Changing the Mindset of Youth on the Spectrum

Changing the Mindset of Youth on the Spectrum

Changing the Mindset of Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders

In our therapeutic work with children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), we expanded upon our earlier writings about a resilient mindset, especially given the specific challenges that these youngsters face. Social impairments have been found to be the strongest predictors of the risk of a child receiving a diagnosis of ASD. Children with ASD struggle to develop normal, satisfying, and appropriate social connections in relations with others. They often do not understand how to initiate interactions. They have noticeable difficulty in developing appropriate play skills and modulating facial and emotional responses and responding effectively to social cues. They can be self-absorbed, shutting off interactions with peers and adults alike. Many display odd interests and routines, often demonstrating rigid, obsessive-compulsive behaviors that isolate them even further from meaningful relationships. They typically lag in social language or pragmatics so that a give and take discourse with others is difficult to achieve. They misread social cues, failing, for example, to comprehend the messages and jokes of others while being far off the mark with their own attempts to communicate.

Our expansion of the concept of resilient mindset to social resilient mindset with youngsters with ASD is to capture the key developmental problems they experience in the social domain. Though each child’s journey in life is shaped by a variety of factors, including inborn temperament, family style and values, educational experiences and the broader society or culture in which the child is raised, we have selected eight Guideposts for parents and teachers to focus upon for children with ASD, guideposts that provide principles and strategies for nurturing a social resilient mindset. Each of the Guideposts involves reinforcing skills necessary for the development and maintenance of friendships, a difficult task for children with ASD. They can be reinforced by parents, therapists, teachers and other professionals. Briefly, the guideposts are as follows. In our new book, Raising Resilient Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (McGraw-Hill, 2012), we elaborate and outline these Guideposts as well as provide parents and educators with reasoned and reasonable strategies together with case material to help their children.

Guidepost 1 Developing strategies to teach and convey empathy. A basic foundation of any relationship, parent-child, teacher-child, therapist-child or child-child, is empathy. Empathy is the capacity to put one’s self inside the shoes of other people and to see the world through their eyes. The struggle for adults to be empathic, especially toward children with ASD, is paralleled by the difficulties these children have in being empathic. Empathy involves both perspective-taking and the ability to identify and recognize emotion, skills that typically lag in children with ASD. Thus, it is important for parents to model and teach these skills to their children.

Guidepost 2 Developing strategies to help children with ASD learn to communicate and listen effectively. Combined with the first strategy, we refer to this as empathic communication. Empathic communication has many features. It is not just speaking to another person with clarity. It also involves actively listening to others, understanding and validating what they are attempting to say.

Guidepost 3 Accepting our children for who they are and conveying unconditional love in the context of setting realistic expectations. To truly nurture a social resilient mindset requires that we love our children unconditionally and help them feel appreciated. To accomplish this we must learn to accept children for who they are, not necessarily what we hope or want them to be.

Guidepost 4 Nurturing islands of competence or areas of strength in every child. While it is crucial to address problems, we have come to recognize that to place the emphasis on analyzing pathology and fixing deficits limits our ability to assist children with ASD, and their parents lead more satisfying, resilient lives. The metaphor of islands of competence is the embodiment of a strength-based approach. To apply the essence of this metaphor in our clinical and parental practices we ask parents to look within themselves as well as within their children to identify such islands, to reinforce and nurture them.

Guidepost 5 Helping children with ASD learn from rather than feel defeated by mistakes. There is a significant difference in the ways in which resilient children view mistakes compared with children who do not possess a social resilient mindset. Resilient youngsters perceive setbacks as opportunities for learning. In marked contrast, children who lack confidence and hope attribute mistakes to variables that cannot be corrected or modified. In reaction to this pessimistic outlook, they are vulnerable to retreating from challenges, experiencing feelings of inadequacy and/or projecting blame on others for their problems. It is imperative that children with ASD learn to develop a healthy outlook about mistakes from an early age. They must learn that mistakes are both expected and accepted and are important experiences for learning.

Guidepost 6 Teaching children how to solve problems and make sound decisions, particularly in their relationships with others. The attitude of resilient youngsters is that mistakes serve as catalysts for problem solving. Such youngsters believe they have control over what transpires in their lives rather than being victims of events. The process of solving problems includes identifying and acknowledging those problems, articulating short and longterm goals, considering several possible options for dealing with each problem and reaching those goals as well as selecting and applying options that appear to have the greatest probability for success. Children then need to learn how to assess their progress and learn from the outcome if changes have to be made to the goals or the strategies used. Very clearly children on the ASD spectrum struggle with problem solving. They lack many of the pre-requisite skills required to engage in this process. Though teaching problem-solving skills to children with ASD may at times feel like a Herculean task, it represents one of the most important responsibilities we have as caregivers and educators to help children with ASD develop a social resilient mindset.

Guidepost 7 Developing strategies to discipline in ways that promote self-discipline and a sense of self-worth. One of the main responsibilities of parents and educators is to model and teach discipline. The word discipline relates to the word disciple and is best understood as a teaching process. Additionally, an often under-identified goal of discipline is to nurture self-discipline and self-control. Self-discipline implies that a child possesses an internalized set of rules so that even if a parent or other adult is not present the child will act in a thoughtful, reflective manner. Self-discipline may be understood as a significant component of a social resilient mindset in which a sense of responsibility for one’s behavior flourishes.

Guidepost 8 Helping children with ASD develop responsibility, compassion, and a social conscience. A frequently asked question from parents of children with ASD concerns how to teach their children to be more caring and responsible. We have asserted that there appears to be an inborn need to help others. Observe young children, even those on the ASD spectrum; they take great pleasure in helping as evidenced by their smiles when we compliment and appreciate their contributions. Given the lifelong influence of contributory activities, having children help others is a strategy we consistently recommend to parents and teachers of children with ASD.

Parents of children with ASD as well as therapists, teachers, and other professionals are in a powerful position to have a significant impact on the present and future lives of these children.

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