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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


lgspence said...

Needed this info today! This is so true for my son and I have tried to show him that it's not ALL or NOTHING in this world...but, that there are so many varying degrees of love and kindness that can be explored. Thank you for all these helpful emails, too!

Unknown said...

Thank you for pinpointing this! I've seen this is my child on many occasions, but never really noticed what, exactly, was going on. For a long time, for example, she was thoroughly convinced she had bad luck. It wasn't just an off-hand comment, but a belief that was very real and upsetting to her. It took me quite awhile to realize just how real this was to her and to see that she was focused and "stuck" on a certain past event or feeling that was affecting her current approach to dealing with new experiences. This article brings attention to something that can be easily overlooked by a parent of an asperger child. A clearer understanding of our child's thought patterns can assist us in helping him/her gain a more accurate and positive self-concept and approach to life, in general!

Anonymous said...

We really enjoy your emails. We get some great ideas from you as well as affirmation we are on the right track with many of our social skills groups. Thank you very much.

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for explaining this in better terms. I am familiar with thinking errors and mind-blindness, but sometimes it is harder to recognize individual patterns. My 11 yo has regular meltdowns and displays all five errors at the same time. Reading this article, and linking to it in my blog post, has helped me understand him better. Hopefully I can find some ways to help him rethink, and correct the errors.

My child has been rejected by his peers, ridiculed and bullied !!!

Social rejection has devastating effects in many areas of functioning. Because the ASD child tends to internalize how others treat him, rejection damages self-esteem and often causes anxiety and depression. As the child feels worse about himself and becomes more anxious and depressed – he performs worse, socially and intellectually.

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How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

Meltdowns are not a pretty sight. They are somewhat like overblown temper tantrums, but unlike tantrums, meltdowns can last anywhere from ten minutes to over an hour. When it starts, the Asperger's or HFA child is totally out-of-control. When it ends, both you and your child are totally exhausted. But... don’t breathe a sigh of relief yet. At the least provocation, for the remainder of that day -- and sometimes into the next - the meltdown can return in full force.

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Parenting Defiant Teens on the Spectrum

Although Aspergers [high-functioning autism] is at the milder end of the autism spectrum, the challenges parents face when disciplining a teenager on the spectrum are more difficult than they would be with an average teen. Complicated by defiant behavior, the teen is at risk for even greater difficulties on multiple levels – unless the parents’ disciplinary techniques are tailored to their child's special needs.

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Older Teens and Young Adult Children with ASD Still Living At Home

Your older teenager or young “adult child” isn’t sure what to do, and he is asking you for money every few days. How do you cut the purse strings and teach him to be independent? Parents of teens with ASD face many problems that other parents do not. Time is running out for teaching their adolescent how to become an independent adult. As one mother put it, "There's so little time, yet so much left to do."

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Parenting Children and Teens with High-Functioning Autism

Two traits often found in kids with High-Functioning Autism are “mind-blindness” (i.e., the inability to predict the beliefs and intentions of others) and “alexithymia” (i.e., the inability to identify and interpret emotional signals in others). These two traits reduce the youngster’s ability to empathize with peers. As a result, he or she may be perceived by adults and other children as selfish, insensitive and uncaring.

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Highly Effective Research-Based Parenting Strategies for Children with Asperger's and HFA

Become an expert in helping your child cope with his or her “out-of-control” emotions, inability to make and keep friends, stress, anger, thinking errors, and resistance to change.

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