‘How Can I Help My Autistic Child Build Confidence?’
January 20, 2021
January 20, 2021
“Confidence is key.” We tell ourselves this as adults in our jobs (including the most important job of all—parenting) and to teens taking on a new activity or school project. What about young children? How can we instill confidence at an early age … especially for those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)?
As autism parents may already know, helping kids on the spectrum to build a positive self-identity may take a little extra time nurturing their gifts while teaching them new skills. We recently connected with Hopebridge Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) Jill Wren Lovett from our autism therapy center in Fort Collins, Colorado to provide effective ways for families to raise confident children. With more than a decade of experience in applied behavior analysis (ABA therapy) and 35 years working with kids, Jill has extensive knowledge on this subject and how it impacts her patients.
Helping children gain confidence to access their world is ABA in a nutshell. As behavior analysts, this is where we thrive! We assist children in finding their voices – which does not always mean verbally – and independence through therapy. The evidence-based, outcome-focused approach inherently leads to boosting self-esteem along the way.
When we speak of confidence in ABA terms, we are referring to fluency in accessing reinforcement of all types.
Through ABA, there are a number of methods we use to teach children with autism they can experience success. In young children, we primarily approach this through:
As children get older, we continue to strengthen confidence through more advanced life skills and social skills. At this point, we can get into specific techniques, which can be as seemingly small as how to make a pop-up toy pop, to more elaborate tasks like preparing a meal for oneself. Some of the areas we work on include:
It is important to note that building confidence is not solely about developing new skills, but also enabling and encouraging strengths. In the behavioral health world, focusing on splinter skills (think of music prodigies or little math geniuses) rather than where they need help can be controversial. Rather than disregard splinter skills all together, I choose to use them as reinforcement to build compliance and social responses. These splinter skills also serve as an advantage that can help individuals define themselves. In my opinion, these skills should be celebrated, all while supporting them with the basics.
One key confidence-builder for young children is toileting. Over the years, I’ve worked with a lot of families who unsuccessfully attempted the “potty party,” which usually means a long weekend of constant toilet training and subsequent celebrations. If this strategy doesn’t work the first time, children are known to raise resistance to it and enforce refusal at a high rate. In these cases, I want to make sure it sticks the next time around, so we try other methods that may be a better fit. We often need to work into it more gradually through a tolerance program.
Interestingly, once children are successful with toileting, they often have more confidence and success in other areas as well. They don’t feel like they are a “baby” anymore and can often take on more in life. We see a lot of pivotal responses and other skills arise from this one milestone.
Want to know what other tolerance programs and positive reinforcement look like in action? One of my first clients was what many would call a “wild child.” She was impulsive and without fear. Until, living in Northern Idaho at 3 years old, she went outside one day and fell pretty hard on the ice. After that, she decided she was not going to go back outside until springtime.
To help her overcome this and reconstruct her courage to venture out again, I would take her outside for brief periods, all while holding her hand. To make it fun, I showed her how she could slide across the ice. We played games and entertained ourselves by pulling leaves from the ice. Fast-forward to the young woman she is today—now she’s a cross-country skier with the Special Olympics! I helped her gain confidence on a slippery surface, which is a pretty awesome metaphor for tolerance-building.
It is essential to have a variety of reinforcement, as we do not want it to be dependent on only one type. As part of this process, we work to incorporate a lot of variation in play, so kids can access many different ways to have fun!
We especially do not want the idea of self-worth to be reliant on social reinforcement. If someone is overdependent on social reinforcement for confidence, which is an inner quality, what happens when it’s not there? This happens to everyone at some point in life, but it is important for individuals to have things they can enjoy for their own selves. As part of ABA, we aim to help children discover things they find intrinsically reinforcing, whether they are sensory-related, tangible or a way to escape demands.
It is natural for parents to want their children to feel important and loved. Most importantly, caregivers want their kids to love themselves.
As therapists, we can provide children with many of the tools they need to build confidence, but the practice needs to extend outside the center and into the home. Here are some tips for families who want to raise confident children:
An added bonus of working on confidence in children is that you can apply the strategies within your own life, too. For instance, if someone misbehaves toward you in traffic, you may now choose to use the moment to make a paradigm shift and understand that the action had nothing to do with you. Interpreting these social interactions can give you the personal confidence to walk (and drive) away.
Give your child the assurance and ability to reach his or her full potential. For children who have developmental delays or other signs of autism, it can be beneficial to start with diagnostic testing for autism, followed by ABA therapy. Through ABA and other complementary therapies, we can help your child access skills to lead a more fulfilling life.
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