Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Helping Children on the Autism Spectrum to Help Themselves

“How can I help my high functioning autistic daughter (age 7) to be more independent and confident in her abilities to handle tough situations?”

All kids need love, encouragement, and support – and for the child with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA), such positive reinforcement can help ensure that he or she emerges with a strong sense of self-confidence and the determination to keep going even when circumstances are difficult.

In searching for ways to help your child, remember that you are looking for ways to help her to help herself. Your job is to give her the social and emotional tools she needs to work through the inevitable obstacles that will come. In the long run, facing and overcoming the difficulties associated with the symptoms of AS and HFA can help your youngster to become more resilient.

Parents should always remember that the way they behave and respond to challenges has a big impact on their “special needs” youngster. A good attitude won’t solve the problems associated with the disorder, but it can give the youngster hope and confidence that things can improve and that she will eventually succeed.

How to help your AS or HFA child to help himself or herself:

1. Encourage healthy emotional habits. Like you, your child may be frustrated by the problems associated with his disorder. Therefore, try to give him outlets for expressing his anger, frustration, or feelings of disappointment. Listen when he wants to talk. Create an environment open to expression. Doing so will help your child connect with his emotions, and eventually, learn how to calm himself and regulate his feelings.

2. For children on the autism spectrum, being proactive is crucial and involves (a) self-advocacy (e.g., asking for a seat at the front of the classroom) and (b) the willingness to take responsibility for choices. Thus, ask your youngster how she approaches problems. How do problems make her feel? How does she decide what action to take? Discuss different possible decisions, problems, and outcomes with your youngster. Have her pretend to be part of the situation and make her own decisions. If she is hesitant to make choices and take action, try to provide a few “safe” situations to test the water (e.g., thinking of a solution for a scheduling conflict, choosing what to make for dinner, etc.). Also, share how you approach problems in your life.

3. For kids on the spectrum, self-awareness (i.e., knowledge about strengths and weaknesses) is very important. Therefore, work with your youngster on activities that are within his capabilities. This will help build feelings of competency. Help him develop his strengths and passions. Feeling passionate and skilled in one area can inspire hard work in other areas. Ask your youngster to list his strengths and weaknesses. In addition, talk about your own strengths and weaknesses.

4. In order to help your child to help himself, you need to be as emotionally and physically healthy as possible. Thus, take care of YOU too. It’s easy to get caught up in what your youngster needs, while forgetting your own needs. But, if you don’t take care of yourself, you run the risk of burning out. You won’t be able to help your youngster to help himself if you’re exhausted and emotionally depleted. On the other hand, when you’re calm and focused, you’re better able to connect with your youngster and help him to be calm and focused too. Enlist the help of teachers, tutors, and therapists whenever possible to share some of responsibility for day-to-day academic responsibilities. Join a support group. The encouragement and advice you’ll get from other moms and dads is crucial. Make daily time for yourself to relax and decompress. Get enough rest, eat well, and exercise.

5. Kids with AS and HFA usually need to work harder and longer because of their disorder. Therefore, discuss what it means to keep going even when things are tough. Talk about the rewards of hard work – and the opportunities missed by giving up. Talk with your youngster about times when he persevered (e.g., why did he keep going?). When your youngster has worked hard, but failed to achieve his goal, discuss different possibilities for pushing forward. In addition, share stories about when you have faced challenges and kept pushing forward.

6. Recruit family and friends so that they, too, can help your AS or HFA child to help herself. You may have tried to keep your youngster’s disorder a secret, which can, even with the best intentions, look like guilt or shame. Without knowing, extended family and friends will not understand the disorder. As a result, they may think that your youngster’s behavior is stemming from disobedience, laziness or hyperactivity. Once everybody is on the same page, they can support your youngster’s progress. Your family members and friends can be helpful teammates if you can find a way to include them and learn to ask for help when you need it.

7. Setting realistic and attainable goals is a crucial skill for success, and involves the flexibility to adapt and adjust goals according to changing challenges, circumstances, and limitations. Thus, celebrate with your youngster when she achieves a goal. If some goals seem to be too hard to achieve, talk about why - and how - plans or goals can be adjusted to make them possible. Help your youngster identify a few short-term and long-term goals, and write down steps and a timeline to achieve the goals. Check with your child periodically to talk about progress and make adjustments as needed. In addition, talk about your own short-term and long-term goals and what you do when you encounter difficult challenges.

8. Strong support systems are key for children with AS and HFA. The child that is able to ask for help when she needs it - and reach out to others for support - is often highly successful. Thus, demonstrate to your youngster how to ask for help in difficult situations. Help her to nurture and develop good relationships. Model what it means to be a good friend so she knows what it means to help and support others. Present your youngster with role-play scenarios that require help. Also, share examples of people needing help, how they got help, and why it was good to ask for what you need.

9. When a child with AS or HFA learns how to regulate stress and calm himself, he will be much better equipped to overcome challenges. So, ask your youngster to describe activities and situations that make him anxious. Break down the scenarios and talk about how anxiety and frustration can be avoided. Ask your youngster what words he might use to describe anxiety. Does he recognize when he is feeling anxious? Encourage your youngster to identify and participate in activities that help reduce anxiety (e.g., sports, games, music, writing in a journal, etc.). Also, use words to identify feelings and help your youngster learn to recognize specific emotions.

10. Lastly, prayer and meditation have worked wonders for other parents of children on the autism spectrum. For example, pray for your child’s success in all areas of life – spiritually, physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, and financially. Also, visualize your child thriving in all of these areas.

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management

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