Dear Dr. Luskin,
My 15-year-old was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder when he was 10. Recently we have noticed him making a lot of negative statements about his autism. He does not want to have anything to do with others with ASD because he “does not want to be weird”. How do we help him accept his diagnosis?
It can be tough to ask someone to change if they don't want to, but there are some things that you can do to help your son feel more at ease. First, remember that adolescence is hard for most people, and as teens become more self-aware they become more sensitive to being different in any way. Your son’s rejection of his diagnosis is in part due to his increasing ability to be aware of how others see him.
It's also important to be very careful how you communicate your own attitude. Even though ASD can be frustrating at times remember not to use language that indicates that you think having a child with ASD is a problem. If you see messages that talk about the “tragedy” of autism or “suffering from” autism, be sure that you let your child know that you think those messages are wrong.
Make sure that your own language and behavior conveys the message that while ASD means that your child may do some things differently and some things may be hard for him, you see the ASD as a part of the child you love –not something to be gotten rid of or hidden.
Some parents will use ASD as an excuse to lower their expectations for their child. This does not actually help them feel better. Our children learn to feel good about themselves when we give them opportunities to succeed at things, especially things that may be challenging for them, so be sure to set reasonable challenges for your child. Expect him to do his homework, help around the house, and participate in other activities that are important to your family.
Try to find activities and settings that highlight your child’s strengths. Encouraging him to find clubs or social groups centered on activities that he is good at gives him the chance to be seen for his strengths. Sometimes helping with others who are younger or who are significantly challenged by a disability may help remind him that there are those who have even more challenges than he does whom he can help.
Do remember that the most important thing parents do for their children is let them know that they are loved unconditionally for who they are and that they are competent people who have something to give the world. If you can be sure that you have that attitude it will come through to your child. He still may speak negatively about his ASD, but in the long run, you will give him a positive attitude about himself.