How to develop self confidence in children on the autism spectrum
Autism will likely impact on the way in which children see and interact with the world around them. However, it is important to remember that autism is experienced by different people in different ways, and while there are some traits that many children on the spectrum will share, each child’s experience of autism will be different.
This also means that the ways in which autism can affect a child’s self confidence will also be different. Here we discuss some common ways in which autism can impact on children’s lives, and as a consequence affect their self-confidence and sense of worth.
How does autism impact on children’s self-confidence?
Children and teenagers on the spectrum will over time develop their communication and functional skills, although the order and extent to which these skills develop will naturally vary from child to child.
Similarly, the characteristics of autism mean that children and teenagers on the spectrum may develop some of these skills at a slower rate than children without autism. This can include social interaction skills, cognitive skills and some functional skills needed for daily living activities.
As the development of these skills can impact on the way in which a child interacts with family, friends and classmates, as well as the way in which they view and respond to the world around them, this can in some cases affect their confidence and sense of self-esteem.
This is because for some children, developing these skills at a rate that is different to their friends and peers leads to frustration and a sense of isolation. Not being able to understand or interact with others their own age, or feeling that their cognitive ability is developing more slowly than others, can lead to children on the spectrum having low levels of confidence and a lesser sense of self-worth than children and teens without autism.
Likewise, for children on the spectrum who are oversensitive (or hypersensitive) to things like noise, light, clothing or temperature, it can be difficult to participate in some activities, or enjoy particular places and spaces. This can mean they feel excluded or left out, which in turn has an impact on their sense of belonging.
Similarly, some children with autism find it difficult to adapt to new or unexpected situations or routines, and therefore don’t have the confidence to try new things or interact with people they are not comfortable with.
Developing self-confidence for children with autism
One of the most helpful ways in which you can develop and boost the self confidence of children on the spectrum is through focussing on their strengths, interests and talents. There are many ways in which this can be achieved.
For instance, all children have interests and things that they enjoy doing. These can be physical, like playing sport, running or dancing, they can be practical, like cooking or caring for their pets, or they might be more esoteric, like playing computer games or doing puzzles.
Providing your child with opportunities to engage in the activities which they most enjoy is an effective way of boosting their self-confidence. If they are able to complete tasks or activities, and receive praise for how well they engage, this can instil in them a sense of accomplishment and the knowledge that there are areas of life in which they can be confident of being able to participate to the full.
There are also other skills in which it is important to develop a child’s self-confidence. For instance, take note of how they interact with you, other members of the family, or friends. You can highlight their positive behaviour in this regard, such as praising the way in which they share or take turns with a toy, or the manner in which they ask for something. It can be very helpful for a child on the spectrum to be able to interact with others with confidence, and so acknowledging their efforts in this area may encourage them and develop their social skills further.
Similarly, when your child follows instructions in order to complete a request or task, acknowledging this achievement is a good way to grow self-esteem, as it can demonstrate to them the development of their functional skills and ability to undertake daily living activities. Praising and encouraging children when they are able to complete a task without being asked, like putting toys away or getting dressed (whether fully or partially), can also help to foster a sense of independence.
Boosting self-esteem for teenagers on the spectrum
Adolescence can be a challenging time for people on the spectrum. The academic and social demands of school life are combined with a developing sense of the self, and this can sometimes lead to confusion, frustration and diminishing self-esteem as teenagers with autism attempt to come to terms with their place in the world.
It is not uncommon for teenagers on the spectrum to have difficulty in recognising their own strengths and skills, particularly if they feel that there are areas in which they are developing at a different rate to their peers.
Teenagers on the spectrum may also find it difficult to understand or express their emotions, and this can make some social interactions challenging. This can be further exacerbated if they are aware that they interpret situations and people in way that is different to others in their class or peer group. Likewise, any behaviours of concern that they might exhibit can also make interacting with peers and others more difficult, perhaps creating a feeling of isolation.
Alternatively, some teenagers with autism show no interest in other people of their age, and so have no inclination to interact with others at school, leading to their being cut off or ostracised by their peer group.
A helpful way in which to assist a teen to develop their self-confidence is to acknowledge and talk about the ways in which everyone in the world is different, and how we interact and engage with our environment and the people around us will vary from individual to individual. You can help them to understand that being unique is something to be celebrated and that, despite appearances, all people are insecure in their relationships to a greater or lesser degree.
It can also be of benefit to acknowledge and share the idea that people’s unique qualities are often what makes them interesting, and that even if they do feel different, they are not the only one. Plenty of teenagers who are not on the spectrum experience similar thoughts and emotions; indeed, you may have had them yourself growing up. Sharing these sorts of personal experiences can help your teen to understand that some of their feelings and experiences are not necessarily unique to people on the spectrum, as is the fact that everyone can at times feel overwhelmed by other people, or what is going on around them.
Encouraging teenagers to ask for assistance when they need it is another useful way in which to promote self-confidence. For instance, asking for help to find an item in a supermarket or department store, or asking a teacher to explain a task or concept again, may help them to understand that doing so is perfectly acceptable in most scenarios, and grow their sense of independence and self worth.
At the same time, it might be the case that encouraging and providing opportunities for your teen to play a bigger role in their daily living activities is helpful for their self confidence. Choosing for themselves the clothes they wear, for instance, or allowing them to choose what to eat may have at times a less than optimum outcome, e.g., they go out in not enough or too many clothes, etc., but at the same time this might be a price worth paying for the role it plays in growing confidence and a sense of independence.
You might also find it useful to help your teen find opportunities to engage in activities that they enjoy and which enable them to interact with others. They could join a sports club, for instance, if they have a passion for a particular game, or you could arrange regular museum trips if history or the natural world is what interests them. These sorts of activities have the benefit of encouraging your teenager to grow their passions, while also providing opportunities for social interaction.
Likewise, providing a balanced, healthy diet, opportunities for physical exercise, and a regular sleep pattern can also be of assistance in helping teenagers to maintain a more positive sense of well-being.
Overall, it will be helpful if teens with autism are able to develop a sense of self, i.e., who they are, what they are good at, what they enjoy doing, etc., and focus as much as possible on their strengths, interests and talents. This does not mean that behaviours of concern or communication difficulties are not recognised and acknowledged, but a sense of self-esteem is better fostered by celebrating skills and highlighting positive behaviours, while also recognising the ways in which their differences can be viewed as a strength.