Self-Esteem and Autism: Powerful Strategies You Need to Know
In my work in the autism community as an autism specialist for the past 20 years, I have seen there is no goal more important than helping your child cultivate self-esteem and an overall positive sense of self. This is important not only because it will help your child experience more confidence, happiness, and fulfillment in life (what is more important than that?!), but it also helps your child be in a more open, receptive, and inspired position to learn the specific skills that may be challenging for him/her.
So, if this is not something you are focusing on right now, I want to really encourage you to prioritize helping your child to develop self-esteem and a positive sense of self.
Below I have listed the five most powerful strategies you can implement to begin this process right away and embark on a journey that will be deeply meaningful for you and your child.
1. Identify and cultivate your child’s strengths and passions
To explain this strategy more fully, I want to share a story about a Mom named Mary and her son Jason. Mary was telling me about the ways that Jason loves songs from the synagogue services she takes him to on Saturday mornings. One of her son’s therapists, with the best intention in the world, encouraged her to stop taking him to synagogue because the songs were distracting him from the other learning he was doing at school (he would continue to hum and sing the songs during the week). So Mary listened, and they stopped going to weekly synagogue services.
What happened next is the important part. Mary reported to me that it was like his light started to dim. He became depressive and unmotivated to do or learn anything.
I suggested we rethink this plan and I strongly advocated that she take him back to synagogue. He loves those songs; they are his passion, and they light him up. I explained that from those songs you could teach him a variety of different skills…and that’s exactly what happened. Mary took her son back to synagogue, and he was thrilled! From the love of prayers and songs, he learned to play the piano. From that love of piano, he learned to be a community leader, and he performed at a very successful autism fundraiser in their home in front of a group of people and even makes money playing in a home for the elderly.
Imagine what kind of self- esteem that built?
So, instead of trying to put aside, ignore or repress your child’s strengths and passions, identify them and cultivate them. Nothing will give your child a stronger send of self than validating what he/she loves, what’s important to him/her and what your child is good at.
2. Develop your child’s independence
To explain this strategy more clearly, I’d like to share a story of something that happened with my 11-year-old son. We were baking together, and he was in charge of mixing the batter. When he was done, I said “Great job!” then took the bowl and mixed a couple more times. He looked at me directly, and he said: “I hate it when you do that.” And you know what, he was right!
At that moment I undermined his contribution by basically communicating, by mixing more, that the way he did it was not good enough. I apologized and have been very aware of not doing that again since. At that moment I was prioritizing getting the job done the way I wanted it done (no lumps in the batter!) over his experience of independence and meaningful contribution. This is exactly the point I want to address here.
Find the places where you can help your child become more independent, for example; getting your child dressed in the morning or preparing some of his/her own food. Identify the times where you might hover or come in and adjust something he/she is doing and instead take a step back and allow your child to be truly independent. Prioritize the experience of independence over getting something done the way you want it done. Select one activity, every day, where your child can be truly independent and then you can build from there.
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3. Speak to your child’s TRUE intelligence
If there is anything I would scream from the rooftops, it would be this.
Your child’s ability to communicate verbally means nothing, and I mean NOTHING, about your child’s comprehension. This point has been confirmed over and over again by people with autism who are non-verbal and then learn to communicate via typing or pointing. Suddenly, the incredible depth and intelligence of a person that others thought was impossible began to emerge.
Your child’s intelligence is not reflected in verbal communication. So be aware of not doing baby talk, talking about your child in front of him/her as if there is no understanding or talk down to your child. Tell your child what you are doing and why, what you believe he/she is capable of, etc. Talking to your child in this way will help him/her see his/her self in a different way; as someone who is capable of that kind of understanding and relationship.
4. Teach to your child’s TRUE intelligence
As I mentioned above, many people on the autism spectrum understand way more than they are able to demonstrate. However, because of a challenge to demonstrate knowledge, it is often a mistaken assumption that a child does not understand. A perfect example of this is an 11-year-old boy I am working with from Norway who is able to communicate in depth by typing and tapping. When doing his daily exercises, his mother asks him to touch his head and he simply cannot. Most people may assume that he must not understand the concept of ‘head’ or where his head is. However, he has explained that he knows what his head is, but his challenge is in the motor planning required to do what his brain wants him to do.
This is true for so many kids. So, instead of teaching the same basic things over and over again (like misunderstanding his inability to touch his head and teaching him ‘head’ day after day), teach to your child’s true intelligence. Teach about the weather patterns, the cycles of the year, how his body works, etc. Gaining this knowledge, that all other kids get, not only empowers your child to feel that he/she is seen for the truly intelligent child that he/she is, but it also allows the child to make sense of the seemingly chaotic world. The more he/she can understand how the world, and even the body works, the more the child can relate to it in a calm and orderly way. This will not only help to increase self-esteem but also help to decrease anxiety and overwhelm as your child begins to understand how things work and why.
5. Surround your child with the people who accept and believe in him/her
Reflect on the people in your life and the life of your child and consider those that tend to judge you, your parenting and your child. These people bring stress and anxiety and can be toxic, in many ways, to you and your child. Do your best to minimize having people like this in your life and instead surround yourself and your child with people who love who your child is today, believe in his/her true intelligence and the possibilities that lie ahead.
So, there you have it, five strategies to help your child develop self-esteem and a positive sense of self. As a way to avoid overwhelm and inspire action, pick one of these strategies to focus on. Select the one that you feel most inspired to implement and that you believe will make the biggest impact on your child developing sense of self. Once you feel you have been fairly consistent with that one, you can revisit this list and implement the next one. This way, one step at a time, you are on your way to helping your child develop the confidence and empowerment that every child deserves.
Book: Voted as Top 5 Resource by the Special Needs Book Review https://www.amazon.com/Play-Grow-spectrum-develop-fundamental/dp/069252911X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1535363005&sr=8-1&keywords=play+to+grow%21
This article was featured in Issue 81 – Building Self-Esteem in Kids with Autism