“Learned Helplessness” in Adult Children on the Autism Spectrum

In working with families affected by Autism over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of young adults (ages 20 – 30 approximately) are still living at home with their mother and father, not out of true need, but out of what is known as “learned helplessness.”

This phenomenon occurs when a young adult comes to believe that he has little (or no) control over his life, and that whatever he does to try to change a “bad” situation is futile. As a result, this “discouraged” individual will stay passive in the face of any unpleasant, harmful or damaging state of affairs, even when he actually does have the ability to improve his circumstances.

As a parent of an adult child on the autism spectrum, you may want to copy and print the following information and share it with your “late-bloomer” (especially if he is a legal adult who feels powerless to “leave the nest” and start his own life):

Learned helplessness can be thought of as believing you are incompetent, that you have no control over the outcome, that it doesn’t matter what you do since outcomes no longer depend on actions, and that your actions are pointless. To qualify as true “learned helplessness,” the phenomenon should meet the following three conditions:
  1. The adult child has to become inappropriately passive.
  2. This change has to follow exposure to uncontrollable events.
  3. There is a change in the way the adult child thinks about her ability to control similar future events.

The adult child with learned helplessness has certain rationalizations and self-talk that often go something like this:
  • “Adopting a passive stance provides me with a sense of control over my life circumstances.”
  • “Beating my head against a brick wall wastes time and energy and is potentially harmful.”
  • “Hope has its limits.”
  • “Persistent attempts to control the uncontrollable are futile.”
  • “Remaining passive allows me to conserve energy when the ‘evidence’ tells me there is simply nothing else for me to do.”

When important things happen, we tend to explain what caused the outcome. The way we explain misfortune can be analyzed along two dimensions known as “locus of control” and “generality”:

1. Locus of control: An “internal” locus of control refers to the tendency to take personal responsibility for the outcome. An “external” locus of control refers to the tendency to attribute the outcome to external events.

2. Generality: Generality refers to considering the outcome as an isolated one-time event, or as a permanent condition. Generality has the dimensions of time and scope:
  • Causes lasting for only a limited time are called “unstable,” while those lasing for a long time are referred to as “permanent.”
  • Limited scope is called “specific,” while general scope is called “global.”

Young adults with learned helplessness tend to (a) have an external locus of control (e.g., “I have no control over what happens to me”), and (b) view unwanted outcomes as permanent (e.g., “Because I didn’t get hired for that job this time, I probably won’t get hired for any other job ever”).

Consider these four different ways of explaining why you did poorly on a job interview...

Specific time and scope:
  • “I didn’t prepare this time for this job interview” (internal locus of control).
  • “The person doing the interview wasn’t fair” (external locus of control).

General time and scope:
  • “I’m never any good at being interviewed for a job” (internal locus of control).
  • “All job interviews are unfair” (external locus of control).

People have characteristic explanatory styles they habitually use to explain why things happen. Attributing causes to “internal specific” factors explains outcomes in terms of behaviors (e.g., “I didn’t get hired for the job this time”). The unwanted outcome is attributed to a single isolated instance of poor performance. This is an “optimistic” explanatory style for bad outcomes, because your behavior can be modified to best suit specific events.

Attributing causes to “internal general” factors explains outcomes in terms of character traits. (e.g., “I didn’t get hired for the job because I’m incompetent now and always”). This is “pessimistic” for bad outcomes, because character traits remain largely constant over time.

Now consider the possible explanations when something good happens. Here are four different ways of explaining why you got hired for a desirable job:

Specific time and scope:
  • “I was skillful in answering the interviewer’s questions this time” (internal locus of control).
  • “This interviewer was fair this time” (external locus of control).

General time and scope:
  • “I’m usually skillful, especially with answering questions during job interviews” (internal locus of control).
  • “The job market is getting better. I must have got lucky this time” (external locus of control).

Here the optimistic individual takes full credit when things go well, attributing the good outcome to internal rather than external factors. The optimist takes broad credit for good outcomes, but narrow responsibility for bad outcomes. Attributing the good fortune to your generally good character (rather than specific behavior) is optimistic. The optimist:
  • Adopts an external locus of control when things go bad
  • Allows himself to dream and see possibilities
  • Attributes bad outcomes to external factors and rare circumstances, or to narrowly isolated mistakes
  • Discounts or dismisses risks 
  • Fuels aspirations of hope
  • Inspires others
  • Is bold
  • Is undaunted by defeat
  • Is unlikely to suffer from anxiety or depression
  • Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when things go well
  • Recovers quickly from setbacks
  • Seeks to advance
  • Seizes the possibilities
  • Sustains the effort and persistence required to overcome obstacles
  • Takes broad personal credit for good outcomes

 ==> Launching Adult Children With Aspergers: How To Promote Self-Reliance

On the other hand, the pessimistic individual attributes good outcomes to external events, including uncharacteristically good luck. The pessimist blames himself broadly for bad outcomes, but attributes good outcomes to external factors. The pessimist:
  • Adopts an external locus of control when things go well
  • Attributes good outcomes to external factors or luck
  • Blames himself broadly for bad outcomes
  • Highlights and emphasizes risks
  • Highlights problems
  • Is likely to suffer from anxiety and depression
  • Is overly concerned with safety
  • Is timid, conservative, and protects what he has
  • Personalizes and adopts an internal locus of control when things go bad
  • Promotes caution, critical thinking, skepticism, and defensive measures
  • Recovers slowly, if at all, from setbacks
  • Wallows in defeat

Explanatory Styles—

Research shows that explanatory styles are primarily “learned” rather than inherited. You learned how to explain bad things from three main sources:

1. You learned your own explanatory style from major life crises. If you experienced a crisis (e.g., a house fire, divorced parents, bullying, poverty, etc.), you noticed if those major life-stressors got resolved after a short period of time, or if they persisted for a long period of time. If the crisis got resolved quickly, then you learned to believe that adversity is specific, temporary, and can be overcome. If the crisis expanded and never ended, you learned to believe that adversity is permanent and pervasive.

2. You modeled how your mother and/or father explained adverse events. If your parents tended to blame themselves (or you) broadly when bad things happened, you probably noticed and learned this pessimistic style.

3. You learned your explanatory style from the other adults that cared for, disciplined, taught, and criticized you (e.g., teachers, coaches, other authority figures). When these adults blamed your character or personality whenever bad things happened, you quickly learned to blame yourself using personal, permanent, and pervasive explanations for why things go wrong.

The style you learned for explaining adversity typically persists throughout adult life. But, you can learn to dispute your pessimistic explanations. If you tend toward pessimism for adverse events, you can learn to dispute your own reasoning and adopt more objective, accurate, and optimistic explanations. Remember that in blaming yourself for a bad outcome, you are accepting a fallacy of “disproportionate responsibility.” Generally, many causes contribute to each result, outcome, event, or incident. For example, the causes contributing to an automobile accident may include:
  • choice of route
  • choice of time and schedule
  • choice of vehicle
  • design of the automobile
  • design of the road system
  • driver attention
  • driver preparation
  • driver training
  • maintenance of the automobile
  • manufacture of the automobile
  • obstacles
  • other cars and drivers on the road
  • passenger behavior
  • pedestrians
  • traffic signals
  • weather conditions
...and numerous other factors

So, be objective when assessing blame or taking credit. Divide the responsibility for the bad result (or good result) evenly among all those involved in the situation, based on how their inactions (or actions) affected the result. Maybe you must take some of the blame, or deserve some of the credit, but it is unlikely you or they are 100% responsible for the outcome. Become your own defense attorney, re-examining the evidence, challenging assumptions, considering other possibilities, and offering alternative explanations.

Let’s use the “job interview” example again to illustrate this concept...

You didn’t get the job following an interview, so you automatically blame yourself, believing “I’m just not any good at making a good first impression.” As a result, you feel ashamed, mildly depressed, discouraged, or overwhelmed. Now it is time to recognize that you are not helpless – it’s time to dispute your hasty, inaccurate, and pessimistic conclusion.

What does the evidence say? Certainly you have made a good first impression in your lifetime to get to where you are now. You were able to make at least a few friends over the years who liked you and wanted to spend time with you. You “won them over” by making a good first impression. This evidence clearly disputes your pessimistic belief that you are never any good at impressing people.

What additional contributing causes are there for you not getting hired based on one job interview? Maybe you were upset about some recent problem (e.g., a fight with your lover, your car broke down, etc.). Maybe you were under unusual stress, needed extra help from a job coach, didn’t prepare adequately for the interview, or didn’t get a good night's sleep the night before. Maybe the person conducting the interview was looking for someone with a specific skill-set. With so many factors at work, it’s inaccurate to attribute blame entirely to yourself, and it is certainly an over-generalization to extrapolate from this one occurrence to a general, pervasive, and persistent conclusion. 

A more accurate explanation is that you did poorly on this particular job interview for some isolated reason (e.g., poor preparation, lack of experience with interviews, fear of being under-qualified for this particular job, etc.). This isolated problem can certainly be overcome, and there is no need to feel ashamed or helpless. Put this setback into the past, address any specific issues, and go about preparing for the next job interview. Take responsibility only for what you did and what you can change.

Learned helplessness is also pertinent to your health. Several studies show that an optimistic explanatory style is linked to good health, and a pessimistic explanatory style predicts poor health. Mechanisms probably include biological, emotional, behavioral, and interpersonal factors. Research also suggests that learned helplessness is an important mechanism contributing to passive behavior in aging, athletic performance, chronic pain, and unemployment.

As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're probably right.”

==> Launching Adult Children With Aspergers: How To Promote Self-Reliance

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