HELP FOR PARENTS OF CHILDREN WITH ASPERGER'S & HIGH-FUNCTIONING AUTISM

Education and Counseling for Individuals Affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders

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Teens on the Autism Spectrum and Low Self-Worth

"My son (high functioning autistic) has been spending his summer vacation pretty much isolating in his bedroom playing computer games.... has no friends... no desire to find a friend... says 'people don't like me anyway, so why try'. How can I help him develop some confidence and self-esteem?"

All teenagers suffer with low self-esteem from time to time. But, high functioning autistic (HFA) and Asperger's teens have an especially difficult time with esteem issues due to the associated traits that make “fitting-in” with their peer group extremely challenging.

Unfortunately, many teens on the autism spectrum have been permanently ostracized from the middle school or high school “in-crowd” – and some have been bullied to the point of becoming depressed.

Helping your HFA son to cultivate high self-esteem provides a secondary bonus for parents: better behavior! If you have a child with poor self-esteem, you have a child with behavioral problems.

When we recognize that our "special needs" adolescents may be having feelings of low self-worth or other destructive issues with low self-esteem, there are many parenting techniques that we, as parents or caregivers, can use to intervene.

How to help your HFA or Asperger's teen overcome low self-esteem:

1. A poor self-esteem can lead to poor performance in multiple domains (academics, sports, etc.), which can “cycle” the negative feelings that these young people have about themselves. Over time, theses teens may develop a defeatist attitude that can lead to depression. If your son is showing signs of depression, seek advice from a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

2. An adolescent who is not the star quarterback he wants to be may be able to set short-term goals for improvement instead of focusing on a long-term, lofty or out of reach goals.

3. As you work with your son on changing those things that can be improved, continually reinforce the positive and encourage him to learn how to focus on developing his strengths while working to improve on the weaknesses.

4. Be kind and patient with your HFA son – because he is probably not being kind and patient with himself.

5. Build on the understanding that each person has strong points. The main goal should be to focus on developing these strong points without getting bogged down in negativity.

6. Encourage your son to focus on his areas of interest. Help him understand that it’s okay to be less than perfect, and help him create realistic, achievable personal goals. If there are traits that can be improved upon, help your adolescent if you can, or get him the help he needs to evoke a positive change.

7. Finding something that your teen can really excel at can give him a genuine boost to his self-esteem. Help your adolescent be realistic about goals that aren’t within his reach based on unchangeable capabilities or physical limitations.

8. Getting your adolescent involved in a worthwhile activity can be a good complimentary service to counseling and talking. Sometimes being able to see the impact they really do have on the world around them can make a difference. Get them interested in volunteering for a cause. They may very well learn that while your actions don’t always cause an immediate effect, the effect they do carry can be quite rewarding.

9. Having an HFA or Asperger's adolescent with low self-esteem does not mean that you are a bad parent or that you did the wrong things when he was little. Every parent makes mistakes, and every youngster misinterprets information. Low self-esteem can come from various sources, including some that are outside the home.

10. Identify specific areas where your son is feeling deficient, even if you don’t agree with his assessment. Listen carefully, and don’t criticize his feelings. You need to acknowledge how important each of the concerns he expresses is to him. Being open as you listen carefully to his concerns - and not judging them - is the first step in solving any issues for adolescents with low self-esteem.

11. If your adolescent feels he is not excelling in class or not performing well in a sport, and these are things well within his capabilities to develop, then you can work with your adolescent to get the help required to facilitate his improvement in these areas (e.g., tutor, life coach, mentor, etc.). For example, an adolescent who is not excelling in class can get tutors or extra assistance to enhance his or her grades. Making these changes will go a long way toward building her self-esteem.

12. It’s not unusual for an HFA or Asperger's adolescent to not really understand why he has been feeling the way he does. For some of these young people, they have grown used to it, having had these feeling for longer than even they realize. Others just aren’t able to articulate it. They are not purposefully trying to be evasive or secretive – they just honestly don’t know what’s going on with them.

13. Just like every other parenting issue, take it one day at a time - and one issue at a time. Raising strong and solidly-grounded adolescents is not an easy task. Walk with him, and he will know that if nothing else, he matters to you.

14. Keep your youngster talking! Being interested in what he has to say is a good start in letting him know that his thoughts and feelings are valuable. Listen to his thoughts reflectively and offer feedback. You may not always agree with what he has to say, but he doesn’t agree with everything that you have to say, either.

15. Know that sometimes an adolescent who is suddenly remarkably helpful or trying with great determination to please everyone around them is actually suffering from a low self-esteem.

16. Self-esteem problems can be temporary and somewhat short lived, or they can often be deep rooted and be a lifelong battle. Either way, it is always advisable to seek out counseling for your adolescent. Taking your youngster to counseling doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with him. It simply offers him the opportunity to talk about things that maybe he isn’t comfortable talking to a parent about. While adolescents typical turn to their friends for help and assistance in dealing with life’s issues, low self-esteem – and the depression that often comes with it – is one issue that really should involve a sensible professional.

17. Some adolescents on the spectrum are quite willing to talk about how they really feel. They have simply been waiting for someone to ask. Others aren’t quite so eager to lay it out there and need to be approached in order to discover what has them feeling so bad about themselves.

18. The pressures to grow up fast and be an independent, well liked member of their peer group can lead adolescents to feelings of low self-esteem. There are many dangers associated with these negative feelings and the consequences that may result. However, feelings of low self-esteem can be changed for the better with a little effort and positive thinking. Tell your child that “feeling bad about yourself” is only a temporary situation.

19. We, as parents, do not usually ask our adolescents, “What is the level of your self-esteem.” It’s typically not dinner conversation. However, if we are paying attention, we can notice when their self-esteem level is drifting, or plummeting, downward. Adolescents will often reference themselves as stupid, fat, ugly, or incompetent. These are glaring red flags that are screaming out “my self-esteem is low!” There are less obvious signs such as commenting how “it doesn’t matter anyway,” when referencing themselves or their thoughts or feelings, or noting that “it’s not like it makes a difference” when noting the affect their behavior has on the world.

20. When dealing with an youngster’s self-esteem, it is important to be sincere when dishing out the compliments and the positive reinforcement. If your adolescent gets the feeling that you are just trying to make them feel better, your efforts will be in vain.

21. When your adolescents struggles with issues (e.g., poor grades, social awkwardness, loss of friends during transition, adjustment to change, etc.), they often question themselves and their self-worth. Being adolescents, they tend to be more observant of the comments that people are making, and they use these comment to determine their worth in the world. Of course they are naturally looking for specific things to be said, and instead of asking the question, they hope to have these answers provided for them. Without direct communication, HFA and Asperger's adolescents often misinterpret the communication around them.

22. While hormonal functions do play a role in an adolescent’s emotions, it’s not really helpful to simply chalk it up to puberty and the onset of strong hormones. Their emotions are legitimate and real, and teaching them to ignore it will only compound the problem. It is reasonable that the intensity of their emotions may be triggered by hormonal issues, but certainly not the only cause.

23. Work with your HFA son to identify the reasons for any feelings of low self-worth. Is it because he has a negative self-image? Is it because he is not excelling at school or sports? Is he feeling excluded from peer groups?

24. You and your adolescent need to recognize the reality of each situation. You both need to be realistic and identify which areas can and cannot be changed. For example, if your adolescent is upset because he’s too short to play basketball, assess the situation carefully. Does he have other skills that could be improved on to allow him to be competitive in basketball, or should he be encouraged to change his passion to a different sport or maybe something entirely different where he would have a better chance of excelling.

25. Involve your son in an activity that he enjoys – but that also involves other people. For example, if he spends a lot of time - alone - playing video games, encourage him to invite a couple friends over who also enjoy playing these games. If he enjoys World War II history, see if there is a history club at school that he could join.

A message to your HFA teenager:

1. Can you help others feel good about themselves? Yes. Don't put others down. Be patient with your friends and family when they fall short. We all make mistakes from time to time.

2. Does self-esteem guarantee success …success on tests …success playing sports …success with friends? No, but if you keep trying and doing your best, you are a success. Remember, having positive self-esteem will help you to achieve what you want. But when you don't succeed, it helps to accept the situation and move on.

3. Does self-esteem mean being self-centered or stuck-up? No. Teens who act this way usually are trying to pretend they are something they are not. In fact, they often have low self-esteem.

4. How do you get high self-esteem? Be honest with yourself. Figure out your strengths and weaknesses. Don't beat yourself up over your weaknesses. Don't compare yourself to others. It's hard at times, but accept yourself. Celebrate your achievements, set realistic goals for yourself, take it one day at a time, and do your best each day. Also, trust your own feelings, and try to get the most out of your strengths and do your best, without demanding unrealistic results of yourself.

5. Is it easy to change your self-esteem? No. It means taking some time to understand who you are -- what you like, don't like, feel comfortable with and what goals you have. This takes time and hard work. It's a lifelong process, but it's worth the effort!

6. Why is self-esteem important? As an adolescent, you now have more responsibility to choose between right and wrong. Your parents are no longer constantly by your side. Positive self-esteem gives you the courage to be your own person, believe in your own values, and make the right decision when the pressure is on.

7. Your friends can put a lot of pressure on you. You want to be part of a crowd. The crowd may be the "cool" crowd, the "jock" crowd, the "computer" crowd or the "brainy" crowd. Belonging to a crowd is a part of growing up – it helps you learn to be a friend and learn about the world around you. It's okay to want to be liked by others – but not when it means giving in to pressure. Your friends are now making many of their own decisions. And their decisions may or may not be good for you. It's never worth doing things that could hurt you or someone else. For instance, drinking alcohol or using other drugs, having sex before you are ready, joining a gang or quitting school can all lead to trouble.

==> Discipline for Defiant HFA and Aspergers Teens

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