Helping Children on the Autism Spectrum to Eliminate “Thinking Errors”

"Can you help me come up with some ideas on anger-control for my 6 y.o. son with autism (high functioning)? Unexpected moodiness and anxiety are major problems as well."

Philosophers have long known that your thoughts can be your own worst enemy. As Shakespeare once said, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Children and teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) are especially vulnerable to such “thinking errors” due to a phenomenon called “mind-blindness."

Mind-Blindness can be described as a cognitive deficit in which the child is unable to attribute mental states to self and others. The ability to develop a mental awareness of what is in the mind of someone else is known as the “theory of mind,” which allows a person to attribute behavior and actions to various mental states (e.g., emotions and intentions). Generally speaking, mind-blindness leads to a lack of social insight and an inability to put yourself "into someone else's shoes,” to imagine their thoughts and feelings. Aspergers and HFA kids often can’t conceptualize, understand, or predict emotional states in other people. This, in turn, leads these children to “fill-in the blanks” with assumptions that are usually inaccurate (i.e., a thinking error).

Parents can help their child recognize when her own negative thoughts are pushing her into anger, depression or anxiety. Let’s look at some examples of popular thinking errors used by kids on the spectrum, and how parents can help these children view their situation more accurately (I’ve provided some examples, but you will want to use examples “specific” to your unique circumstances):

Over-generalization: The child extrapolates her future based on a single event. For example, the child figures that if she fails a Math test on the first try, she will never be any good at Math …or she says to herself, “My teacher yelled at me. She’s always yelling at me. She must not like me.” Over-generalizing is taking isolated cases and using them to make false assumptions about similar cases. You see a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: If, for example, your child is heart-sick over a bad grade, explain that many students have made an “F” on a hard test, but have been able to get much better grades on subsequent tests on the same or similar subject. If you convince yourself you're going to fail, you'll have no motivation to study.

Minimizing and maximizing: The child inflates his errors and discounts his accomplishments. He focuses on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinks that a situation is unbearable or impossible (e.g., “I can’t stand this”), when it is really just uncomfortable. For example, the child makes two mistakes on his spelling assignment, so he tells himself he has blown the whole assignment and doesn’t even turn-in the assignment to the teacher.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Have your child ask himself, “What would happen if I did stand this (e.g., turn in the assignment with a couple of mistakes)?” … “How specifically is ‘turning in an assignment with a couple of mistakes’ so bad?” …  “Compared to what?”

Emotional reasoning: The child gets lost in his emotions. Because something "feels" bad, it must truly "be" bad. This thinking error is where you make decisions and arguments based on how you feel rather than objective reality. Aspergers and HFA children who allow themselves to get caught up in emotional reasoning can become completely blinded to the difference between feelings and facts.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Help your child to make the connection between (a) feeling bad, and (b) personal choice. For example, “X makes me mad. How does what I do cause me to choose to feel mad?”

Fortune-telling: This thinking error is assuming something negative where there is actually no evidence to support it. The child arbitrarily concludes that someone is reacting negatively to her, and so she doesn’t bother to check it out. She predicts that things will turn out badly, no matter what she says or does. For example, her new boyfriend that she met at school last week does not call her on Saturday as promised, so she spends the weekend convinced he has broken up with her.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Have your child ask herself, “How do I know that (e.g., that my new boyfriend has broken up with me)?” Help her check out “supporting facts” with an open mind: “How do you know it will turn out in that way?”  “What evidence do you have to support your belief?” “How did you arrive at that understanding?” “What other conclusion might this evidence support?” “How does this conclusion serve you?” “If you continue to think that way, what will happen?” Also, help your child to let go of her need for approval (e.g., “You can’t please everyone all the time”).

All or nothing thinking: Also called black and white thinking, this is where the child thinks of things in absolute terms (e.g., “always,” “every,” “never,” etc.) and has difficulty seeing any middle ground. For example, the child loses at a game of checkers, and as a result, views himself as a total failure. Then, to camouflage the feeling of being a “loser,” he gets mad at his opponent.

How to help your child beat this thinking error: Explain to your child that few aspects of human behavior are so absolute. Nothing is 100%. No one is all successful, or all failure. Have you child ask himself, “Has there ever been a time when it was NOT that way (e.g., that I didn't lose at a game)?” All or nothing thinking does not allow exceptions, so if even one exception can be found, then it’s no longer “all” or “nothing.”

More resources for parents of children and teens with High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's:

==> How To Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums In Children With High-Functioning Autism and Asperger's

==> Parenting System that Significantly Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Aspergers and High-Functioning Autism

==> Launching Adult Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Guide for Parents Who Want to Promote Self-Reliance

==> Teaching Social Skills and Emotion Management to Children and Teens with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

==> Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism: Comprehensive Handbook

==> Unraveling The Mystery Behind Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism: Audio Book

==> Parenting System that Reduces Problematic Behavior in Children with Asperger's and High-Functioning Autism

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