Building Success Habits in Autism: Retraining 3 Thinking Errors

Building Success Habits in Autism

Building Success Habits in Autism: Retraining 3 Thinking Errors

Life happens. Good stuff. Bad stuff.

Every human has to deal with a range of events that impact their well being. We may not have control over WHAT happens in some cases. But, we always have control over what we tell ourselves about what happens.

What we tell ourselves matters. A lot.

Autistic brain wiring may nudge default thought patterns towards a negative, pessimistic explanatory style. People who live with autism are more vulnerable to life challenges because they also have to contend with extreme sensitivity to the environment and sensory stimuli, literal and/or rigid thinking, and difficulty negotiating the fast-paced social world they live in. It is sadly, no surprise that higher levels of depression, anxiety, phobias and paranoia compared to the general population exist among those with autism.

For those of us serving individuals with autism – parents, community support people, educators, grandparents – it is imperative that we identify and then actively retrain negative thought patterns. Hoping that somehow, they will magically morph into optimistic thoughts is delusional. Errors in thinking, like bad weeds, need to be targeted so that a sense of well being, resilience and happiness can grow. 

How do we do that?

When something happens, whether we realize it or not, we explain the event to ourselves in 3 dimensions: the 3 P’s described by Martin Seligman, a well-known psychologist. These P’s are ways that we see the world that impact our BELIEF and subsequently, our ACTIONS.

First, practice examining thinking patterns (our own and our children/students’) based on the 3 P’s:

Permanence:  Is the child taking a temporary situation and making it permanent? Our kids often assume bad things are permanent and think once they fail at some time, they’ll always fail at it. They don’t even realize they think this way—we need to point it out to them. Give them specific, real examples to combat this thinking.

Pervasiveness: Does the child think that difficulty or failure in one area predicts that they will “suck” at everything in life. Help them list their strengths (keep it concrete, with specifics examples). These don’t have to be big things. Then engage them in these strengths as often as possible.

Personalization: Deciding who is at fault – When bad things happen, children can blame themselves (internal) or they can blame other people or circumstances (external).

Accurate self-perception and realistic responsibility is critical for self esteem and wellbeing. When problems ARE their fault we can help them take responsibility and correct their behavior (rather than blaming their character – “I am lazy, stupid, careless etc.…”). These thoughts and explanations are damaging to self esteem and will lead to despair because they are permanent and pervasive.

On the other hand, when we can identify factors that caused a bad situation, we can help to reduce the blame and criticism our children put on themselves.

The following chart will give some concrete examples that may be familiar to you.

Pessimistic Explanations

  • I will never pass math because I can’t do math.
  • My teacher is mean.
  • I can not go to the mall because it is always too loud and busy.
  • No one likes me.
  • I am not a good reader.
  • I didn’t do well because I am not smart.
  • I always mess up. 

Optimistic Explanations

  • I am struggling with math but if I keep working with my tutor, I will get it.
  • My teacher was frustrated during music class.
  • I can go to the mall when it opens because there are less people and it is quieter.
  • Three boys on my bus ignore me. But other kids are friendly with me.
  • I failed the reading test, but, I am still a good reader and I enjoy reading.
  • I didn’t do well because I only studied the day before the test. I will have to start earlier next time.
  • Everyone makes mistakes. I am no different than everyone else.

Next, practice retraining and reframing thinking by incorporating discussion into everyday life.

  • Play Change the Explanation Game. Using situations with characters in books, on TV, or even personal experiences that arise, have them tell you or write or draw how the experience could be Impersonal, Impermanent, and Specific.

  • Play the Optimism/Pessimism Game. In a fun, light hearted way, correctly identify whether an interpretation is Optimistic or Pessimistic using real events as they occur, movies, stories and TV shows.

  • Keep a visual list of Optimistic and Pessimistic phrases as they come up in your home or classroom in order to make concrete what is abstract.

  • Read books with kids and teens about positive thinking and optimism. Feed their mindset consistently with stories, affirmations, videos and your own statements of hope, gratitude and optimistic explanations.

  • Monitor our own explanatory messages, catch ourselves defaulting to the negative and model our own reframing of our thoughts.

When we review our own explanatory style honestly and encourage children to do the same, we challenge the pessimistic ‘default setting. Doing so teaches us and individuals with autism to be more resilient in the future.

Kids with autism can easily fall into the mental trap of explaining things as permanent, personal, and pervasive. This kind of thinking leads them to feel and act helpless. It is up to the adults in their lives to help them identify those explanations and reframe them in order to empower our kids and teach them hope and persistence.

Share your ways to change negative thinking patterns and build more effective beliefs. As always, please share this post with anyone you know whose life is touched by autism. 

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