A parent recently asked a question about her autistic child and radical self-acceptance.
She described him as being very inquisitive about his differences and having a strong sense of self. He is aware of his diagnosis, has terrific self-esteem…but he is currently quite young. The mom is worried about adolescence and whether or not he will continue to feel good about himself once there is more social pressure to conform and hide differences.
She writes, “I just hope he can hold on to this radical self-acceptance through middle and high school. Any tips from adults who identify as autistic would be very welcome.”
So, I asked a few autistic adults what helped or would have helped them navigate those notoriously challenging teen years. I also requested input from parents who write frequently about radical self-acceptance for their spectrum children.
Here are their responses. Thanks to everyone for both this question and these eloquent, insightful responses. (My sense is that much of this is applicable to anyone, not just spectrum peeps, given how difficult adolescence and the whole being-human thing can be.)
Ally Grace, mom and “gentle parenting” advocate who writes at the ‘Suburban Mamma’ FB page–
I think that true acceptance is an innate feeling, sense of being, and calmness in yourself. That is not to say that having acceptance of self means we’d never get shaken up, or never feel doubt or sadness, or that we’d never question ourselves. But I feel that it means an unconditional acceptance of ourselves, of the things that come naturally with us as people, and of our feelings in all their forms.
I feel that so many people who are now adults were raised with shame as a main parenting tool. We can feel these results and know how hurtful it can be to have internalized doubt and shame, and naturally want to protect our own children from feeling unworthy. I feel that with my own children, I am nurturing an innate sense of worth by respecting them, by being open about being autistic, and by accepting being autistic as valid. I try to convey that this is not because of anything in particular about being autistic or because of a skill or a positive aspect of it, but just because that’s who we are. You don’t have to prove to your kids that they’re worthy, if you treat them like they are. And when you do truly accept them as their wonderful autistic selves, there will be a shift and a change at a subconscious level.
Until you do this, you’re not in the optimum position to give that understanding of innate worth to your child. By nurturing our kids’ feelings, big emotions (including anger and other emotions that may trigger us as parents), hard times, and mistakes – with kindness instead of blame – we can show them that they deserve kindness because they are innately deserving of that. This is not the same thing as shielding them from hardship, getting involved to prevent difficulties or mistakes, or believing that happiness or worth means constant joy; I think it can be summed up in respecting our children and not stigmatizing any part of them.
People who believe in their own worth, still experience hard times and self doubt; but the difference will be in the default conclusions they end up coming to in those situations. Open communication and continued acceptance of our kids’ feelings and hard times (without taking it personally and instead helping them manage and feel supported) are in my opinion the most important factors for these things. Those things are linked together also, because without unconditional acceptance of our kids, they will not feel comfortable communicating openly with us, which would mean we’re unable to help them through difficult times.
I would reiterate to your son regularly that being autistic isn’t bad or something which he should be ashamed. Remind him that there is a community of us out there who are autistic, and proudly so. If he feels this way, allow/encourage him to state it as fact. He can embrace it, speak of it, and openly advocate for himself. Teach him to advocate clearly his needs and perhaps have him sit in on his IEPs, if he’s able. (IEP = Individualized Education Program.)
Being autistic is a matter of neurological wiring. It’s an integral part of who he is. Arm him with information.
Emma, autistic writer and delightful maker of trouble, blogging at Lemon Peel–
1: “Protecting your sense of self during adolescence” is challenging for the large majority of humans, so I mean, I feel like a certain degree of self-questioning and insecurity is a natural part of growing up/dealing with the changes that happen in your immediate social environment during those times. I think we would all love to still be “radically self-accepting” the way most younger children supposedly are, but starting to get a coherent sense of how other people treat you and interact with you is like, super important if a kid is going to grow up to have good self-advocacy skills. Obviously he has to believe in himself and know that he deserves to have his needs met no matter how “atypical” they are. But going through a certain degree of adolescent and young-adult socio-emotional mind****ery can be a constructive, important process if one has access to good social and emotional supports.
2: Location, location, location. For an autistic kid, my social experiences of middle and high school were like…unbelievably better than 99% of people’s (academically, things were a more complicated story). And that was mainly because I was able to attend really awesome schools that had very unusual social atmospheres and dynamics: a very small Montessori middle school, followed by a mid-sized, but extremely close-knit, all-girls Catholic prep school for high school. Not everyone has access to schools as ridiculous as mine for like an infinite number of reasons, but if the family has access to multiple options when it comes to their kid’s middle- and high-schools, taking the time to figure out which might provide the best environment for their son can make a really big difference in how his adolescence goes.
3: Autistic friends autistic friends autistic mentors autistic friends autistic pen pals autistic role-models autistic relatives autistic friends autistic fan-fiction headcanons; seriously just as much autistic human presence as possible, really though.
4: If the kid’s got a “team” of either physicians, psychologists, therapists, OTs, etc. and they’ve been really supportive, maintaining that team through middle and high school can provide a stable support network of adults who he knows he can get help from and problem-solve with. Especially if he’s verbal, and might (or already does) benefit from just having a, like…feelings-talky/daily-living-skills-help/social-coping therapist who he likes and who knows him? That’s such an useful resource and emotional support for some teens, especially if that relationship can be already in place before/while he transitions into middle and high school.
5: Make sure he has activities/interests to work on and engage with that are separate from both his schoolwork and the social environment of his school. Non-school-affiliated sports teams, interest/hobby groups, art classes, computer science/programming, hands-on inventing/constructing, community service or volunteering, etc. etc. Anything so that he has a source of happy feelings, positive/comfortable interactions (with people, with animals, with…robots, w/e), and self-esteem boosts that isn’t dependent on him being good at his homework/lessons, or being liked/respected by his classmates. It’s not that they should expect him to suck at school and have no friends–it’s just that those are such big sources of stress for all teens, and autistic teens exponentially more so. When I was having lots of academic trouble, was constantly fighting with my parents, and had terrible social anxiety in high school, the one thing that really saved me was my non-“academic” extracurriculars and the people they connected me with.
Courtney, autistic mom and radical unschooling advocate is a contributor for Respectfully Connected–
I feel like Emma really said a lot of what I would say, and so much more eloquently. I was not diagnosed until I was an adult. Growing up, I felt different but did not understand why I was different. (other than that social stuff was extremely hard and I was perceived as dramatic, difficult and excessively picky about food/clothes/lights etc).
Radical self acceptance to me means knowing that being autistic is a source of pride and that there are many, many autistic teens and adults who are waiting to provide community and friendship. The advice of autistic people is the most valuable information a person can receive. When the rest of the world seems to be saying “You are wrong for being this way”, fellow autistics will make you feel welcome and at home. Finding the neurodiversity movement and other autistics made me feel less alone. In middle school and high school there is a ton of pressure to fit in regardless of neurology. It can be especially tempting when it feels like you don’t care about what everyone else seems to be completely focused on. Resist the urge to tamp down your personality or try to fit in by being anyone except who you are. Stay true to who you are. Embrace what makes you different, explore your special interests with fervor and passion and with no secrecy or embarrassment.
Surround yourself with people who get you and love you for exactly who you are. If you can find online or IRL groups for autistic teens, seek them out. Find other people who practice radical self acceptance and shut out the negative people as much as possible.
Sit in on IEP meetings. Advocate for yourself as soon and as much as possible. I love Emma’s idea of a different school. If that is possible, that would be great. Otherwise many can find good experiences in regular public schools with the right teachers and accommodations. I became friends with the creative writing teacher and hung out in the photography lab. There are some great teacher/mentors who share your interests and will help you nurture them.
Read blogs by other autistic self advocates, especially teens and young adults. There are many writers and every day I find new blogs from emerging young writers. the next generation of advocates are your age and they are making their voices known. If you feel comfortable, join them.