As parents, we want our kids to catch up—“fixing” those parts that will make them stand out or struggle to keep them in the game. We work tirelessly to build those skills that we fear will cause others to exclude them, to weed out those quirks that may make other kids walk away, or to make them “easy” for teachers (or babysitters, or grandparents, etc). We don’t want to see them struggle. And yet, there they are each week, struggling. It’s hard not to see the deficits.
But when you think about your child, it is not what he/she lacks that identifies him/her. You think of how far he/she has come, his/her insatiable enthusiasms, the wonderful, quirky way he/she responds to the world, the hilarious things he/she says or does, the surprising way he/she has made you a better person. You know you can see all the good in your kid, but you wonder: will everyone else? The answer is “yes”. Emphatically, yes.
There are undoubtedly challenges to raising a child on the autism spectrum, but wouldn’t it be great to spend more time focusing on the delights? The biggest gains in self-esteem, flexibility, openness, and social development I see in my office (and with my own son) have been when we go all in on celebrating and encouraging their STRENGTHS. Does this mean tossing out speech therapy, giving up on shoe tying, or dropping out of social skills group? Not at all.
What it does mean is spending as much (or more time) on those things your child thrives in and using his/her interests to fuel growth. The quickest, most lasting growth I have seen for clients emerges when they are able to go deeply into their passions and enthusiasms—the things that light them up and swallow their attention.
So, how can you implement a strengths/interest-based focus into your parenting? Here are five suggestions:
1) Use your child’s strengths/interests to connect. Drop your own agenda and immerse yourself in his/her world, playing as he/she wishes, talking endlessly about whatever he/she is able to easily engage in at the moment. You being there—IN his/her world where he/she thrives is like putting money in the bank. With continual support and interest on your part, trust to share experiences will build in your child, and he/she will appreciate your non-judgmental connection more and more.
2) Encourage your child’s interests/preferences and use them to explore his/her world. Perhaps it’s difficult to see how knowing everything about dragons, trains, dinosaurs, etc. is going to prepare your child for adult life. However, there is no better way to build the competencies he/she will need to be successful than to use his/her strengths and interests to develop less preferred and harder to grasp skills.
Most parents use their child’s special interest as a reward for doing difficult tasks, but you can actually build skills THROUGH his/her strengths and interests.
If your child is interested in cats, use that to explore the history of cats, cat grooming (and how it applies to self-grooming), famous people who have enjoyed cats, writing essays or short stories about cats, using cats as part of math problems, designing games about cats, planning a cat budget, discovering scientific studies that involve cats, building a cat tree or toy, using cats to teach proper social distancing, making a cat obstacle course, exploring drama (Andrew Lloyd Webber thought it was a good idea), writing a poem or song in honor of a cat, playing turn taking board games that involve cats, engaging in a science fair project that tests cat behavior, and the list goes on.
Sure, he/she can name every breed now, but USE this intrinsic enthusiasm to engage him/her in learning and building new skills.
3) Praise your child on his/her knowledge, enthusiasm, and curiosity to build a positive sense of self and accomplishment. In order to develop new skills, a child needs to be able to stick with something long enough to practice. Grit and perseverance are trained much like a muscle, but only get stronger when a child has the confidence to feel like he/she can succeed.
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The more you are able to point out all of the things your child can do, the more likely he/she is to take risks with things that are more difficult. Help your child celebrate his/her accomplishments—the things he/she can do that are challenging for others. It is also much easier to persuade a child to stick with something he/she struggles with when he/she is invested in a meaningful outcome. Using preferred interests and strengths can help him/her see past the effort.
4) Coach others to use your child’s strengths to be successful in other settings. Imagine if your child’s teacher, babysitter, or therapist engaged your child by using his/her enthusiasms and strengths. Children consistently work harder and make more significant gains with adults they feel connected to, who they believe care about them and are interested in who they are. If you can feed a few nuggets of ways to tap into your child’s world, they can use those tidbits to increase motivation, build a stronger relationship, and provide the trust needed to take bigger steps.
5) Give them time to be who they are. We all get a little tired of hearing about dinosaurs and anime. But for our kids, these topics are a large part of what brings them joy and comfort in the world. Never take away time for preferred interests. Instead, help your child by having a consistent time and place each day to become fully engrossed in his/her enthusiasms.
This guarantee can go a long way towards developing trust and an optimistic outlook. Additionally, you can allow him/her to earn bonus time to spend on his/her interests as he/she does less preferred things. Win, win!
It may seem simplistic to think that indulging your child’s interests and strengths will help his/her development. And it is. I mean, think of Temple Grandin without animals. Einstein without physics. Your kid without ______?
Clearly, this is just part of the overall picture of what you are challenged to do as a parent every day, but sometimes, redirecting our attention to what is strong and positive in our child’s world can re-energize us (and him/her) to tackle the inevitable struggles he/she faces every day.
This article was featured in Issue 112 – Understanding Diagnosis & Disorders