How to build self-esteem in autistic children — and why it's so important

As a parent of a child with autism, I've seen how kids on the spectrum struggle with self-esteem. What can we do?

Published October 21, 2018 1:00PM (EDT)

 (AP/Elaine Thompson)
(AP/Elaine Thompson)

Excerpted with permission from Autism and Tomorrow: The Complete Guide to Help Your Child Thrive in the Real World by Karen L. Simmons & Bill Davis. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

As a parent of a child with autism and a long-time autism expert, I can tell you, without hesitation, that children and adults with autism have self-esteem problems.

When you are critical of your child’s behaviors or social interac­tions, they often feel hurt. They already feel as if they are under a microscope because of the doctor visits, occupational therapist ses­sions, and the stream of interventions we try. I’d feel like everybody was trying to fix me in the same set of circumstances, and it would hurt my self-esteem, too. (I have enough problems feeling good about my cooking when my family criticizes me.)

Kids with autism don’t understand subtle jokes very often, and social interactions often turn out badly for them, which erodes their self-esteem even more. Combine all this with the expectations of sib­lings and the all-too-frequent bullying, and it’s easy to understand how devastated a child with an autism spectrum disorder can feel.

So, the big question I ask is, “What can we do?” It’s crucial that family members, educators, and professionals learn strategies and techniques to build self-esteem in kids with autism and Asperger’s. Everyone needs a reminder now and then of just how precious they are, and our very special children need those reminders every day. For example, “Sammy, you are doing a great job cleaning your room. If you pick up those clothes over there, it would look even neater. Boy, you sure are a good listener.”

It Starts with Us

In order to build your child’s self-esteem, you need to believe in your child’s inherent value and convey that to everyone else before that child’s self-esteem can begin to improve. These kids know when we’re faking our compliments, and the therapy books say we should give five positive comments to each correction. We have to walk in our child’s shoes and empathize with how they feel. We need to look for these special gifts, tune in to the child with our hearts, and find ways to bring out their precious essence.

It helps when you go to conferences, read books, research and share information. Teach extended family, educators, and other pro­fessionals to help your child integrate into groups. Be intuitive when advocating for children, and be persistent, not abrasive.

Emphasize the Positive

In addition, keep a positive attitude. Children with autism often­times have an incredible sense of humor. I have to stop myself from laughing, so my own son doesn’t feel like I’m laughing at him, caus­ing him to feel inadequate. Sometimes I’ll even say, “I’m not laugh­ing at you, Jonny, I’m laughing with you.”

Emphasize the positives! Look for the good in every child, even if you don’t see it at first. Model a mental attitude of “things are great.” Express yourself in the positive, rather than the negative. Kids with autism/Asperger’s are masters at copying what others say, so make sure they’re hearing things that are good for them to copy. When we say, “You are great!” to a child often enough, he, too, will believe it and feel valued for who he truly is. Also, encourage chil­dren to share their thoughts and feelings. This is so important, and it often sheds new light on existing situations.

Balance the Physical with the Mental and Spiritual

Like most people, kids with autism feel better about themselves, when they’re balanced physically, emotionally, and spiritually. These are all great areas in which to build self-esteem.

Since your child may have digestive problems, which often makes him or her a very fussy eater and likely to gravitate towards junk food, most doctors say it is important to try supplements. However, be sure to check with your child’s doctor first. Also, provide regu­lar physical activity, when possible, to relieve stress and clear your child’s mind.

Set the stage for success by acknowledging their successes, how­ever small, and reminding your child of their previous accomplish­ments. Keep their life manageable, and don’t overwhelm your child with too many activities.

Provide choices frequently, so they understand they have a say in their own lives. You might want to try to give them a whole day in which to be in charge of something.

Give your child every opportunity to connect with their spiri­tual side, through religious avenues, or by communing with nature. This can help them feel purposeful and that their lives have mean­ing. One strategy that helped raise my Jonny’s self-esteem, especially when it came to overcoming his victim thoughts and feelings, was to employ spiritual affirmations. Using affirmations took some time, but we found that it brought calm and peace to Jonny and our family.

Dr. Gerald Jampolsky, author of Love is Letting Go of Fear and founder of California’s Center for Attitudinal Healing, offers many principles I find helpful in teaching us to love ourselves, thereby enhancing our own self-esteem and that of others. Some of his prin­ciples include:

  • The essence of our being is love
  • Health is inner peace
  • Live in the now
  • Become love finders, rather than fault finders
  • Learn to love others and ourselves by forgiving, rather than judging
  • Choose to be peaceful inside, regardless of what’s going on outside
  • We are all students and teachers to each other.

Part of Dr. Jampolsky’s message is that, by focusing on life as a whole, rather than in fragments, we can see what is truly important. His concepts, when embraced, positively affect how a child with autism thinks and feels about him- or herself. Anger, resentment, judgment, and similar feelings are all forms of fear. Since love and fear cannot coexist, letting go of fear allows love to be the dominant feeling.

Look for the Miracles

Every day, there are miracles and good things happening all around us. Be on your child’s side by tuning into who they truly are: unique expressions of divine light. Empower your child to be okay with who they are. Do this by loving your child not for who you want them to be, but for who they are.

Consider that children and adults with autism/Asperger’s are wonderful beings, here to teach us empathy, compassion, under­standing, and most importantly, how to love. Do whatever it takes to authentically include your child in your life, rather than merely tolerate their presence.

As a gemologist, I learned that genuine star sapphires have tiny imperfections and inclusions that reflect light perfectly, thereby forming a star in the stone. Each child with autism is like this pre­cious gem: unique in every way. Without the tiny inclusions, there would be no star. It is our job as parents, educators, and professionals to bring out the stars in all our special children by shining the light on their natural beauty. In doing so, we see their different abilities, rather than their disabilities. In addition, then they will see them, too.

Explaining Autism to Others

Autism can seem like a life sentence one moment and a spiritual celebration of life the next.

Autism is the fastest-growing developmental disability today. We constantly explain our children to people who don’t want to understand. We define autism continually to educators who oppose us. We speak out, because many of our children do not have a voice.

Unity and fellowship seem to elude our movement. Some of us search for treatment, some for a cure, and some ask simply for ade­quate programming. Nonetheless, it should be all about the children.

According to an article by the American Academy of Neurology and the Child Neurology Society:

Autism and pervasive developmental disorders encompass a wide continuum of associated cognitive and neurobehavioral disorders, including the core defining features of impaired socialization, impaired verbal and nonverbal communication, and restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior . . . .

There are several hundred different treatments offered for autism, with many viewpoints and a wide variety of theories. So how, with all this information around you, can you explain the sense of loss you feel when your child stops being who he was? It is like he’s there, but he’s not there. He is disconnected.

How do you explain the sensory issues, the outbursts, and the pain your child wrestles with every day? How do you explain that autism is unique and unpredictable, but not horrifying? How do you explain the undying love and dedication we have for our children?

Look into your child’s face, watch him smile, and you’ll under­stand. No explanation is necessary.

The cofounder of Autism Speaks, Suzanne Wright, is adept at telling the world about autism. She spoke in Doha, Qatar, at the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs. Her Highness Sheikha Mozah Nasser Al-Missned and Autism Speaks are begin­ning discussions to collaborate and create a worldwide program for children with autism. The people at Autism Speaks have taken a huge step towards unity and understanding.

Explain, explain, and explain autism to everyone, and then explain some more. Don’t apologize for autism—shout it from the highest rooftop. Hold your head up high with all the confidence in the world and let people know what is great about it and what is challenging. Help them to overcome their fears—the same fears you may have had before your child was diagnosed. They will understand, accept, and embrace your children especially, if they understand them. If they don’t, they are not worth knowing anyway!

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Excerpted with permission from Autism and Tomorrow: The Complete Guide to Help Your Child Thrive in the Real World by Karen L. Simmons & Bill Davis. Copyright 2018 by Skyhorse Publishing, Inc.

By Karen L. Simmons

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By Bill Davis

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Asperger's Syndrome Autism Child-rearing Childhood Happiness Mental Health Parenting Self Esteem