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Developing Positive Character Strengths

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by Jemma Grindstaff, PhD
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| March/April 2012

In recent years psychologists have begun to recognize that diagnosing disorders and providing effective treatments for them represents just a fraction of our potential to make people’s lives happier, healthier, and more fulfilling. Gradually there has been a shift in focus—from deficits to strengths and from symptom relief to well-being. The same shift has become apparent in the field of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It is now well accepted that best practice includes an assessment of the strengths and interests of the individual with autism—not merely his or her limitations. Furthermore, you will hear famous spokespersons, such as Dr. Temple Grandin, or established programs, such as UNC’s Division TEACCH, advocate that we incorporate a person’s “special interests” into his or her everyday tasks as a way to sustain attention and increase motivation. These principles should be embedded in any treatment approach.

I believe the next logical step for parents and professionals who live and work with people on the spectrum will be to follow the path of psychology in general—to embrace this new “positive psychology.” Dr. Martin Seligman is considered the “father” of positive psychology because he was the first to find research evidence that we can prevent depression by promoting happiness (Seligman 1991). His emphasis on the importance of positive emotions led others to consider a variety of “protective factors” that might improve not only mental health, but also one’s overall sense of life satisfaction.

Researchers have found support for several character traits that enable people to experience greater well-being, even in the midst of difficult circumstances (Snyder and Lopez 2002). These include courage, resilience, optimism, and self-efficacy. I believe these traits are of paramount importance for individuals with ASD as they must cope with the day-to-day difficulties that their neurological differences present. Most of the parents with whom I work want, above all else, for their children to be happy, to feel content, to have a “good life.” Positive character traits contribute to their quality of life far more than attempts to extinguish maladaptive behaviors. Challenging behaviors shouldn’t be left unchecked any more than depression should go untreated. However, I am fully convinced that we often get “the cart before the horse” by trying to get rid of the deficits without developing these character strengths.

Let me give you an analogy. My husband is an avid white-water kayaker. He enjoys the thrill of Class 5 white water, and every time he goes on the river, there is some chance he could drown. He assures me that he knows how to take care of himself because, when kayaking, your boat always goes in the direction you are looking. If there is a hazard to avoid, the cardinal rule is not to look at the hazard, but to look at the safe spot where you are aiming. If you do this you will arrive safely at your destination. I believe families and individuals with ASD can arrive at their desired destinations—happiness, contentment, and well-being—by looking toward these positive character traits and intentionally developing them, which at the same time will also decrease challenging behaviors, improve relationships, and result in greater participation in the community.

I find that courage is an especially valuable trait for people on the spectrum and, not surprisingly, it is a trait many of my friends and clients already possess. For them the little unpredictables of life can be anxiety-provoking. Will the sun hurt my eyes? Will the wind blow and whistle in my ears? Will my shoes get muddy? Concerns like these can turn a usually fun experience like recess into a nightmare.

The first step in developing courage is to define it. One young man with whom I work gave me this definition: “Courage is feeling afraid, but doing what you need to do anyway.” With this definition in mind, the goal becomes not to get rid of fear, because it is inevitable that you will feel afraid sometimes, but to encourage acts of bravery. We are now working together to identify ways in which he is already brave, so that he can recognize and delight in his own accomplishments. Once he has a sense of what courage looks like, we will devise small, incremental steps in which he can demonstrate greater courage in the face of his fears.

Resilience is a related, but distinct, concept. A friend on the spectrum described it to me this way: “It’s being able to bounce back from the curveballs that life throws you.” She has experienced quite a few “curveballs” because she has difficulty predicting how other people will respond to her, so their behavior continually causes her surprise and (sometimes) consternation. Yet she continues to pursue relationships with other people; she has not given up on her belief that relationships are important and she can make meaningful connections. I admire her tenacity. She will not be deterred from her goal, and this is what gives her resilience even after miscommunications and missed social opportunities. One interesting detail about this friend is that she does not view herself as resilient because she tends to dwell on her failures, rather than her ability to persist.

Optimism is more than seeing life as “half full.” It’s a cognitive style that realistically attributes your successes to factors that you can control. For example, you are optimistic when you perform well on an exam. You believe you were able to do this because you studied hard and put forward your best effort. The converse is true for attributions about failure. An optimist does not say, “I’m no good at reading people.” An optimist would say, “I can learn how to understand others’ facial expressions.” This idea is positive, but it’s more than that. It’s specific, skill-oriented, and leaves the door open for change. This is not “Pollyanna” thinking that somehow everything will turn out okay; this is a filter for interpreting life’s events that empowers the individual with ASD to take actions that have a positive outcome.
Furthermore, optimism is not just a personality trait that is either absent or present. People can learn to counteract their pessimistic thoughts with optimistic ones. A good bit of cognitive-behavioral therapy is based on the premise that “unhelpful” thoughts (like pessimism) can be restructured to promote well-being. I have discovered that this is a positive character trait that takes a lot of time and practice to develop. My friend made a list of “positive mantras” that she refers to when she begins to have pessimistic thoughts about the future, but she still needs reminders to review her list; it is far from automatic for her to think in this new way.

In my work with children, adolescents, and adults on the spectrum, I often emphasize the importance of self-efficacy. If self-esteem is the idea, “I am a valuable person and I feel good about who I am,” then self-efficacy is the idea that “I am an effective person and I feel good about what I do.” This concept intersects with and underlies the other positive character traits in a foundational way. I also find that, for persons with ASD, self-efficacy is more relevant and meaningful than other types of social cognition. For example, self-efficacy is more concrete than self-esteem. It’s easier to understand, and it’s easier to change. People on the spectrum can receive tangible feedback that increases their self-efficacy. I don’t mean that they earn rewards like food, stickers, or privileges (though they may); they want to know that they’ve done a good job and take satisfaction in carrying out tasks independently.
If a task itself is structured in such a way that the person can tell for certain that it has been done correctly, they “own” that accomplishment in a way that others’ praise or any external reinforcement cannot convey. This is perhaps an unintended consequence of providing visual supports: the ability to see (literally) one’s successes.
These are just four positive character traits that may contribute to one’s overall sense of well-being. There are others to consider (e.g., humor, kindness, gratitude), and more will be identified in the field of positive psychology in the future. First recognizing and then developing positive character strengths is not necessarily easy work, but it’s well worth the investment of time and energy because both the process and the end result move us closer to that universal goal: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”—in other words, a life well lived.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2012. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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