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Changing the Mindset of Children and Adolescents with ASD

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Robert Brooks, PhD, and Sam Goldstein, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| March/April 2013

If we are to raise children with ASD to be resilient, we must help them develop a healthy attitude toward mistakes and setbacks.

A major focus of our collaboration has been to elaborate upon the concepts of both mindsets and resilience (Brooks and Goldstein 2001, 2004, 2007, 2012; Goldstein and Brooks 2007, 2012). We propose that all people possess a set of assumptions about themselves and others that influence their behavior and the skills they develop. In turn these behaviors and skills affect their assumptions so that a dynamic process is constantly operating. We labeled the set of assumptions a mindset and sought to identify the features of the mindset possessed by hopeful, resilient people.
Our interventions are rooted in an approach that focuses on developing strengths rather than fixing deficits. The shortcomings of a deficit model, especially when working with or raising children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), reside in the multifaceted problems these individuals display. If clinicians and caregivers spend most of their time in a reactive mode, constantly and frantically moving from one problem to the next, it is difficult to have an opportunity to reflect upon and adopt a proactive approach. It is well documented that children with ASD require much more assistance than other youngsters if they are to transition successfully into adult life (Adams 2009; Robinson 2011; Sicile-Kira 2012). Symptom relief, while essential, is not the equivalent of changing long-term outcome.

In our therapeutic work with children with ASD, we expanded upon our earlier writings about a resilient mindset, especially given the specific challenges that these youngsters face. Social impairments have been found to be the strongest predictors of the risk of a child receiving a diagnosis of ASD (for review see Goldstein, Naglieri, and Ozonoff 2008). Children with ASD struggle to develop normal, satisfying, and appropriate social connections in relations with others. They typically lag in social language, or pragmatics, so that a give-and-take discourse with others is difficult to achieve. They misread social cues, failing, for example, to comprehend the messages and jokes of others as well as being far off the mark with their own attempts to communicate.

What Is a Social Resilient Mindset?
Our expansion of the concept of resilient mindset to social resilient mindset with youngsters with ASD is to capture the key developmental problems they experience in the social domain. Though each child’s journey in life is shaped by a variety of factors, including inborn temperament, family style and values, educational experiences, and the broader society or culture in which the child is raised, we have selected eight Guideposts that provide principles and strategies to nurture a social resilient mindset in children and adolescents with ASD.

Each of the Guideposts involves reinforcing skills necessary for the development and maintenance of friendships, a difficult task for children with ASD. These can be reinforced by parents, therapists, teachers, and other professionals. In our new book, Raising Resilient Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (McGraw-Hill, 2011) we elaborate on these Guideposts with reasoned and reasonable strategies to implement them along with case studies material to illustrate their application. Briefly, the Guideposts are as follows.

Guidepost 1 Teaching and Conveying Empathy. Empathy is the capacity to put oneself inside the shoes of other people and to see the world through their eyes. Empathy involves both perspective-taking and the ability to identify and recognize emotion, skills that typically lag in children with ASD.

Guidepost 2 Using Empathic Communication and Listening Actively. Combined with the first strategy, we
refer to this as empathic communication. It is not just speaking to another person with clarity. It also involves actively listening to others, understanding and validating what they are attempting to say.

Guidepost 3 Accepting Our Children for Who They Are: Conveying Unconditional Love and Setting Realistic Expectations. To truly nurture a social resilient mindset requires that we love our children unconditionally and help them feel appreciated. To accomplish this we must learn to accept children for who they are, not necessarily what we hope or want them to be.

Guidepost 4 Nurturing “Islands of Competence.” While it is crucial to address problems, we have come to recognize that to place the emphasis on analyzing pathology and fixing deficits limits our ability to assist children with ASD and their parents to lead more satisfying, resilient lives. We ask parents to look within themselves as well as within their children to identify such islands and to reinforce and nurture them.

Guidepost 5 Helping Children Learn from Rather Than Feel Defeated by Mistakes. We offer a more in-depth explanation of this Guidepost later in this article.

Guidepost 6 Teaching Children to Solve Problems and Make Sound Decisions. The attitude of resilient youngsters is that mistakes serve as catalysts for problem solving. Such youngsters believe they have control over what transpires in their lives rather than being victims of events. Though teaching problem-solving skills to children with ASD may at times feel like a Herculean task, it represents one of the most important responsibilities we have as caregivers and educators to help children with ASD develop a social resilient mindset.

Guidepost 7 Disciplining in Ways that Promote Self-Discipline and Self-Worth. One of the main responsibilities of parents and educators is to model and teach discipline. The word discipline relates to the word disciple and is best understood as a teaching process.

Guidepost 8 Developing Responsibility, Compassion, and a Social Conscience. We have asserted that there appears to be an inborn need to help others (Brooks and Goldstein 2001). Given the lifelong, positive influence of what we label “contributory activities,” having children help others is a strategy we consistently recommend to parents and teachers of children with ASD.

In this article we will further explore Guidepost 5 as the mindset of a child with ASD about mistakes is critical for him.

Guidepost 5
Resilient children view mistakes as opportunities for learning, while those who lack confidence often perceive mistakes as indications that they are failures. In response to this pessimistic view, they may retreat from challenges, experience feelings of inadequacy, project blame on others, and lose hope for success in the future. Thus, if we are to raise children with ASD to be resilient, we must help them develop a healthy attitude toward mistakes and setbacks. Understanding the following obstacles and principles can help facilitate this task.

Three Obstacles
Given their biological make-up, children with ASD often perceive situations in rigid, black-and-white terms that contribute to their overreacting emotionally and repetitively to setbacks. In addition, they have difficulty considering different options for succeeding at a task that has proved problematic. Consequently, they feel lost when they encounter failure.

Even well-intentioned parents may react to their children’s mistakes in ways that are counterproductive, displaying annoyance and frustration. Intensifying this situation is the fact that many youngsters with ASD interpret any parental correction as criticism. The behavior of these children often invites more correction than behavior of children who are not on the spectrum.

Unrealistic expectations on the part of parents serve as a key obstacle in children with ASD learning to handle mistakes. Parents may believe that when children with ASD display success in one area, they are capable of achieving success in other areas. For example, a child with ASD may memorize math facts or baseball averages but not remember to respond when greeted by another person; since the memory of these children is solid in one domain, parents may unrealistically expect the same skills to work in another area.

Three Principles
Parents must serve as role models for managing mistakes and failures effectively. Our words and actions in response to life’s challenges cannot help but affect our children. If children with ASD witness parents backing away from challenges, offering excuses for mistakes, and becoming frustrated and angry at setbacks, it is not surprising if they show the same behaviors. Children need role models who demonstrate effective coping strategies.

It is important that parents and other caregivers set realistic expectations. In keeping this principle in mind, we must recognize that what is realistic for one child may not be realistic for another child of the same age. Developmental skills and milestones are very different for youngsters with ASD compared with typically developing peers. Setting expectations is often a balancing act. Expectations that are too high will contribute to consistent failure and an ongoing attack on a child’s self-esteem and confidence. However, if expectations are set too low, they will rob children of learning new skills. Low expectations may also communicate the message that adults do not have faith in the child with ASD to have the capacity to master challenges.

Our love for our children with ASD should not be influenced by or contingent on how many mistakes they make. Children become angry and weary if they believe that parental love and acceptance are conditional. Expressions of love must not be lessened in the face of a child with ASD failing at a task. In the absence of unconditional love, it is difficult for children with ASD to truly believe that they can learn from—rather than feel defeated by—mistakes.

Despite well-founded worries about youth with ASD and their future, there is reason to be optimistic about the large body of emerging research defining differences in children with ASD. Parents and educators can effectively target these differences for intervention, thereby successfully modifying adverse behaviors at young ages and helping children develop socially appropriate skills. Understanding the different components of a social resilient mindset can serve to guide all adults raising or working with children and adolescents with ASD to nurture an outlook and skills in these youngsters that will help them navigate with greater success and happiness their journey in life.


Sam Goldstein, PhD, is an assistant clinical instructor at the University of Utah School of Medicine and clinical director of the Neurology Learning and Behavior Center. Robert Brooks, PhD, is a faculty member of Harvard Medical School. They are co-authors of a dozen books including Raising Resilient Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (McGraw-Hill, 2011). They can be reached through their websites www.samgoldstein.com and www.drrobertbrooks.com.

Adams, L. W. 2009. Parenting on the Autism Spectrum: A Survival Guide. San Diego, CA: Plural Publishing.
Brooks, R., and S. Goldstein. 2001. Raising Resilient Children. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Brooks, R., and S. Goldstein. 2004. The Power of Resilience: Achieving Balance, Confidence, and Personal Strength in Your Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Brooks, R., and S. Goldstein. 2007. Raising a Self-Disciplined Child. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Brooks, R., and S. Goldstein. 2011. Raising Resilient Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Goldstein, S., and R. Brooks. 2007. Understanding and Managing Children’s Classroom Behavior: Creating Resilient, Sustainable Classrooms. New York: Wiley.
Goldstein, S., and R. Brooks, eds. 2012. Handbook of Resilience in Children. 2nd edition. New York: Springer.
Goldstein, S., J. Naglieri, and S. Ozonoff, eds. 2008. Assessment of Autism. New York: Guilford Press.
Robinson, R. G. 2011. Autism Solutions: How to Create a Healthy and Meaningful Life for Your Child. Don Mills, Ontario: Harlequin.
Sicile-Kira, C., and J. Sicile-Kira. 2012. A Full Life with Autism: From Learning to Forming Relationships to Achieving Independence. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.


Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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