Help Me! I am Stuck! Combatting Learned Helplessness in Autism

Learned Helplessness in Autism

Help Me! I am Stuck! Combatting Learned Helplessness in Autism

I know I go on and on about it. I need to – our students and children REQUIRE us to remove the bubble wrap so they can GROW.

If you missed the Bubble Wrap blog be sure to go back and check it out here.

Every single adult with autism that I know tells me that the key to their success is that that were taught to push through fear (with a lot of support) and to wrestle with struggle. One thing is certain – those individuals with autism who have thrived learned how to resist learned helplessness and navigate challenges with support. They weren’t sheltered from the pain of disappointment, discomfort and failure.

It is entirely reasonable that people who live with autism would be susceptible to a believing that they are incapable of success in areas of their lives that are difficult. A learned helplessness mindset can become ingrained because they are repeatedly being barraged by an overwhelming sensory and perceptual experience. Add to that, the complexity of the social world, as well as emotional storms and neurological surprises. The autistic brain perceives the world differently and can easily miss the ‘big picture’ while getting over focused on one part of the situation and fail to see alternative choices or options. This isn’t a choice. It’s the way the brain with autism works.

Dr. Barry Prizant argues that a core feature of autism is the inordinate difficulty of staying regulated emotionally and physiologically. When your body and your emotions feel constantly unstable and ‘on guard’ for fight or flight, it is pretty tough to stay calm and open to learning. It makes sense that giving up and believing you have no control becomes ingrained as a mindset. Unable to control anxiety-provoking situations leads a person to gives up, become passive, and shuts down. Those who don’t live with a brain wired with autism have no idea how incredibly brave these individuals are to even leave their beds in the morning!!

Temple Grandin, shares, “My primary emotion is fear.” Individuals often fear the uncertainty that comes with learning new things and taking risks. Staying in a comfort zone is not about being ‘non- compliant’ or defiant. It is truly a matter of feeling safe – a very human condition.

It bears repeating that we adults (educators, parents and caregivers) play a critical role in reshaping the helpless mindset. Sadly, too often, we feed the helplessness rather than change it.

How do we nurture a helpless mindset in our children and students?

  1. We lower the expectation because of the disability, thinking they are not capable, often holding the child back or expecting less than their peers or siblings – “He has autism.”
  2. We choose not to ‘push them’ because of their opposition, anxiety, and fear of meltdowns – “I am too tired to fight. I can’t make him do something he doesn’t want to do.”
  3. With our busy lives and crazy demands, it is simply faster to do it ourselves, then to teach them, practice and persevere as long as it takes – “It’s easier to just do it myself.”

We all struggle and want to give up at times. It is part of the human condition. But, for people with autism, especially children, there are many more factors that make the struggle harder. But, this just means that we have to roll up our sleeves and decide HOW we can nudge kids with autism just beyond their comfort zone in small incremental steps.

What can educators, parents, and grandparents do to help? 

Here are two ways to begin the process:


Presume competence:
Begin thinking my child/student CAN do this, I just need to figure out what supports and skills I need to teach, model and practice with the child.

Practice “We do” activities:
Rather than standing back and prompting the child through a task, work side by side and do it together. The child follows your lead as you
guide and assist. When a child is expected to be an “active participant” in everything, he gains feelings of competence.

Praise genuine effort and hard work rather than innate ability:
Children will persevere and engage in a task when they


Letting YOUR fears, concerns and beliefs hold the child back:
We want to protect kids who are vulnerable, but, sometimes, we actually stop growth because WE are trying to protect them from adversity.

Giving in to protests and comfort zones:
Decide HOW the child can accomplish a new task or experience, rather than IF they can.

Using absolute language:
Words such as, ‘never, ‘always,’ ‘all,’ are very dangerous because they rarely true. If we want to help children develop a growth mindset, we need to police our use of words that make negative events seem permanent and prevalent – exactly, the issue we are trying to change!  (ie. “I never do well in math.” “You are always whiny.”)

This blog could actually morph into a book because the problem of learned helplessness is so pervasive in autism specifically and in children in general. We will dive deeper in the next blog to learn more ways to combat this debilitating mindset.

Until then, let’s watch our words and choose optimism!

As always, please share this post with anyone you know whose life is touched by autism.

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