your AS or HFA child make mistakes, but be there to boost her spirits so she will keep trying. For example, if your youngster wants to learn how to make a home-made pizza, show her how. Then set up the ingredients and let her give it a try. True, you're likely in for a bit of a mess, but your youngster can help clean up (however imperfectly) after she is done crafting her pizza. Instead of pointing out that she added entirely too much mozzarella cheese, make an attempt to avoid any criticism that could discourage her from trying again. If parents step-in to assist, their youngster may get discouraged and never try it again.

8. Offer choices and solicit your youngster’s preferences for objects and activities (e.g., ask him which book of two books he wants, and ask if he wants to sit up or lie down to hear the story).

9. Provide your youngster ways to be independent in dressing and personal care.

10. Teach “life skills” to your child. Start simple with teaching day-to-day tasks. For example, have your youngster help you sort out clothes for the laundry. After the clothes are dried, give her a basket with her clothes folded inside. Once she is comfortable and confident putting away her own clothes, let her handle the folding, too. Introducing your youngster gradually to new skills will help her to feel confident to handle more demanding tasks.

These are just a few ideas to help you start thinking about ways to promote self-reliance at home. The key is to create opportunities where your youngster can feel happy, safe, and free within the world around him or her.

CLICK HERE for a 4-week online program designed to help parents promote self-reliance in their children with Asperger’s and High-Functioning Autism.


Full Spectrum Mama said...

This was JUST what i needed to read today.
Totally loved the practical tips and of course always love me some lists!!!

Jackie Yoshi said...

"Protection from all harm whether physical or emotional."

That sounds like my dad.

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