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Fostering Self-Awareness in Children on the Autism Spectrum

“I have a daughter with (high functioning autistic). She has numerous sensory sensitivities (certain food, noise, textures of clothing, temperature, just to name a few), which overloads her to the point of meltdown. She is a perfectionist and very sensitive to feelings of embarrassment and humiliation. Nothing seems to console her when she gets angry and upset. When I ask what is bothering her, she says she doesn’t know. How can I help her?”

If you want to raise a well-adjusted child (which I’m sure you do), a great place to start is with fostering self-awareness in your daughter. When you promote the development of self-awareness, you are raising your daughter to be mindful of her emotions and mind patterns, and why she is feeling or behaving or thinking a certain way.

This will require that you view your child from a place of mindful awareness, without judgment or preconceived expectations (easier said than done). But, if you will practice adding more mindfulness to your own life, you will be able to encourage your daughter to practice doing that same.

As your daughter gets older, help her to become aware of her own sensitivities and tolerance level. Help her to see what she does – and what she doesn't do – when she gets overloaded. Urge her to verbalize her feelings and develop a reflective attitude toward her sensitivities. In this way, she eventually learns to prepare herself for challenging situations.

Because your “special needs” daughter is so sensitive to feelings of embarrassment and humiliation, her needs must be respected. But, at the same time, see if you can build in some humor as well. Shared jokes about her perfectionism and critical attitude, if done in a warm and accepting manner, allow her to become aware of her sensitivities.

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

While empathizing with such a child is difficult, it can be made even harder by her aversion to being patronized. For example, you may find that comments such as, "I know it must be hard" when said in an exhausted tone of voice will not have the desired effect. Conversely, using both empathy and humor to help your daughter verbalize her anger and rage may prove especially helpful.

For instance, if she is glaring at you and muttering under her breath, protesting that the soup is still too hot, a comment such as, "Gosh, I guess you're ready to fire me" or, "I guess you think I'd better practice my cooking some more" will respect your daughter as an intelligent (though upset) person, and is more effective than a patronizing statement like, "I know how sensitive your tongue is."

You, the parent, will benefit from self-awareness too. Sometimes mothers and fathers of “special needs” kids feel some embarrassment and guilt toward uncooperative or inflexible aspects of themselves. Without being aware of it, parents may see pieces of themselves in their child – and if they dislike that part of themselves, they will often take that dislike out on the child rather than be aware of its origins.

All parents have negative traits that they aren't proud of. These hidden "truths" often resonate with traits in their children. It's as if all the "bad aspects" in the collective family consciousness hang-out together. Being aware of these patterns allows parents to take a more supportive and empathetic stance with their children, rather than an overly critical one.

Your “sensitive” daughter can also learn to choose certain physical activities to decrease her over-sensitivity and overload. Many of the same physical exercises recommended for the oppositional child are also helpful for the highly sensitive child (e.g., jumping with joint compression, large muscle movements, rhythmic actions in space like swings or spinning games, etc.). Be sensitive to the particular patterns of sensations that comfort your daughter.

When your daughter develops self-awareness, she “knows” herself at a deep level, she is clear about what she likes to do and what she doesn’t like, she experiences feelings about events and how they impact and change her, and she understands – and feels comfortable with – her self-behavior. Without this deep awareness of who she is, negative thoughts and emotions can surface into behavior problems later. Your daughter is not perfect, but a deep understanding of herself, her fears, the things that excite her, etc., can all help her to live in harmony with others.

To begin the process of fostering self-awareness in your daughter, considering asking her some of the following questions:
  • Who do you love in your life and why?
  • What things give you the most joy?
  • What things cause you the most anxiety, and what can you do about it?
  • What fears do you have about your life, and what can you do about it?
  • What do you love to do?
  • What is most important to you, and how do you follow what is most important?
  • What goals can you put in motion to align yourself to what is most important?

More resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

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How to Prevent Meltdowns in Children on the Spectrum

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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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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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