Being Who You
Dan Coulter, November 15, 2005
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Lots of kids
aren't happy being who they are.
Particularly if they have neurobiological conditions that make
them tend to act different from other kids. Conditions like
Asperger Syndrome, Higher Functioning Autism, Pervasive
Developmental Disorder, Semantic-Pragmatic Disorder and others.
This can be hard on parents, too. When your child doesn't easily
fit in, it's sometimes difficult to know when to keep him away
from a situation that might make him feel worse about himself -
or when it's best to keep him in a situation so he learns to
deal with the world.
Being rejected is hard. That's when it's tempting for a kid to
wish he was someone else - or at least wish he could be more
like other kids. A new neighborhood, a new classroom, a new
group of kids may seem like a chance to be someone else. He may
think if he doesn't tell kids he meets about his condition, they
Too often, of course, they notice - and tend to avoid him.
Partly because they don't know the reason for his "different"
behavior and don't know what they'd be getting into by
associating with him.
So how can parents help bridge the gap?
By giving our kids reasons to be confident.
Confidence is magic. Have you ever noticed how people who are
confident are social magnets? We tend to appreciate someone who
is confident and who can demonstrate an ability we respect. Of
course, being confident doesn't mean bragging or monopolizing a
conversation. Projecting confidence without going overboard is
an important social skill for our kids to learn.
Recently, I was looking through my high school yearbook. I was
surprised when I came across one of my friend's pictures.
Frankly, I remembered her as being a lot prettier. Then I
realized, I'd confused being pretty with being attractive. She
had a confident personality. She acted like she was attractive,
so she was. There was much more to her than that yearbook
picture could capture.
It was a lesson that we have some control over who we are. We
can shape how other people perceive us by how we act towards
them. Of course, learning to project confidence is not like
learning to put on a coat. It's more like learning to play the
piano. Not everyone can be a concert pianist, but anyone who
works hard at practicing the piano is going to learn to play
Of course, our kids need things to be confident about, so we
need to find and nurture their strengths. We also need to help
them master everyday skills so they're comfortable dealing with
real world situations.
When my son, Drew -- who has Asperger Syndrome -- was growing
up, it was sometimes hard to know what he could learn do on his
own. My wife and I discovered a bit about self-fulfilling
prophecies. When we acted worried that he couldn't learn
something and continued to do it for him, he tended to let us.
When we showed him we expected him do something on his own, he
learned to do it, even if it took a while.
Every kid has different capabilities, of course, but isn't it
devastating to think you may be holding your child back by being
over-protective or underestimating him? Every kid fails a bit as
I heard a self-help guru talk about teaching a child to walk. No
little kid gets it on the first try. Or the second. Or the
third. How would you respond if someone said to you at that
point, "He's still falling down. I guess you'll have to carry
him the rest of his life." You'd say, "No way! My kid is going
to walk!" And you'd help him keep trying until he made it.
Like many other parents of kids with an autism spectrum
disorder, I watched a recent episode of the TV show "Supernanny,"
in which the host brought in an autism expert (Lynn Kern Koegel,
PhD) to help a family who has an autistic son.
The most important aspect of the program showed the parents
learning that their autistic child was capable of far more than
they'd imagined. Some of the training methods they learned were
tough and didn't show immediate results. But in sticking with
it, the family helped the three-year old boy with autism begin
interacting positively and even start talking.
As parents, we all want to help our kids succeed, not make them
overly dependent. The need to help our kids learn independence
also applies to parents of kids without special needs. I saw
learning expert Dr. Mel Levine on TV recently, talking about
kids attending college today with unrealistic expectations. He
said many have had their activities managed so heavily by their
parents that they hadn't learned to plan and advocate for
themselves. These kids expected to get good jobs right out of
college and be granted quick promotions to exciting careers -
without any special effort on their part. It was as if they
assumed someone in the work world would take over their parents'
role of watching out for them.
My son called his mom and me from college the other day and left
a concerned message. He was missing some paperwork he needed to
deal with the campus bureaucracy and make sure he got his first
paycheck for his student job on campus -- and he wanted us to
look for it and call him back.
We couldn't find what he needed, but we called back and left him
a message, ready to offer advice on dealing with the situation.
When we finally connected, he'd found the paperwork in his dorm
room, met with the person he needed to see and solved the
problem on his own. That was a small victory in the grand scheme
of things, but a great moment for us as parents.
It reminded me of other moments, like when Drew started buying
things in stores by himself, after we helped him remember to
focus on not getting distracted when standing in a checkout line
and how to deal with the checkout clerk. It reminded me of him
getting his driver's license after lots and lots of practice
with us and a driving school instructor.
And there were times when what seemed like liabilities turned
out to be assets in disguise. For example, Drew had real trouble
writing in grade school. Forming letters was difficult for him.
His sentences were tentative and awkward. It would have been
easy to assume he just couldn't write. But we found it was
actually a mechanical problem. Because Drew had trouble with his
handwriting, he often lost his train of thought before he could
capture it. When he began dictating his work, his sentences
became increasingly sophisticated. Later, when he started
working on a computer, keyboarding let him write freely on his
own. Now he's an English major who's considering a career in
technical writing and who's working on a novel.
Mastering everyday skills, being a good writer and being an
expert in Japanese anime are just a few of the things that make
Drew a lot more confident and happy now than he was when he was
younger. He's hit some walls in getting to where he is today.
But the experience has helped him learn to get over them or take
Having Asperger Syndrome is a part of who Drew is. He's
confident enough to be open about it with anyone he feels needs
to know. Among other things, this means he doesn't have to worry
about his friends "finding out" and wondering if having AS was
something he felt he had to conceal.
It's easy for a kid who's considered odd and who takes take lots
of hits to his self-esteem to want to hide why he's different.
But if he can gain the confidence to help classmates see his
differences for what they are -- and look past them to see his
strengths -- he's taking a big step toward having people in his
future appreciate him for who he is.
Sometimes you find that the person you really want to be is
somewhere inside you. You just have to find a way to let him
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dan Coulter is the producer of the videos,
"INTRICATE MINDS II: Understanding Elementary School Classmates
with Asperger Syndrome" and "INTRICATE MINDS III: Understanding
Elementary School Classmates Who Think Differently." You can
find more articles on his website:
Copyright 2005 Dan Coulter All Rights Reserved Used By
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