We recently posted an article on Facebook about diagnosing girls on the spectrum and it yielded some good questions.
My daughter, Emily, is an eight-year-old second grader who was recently diagnosed on the spectrum. We have always known that Emily is a unique little girl, but I had no idea she might have high functioning autism. I was thrilled that Emily was reading by age four, but curious that she only read material about “bees.” She has virtually no interest in making friends and prefers to stay at home on the computer or with her face in a book (about bees, of course!). When my husband and I learned of her diagnosis, we wasted no time in researching local services for Emily and have already signed her up for pragmatic speech therapy, social skills training, occupational therapy, and after-school tutoring. We both feel very strongly that the more we can give Emily in the way of services, the more quickly Emily will develop socially, emotionally, and intellectually. We are concerned that all of this outside therapy will impact Emily’s self- esteem negatively. We don’t want Emily to think that we bring her to all of these appointments because there is something ‘wrong’ with her. We want her to know that we love her just the way that she is. How can we help her to understand that all we are trying to do is to help her succeed and be happy in life? How can we help her develop a positive sense of herself as she develops and grows?
Much research has been published in recent years stressing the importance of high self-esteem to a child’s emotional and social development. You, like most loving parents, know how important self-esteem is to Emily, but you may be less clear on what you can do to help her feel good about herself. As a therapist who has been running social skills training groups with children for over twenty years, my orientation is biased toward group work with children on the spectrum. Social skills groups for children with autism can be challenging but also extremely rewarding on so many different levels. For many children, a social skills group may be the first place they’ve ever felt safe and understood by peers. Parents of these children bemoan their child’s years of hardship with peers. They describe their children as socially isolated and ignored at best. Sometimes, these children are socially abused and ridiculed at school and in extracurricular settings. The children may be aware of being “different” from their classmates, but helpless to make the changes necessary to lead a satisfying social life. These social experiences affect their self-esteem dramatically. Likewise, a safe group experience can boost a child’s self-esteem positively almost immediately. When children experience social competence, they show more confidence in arenas outside the therapeutic environment. With their newfound self-esteem, children begin to take risks with peers that they would not have previously attempted. Prior to a group experience, one group member sat alone at lunch. After participating in a group for a short time, she began to sit at a table with other children.
Emily is only eight now, but she may become increasingly aware of her differences from others as she grows up. Girls on the spectrum, even those who are high functioning, are especially vulnerable to feeling left out. The negative experiences Emily has with others may put her at risk for low self-esteem. Low self-esteem causes children on the spectrum to isolate further from the world. A social skills group will allow her to express feelings and idiosyncratic ideas freely without judgment from her peers. Because similarity and common interests are essential hallmarks of friendship, she will begin to acquire the necessary competencies to develop true friendships. Together, group members experience a profound feeling of being understood. This feeling, in my experience, translates to increased comfort in the world. The boost in self-esteem creates a productive cycle where learning can take place and skills can be practiced. As a parent, you cannot control the complex temperament and singular qualities that Emily was born with, but you can make sure that you create an atmosphere at home, with peers, and in your family life where she can flourish. The following steps will help you create a safe and nurturing environment in which Emily can develop high self-esteem. Remember: you know Emily better than anyone. Keep your knowledge of her in mind when you practice these techniques.
Finding opportunities to boost Emily’s self-esteem will be an ongoing goal for you and your husband. Remember: Emily is a child first. In addition to who she is as a person, Emily has an autism disorder. She came into the world with a unique temperament all her own. Her personality is constantly interacting with outside forces. Teachers, grandparents, peers, and siblings all affect her self-esteem. As a parent, you cannot completely control who interacts with Emily or how her self-esteem will ultimately develop, but you can create a safe, nurturing home where Emily can grow. You may find yourselves feeling simultaneously discouraged, frustrated, hopeful, challenged, and enlightened with her process of growth. Emily will show you over time her unique talents and abilities. It is clear from your e-mail that you love Emily. By appreciating and validating who she is and helping her achieve her goals, you insure Emily’s development of healthy self-esteem.