How to Prevent Learned Helplessness…

Last night, Daniel’s progress report finally made it into my hands… several weeks late. It was late because Daniel didn’t want me to see it. The news wasn’t all bad. In three classes his grade had actually improved. However, in one class his grade had dropped 16%, from a solid A to a high C. In his math class, his grade had fallen another 3% finally placing him at a D. It was discouraging. Some days it seems like no matter how much I work and try to help Daniel, his struggles are never ending.

Then today, I read “Autism and Learned Helplessness” at In this post, Mr. Stillman discusses them impact our view and subsequently treat our special needs child has on the self-image and mental health of our child. It was both convicting and inspiring.

“I’m a strong proponent of the principle “prevention instead of intervention.” Not only do we wish to educate, support, accept and integrate people with autism fully and as early as possible, we also need to practice “prevention instead of intervention” with parents, caregivers, educators, law enforcement and the medical community. What does this mean? In the midst of applying a maze of treatments, therapies, medications and methodologies, it is imperative that we perceive the autistic one as capable and competent.

“We must perceive the autistic one as capable and competent.” When confronted with the same problem with my son for the 3 millionth time, it is easy to mentally dismiss him a “broken”.

I would not ever say “broken” out loud. I immediately feel so guilty that such a frustrated thought would cross my brain. However, it is a symptom of a sick perspective. A perspective that has to be constantly fought when faced with the daily struggle of raising a child on the spectrum.

As Mr. Stillman points out there are several ways to deal with this struggle. Many are unhealthy.

In my work as a consultant, I often observe what borders on psychological abuse in the manner by which parents, grandparents, educators, therapists, doctors and others describe the one with autism in front of them! To some, the child is a patient…a subject…a “behavior problem”…a thing.

Being emotionally attached to a person who struggles is emotionally draining. It is very logical, therefore, and sometimes even necessary to distance your emotions in order to be objective. Doctors often struggle with a conflict of interest if they are emotionally involved with a patient. As a parent to a special needs child, trying to protect myself emotionally is a delicate balance. At one extreme is a kind of callousness described above where I begin to make the child subhuman by acting as though they are unaware or not able to understand as I describe the negative aspects of their struggle in front of them. This is would be depressing to any individual. In those types of circumstances, it is surprising that the child ever does anything. Lapsing into learned helplessness is an easy choice.

Additionally, when we don’t presume intellect and perceive people with autism as perpetual children, we lower our expectations of them instead of raising the bar and challenging their intellect.

Struggling to determine the correct height to set my expectations for my Aspie son is another daily struggle. I do not want to set the bar so high that it is unreasonable and discouraging to my son. However, I firmly believe that challenging my child is one of the best ways to promote developmental progress. As I saw last night, this can sometimes be exhausting. Between the emotional pain of watching a child I love struggle so hard for milestones that others dismiss as minor and the mental exhaustion of trying to find new ways to challenge and recognize successes, I can understand why parents fall into the safer place of over-protection. Again, learned helplessness along with making trouble as a diversion becomes the path over-protection creates for our child.

“There have been many famed individuals and creative thinkers who have made significant contributions to our culture and who have been rumored to be on the autism spectrum (likely with Asperger’s), Charles Schultz, Thomas Jefferson, Vincent Van Gogh, Alfred Hitchcock and Bill Gates among them. The argument may be that they are all indeed “high-functioning.” But in autism, the perception of “high” and “low” functioning is limited only to the physical if we presume the cerebral intact.

I have been writing about a presentation I attended. The speaker was James Williams. He was diagnosed as a “Low functioning” autistic when he was a small child. Today, he is a twice published author. He travels around the country, alone, speaking at conferences. I have learned with him the truth of this quote. Low and high functioning in autism are very perception dependent. While not every Autistic child will be able to function as James can, I believe that all autistic children deserve no less than we would give our Neurotypical child, the expectation and support to reach their full potential, whatever that potential is.

This is not an easy proposition. As Mr. Stillman points out, many of the standards we use to measure success for Nuerotypicals do not apply to people on the spectrum. Because of this, I agree with Mr. Stillman when he says,

“This will require us to think in a manner that is inspired and to re-envision employment opportunities that will build upon individuals’ unique areas of expertise; focus upon interesting, detail-oriented work; identify quiet, gentle environments; not be deadine-specific; and use virtual online employment or self-employment options.”

Who is going to be at the forefront of advocating for this kind of social change. It has to be us, the parents, teachers and aids. As we discover how to help the creativity in our children blossom, we can teach the world around us how much our children have to offer. Not only how much they have to offer but how with reasonable changes, that creativity is readily available. We also can teach our children to better self advocate.

When faced with discouragement at continued struggles, I am learning to step back, re-evaluate and see if there is a new way to motivate, a new tool to offer my child, a tweak to the current process that may unlock another door for Daniel. I will reach out again to teachers to get input and give them ideas. I will re-address the struggle with Daniel with renewed compassion, balanced with continued expectations.

I liked how Mr. Stillman used Helen Keller as an example.

Helen Keller presented outwardly as among the most severely impaired yet she was brilliant for what she gained the world. Gathering together in support, seeking communication alternatives to speech, and making compassionate accommodations for each individual with autism—regardless of what their level of functioning purports to be—is not only necessary, it’s imperative. It’s what will distinguish progressive, innovative productivity from learned helplessness.

With that example, I reminded it was Helen’s parents hiring a tutor for her and her tutor’s persistent dedication and belief in Helen’s abilities that changed the world. We as parents, teachers and aids have that same opportunity – to help create a society where both our children and our world benefits from our work bridging the gap. It is hard work but it is work that is worth doing and only we can do it.


About aspergersmom

I am a 35 year old woman. I am the wife of an amazing man, who keeps me sane. As a recent California/Florida transplant to the midwest and the mother to a combined family of 6 children; 3 boys, 3 girls, my life is an adventure. I blog and raise our family with my best friend.
This entry was posted in A beautiful mind, Ah-ha moments, Blogs I Read, Challenges, Dark moments, Employment, ESE Public Awareness, Hot Button Topic, Links, Magic Moments, Parenting on the Spectrum, Reasources, School. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to How to Prevent Learned Helplessness…

  1. Beautifully put. You have given me much to think about, today and in the future.

    • aspergersmom says:

      Thank you! This piece really inspired me on a day that I really needed inspiration. My hope was to pass some of that on to others. I am glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Linda Holt says:

    Thanks so much for this article. Knowing how not to become hopeless is the number one block for parents and children with any problem to over come. When we first took our son to the Shrine Clinic in Houston, the first thing we saw was kids who were given freedom and support to be independent. The second thing we saw was kids that were over protected or given up on by hopeless parents.
    Our trip has always been made by one step forward and two, three, four , and even five steps backward. It is trip well worth taking when there is even a small achievement made by your child. Small accomplishments are monumental in our eyes.
    My son was born with spinal bifida and has worked hard to overcome not only his limitations but the road blocks that society has placed in his way. The best thing I have heard him say when asked by his wheelchair basketball team what he wanted to be called. Handicapped, handi cable, crippled or disabled. His answer was , “I want to be called Jeremy.”
    If you keep that in mind and remember that any child with a disability has a name and a big heart then maybe hopelessness will not be quiet so bad.
    I don’t know if you remember me, but I am your mother’s cousin.
    Good luck and keep up the good work. There are a lot of parents out there looking for help. A friendly voice that is in the same boat is like a lighthouse on a rocky shore.
    Love Linda

    • aspergersmom says:

      Hello Linda,
      I do remember you. Not well, but I remember you. I never knew your son had spinal bifida. I am so glad you liked my article. I agree that a friendly voice in the same boat is a great encouragement. Thank you for your words of encouragement! I hope that Jeremy is doing well. Will you be at the family reunion in Dallas this year?

      • Linda Holt says:

        Keep up the good work. Yes, we’re planning on being at the family reunion. Yes, Jeremy is doing well. He is in his thirties, married, and helps teach kids with problems. He’s also a minister.
        I’ll certainly pass you page on to others who I think will appreciate the input.

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