“Any ideas on how to help our high-functioning son improve his self-esteem and start to feel more capable of doing certain things. He’s a very sensitive boy that doesn’t seem to have much faith in his abilities… for example, won’t turn in homework because he’s afraid he’ll get an ‘F’… won’t even attempt to ride his bicycle (it just collects dust in the garage)… refuses to attend Sunday School because ‘nobody likes’ him (prefers sitting with us during regular service) …just to name a few.”
A young person with Asperger’s (AS) or High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often feels powerless and inadequate. He tends to be a passive learner and needs to be totally involved in activities to make him an active learner. You can encourage hands-on activities (e.g., cleaning, cooking, shopping, and running errands, etc.) to show your “special needs” child that he is competent and can make things happen. These learning activities have the added benefit of resulting in visible, tangible products that are valued by the entire family.
As parents of kids on the autism spectrum, we must be aware of doing too much for our kids, because it has the opposite effect of empowerment and self-reliance. The opposite would be disenfranchisement and dependency. In order to help your son feel more capable, (a) utilize a concept called “active engagement,” (b) foster the development of curiosity, and (b) model the idea that obstacles are actually “learning opportunities.”
The effects of active engagement (e.g., giving your child a special chore to do - that only he does - in which he’s considered the “expert” with that chore) are in fact neurological. Research shows that the sights and sounds of enriched environments cause dendrites to form neural pathways that are called “magic trees of the mind.” The data reveal that a curious mind, stimulated to further inquiry, makes the central cortex thicker, activating the brain to further enhance learning (Smith, 1995).
Moms and dads can foster curiosity in their AS or HFA youngster and lay the framework for thinking and questioning. When the child’s mind is questioning everything, his body is active, his hands are into things, and he is helped to achieve the highest cognitive development possible.
Parents work with their youngster to develop critical thinking skills (a) when the family plays games like chess, checkers, or Clue; (b) when a mystery story has been read and the child guesses who did it; (c) when the family watches a TV show, and the child is asked what the big message was; and (d) when they have her look at photos or drawings and piece together what could be going on.
In addition, programs such as HyperStudio allows the child to draw, photograph, speak, and scan objects from the Internet – and to make worthwhile multimedia presentations that simultaneously use and develop many skills.
You can also empower your child with AS or HFA to view difficulties as challenges and to know that she has a lot going for her and a team behind her. When parents can adopt a “problem-solving mode” rather than always providing the answers, it helps their child feel competent (e.g., “Let’s figure out where we can find the information we need instead of doling out the right answer much of the time.” “What can we do about this?” “What options do we have?” …etc.).
Parenting kids with AS and HFA requires a lot of problem-solving. In addition, parents need to help turn their youngster into an outstanding problem-solver as well. Learning when to ask for help and who to ask, grappling with adversity, and figuring out strategies that work for him are critical life-skills that the youngster must learn – and will help him feel competent.
More ways to help your AS or HFA child to feel competent:
• Another great way to instill feelings of competency in your child is to encourage her to take on tasks she shows interest in, and then make sure she follows through to completion. It doesn’t matter what the interest is. It can be anything from beating levels in video games to Karate. The point is for your child to stick with what she starts so she feels that sense of achievement in the end.
• Don’t over-praise your child. Over-praising does more harm than good. Feeling competent comes from feeling loved and secure. Being competent means becoming good at things, and that takes time and effort. You can’t praise your child into competency. We you over-praise, you are lowering the bar. If you keep telling your youngster that he is already doing a great job, you’re saying he no longer needs to push himself. But feelings of competency come from doing, from trying and failing – and trying again.
• Allow your youngster to take healthy risks. You may have to force yourself to stand back and allow her to make mistakes rather than charging in to rescue. To build competency in the world, your child will need to take chances, make choices, and take responsibility for those choices.
• Lastly, allow your child to make her own choices. When she makes her own age-appropriate choices, she will feel more confident. Children as young as 2 can start considering the consequences of their decisions.
Feeling competent refers to a global affirmation of self. When an AS or HFA child feels competent, he is able to embrace ALL facets of himself – not just the positive parts. He accepts himself unconditionally. He can recognize his weaknesses and limitations, but this awareness in no way interferes with his ability to fully accept himself – and to feel empowered and self-reliant in other areas of his life.
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