Most teenagers with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) experience frequent social failure and rejection by peers. Because social encounters are seldom reinforcing (rewarding), these young people often avoid social interaction. Over time, they may develop negative attitudes about themselves and others. The poor self-esteem that may result makes it difficult to continue attempts at social interaction. As a result, the cycle continues. Therefore, social skills interventions are greatly needed – especially in the form of fostering self-acceptance.
Self-acceptance refers to a global affirmation of self. When an AS or HFA teen is self-accepting, he is able to embrace ALL facets of himself – not just the positive parts. As such, self-acceptance is unconditional, free of any qualification. The teen can recognize his weaknesses and limitations, but this awareness in no way interferes with his ability to fully accept himself. Furthermore, behavior clearly reflects feelings of self-acceptance For example, a teenager with high self-acceptance will be able to:
- tolerate frustration
- take pride in her accomplishments
- offer assistance to others
- handle positive and negative emotions
- attempt new tasks and challenges
- assume responsibility
- act independently
- accept mistakes as a path to learning and growth
Conversely, a teen with low self-acceptance will:
- put down her own talents and abilities
- feel, or pretend to feel, emotionally indifferent
- feel unloved and unwanted
- blame others for her own shortcomings
- be unable to tolerate a normal level of frustration
- be easily influenced
- avoid trying new things
Moms and dads – more than anyone else – can promote their AS or HFA teen’s self-acceptance. It isn’t a difficult thing to do. If fact, you probably do it without even realizing that your words and actions have great impact on how your teen feels about herself.
Here are 30 crucial strategies to use that will help your “special needs” teen develop self-acceptance:
1. As much as possible, let your teen settle his own disputes between siblings, friends, and classmates.
2. Be supportive during a conflict. If, for example, your AS or HFA teenager is in the middle of a conflict at school, listen to her side of the story without being judgmental (even if you think she is at fault). For example, say something such as, “I can understand why you think you’re a better choice for class president, and I’m sorry that you feel you have to point out Courtney’s shortcomings rather than concentrate on what makes you the better candidate.” The conflict may seem trivial to you, but to your teen, it could be a major source of strife in her life. By developing the habit of supporting your teenager through the good and the bad, you will be laying a strong foundation for open communication when bigger problems arise. Knowing that she has a parent to lean on who loves and accepts her will help build your teen’s self-acceptance over time.
3. Encourage your teen to exercise! Being active and fit helps him feel good about himself. He will relieve stress, and be healthier, too!
4. Encourage your teen to try new things, and to give herself credit. Urge her to experiment with different activities to help her get in touch with her talents. Then tell her that she should take pride in her new skills. One Asperger’s teenager signed up for track and found out that he was pretty fast! The positive thoughts associated with this discovery became good opinions of himself, and added up to high self-acceptance.
5. Encourage your teenager to ask for what she wants assertively, pointing out that there is no guarantee that she will get it. Reinforce her for asking – and avoid anticipating her wants.
6. Encourage your teenager to behave toward himself the way he would like his friends to behave toward him.
7. Encourage your teenager to develop hobbies and interests which give her pleasure and which she can pursue independently.
8. Help your AS or HFA teenager develop “tease tolerance” by pointing out that some teasing can’t hurt. Help him learn to cope with teasing by ignoring it while using positive self-talk (e.g., “names can never hurt me” … “teasing has no power over me” … “if I can avoid reacting to this teasing, then I’m building emotional muscles”).
9. Help your teen learn to focus on her strengths by pointing out to her all the things she can do well.
10. Help your teen to aim for effort rather than perfection. Some AS and HFA teens – especially those with OCD – get held back by their own pressure to be perfect. They lose out because they don't try (“If I can’t do it perfectly, I don’t want to do it at all”).
11. Help your teen to edit those thoughts that make him feel inferior (e.g., "That guy is so much better at basketball. I should just stop playing.”). Does your teen often compare himself with others and come up feeling less accomplished or less talented? Teach him to notice his negative, self-destructive thoughts.
12. Help your teen to focus on what goes well for her. Is she so used to focusing on her problems that they are all she can see? Say to her, “The next time you catch yourself dwelling on problems or complaints about yourself, find something positive to counter it.” Also, have your teen write down three good things about herself each day, or three things that went well that day because of her effort.
13. Help your teen to notice the critical things he says to himself. A harsh inner voice just tears you down. If your teen is in the habit of thinking self-critically, help him to re-train himself by re-wording negative, unkind thoughts into more helpful feedback.
14. Help your teen to recognize what she can change – and what she can't. If she realizes that she is unhappy with something about herself that she CAN change (e.g., getting to a healthy weight), help her to start today. If it's something she CANNOT change (e.g., her height), help her to work on accepting it. Obsessing about her "flaws" will skew her opinion of herself and lower her self-acceptance.
15. Help your teen to set goals. Ask him to think about what he would like to accomplish. Then help him make a plan for how to do it. Encourage him to stick with the plan and keep track of the progress. Urge your teen to train his inner voice to remind him of what he is accomplishing (e.g., I've been following my workout plan every day for 30 minutes. I feel good that I have kept my promise to myself. I know I can keep it up.").
16. Help your teen to view mistakes as learning opportunities. Teach her to accept that she will make mistakes. We all do. It’s part of learning. If, for example, your teen has the thought, "I always screw things up," remind her that she doesn’t ALWAYS make mistakes, just in this specific situation. What can she do differently next time?
17. Help your teenager to think in terms of alternative options and possibilities rather than depending on only one option for satisfaction. Whenever your teen thinks there is only one thing which can satisfy her, she limits her potential for being satisfied! The more you help your teenager realize that there are many options in every situation, the more you increase her potential for satisfaction.
18. Include your teen in everyday family decisions, and implement some of her suggestions. For example, what does she think about the new chairs you’re considering for the dining room table? AS and HFA teens love nothing better than to be treated like competent adults, and they’re usually flattered anytime that you invite them into the adult world.
19. Laugh with your teenager – and encourage her to laugh at herself. A young person who takes herself too seriously is undoubtedly decreasing her enjoyment in life. A good sense of humor and the ability to make light of life are important ingredients for increasing self-acceptance and overall enjoyment.
20. Let your teen know that he creates – and is responsible for – any feeling he experiences. Similarly, he is not responsible for others’ feelings.
21. Let your teen know that you are still interested in what is going on in his life, even though he’s a “big boy” now. Teens like to be self-sufficient and want their parent to believe that they have everything under control. But that doesn’t mean that the parent doesn’t need to keep the lines of communication open and flowing. So, when the parent asks questions, he or she should try to formulate them so that they require more than a “yes” or “no” answer (e.g., instead of asking, “How is history class going?” … ask, “What are you currently studying in history?”).
22. Sometimes it’s necessary to constructively criticize your teen’s behavior and choices. However, when the criticism is directed to him as a person, it can easily deteriorate into ridicule or shame. Therefore, learn to use “I statements” rather than “You statements” when giving criticism (e.g., “I would like you to keep your clothes in your closet – not lying all over the bedroom floor” … rather than saying, “Why are you such a slob? Can’t you get more organized?”).
23. Teach your teen the importance of helping others. For example, he can help clean up the neighborhood, participate in a walkathon for a good cause, tutor a classmate who's having trouble, or volunteer his time in some other way. When your teen can see that what he does makes a difference, it builds his positive opinion of himself and makes him feel good. That's self-acceptance.
24. Teach your teen to accept compliments. When self-acceptance is low, it's easy for young people to overlook the good things others say about them. They don't believe it when someone says a nice thing. Instead, they may think something like, “Yeah, but I'm not all that great…” and then brush off the compliment. Instead, encourage your teen to accept a compliment, appreciate it, and take it seriously. Also, teach her to give sincere compliments to others.
25. Teach your teen to change his “demands” to “preferences.” Point out that there is no reason he must get everything he wants – and that he need not feel angry either. Encourage him to work against anger by setting a good example and by reinforcing him when he displays “appropriate irritation” rather than “anger.”
26. Teach your teen to remind himself that everyone excels at different things. Help her to focus on what she does well, and cheer on others for their success. Self-talk such as, "He's a great football player, but I'm a better chess player” helps your teen accept himself and make the best of the situation.
27. Teach your teen to take pride in her opinions and ideas. Tell her that she need not be afraid to voice them. If someone disagrees with her, it's not a reflection on her worth or her intelligence. That person just sees things differently.
28. Teens remember positive statements that their parent says to them. They store them up and “replay” these statements to themselves. Thus, practice giving your teen words of encouragement throughout each day.
29. Use what is called “descriptive praise” to let your teen know when he is doing something well. Develop the habit of looking for situations in which your teen is doing a good job or displaying a skill (e.g., “I really like the way you straightened up the garage. You put each thing in its place”).
30. What you think determines how you feel – and how you feel determines how you behave. Thus, it’s important to teach your teen to be positive about how she “talks to herself” (e.g., “I can get this problem if I just keep trying” … “It’s OK that I didn’t get an ‘A’ on the test today” … “I tried my best, I can’t win them all”).
The primary aspect of AS and HFA that characterizes it as autistic is the problem of human connectedness. The term most commonly used to describe this core weakness of human connection is “reciprocity.” This refers to the teenager’s ability to engage other people in a way that makes others feel connected or not. In social conversation with a teenager with AS and HFA, eye contact is often poor, fleeting, or absent. These “special needs” teenagers may not be able to read subtle gestures and facial changes or to interpret subtleties in language (e.g., irony or sarcasm). They do not read or respond as most people do to small changes in body posture or to gestures. They seem either distant, stiff, or in other ways unconnected.
AS and HFA teenagers not only seem disconnected, but in some cases uninterested in being in relationships with others. They may generally have very little interest in the feelings, experiences, other human qualities, or possibilities of others and, hence, lack demonstrated empathy. They do not seem to derive pleasure from engaging others, learning about them, talking with them, or sharing experiences. In the many cases where the symptoms are milder, the teen may wish to connect with others, but simply does not know how. She may have feelings for others, but can’t seem to mobilize the demonstration of those feelings.
The good news is that parents (and teachers) can assist in these challenges by helping their AS or HFA teen to develop a set of social skills. And as mentioned above, the most important skill to possess in this endeavor is called “self-acceptance.” With self-acceptance, the teen capitalizes on his strengths rather than trying to “fix” his weaknesses, yet he accepts his weaknesses for what they are.
Discipline for Defiant Aspergers and High-Functioning Autistic Teens