How do you motivate a child -- or adult -- with Asperger Syndrome? Especially one who's been beaten down mentally by being ridiculed or ignored for quirky behaviors? Maybe one who was enthusiastic until being treated as an outcast made him or her accept that role and stop trying?
I learned about a confidence-building technique that could help while watching an extraordinary video presentation by Amy Cuddy. She's a social psychologist and associate professor at Harvard Business School whose research had nothing to do with Asperger Syndrome.
The technique, called power posing, sounds too simple to be real. But it's based on research in biology and social science. To fully appreciate it, it helps to hear Amy's history. At age 19, Amy was thrown from a car during an accident and suffered a brain injury. Doctors told her that her IQ had dropped by two standard deviations (about 30 points.) Because she'd always identified with being smart and been called “gifted” as a child, this news was devastating to her.
She had been attending the University of Colorado. When she repeatedly tried to go back, she was told, “You're not going to finish college. There are other things for you to do, but that's not going to work for you.” But she took on the challenge, worked hard, and graduated 4 years after her peers. While she was accepted into graduate school at Princeton, she kept having the nagging feeling that she was inadequate.
The day before her required first year talk as a Ph.D candidate, feeling “I'm not supposed to be here,” Amy told her advisor that she couldn't give the talk and was quitting. The advisor told Amy she couldn't quit because, “I took a chance on you...you're going to fake it....you're going to do every talk you're ever asked to do...you're going to do it even if you're terrified...” She told Amy she had to keep faking it until she became the person she thought she couldn't be. So Amy did.
Later, at Harvard University, Amy was teaching a course that required students to participate in class. She told a student who had never raised her hand that she had to start making comments or she would fail. The student came to her one day and said, “I'm not supposed to be here.”
Amy realized two things. One, Amy no longer felt that way herself, and two, she had to help her student over this obstacle. She told the student, “You are supposed to be here! And tomorrow, you're going to fake it. You're going to make yourself powerful, and you are going to go into the classroom and you are going to give the best comment ever.”
That's exactly what the student did. Months later, Amy saw that the student had become the thing she was pretending to be.
Amy was fascinated by ways that people could gain and project confidence.
After listening to a former FBI agent talk about police making themselves feel more imposing during interrogations by sitting in a bigger chair than the people they were questioning, Amy started researching the science behind making yourself feel more powerful.
She and her research partners discovered that people could increase or decrease chemicals that affect their brains and their behaviors by changing their body posture.
Subjects who spent two minutes in high power poses (standing with your feet apart, shoulders back, fists on hips and chin up – or sitting with your feet on a desk and your hands behind your head) increased testosterone levels by about 20 percent and decreased cortisol by about 25 percent. Higher levels of testosterone increase your confidence. Higher levels of cortisol are produced by stress. So the participants who adopted power poses felt more confidence and less stress. The researchers also found that standing or sitting hunched over with your arms hugging yourself, making yourself smaller, decreased testosterone and increased cortisol levels. Subjects who assumed these poses for two minutes felt less confidence and more stress.
Subsequent research confirmed that your posture sends messages to your brain that can change your attitude and behaviors. Students who stood in a power pose for two minutes before class were more likely to sit at the front of a classroom and consider themselves leaders than other students who slouched. Students who struck power poses for two minutes before mock job interviews did dramatically better than students who sat in a hunched over position before the interviews.
When I saw Amy's video, I thought of all the parents who've told me about their children with Asperger Syndrome who've been rebuffed and disappointed so many times they no longer want to try. Like Amy's advisor, many of these parents take on the role of building up their children's battered self-esteem.
While power posing isn't a cure-all, it's a simple, free tool that's easy to practice.
Combined with social skills training, it could help give discouraged children (and adults) the push they need to keep trying until they believe that, whatever they're attempting, “I am supposed to be here – and I can succeed.”
(Amy Cuddy's video is a TED talk titled, “Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are.” You can see it at www.ted.com.)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – Dan Coulter is the author of the video, "Asperger Syndrome at Work: Success Strategies for Employees and Employers." You can find more information and articles on his website: www.coultervideo.com.
Copyright Dan Coulter 2015 Used by Permission. All Rights Reserved.