Autism & Low Self-Esteem

Instructor: Lisa Millraney

Lisa has 27 years of experience treating speech, language, memory and swallowing disorders. She has a master's degree in speech pathology from Vanderbilt University.

In this lesson, you will learn about the issues with self-esteem particular to people on the autism spectrum. We will talk about some reasons why low self-esteem is common among children, teens, and adults with autism spectrum disorders, and how they and those around them can work to reverse the process and build a positive self-image.

Hold Your Head Up

Volumes have been written about self-esteem. Almost everyone struggles at some time with their self-image, but persons on the autism spectrum face unique challenges.

First, exactly what is 'self-esteem'? It comprises a person's beliefs about themselves and their opinion of who they are. The self-esteem of children is especially vital to their development. Children with healthy self-esteem, not overblown or downtrodden, take on life with a can-do attitude. As they grow into teenagers, they are better able to resist peer pressure. As adults, they are more likely to thrive in whatever employment or domestic setting they find themselves.

Special Challenges

We all face obstacles to positive self-esteem. For children with autism, those hurdles are continuous and sometimes devastating.

  • Youngsters can be cruel to peers who seem odd, and enough negative looks and comments birth a self-image as someone others don't want to be around.
  • Even adults contribute to a child's poor self-esteem, if every move the child makes is critiqued as 'autistic behavior' to be modified.
  • Mainstream culture presents images of autism that are often highly negative--cold, weird, out of control. There aren't many positive role models for children to see.

Everyone is unique, including everyone with autism. One child may react dramatically to bullying, while another brushes it off. There's no denying, though, that good self-esteem is vital, that poor self-esteem can be deeply damaging, and that those around a child need to know how their actions help or hurt.

Jack is nine and has high functioning autism. He often feels like he would rather be anyone else than himself. Classmates call him names and mock his literal thinking, while he tries to laugh with them. Every time his parents, teachers or therapists tell him to stop standing and spinning around, or talking about Star Wars, he just feels wrong. Small wonder he spends most of his time alone, cataloguing his action figures and watching movies until he can quote them verbatim.

In the teenage years, youngsters begin to develop their own identities and often want to spend more time with their peers than their parents. Christopher, who is fifteen and has Asperger's syndrome, would like to spend time with friends, if he had any. He never gets invited to outings or parties. The few times he's ventured to ask, he got ignored or rejected. Finally, he stopped trying. He also starts having trouble sleeping and eating, and his grades begin to suffer.

Correcting Course

When Jack starts refusing to try anything new, and calling himself stupid, his parents get concerned. They search for answers and finally find Dr. Whittaker, a psychologist who specializes in ASD (autism spectrum disorders).

She meets with Jack, then brings his family in. They are mortified to find the corrections they thought were gentle and supportive sound to Jack like constant criticism. Using language from his favorite films, he says, ''I feel like a broken droid! You just want to repair me so I'll function the way you want me to.''

Christopher's mother is a teacher, and knows the signs of depression when she sees them in her son. They find their way to Dr. Whittaker also. The psychologist discovers that Chris is extremely bright, has done a lot of reading on the subject of autism, and pretty much knows what his problem is. ''I'm the outsider,'' Chris says. ''I don't get their jokes. I feel like I'm looking through a window. I can see the sun, and the wind blowing the trees, but I can't go out and feel them.'' He also says he doesn't feel he gets to make any decisions about his life.

A Surprising Admission

Dr. Whittaker ponders how to help her new clients, and brainstorms with her colleagues. One, Dr. Stennis, listens intently, and later comes to her to confess he recently discovered he too has ASD.

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