How to Improve the Self-Image of a Child on the Autism Spectrum

 "Any tips on how to help my newly diagnosed daughter (high functioning autistic) to improve her self esteem. She thinks she's 'stupid' ...she thinks she's 'ugly' ...she thinks nobody likes her... I don't know where she's coming up with these negative evaluations of herself, but it breaks my heart. We are all a bit anxious since we got the news about this disorder. But how can I help my daughter have a better perspective of her true self and her strengths?"

The diagnostic criteria for High-Functioning Autism (HFA) or Asperger's can be intimidating to moms and dads with kids who are newly diagnosed. The traits attributed to children on the spectrum can set a negative tone because of the focus on “disabilities” rather than abilities. Thus, parents should temper this information with a balanced perspective. The youngster has much to offer in the form of gifts and talents, and the attitude with which parents receive these “abilities” will directly influence his or her self-image.

Some mothers/fathers despair when they receive their youngster's diagnosis. Parents and the HFA child's siblings may perceive the diagnosis as hopeless or something that induces shame. Their rationale may be driven by several factors:
  • Conflicting pressures about proper child-rearing from family, neighbors, or friends
  • Conflicting pressures about proper intervention and support from doctors and other professionals
  • Insensitive presentation by a physician who focuses on disabilities
  • No access to literature or other educational materials that present a balanced perspective
  • No opportunities for contact with families in similar situations who are actually enjoying their HFA youngster
  • No previous exposure to people with differences who live well-adjusted, content lives
  • Projected anxieties about the youngster's future lack of independence and failure in adult life
  • Rumors and stereotypes about people with differences, including HFA

Some people have described HFA as “a neurological malady that dooms many of its victims to a lonely life and dead-end jobs despite higher-than-average intelligence.” When parents believe such upsetting, unrealistic stereotypes, anxiety around the diagnosis will naturally increase within the entire family. These and other negative stereotypes should never be projected on the child or communicated directly in front of her. Otherwise, a self-fulfilling prophecy can easily manifest itself (i.e., the child may come to believe that he/she is truly destined to be friend-less and job-less).

If an HFA child hears grown-ups refer to her only in negative terms, she believes it and, eventually, she becomes it. Being a sensitive child (as HFA children tend to be), she may naturally internalize, replay, and agonize over her “traits.”

Self-esteem is a powerful predictor of success. Not all HFA children have problems with social competence and self-esteem, but many do, and struggling daily with the challenges posed by having an Autism Spectrum Disorder can erode the enthusiasm and confidence that make learning fun. Knowing one's assets and liabilities, and feeling good about one's self can be an invaluable tool for negotiating the sometimes tumultuous path to achievement in school, success in the workplace, and acceptance at home and in the community at large.

Positive self-esteem is as important to success in school and on the job as the mastery of individual skills. And there's no question that doing something well helps a child feel better about himself, his accomplishments, and his potential to succeed in the future. Autism Spectrum Disorders, however, often pose formidable hurdles to positive self-esteem, and these in turn contribute to a hard-to-break cycle of self-doubt, frustration and failure.

Self-esteem can be described as how we think of ourselves and view ourselves in the context of our surroundings. Students in school have self-esteem shaped by how well they get along with peers and teachers. They are constantly making judgments about how "good" they are in comparison to their peers. Self-esteem is also shaped by how well children negotiate relationships with parents and siblings, and how successful they are in understanding and responding to many ever-changing interpersonal demands across many different settings. It is precisely in these areas that HFA children have the greatest difficulty, thus contributing to feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

Threats to Self-Esteem in Kids on the Autism Spectrum—

While there is no menu of characteristics that captures the threats to self-esteem in HFA children, there are a number of traits frequently observed in the child that contribute to feelings of low self-worth. A few of the factors that seem to impact self-esteem in some HFA children in negative ways include the following:
  • assumes a posture of "learned helplessness" (i.e., they assume that because they struggled with something in the past, there is little they can do to change a negative outcome in the future, so they may stop trying and hope for the best)
  • believes that outcomes are controlled by external influences (e.g., luck, chance, fate) rather than as a result of their own internal efforts
  • has difficulty judging when it is his/her turn to participate in a conversation
  • has great difficulty knowing how he/she fits in to a peer group, which often results in 'hanging back' or being a passive (rather than active) participant in activities
  • has limited success "self-marketing" and getting noticed in positive ways within a peer group
  • has limited vocabulary or difficulty retrieving the right words for the situation
  • has trouble with topic selection and knowing when to stop a conversation
  • is a poor self-observer and has trouble sizing up and reflecting upon what is going right (and wrong) during social interactions 
  • is frequently (albeit not intentionally) the target of spoken and unspoken messages of disappointment and lowered expectation by parents and others
  • is less likely than peers to use gestures and demonstrations when sharing information 
  • is more likely to repeat rather than clarify when asked to expand upon an explanation
  • is repeatedly confronted with messages of low expectations for academic achievement by teachers and parents
  • is viewed as having diminished potential for success, even with services and support in school and at home 
  • is weak in verbal pragmatics (i.e., fitting the use of language to social situations, for example, not knowing when or how to laugh without offending the listener)
  • may have problems with visual spatial planning and self-regulation, resulting in difficulties judging how close to stand to someone during conversation, how to assume and maintain a relaxed posture, and when it might be appropriate to touch 
  • may misinterpret feelings and emotions of others and not realize when their behaviors are bothersome or annoying
  • not sure how to understand or explain personal strengths and weaknesses to others
  • perceives self as less popular and more frequently rejected or ignored by peers (sometimes resulting in further self-imposed isolation) 
  • seems to be overly egocentric and not interested in the responses of other speakers (when nothing could be further from the truth)
  • talks around a topic and provides less critical (and more extraneous) information in response to a question

How Parents Can Help—

How can a parent help to foster healthy self-esteem in a youngster on the autism spectrum? These tips can make a big difference:

1. Be a positive role model. If you're excessively harsh on yourself, pessimistic, or unrealistic about your abilities and limitations, your youngster may eventually mirror you. Nurture your own self-esteem, and your youngster will have a great role model.

2. Be spontaneous and affectionate. Your love will go a long way to boost your youngster's self-esteem. Give hugs and tell children you're proud of them. Pop a note in your youngster's lunchbox that reads, "I think you're terrific!" Give praise frequently and honestly, without overdoing it. Children can tell whether something comes from the heart.

3. Build your youngster's sense of connectiveness. Physical touch and loving words from moms and dads are the first step.

4. Build your youngster's sense of uniqueness. Kids need to feel that others think they have special qualities and talents. Find opportunities to point these out to him.

5. Create a safe, loving home environment. Children who don't feel safe at home will suffer immensely from low self-esteem. A youngster who is exposed to moms and dads who fight and argue repeatedly may become depressed and withdrawn.

6. Deal with failure. If the youngster fails, he should not feel a failure. Teach your youngster that failure is only a temporary setback on the road to success.

7. Encourage your youngster's curiosity, creativity, and imagination. Teach him to satisfy curiosity with learning and convey the joy of learning in everything you do.

8. Give him responsibilities in the family and allow his input into decisions that affect him.

9. Give positive, accurate feedback. Comments like "You always work yourself up into such a frenzy!" will make children feel like they have no control over their outbursts. A better statement is, "You were really mad at your brother. But I appreciate that you didn't yell at him or hit him." This acknowledges a youngster's feelings, rewards the choice made, and encourages the youngster to make the right choice again next time.

10. Help children become involved in constructive experiences. Activities that encourage cooperation rather than competition are especially helpful in fostering self-esteem. For example, mentoring programs in which an older youngster helps a younger one learn to read can do wonders for both children.

11. Identify and redirect your youngster's inaccurate beliefs. It's important for moms and dads to identify children' irrational beliefs about themselves, whether they're about perfection, attractiveness, ability, or anything else. Helping children set more accurate standards and be more realistic in evaluating themselves will help them have a healthy self-concept. Inaccurate perceptions of self can take root and become reality to children. 

12. Let your youngster express himself in his own way. Show respect for his thoughts and feelings so he will learn to do the same.

13. Provide a broad range of experiences for your youngster so he will have more confidence in facing new experiences. At the same time maintain structure and order in your day-to-day life.

14. Provide many opportunities for him to practice new skills he learns. Teach him to cope with failure by analyzing it, setting reasonable standards, and not overreacting.

15. Provide opportunities for him to feel that he is a functional and important member of his family, school class, group of friends, sports team, church, neighborhood, and community.

16. Teach him good problem-solving and decision-making skills. Teach him to prioritize, think about consequences, and plan a course of action.

17. Teach your youngster good social and conversational skills by modeling, direct teaching, and guided practice. These skills will enable him to have positive interactions with others.

18. Teach your youngster to set minor and major goals. Be specific in your expectations and the standards and consequences for his behavior.

19. Tell him your family stories and talk about his ancestors, heritage, and nationality in a positive way.

20. Watch what you say. Children are very sensitive to moms and dads' words. Remember to praise your youngster not only for a job well done, but also for effort. But be truthful. For example, if your youngster doesn't make the soccer team, avoid saying something like, "Well, next time you'll work harder and make it." Instead, try "Well, you didn't make the team, but I'm really proud of the effort you put into it." Reward effort and completion instead of outcome.

Your child will rely on you to provide a solid foundation of self-worth. Equipped with healthy self-esteem, she will be better prepared to enter into a life that will likely present many challenges.

Think of the areas in which your youngster is naturally gifted:
  • Does she have the quiet reverence to render amazing watercolors?
  • Does she enjoy describing the exact alignment of the solar system's planets, identifying each by correct name, placement, and color?
  • Does she assume the personality traits of a favorite cartoon character with uncanny accuracy, down to mimicking lines of dialogue?
  • Does her comprehension of computer programs exceed that of many adults?

At every opportunity, reinforce to your child how special she is to you. Tell her that you are delighted when she shares her astronomy charts with you. Highlight your youngster's talents when talking with family and friends. Prominently display her works of art. You will be surprised at the long-lasting impact these moments will have as you mold your child into young adulthood.

The autistic youngster instinctively wants to be good, to fit in, and to be just like other children. She will be best poised to do that if she feels safe and comfortable in knowing there is a place where she is unconditionally loved and understood.

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