Helping Your Teenager with ASD to Eliminate Thinking Errors

"How can I help my teen with autism (high functioning) to not be so negative? He tends to view everything EVERYTHING through the lens of defeat. His self esteem is a big fat ZERO... no confidence whatsoever!!!"

Many children and teens with Asperger’s (AS) and High-Functioning Autism (HFA) experience “thinking errors,” largely due to a phenomenon called “mind-blindness.” 
Mind-blindness can be described as a cognitive disorder where the child is unable to attribute mental states (e.g., emotions, beliefs, desires, motives) to himself or others. This ability to develop a mental awareness of what is in the mind of another person is known as the “Theory of Mind.”

Generally speaking, the “Mind-blindness Theory” asserts that young people on the autism spectrum are delayed in developing a Theory of Mind, which normally allows developing kids to “put themselves into someone else's shoes” (i.e., empathy) and to imagine their thoughts and feelings.

Children and teens with AS and HFA often can’t conceptualize, understand, or predict emotional states in other people. When this happens, they tend to fill-in the blank with their own interpretation, which is usually inaccurate – and we call this a “thinking error.”

Thinking errors are irrational patterns of cognition that can cause your AS or HFA teen to feel bad and sometimes act in self-defeating ways. If she becomes more upset the more she thinks about a troubling circumstance, she may want to consider the possibility of thinking in a different way. And you, as the parent, can help with this.


First, let’s look at the main thinking errors so you can get a glimpse into how your AS or HFA teen may be misinterpreting the world:

1. ALL-OR-NOTHING THINKING – Thinking of things in absolute terms (e.g., “always”, “every”, “never”). For instance, if your teenager makes an ‘F’ on her book report, she views herself as a total failure.

2. CATASTROPHIZING – Focusing on the worst possible outcome, however unlikely, or thinking that a situation is unbearable or impossible when it is really just uncomfortable.

3. DISQUALIFYING THE POSITIVE – Continually “shooting down” positive experiences for arbitrary, impromptu reasons. In this way, your teen can maintain a negative belief that is contradicted by his everyday experiences (e.g., “The fact that I am an excellent artist doesn’t count because everything else about my life sucks!”).

4. EMOTIONAL REASONING – Your teen makes decisions and arguments based on how she “feels” rather than objective reality.

5. FORTUNE TELLING – Anticipating that things will turn out badly, your teen feels convinced that her prediction is an already established fact (e.g., “Because I ‘think’ that I will fail to make the cheerleading squad, I most certainly WILL fail!”).

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers Teens

6. JUMPING TO CONCLUSIONS – Assuming something negative where there is actually no evidence to support it (e.g., “Nobody wants to be my friend!”).

7. LABELLING – This involves “explaining by naming.” Rather than describing the specific behavior, your teen assigns a label to someone (or herself) that puts the other person (or herself) in absolute and unalterable negative terms (e.g., “My friend won’t talk to me; therefore, she is a jerk!”).

8. MAGNIFICATION – This involves exaggerating the negatives.

9. MENTAL FILTER – Focusing exclusively on certain (and usually negative or upsetting) aspects of something while ignoring the rest. For instance, your teen selectively hears the one tiny negative thing surrounded by all the BIG POSITIVE things (your teen’s teacher makes 9 positive comments about his science project, and only one negative comment – but your teen obsesses about the one negative comment).

10. MIND READING – This involves assuming the intentions of others. For example, your teen arbitrarily concludes that a peer is thinking negatively of him, but your teen doesn’t bother to check it out.

11. MINIMIZATION – This involves understating the positives.

12. OVERGENERALIZATION – Taking isolated cases and using them to make sweeping generalizations. For instance, you teen views a single negative event as a never-ending pattern of defeat (e.g., “My teacher just yelled at me. She’s always yelling at me. She must not like me.”).

13. PERSONALIZATION – This occurs when your teen holds himself personally responsible for an event that isn’t entirely under his control (e.g., “My parents are getting divorced. It must be because I’m a bad son!”).

14. SHOULDING – Your teen focuses on what he can’t control. For instance, he concentrates on what he thinks “should” or “ought to be” rather than the actual situation he is faced with.

Helping your AS or HFA teenager to identify negative self-talk is tricky because it's so automatic, she may not even be aware of what’s going on in her own mind. However, if your teen is feeling depressed, angry, anxious or upset, this is a signal that she needs to reflect on her thinking. A good way to test the accuracy of her perceptions is to ask herself some challenging questions. These questions will help your teen check out her self-talk and see whether her current interpretation is reasonable. It can also help her discover other ways of thinking about the situation.

Should Asperger's and HFA Teens Try To Be "Normal"? 

Helping your teen to recognize that his current way of thinking may be self-defeating (and preventing him from getting what he wants out of life) can sometimes motivate him to look at things from a different perspective.   

Here’s how:
  1. Alternative explanations: What else could the situation mean? If I were being positive, how would I perceive this situation? Are there other ways that I could look at this situation?
  2. Goal-directed thinking: What can I do that will help me solve the problem? Is thinking this way helping me feel good or achieve my goals? Is there something I can learn from this situation to help me in the future? Is there anything good about this situation? Is this situation as bad as I’m making it out to be?
  3. Perspective change: Will this matter in a year from now? What’s the worst thing that could happen? What’s the best thing that could happen? What’s most likely to happen?
  4. Reality testing: Am I jumping to negative conclusions? Are my thoughts based on facts, or my interpretation of the situation? How can I find out if my thoughts are true? What evidence supports my thinking?

Here’s how to help your teen apply different perspective-taking strategies as outlined above: Have him think of a situation in the last week when he found himself feeling rotten. He may have been upset, stressed, angry, depressed, embarrassed or guilty. Help him to apply some of the above strategies based on his particular situation.  

For example:
  • “I totally screwed-up that book report. I'm a loser and I'll never get good grades” …changes to, “I didn't do as well on that book report as I would have liked, but that doesn't mean I'm going to fail all my classes.”
  • “I tried on those jeans, and I looked so fat and ugly” …changes to, “I tried on those jeans, and they were too small.”
  • “Michael, the boy I have a crush on, said ‘hi’ to me and I made a total idiot of myself” …changes to, “Michael said ‘hi’ to me and I blushed and looked away. It's ok to be shy.”

Cognitive reframing is a psychological technique that consists of identifying – and then disputing – irrational or maladaptive thoughts. Reframing is a way of viewing and experiencing ideas, events, emotions and concepts to find more positive alternatives. The ability to reframe is a crucial skill for young people on the autism spectrum, especially in light of their mind-blindness issues. Parents can assist in teaching such skills.  

Here’s how:

1. Help your AS or HFA teen to accept that frustration is a normal part of life. Most young people on the autism spectrum get intolerant when they have to do things they don’t enjoy. They tell themselves that they “can’t stand” certain things instead of acknowledging that they simply don’t enjoy them. Thus, they easily become angry and frustrated. The reframe: “This is a hassle, and that’s O.K.! Life is full of hassles. I don’t enjoy it, but I can stand it.”

2. Help your teen to be specific. Over-generalizing is a lot like exaggeration. When your teen over-generalizes, she exaggerates the frequency of negative things in her life (e.g., mistakes, disapproval, failures, etc.). Typically, your teen may think to herself, “I always make mistakes,” or “Everyone thinks I’m dumb.” The reframe: “What are the facts? What are my interpretations? Am I over-generalizing?”

==> Discipline for Defiant Aspergers Teens

3. Help your teen to consider the whole picture. When he “filters,” first he hones-in on the negative aspects of his circumstances. Then he ignores or dismisses all the positive aspects. The reframe: “Is there a more balanced way to look at this situation? Am I looking at the negatives while ignoring the positives?”

4. Help your teen to understand that she shouldn’t just assume she knows what others are thinking. Your teen may be assuming that others are focused on her faults and weaknesses – but this is almost always incorrect! Her worst critic is probably herself. The reframe: “Just because I assume something, does that mean I’m right? What is the evidence? How do I know what other people are thinking?”

5. Help your teen to find all the causes. When he personalizes, he blames himself for anything that goes wrong – even when it’s not his fault or responsibility. The reframe: “What other explanations might there be for this situation? Am I really to blame? Is this all about me?”

6. Teach your teen to judge the situation – not the person. When she uses labels, she may call herself or other people names. Instead of being specific (e.g., “That was a silly thing to do”), your teen may make negative generalizations about herself or other people by saying things such as, “I’m fat and ugly,” or “He’s an asshole.” The reframe: “Just because there is something that I’m not happy with, does that mean that it’s totally no good? What are the facts and what are my interpretations?”

7. Help your teen to look for shades of gray. It’s important for him to avoid thinking about things in terms of extremes. Most things aren’t black-and-white, but somewhere in-between. Just because something isn’t perfect doesn’t mean that it’s a catastrophe. The reframe: “Am I taking an extreme view? How else can I think about the situation? Is it really so bad, or am I seeing things in black-and-white terms?”

8. Help your teen to put things in proper perspective. When things go wrong, he may have a tendency to exaggerate the consequences and imagine that the results will be catastrophic. The reframe: “Is there any way to fix the situation? Is there anything good about the situation? What’s most likely to happen? What’s the best that can happen? What’s the worst that can happen? Will this matter in a year from now?”

9. Encourage your teen to stick to the facts. Sometimes she may confuse her thoughts or feelings with reality. She may assume that her perceptions are correct. The reframe: “Am I thinking this way just because I’m feeling bad right now? Am I confusing my feelings with the facts? Just because I’m feeling this way, does that mean my perceptions are correct?”

10. Help your teen to stop making unfair comparisons. Another common thinking error that your teen may be using is to make unfair comparisons between certain people and himself. When he does this, he compares himself with others who have a specific advantage in some area. Making unfair comparisons can leave him feeling inadequate. The reframe: “Am I making fair comparisons? Am I comparing myself with people who have a particular advantage?”

Thinking errors are simply ways that your AS or HFA teen’s mind convinces him of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions (e.g., telling yourself things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep you feeling bad about yourself).

Thinking errors are at the core of what many therapists try and help a client learn to change in psychotherapy. By learning to correctly identify this kind of faulty cognition, the client can then answer the negative thinking back – and refute it. By refuting the negative thinking over and over again, it slowly diminishes overtime and is automatically replaced by more rational, balanced thinking. You, as the parent, can begin to take on the role of psychotherapist (in a manner of speaking) by utilizing the strategies listed above.

Resources for parents of children and teens on the autism spectrum:

==> Videos for Parents of Children and Teens with ASD

Raising Kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Parents' Grief and Guilt

Some parents grieve for the loss of the youngster they   imagined  they had. Moms and dads have their own particular way of dealing with the...