Modeling Imperfection: One Simple Trick for Building Self-Esteem in Kids on the Autism Spectrum

Young people with High-Functioning Autism (HFA) often lack the necessary skills to perform certain tasks - and may display behaviors that help them avoid or escape such unwanted tasks. For instance:
  • The child who is overwhelmed by too many instructions regarding a particular homework assignment may launch into a tantrum and quit. This refusal to complete homework is often viewed as defiance in the eyes of the parent.
  • The aurally-sensitive student who has difficulty focusing in class due to noises outside the classroom may have a meltdown (e.g., slamming his book shut and screaming that he doesn’t want to read). This may be viewed as lazy or obstinate behavior by the teacher.

Kids on the autism spectrum often display perplexing and contradictory profiles of behavior and performance. Some perform certain tasks very well, while struggling significantly in other areas. For example, the youngster may be one of the smartest students in the class, but has difficulty behaving appropriately when placed into a reading group with his peers due to social skills deficits.

Despite the efforts of parents and educators for the Asperger’s of HFA youngster’s overall success, his frequent failures and subsequent disappointments often result in feeling a sense of helplessness. The child may think he’s “stupid” and believe there is nothing he can do to be accepted by his peers or to be understood by his teachers. Even if such a child is successful at a particular task, he may attribute it to luck rather than hard work and intelligence. This is a sure sign that a self-fulling prophecy is in the making (i.e., because the child strongly believes he cannot succeed in a certain area, he indeed does fail in that area).
==> How to Prevent Meltdowns and Tantrums in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Kids on the autism spectrum often have a few “special interests” or preferred activities in which they excel greatly. But with subject matter of lesser interest, they struggle – especially in the social realm. For example, they may be able to talk in great detail about the dinosaurs that existed in Jurassic period, but have no idea how to start and end a conversation. The HFA youngster’s social skills deficits often result in an emotional pounding that affects her everyday interactions with parents, siblings, educators, classmates, and others in the community.

Having social problems takes a toll on a youngster’s self-esteem. Kids on the spectrum may (a) have difficulty asking for help with peer-related situations, (b) lack the social-emotional skills necessary to handle peer pressure, bullying, and reading social cues, and (c) have difficulty knowing how to interact appropriately with their teacher, classmates, and the opposite gender.

The HFA child’s behavioral problems that often result from poor self-esteem include the following:
  • Avoiding doing homework assignments
  • Blaming the educator for bad grades
  • Exhibiting physical ailments (e.g., stomach aches, headaches)
  • Exhibiting emotional problems (e.g., anxiety, depression)
  • Not wanting to go to school
  • Not wanting to show parents homework
  • Refusing to talk to parents or teachers about academic problems in order to avoid confrontation
  • Refusing to do an in-class assignment or task
  • Refusing to follow classroom rules in order to be removed from the classroom and avoid doing work
  • Negative self-talk such as, “I’m dumb. I quit. I can’t do it.”
  • Saying the work is too difficult
  • Skipping class

Social-emotional development is a key aspect of growth for kids on the autism spectrum. Many of these “special needs” children struggle with building self-esteem. Methods to address low self-esteem in the forlorn child will change from day to day, and will vary depending on his or her personality. Clearly, what helps one child to feel more capable and confident may not help another. In any event, there are ways to address this issue.
==> Parenting System that Reduces Defiant Behavior in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Here’s a simple, yet highly effective strategy for improving the self-esteem in HFA children:

Parents and teachers can share stories about their own struggles and mistakes growing up. This will (a) help them to relate to the “special needs” child, and (b) provide strategies that worked versus those that didn’t quite pan out. When caring adults show the child that they can relate to his or her lack of confidence, the child realizes that this problem is universal. He or she doesn’t feel so “all alone” on the matter. Also, showing the child that we, as adults, were able to shed most of our own insecurities and improve self-esteem overtime offers a model for success in this area.

Case in point: One teacher hung two pictures outside of her classroom - her school photo from 5th grade and another from 9th grade. These photos were beyond embarrassing for her, but she wanted to make a point. Her students knew all too well that, because hormones run high and self-esteem runs low, adolescence presents plenty of difficulties. By sharing her own weaknesses, exhibiting authenticity, and discussing her own fluctuations of self-worth, this teacher lead by example and fostered positive self-images in her classroom.

It’s not uncommon for children to expect perfection from their parents and teachers to a certain degree. For example, they may think it’s funny when their father accidentally stumbles while walking through the Mall, or they may be shocked and humored if their teacher miscalculates, misspells, or misinterprets something. While mildly embarrassing to the adults, these rather amusing occurrences are beneficial to building a child’s self-esteem, because he or she realizes that even people who are supposedly perfect are really imperfect.

Take full advantage of your blunders, and know that it models for your child or student that: “It’s O.K. to make mistakes. We all do. And that doesn’t make us less of a person.” When we, as adults, capitalize on these opportunities, we shatter the belief that perfection is the key to high self-esteem. This realization that everyone makes mistakes helps the discouraged child to accept his own missteps.

Another great way to promote healthy self-esteem in kids on the spectrum is to have a conversation that involves discussions about the future. Due to the symptoms of their disorder, these young people often get caught up by problems happening in the here-and-now. They seem to be developmentally prone to “sweat the small stuff.” Thus, an honest discussion about how to look past any current problems and put things into perspective will foster a positive outlook.

If we, as parents and teachers, do not present our true selves, how can we expect a “special needs” child to feel comfortable enough to show her own true colors? In order to promote these themes of self-confidence, integrity, and authenticity, we must truly practice what we preach.

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