By Dan Coulter
Lots of kids aren’t happy being who they are.
Particularly if they have neurobiological conditions that make them tend to act different from other kids. Conditions like Asperger Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder - Level 1, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder and others.
This can be hard on parents, too. When your child doesn’t easily fit in, it’s sometimes difficult to know when to keep him away from a situation that might make him feel worse about himself – or when it’s best to keep him in a situation so he learns to deal with the world.
Being rejected is hard. That’s when it’s tempting for a kid to wish he was someone else – or at least wish he could be more like other kids. A new neighborhood, a new classroom, a new group of kids may seem like a chance to be someone else. He may think if he doesn’t tell kids he meets about his condition, they won’t notice.
Too often, of course, they notice – and tend to avoid him. Partly because they don’t know the reason for his “different” behavior and don’t know what they’d be getting into by associating with him.
So how can parents help bridge the gap?
By giving our kids reasons to be confident.
Confidence is magic. Have you ever noticed how people who are confident are social magnets? We tend to appreciate someone who is confident and who can demonstrate an ability we respect. Of course, being confident doesn’t mean bragging or monopolizing a conversation. Projecting confidence without going overboard is an important social skill for our kids to learn.
Recently, I was looking through my high school yearbook. I was surprised when I came across one of my friend’s pictures. Frankly, I remembered her as being a lot prettier. Then I realized, I’d confused being pretty with being attractive. She had a confident personality. She acted like she was attractive, so she was. There was much more to her than that yearbook picture could capture.
It was a lesson that we have significant control over who we are. We can shape how other people perceive us by how we act towards them. Of course, learning to project confidence is not like learning to put on a coat. It’s more like learning to play the piano. Not everyone can be a concert pianist, but anyone who works hard at practicing the piano is going to learn to play better.
Of course, our kids need things to be confident about, so we need to find and nurture their strengths. We also need to help them master everyday skills so they’re comfortable dealing with real world situations.
When my son, Drew -- who has Asperger Syndrome -- was growing up, it was sometimes hard to know what he could learn to do on his own. My wife and I discovered a bit about self-fulfilling prophecies. When we acted worried that he couldn’t learn something and continued to do it for him, he tended to let us. When we showed him we expected him do something on his own, he learned to do it, even if it took a while.
Every kid has different capabilities, of course, but isn’t it devastating to think you may be holding your child back by being over-protective or underestimating him? Every kid fails a bit as he’s learning.
I heard a self-help guru talk about teaching a child to walk. He said that no little kid gets it on the first try. Or the second. Or the third. How would you respond if someone said to you at that point, “He’s still falling down. I guess you’ll have to carry him the rest of his life.” You’d say, “No way! My kid is going to walk!” And you’d help him keep trying until he made it.
Like many other parents of kids with an autism spectrum disorder, I watched an episode of the TV show “Supernanny,” in which the host brought in an autism expert (Lynn Kern Koegel, Ph.D) to help a family who has an autistic son.
The most important aspect of the program showed the parents learning that their autistic child was capable of far more than they’d imagined. Some of the training methods they learned were tough and didn’t show immediate results. But in sticking with it, the family helped the three-year old boy with autism begin interacting positively and even start talking.
As parents, we all want to help our kids succeed, not make them overly dependent. The need to help our kids learn independence also applies to parents of kids without special needs. I saw a learning expert on TV a while back, talking about kids attending college today with unrealistic expectations. He said many have had their activities managed so heavily by their parents that they hadn’t learned to plan and advocate for themselves. These kids expected to get good jobs right out of college and be granted quick promotions to exciting careers – without any special effort on their part. It was as if they assumed someone in the work world would take over their parents’ role of watching out for them.
I remember a time years ago when my son called his mom and me from college and left a concerned message. He was missing some paperwork he needed to deal with the campus bureaucracy and make sure he got his first paycheck for his student job on campus -- and he wanted us to look for it and call him back.
We couldn’t find what he needed, but we called back and left him a message, ready to offer advice on dealing with the situation.
When we finally connected, he’d found the paperwork in his dorm room, met with the person he needed to see, and solved the problem on his own. That was a small victory in the grand scheme of things, but a great moment for us as parents.
It reminded me of other moments, like when Drew started buying things in stores by himself, after we helped him remember to focus on not getting distracted when standing in a checkout line and how to deal with the checkout clerk. It reminded me of him getting his driver’s license after lots and lots of practice with us and a driving school instructor.
And there were times when what seemed like liabilities turned out to be assets in disguise. For example, Drew had real trouble writing in grade school. Forming letters was difficult for him. His sentences were tentative and awkward. It would have been easy to assume he just couldn’t write. But we found it was actually a mechanical problem. Because Drew had trouble with his handwriting, he often lost his train of thought before he could capture it. When he began dictating his work, his sentences became increasingly sophisticated. Later, when he started working on a computer, keyboarding let him write freely on his own. His writing is now interesting, clear, and sophisticated.
Mastering everyday skills, being a good writer and being an expert in Japanese anime are just a few of the things that make Drew a lot more confident and happy now than he was when he was younger. He’s hit some walls in getting to where he is today. But the experience has helped him learn to get over them or take another direction.
Having Asperger Syndrome is a part of who Drew is. He’s confident enough to be open about it with anyone he feels needs to know. Among other things, this means he doesn’t have to worry about his friends “finding out” and wondering if having AS was something he felt he had to conceal.
It’s easy for a kid who’s considered odd and who takes lots of hits to his self-esteem to want to hide why he’s different. But if he can gain the confidence to help classmates see his differences for what they are -- and look past them to see his strengths -- he’s taking a big step toward having people in his future appreciate him for who he is.
Sometimes you find that the person you really want to be is somewhere inside you. You just have to find a way to let him out.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the DVD: "The Puberty Video for Boys with Asperger Syndrome." You can find more articles on his website: coultervideo.com.
Copyright 2014 Dan Coulter Used by Permission All Rights Reserved