Distorted patterns of thought have been identified in association with a number of disorders. For example, children with anxiety typically overestimate the probability or strength of a threat and underestimate their competency to cope with danger. Parents and caregivers can help a child with Asperger’s use thought and logic to reconsider distorted perceptions.
The initial goal is to help the child establish a sense of objectivity regarding the sensations, perceptions, and feelings he experiences. The aim is to develop awareness that this sometimes overwhelming amount of “data” includes varying degrees of truth and distortion, not all of which is worth reacting to.
Making informed, logical choices
When speaking of physical illness, we often describe it as a foreign invader (e.g., “fighting a cold” “killing germs.”). In mental health, where there is a tendency to label differences, (especially those causing distress) as “crazy,” this externalization can be particularly helpful. For example, a child may be given an age-appropriate explanation of symptoms associated with anxiety,and encouraged to “boss back anxiety” as a coping strategy. This may involve listing the kind of messages that anxiety brings to mind such as:
“I can’t handle this”
“Something terrible is going to happen”
and practicing thoughts that refute it like:
“I’m strong and smart and have people who love me to help.”
“This is a false alarm – nothing bad is going to happen.”
Individuals with an interest in science can find it particularly useful to learn that there is a certain part of the brain called the amygdala that tends to be hypersensitive among those with ASD.
Creating a book like the one below, or just a picture can remind the child of his strategies. Click to download.
different kids cvrdifferent kids pg
Free printables and games to educate kids about the brain are available at these two websites:
• Neuroscience for Kids faculty.washington.edu
One of the most important ways to increase flexibility is to actively teach the basic vocabulary (Rigid, Flexible, and Compromise) that can help individuals with ASD identify behaviors that reflect rigidity and flexibility (e.g., “I really appreciate the flexibility you showed when we had to take Kate to the doctor instead of going to the RV show.”)
Sometimes, a child or adolescent will defend their right to be rigid and cite specific instances in which it has made some sense. I do not argue the point. I do let them know that it is not a value judgment that they “should” be more flexible, blah, blah., blah. Instead, I turn to science. Animals that survive are typically the ones that are the most flexible and can adapt to changing environmental demands. Animals that are rigid and can only be comfortable in a narrow range of conditions will undoubtedly sacrifice access to resources. The message is, “I’m not dictating who you should be. I am trying to help you to be more adaptable. Don’t blame me. It’s just biology.”
Absolute Thinking, minimizing the positive, and exaggerating the negative are some of the thought patterns that are associated with anxiety and depression. Perceptual biases, like the tendency to focus in on and record mostly negative information, can impact feelings.
Children with ASD may be particularly prone to absolute, black-or-white thinking. A child may react badly to losing a game because of the underlying thought pattern, “If I am not a winner, then I am a LOSER.” A poor grade on a test may be experienced as, “I am stupid.” A tantrum during a family vacation may be exacerbated by thoughts like, “Now I’ve ruined our WHOLE vacation.”
While the child may find it annoying initially, it is very helpful to point out when it sounds like Absolute Thinking has reared its ugly head. First of all, do not try to tell the child that her feeling is incorrect. It is typically unproductive to talk people out of their feelings and may lead to anger and resentment. Instead, validate the feeling, provide factual evidence, and suggest that Absolute Thinking may be part of their distress.
For example, “I know it can be frustrating to lose a game! You HAVE won four out of the last seven though. I know that you don’t expect to win every time. Sounds like Absolute Thinking might be part of the problem.” It is helpful to identify Absolute Thinking as it occurs, making it easier for your child to identify and apply abstract concepts.
Making informed, logical choices
Good decisions are not usually made under stress. For the scientifically inclined, as many Aspies are, it may be beneficial to teach them the specific signs of physiological stress that accompany fear and how once this “alarm system” is tripped, the brain assumes that there is some danger and looks for something to pin it on. It’s important to practice these strategies when calm. Equipped with a better understanding of the biology involved, many feel more able to take charge.
To “reset” their alarm system, children can benefit from techniques like:
• Deep breathing. Take slow deep breaths. Count to five as you breath in and count to five as you breathe out. Do this five times.
• Progressive muscle relaxation. Beginning with your face, tighten all your muscles while you breathe in. Then, let all that air out as you exhale. Do the same thing, moving down the body and tightening the muscles in the chest and arms, then the hips and legs, all the way down to the toes.
• Practice. Just as students have to have fire drills at schools to practice what to do in an emergency, you have to practice these strategies when you’re feeling calm. Without practice, you might not remember to do these things when your alarm system is going off.
• Visualization. Encourage your child to conjure up images that are pleasant and comforting so that they can take a mini-vacation whenever they need to! The graphic below was created with ComicLife, a very simple and inexpensive software program. Of course crayons or markers work fine, too.
worry strategies comic
Learning from bees.
Some children with ASD do not recognize a need to improve their social skills. How to explain what’s in it for them. Learn more.
What stimulates sensory systems, muscles and is calming to lie on top of? Stability balls. Learn more.
Losing track of time. Help your child with time management by making it visual. Learn more.
Addressing anxiety, depression, anger and low self-esteem. A game which can be used to help modify emotions. Learn more.
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