Moving Beyond “I can’t do it”

I can’t. I won’t try.

We’ve all heard these words at some point.

Feeling helpless and incapable is a very real problem that arises for our kids with autism (and those without it as well).

Why does having autism seem to lead to learned helplessness? Part of the answer is uncomfortable for those of us who parent, educate or work with these children.

Quite frankly, we tend to feed those helpless feelings. We allow anxiety, tears, and emotional drama to convince us to take over and get the job done when the child struggles to do a task. If we are not intentionally and consistently counteracting the child’s dependence with our words and actions, then we are promoting the dependence and powerlessness.

Children with autism, even those with severe autism, are capable of SO MUCH MORE than we often give them credit for. Time and again I hear parents and teachers report that a child will perform some skill or complete a task for one of them, but, not for the other. Even worse, is when both parents and educators give in to the belief of the child’s incapability in some areas of functioning.

Think that this doesn’t apply to you and your child? Listen carefully to these thoughts or words: “Oh, he can’t do that. She isn’t able to…”

How Can You Help?

  • Watch for small, seemingly insignificant opportunities to nudge the child to do something as independently as possible: zip zipper, put pants on, wash hands, set table, make a phone call (with a script), order own food, ask for help, washing laundry and so on.
  • Be consistent and intentional in taking action to seize those opportunities and work with the person to actually DO the task. Use varying prompt levels to help the child do absolutely as much of the task as he/she physically can.
  • Repeat this activity over and over again so that the child ingrains the patterns and feelings of success.
  • Together with the child, keep a visual record, such as a Success Book, of ALL successes so that he or she can reference those when doubt creeps in. Review the book frequently – definitely at bedtime to end the day on a positive and empowering note. This allows us to celebrate success (provide counter evidence to their belief that they cannot) and give energy to those opportunities when the person reclaimed their autonomy and made a positive choice.
  • Be sure to praise the specific actions rather than using vague language, “You did a great job walking up to the counter and asking for the chocolate bar.”
  • Avoid (at this point) explaining how they can improve. Give credit for the specific action and for choosing the mindset shift, “I can do it.”


What NOT To Do:

  • Do the task for them. Avoid verbal reasoning (trying to convince them) and emotional pleas. Stick to the logic and action steps.
  • Avoid rushing or putting time constraints as doing so only increases anxiety.
  • Be sure to celebrate even the smallest of attempts at independent functioning for children with autism.

Autism by nature, makes tasks that are relatively simple for many folks, more anxiety provoking and hard to do for those who live with autism. But, recusing those we care about from struggle and adversity is not always a loving thing to do. Observe your own actions carefully – are you missing opportunities to allow a child with autism to perform a task as independently as possible?

So instead of saying “Oh, he can’t do that. She isn’t able to…“, ask instead “how could this child do this himself”?

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