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Simple Ways to Avoid “Learned Helplessness” with Autism

October 12, 2023

I am a broken record when it comes to talking about learned helplessness! I think it is one of the most dangerous and damaging traps that kids or parents can fall into.

Learned helplessness may be a term unfamiliar to you as well, so let me give you the basics and 10 practical ways to make sure you or your child don’t get snared into this harmful way of navigating the world.

Simple Ways to Avoid “Learned Helplessness” With Autism

Undoubtedly, you’ve already witnessed learned helplessness in your child. They encounter a situation that leaves them feeling powerless. For youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), life unfairly hands them many examples. A shortlist includes being bullied, being overwhelmed on a regular basis by sensory overload, being misunderstood by the public and peers, and often being frustrated daily at school due to their different ways of learning and trying to socialize.

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Learned helplessness is a mindset your child internalizes when he/she repeatedly encounters these anxiety-provoking situations and is unable to stop them. The child then gives up, becomes passive, and shuts down.

It’s scary how fast this happens. Here’s the classic experiment: Researchers took three groups of dogs and put them in harnesses in a room with a floor that emitted a mildly uncomfortable shock to their paws. The first group wore their harness for a bit but wasn’t shocked. When released, they were fine.

The second harnessed group could turn off the shock by pressing a lever. This group also showed no ill effects from their experience.

Group three also had a lever. But it didn’t work. They couldn’t stop the brief shock.

Now here’s the really important and scary part. The researchers then added a second part to the experiment. This time the dogs were put on one side of a large box divided by a low partition they could easily jump over to escape the shock.

The dogs in groups one and two quickly learned to escape the shock by moving to the other side of the box. But the third group of dogs—the ones who had learned that nothing they did mattered—never even tried to escape! Instead, they huddled down and whimpered.

Even when circumstances changed, and positive options were available, they still acted powerlessly. They had acquired learned helplessness.

Do these scenarios sound familiar? Your child makes some mistakes on his/her homework, then gives up even though he/she knows the material; your teen is rejected by a peer and refuses to reach out again even though others have accepted him/her in the past; your child tries a new household task, can’t figure it out the first few times, and reacts with a meltdown and despair.

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It doesn’t have to be this way. Try these practical strategies to combat learned helplessness:

1. Start by creating a positive mindset in your child. Praise tangible actions. Generalities are confusing or unusable by those on the autism spectrum. So when you say, “You’re such a great kid,” it’s well-intended, but not as effective as a specific reference. Instead say, “You did a great job putting your toys away before dinner. You put each in its correct box. Your room looks fantastic.”

Also, be specific when you praise your child’s personality. Avoid generalities like “You are a generous person.” Instead, give a concrete example: “I was happy to see you give some of your ice creams to your brother. You didn’t even wait for him to ask. That was really generous of you.”

This helps create a self-image built on a strong foundation of actual examples that your child can remember. This builds self-esteem and will combat learned helplessness.

2. Without our help, our children are unlikely to fight learned helplessness for several reasons. First, the autistic brain is wired for detail, not the big picture. Kids with autism often hyper-focus on one part of an experience and fail to see alternative choices or options.

Also, I believe most spectrum kids have a history of emotional trauma. This may surprise you. But being subject to sudden sensory overload “storms” and the emotional tornadoes we call meltdowns is traumatic. And being bullied, which almost all kids on the spectrum have endured (even if they don’t disclose it to you), is traumatic.

Finally, executive functions of the brain (especially planning and taking initiative) are often compromised. We must repeatedly tell younger kids in distress what options are available. With older kids and teens, we can help them come up with their own choices. Once they figure out and can put an alternative into words, make sure they act on it as soon as possible to reinforce it.

3. When kids with autism get stuck in learned helplessness, intervene with logic, not emotion.  Don’t attempt “teaching moments” with an upset child. Children can’t be expected to learn when their brains are hijacked.

4. Teach the concept of PERMANENCE. Our kids often assume bad things are permanent and think once they fail at some time, they’ll always fail at it. They don’t even realize they think this way—we need to point it out to them. Give them specific, real examples to combat this thinking.

5. Teach the concept of PERVASIVENESS. Our kids also tend to think difficulty or failure in one area predicts that they will “suck” at everything in life. Help them list their strengths (keep it concrete, with specifics examples). These don’t have to be big things. Then engage them in these strengths as often as possible.

6. Teach PERSONALIZATION. Optimists take credit for good outcomes and thus internalize a sense of achievement. They ascribe bad outcomes to chance or bad luck. But pessimists think good outcomes were “dumb luck” and assume they personally caused bad outcomes. Get creative and play a game requiring correct recognition of optimism and pessimism. Use both made-up and real-life social stories.

7. It takes a village. Every single person who told his or her story in the book The Loving Push had a mentor. Reach out to neighbors, relatives, other kids, your social or religious community, and teachers. Pass this article around (including to your child’s counselor if he/she has one) so others can reinforce your efforts.

8. A child can only pursue interests he/she knows about, and can only emulate role models he/she has seen or heard. Expose your child to tons of different people, environments, and activities.  Take him/her to workplaces, factories, art shows, and exhibitions. Show your child the wonders of nature. Surround your family with interesting, diverse people and have them interact with your kids. Obviously, you don’t want to overwhelm your child, but I’ve found most parents stop short of their kid’s capacity for exposure due to—guess what—learned helplessness!

9. Kids will try something new if it gets them something they want. Dr. Temple Grandin told me this story: “I was afraid to go to the store by myself. I was building something and needed a piece of lumber. Mother knew this project reflected a strong special interest and she was pretty sure I could manage to go alone. She refused to go with me because she figured my motivation to finish the project would override my anxiety and reluctance. She was right. I went to the store, got the wood, finished the design, and felt proud of myself.”

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10. Don’t let your fear stop your child. You’ve naturally protected your child over the years. As he/she gets older, your level of protection may need to be reduced so you’re not holding the child back. Use these tips, give your child new experiences, and practice new skills. Fight learned helplessness! Stay strong, and don’t let your child’s fears or setbacks detract you from continuing to guide and lovingly push your child.

Debra Moore, PhD, is a psychologist who, prior to retirement from active practice, worked extensively with children, teens, and adults on the autism spectrum. She coauthored The Loving Push: How Parents and Professionals Can Help Spectrum Kids Become Successful Adults (2016) with Dr. Temple Grandin. She contributed two chapters (one coauthored with Dr. Temple Grandin) to The Nine Degrees of Autism (2015) and wrote the chapter Internet and Gaming Addiction in Youth on the Autism Spectrum: A Particularly Vulnerable Population in Internet Addiction in Children and Adolescents: Risk Factors, Assessment, and Treatment (2017). She also facilitates the groups “Autism Spectrum Across the Lifespan,” and “Autism Spectrum HELPING HANDS Mentors” on LinkedIn.com.

This article was featured in Issue 66 – Finding Calm and Balance

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