Building High Self-Esteem in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Healthy self-esteem is a youngster's armor against the challenges of the world. Children who feel good about themselves seem to have an easier time handling conflicts and resisting negative pressures. They tend to smile more readily and enjoy life. These children are realistic and generally optimistic.

In contrast, children with low self-esteem can find challenges to be sources of major anxiety and frustration. Those who think poorly of themselves have a hard time finding solutions to problems. If given to self-critical thoughts such as "I'm no good" or "I can't do anything right," they may become passive, withdrawn, or depressed. Faced with a new challenge, their immediate response is "I can't."

Kids with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) have a much harder time with their self-esteem. Here are just a few reasons why:
  1. Expressive and comprehensive communication has a direct impact on a youngster's self-esteem. These are areas that do not come easily to kids or grow-ups with the disorder.
  2. The expectations of siblings and the all-too-frequent bullying interactions from many peers can leave a child on the autism spectrum feeling devastated.
  3. The visits to doctors, or speech therapists, or OTs, the testing, and the stream of interventions that we try with them can easily leave them feeling like they're under the microscope, a specimen that warrants investigation, a person who needs fixing.
  4. They often perceive the constant correction of their behaviors and their social interactions as criticism
  5. Understanding subtle jokes and participating in human interplay, actions natural to their neuro-typical peers, further increase their feelings of 'not fitting in' and erode their self-esteem.

Self-esteem is the collection of beliefs or feelings we have about ourselves, our "self-perceptions." How we define ourselves influences our motivations, attitudes, and behaviors and affects our emotional adjustment. Self-esteem development starts very early. For example, a young child who reaches a milestone experiences a sense of accomplishment that bolsters self-esteem. Learning to roll over after dozens of unsuccessful attempts teaches a baby a "can-do" attitude.

The concept of success following persistence starts early. As children try, fail, try again, fail again, and then finally succeed, they develop ideas about their own capabilities. At the same time, they're creating a self-concept based on interactions with other people. This is why parental involvement is tantamount to helping children form accurate, healthy self-perceptions.

Self-esteem also can be defined as feelings of capability combined with feelings of being loved. A youngster who is happy with an achievement, but does not feel loved, may eventually experience low self-esteem. Likewise, a youngster who feels loved, but is hesitant about his or her own abilities, can also end up with low self-esteem. Healthy self-esteem comes when the right balance is reached.

Self-esteem fluctuates as children grow. It's frequently changed and fine-tuned, because it is affected by a youngster's experiences and new perceptions. So it helps to be aware of the signs of both healthy and unhealthy self-esteem.

Signs of Low Self-Esteem—

Children with low self-esteem may not want to try new things, and may frequently speak negatively about themselves: "I'm stupid," "I'll never learn how to do this," or "What's the point? Nobody cares about me anyway." They may exhibit a low tolerance for frustration, giving up easily or waiting for somebody else to take over. They tend to be overly critical of and easily disappointed in themselves. Children with low self-esteem see temporary setbacks as permanent, intolerable conditions, and a sense of pessimism predominates.

Signs of Healthy Self-Esteem—

Children with healthy self-esteem tend to enjoy interacting with others. They're comfortable in social settings and enjoy group activities as well as independent pursuits. When challenges arise, they can work toward finding solutions and voice discontent without belittling themselves or others. For example, rather than saying, "I'm an idiot," a youngster with healthy self-esteem says, "I don't understand this." They know their strengths and weaknesses, and accept them. A sense of optimism prevails.

How Moms and Dads Can Help—

Here's how you can play an important role in promoting healthy self-esteem in your Asperger's or HFA youngster:

1. As parents, we must believe in our children’s value ourselves before we can ever change their minds. These children know when we're faking our compliments or arbitrarily handing out encouragement because the therapy book says we should give 5 positive comments to each correction.

2. Be a positive role model. If you're excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your youngster may eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem, and your youngster will have a great role model.

3. Be spontaneous and affectionate. Your love will go a long way to boost your youngster's self-esteem. Give hugs and tell children you're proud of them. Pop a note in your youngster's lunchbox that reads, "I think you're terrific!" Give praise frequently and honestly, without overdoing it. Children can tell whether something comes from the heart.

4. Believing in your youngster involves empathy, walking in their shoes, rather than sympathy; no one wants to be felt sorry for. Each youngster is a gift, with his or her own special qualities. We just need to look for these special gifts, tune into the youngster with our hearts, and bring their essence out.

5. Bridge the interactions between peers and the youngster with Asperger's or HFA. Visually and verbally interpret what you think they both are thinking and/or feeling based on your own experiences when you were their age, and your understanding of autism spectrum disorders.

6. Children on the autism spectrum are masters at copying what others say, so make sure they're hearing things that are good for them to copy!

7. Consider that kids on the spectrum are wonderful beings here to teach us empathy, compassion, understanding and most importantly, how to love.

8. Create a safe, loving home environment. Children who don't feel safe or are abused at home will suffer immensely from low self-esteem. A youngster who is exposed to moms and dads who fight and argue repeatedly may become depressed and withdrawn.

9. Do whatever it takes to include them in life rather than merely integrate their presence.

10. Empower them to be themselves, perfectly okay with who and how they are. Do this by loving them for who they are now, today, not who you think they should become, after ABA, or speech therapy or learning 'appropriate' social skills.

11. Encourage kids to share their thoughts and feelings; this is so important and often sheds new light on existing situations.

12. Explain autism to the youngster when he is able to understand his condition. Who are we really kidding, other than ourselves, when we pretend a youngster does not have the "autism" label, or we try to camouflage it? Who are we hurting? It's the youngster on the spectrum who is hurt in the long run.

13. Give positive, accurate feedback. Statements like, "You were really mad at your brother. But I appreciate that you didn't yell at him or hit him" acknowledges a youngster's feelings, rewards the choice made, and encourages the youngster to make the right choice again next time.

14. Go to conferences, read books, research and share information that takes into consideration the many sensory, social, behavioral and communication challenges faced by the youngster at his/her functioning level. Armed with this understanding of how the disability affects the youngster, you and others can better find ways to help her fit in.

15. Having a positive mental attitude, especially when advocating, helps others want to cooperate with us. After all, who wants to deal with anyone who is bitchy?

16. Help children become involved in constructive experiences. Activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition are especially helpful in fostering self-esteem. For example, mentoring programs in which an older youngster helps a younger one learn to read can do wonders for both children.

17. Identify and redirect your youngster's inaccurate beliefs. It's important for moms and dads to identify children' irrational beliefs about themselves, whether they're about perfection, attractiveness, ability, or anything else. Helping children set more accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating themselves will help them have a healthy self-concept. Inaccurate perceptions of self can take root and become reality to children.

18. Keep their life manageable, refraining from overwhelming them with so many activities that they become too challenged physically and mentally to succeed at anything.

19. Like most people, children with Asperger's or HFA feel better about themselves when they're balanced physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

20. Model a mental attitude of "things are great". Express yourself in the positive, rather than the negative.

21. Provide choices to them frequently so they understand they have a say in their own lives and even let them be in charge sometimes.

22. Remember to teach extended family, educators, other parents and professionals all you can to help integration and provide a deeper understanding when trying to teach particular skills.

23. Set the stage for success by acknowledging their achievements - however small - and reminding them of their past accomplishments.

24. Show your confidence in his abilities by telling him that you believe he can succeed.

25. Since they are often very picky eaters and gravitate towards junk food, it's important to try supplementing their diet. Also, provide regular physical activity, when possible, to relieve stress and clear their mind.

26. Stress the good effort your youngster is making, if he hasn't yet achieved a goal.

27. Stress the positives! Look for the good in every youngster, even if you don't see it at first. Pretending to be Pollyanna can only help, but make sure you're genuine in what you say.

28. Watch for signs of abuse by others, problems in school, trouble with peers, and other factors that may affect children' self-esteem. Deal with these issues sensitively but swiftly.

29. Watch what you say. Children are very sensitive to their moms and dads' words. Remember to praise your youngster not only for a job well done, but also for effort. But be truthful. For example, if your youngster doesn't make the soccer team, avoid saying something like, "Well, next time you'll work harder and make it." Instead, try "Well, you didn't make the team, but I'm really proud of the effort you put into it." Reward effort and completion instead of outcome.

30. When we say, "You are great!" to a youngster often enough, he, too, will believe it and feel valued for who he truly is.

More resources for parents:

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