When I speak with parents of children who have high functioning autism or Asperger’s, I usually start by talking about “positivity”. Positivity in speech, body language, and behaviors is required to work through any issues that arise in social situations, to “blend in” appropriately with others, and to communicate and interact in a way that shows respect and confers a positive reputation on the individual who is on the autism spectrum. Positivity is the cornerstone of the soft skills that the individual with Asperger’s and high functioning autism needs on the job and in relationships. When you focus on your child’s positivity in their interactions with others, you guide him or her to respond positively to the many challenges he or she faces every day. Framing the things that your child says and does as more (or less) “positive” may also strike a better tone than saying that a behavior or word choice is “wrong” or “inappropriate”.
Why do we need to talk about positivity with children who have autism or Asperger’s? Many on the autism spectrum respond to their anxiety and discomfort in various situations with negativity. This can take the form of refusals, melt downs, tactless statements, withdrawing from situations, negative body language such as turning away, angry voice tone, scowling, and so forth. Negativity tends to make problems worse, and shuts down or limits both short term and long term options for them. When we talk about adolescents and young adults in particular, we need to be working diligently toward behaviors that open more doors and help them to “blend in” with others, so that they can become employed and independent. They must look and sound positive in order for others to feel respected by them, and for them to develop a positive reputation. Employers, co-workers, and friends are all looking for someone who is positive.
It may take some time, so I recommend starting with a “positivity approach” well before your child is looking for employment and special relationships with others. But it’s never too late! You as the parent or other loved one are best positioned to help the young person on the autism spectrum, because you have them for the most time each day, you have the greatest variety of situations in which to practice, and you have the deepest commitment to their eventual employment and independence.
How do you help your child to develop positivity?
Define it: what it looks like; what it sounds like
Looks like (check it out in the mirror!): friendly, upbeat, accepting, respectful face; body is facing the person and posture is upright
Sounds like (voice tone): calm, kind, upbeat, respectful, accepting, not too loud or soft
Notice it: post a scale (how positive was that? 1-4: 1 not at all positive, 2 a little positive, 3 somewhat positive, 4 VERY positive). Post pictures of that very positive body language and face, and have him or her show other family members how he/she looked and sounded positive!
Practice it: Give reminders to “please say it with positivity”, and to “remember to look positive while saying that!”; be consistent (and relentless if necessary!)
Model it: make sure you model positive words, voice tone, and appearance while speaking, and also rank your own positivity. The entire family may want to participate in being ranked for positivity.
Speak up! Frame all the following as “It is positive to…”: all behaviors and word choices that are mature, pro-social, empathetic, show perspective, have balance (not too intense), and “blend in” with others. Talk about, celebrate, and possibly even reward 3’s and 4’s.
Examples: “It is so positive of you to stay calm while you wait!”, “It is positive to choose words that do not hurt her feelings”, “That’s a 4, Honey, for positivity!”, “You didn’t look or sound positive just now, I know you can do it better, maybe even a 3 or 4! Please go check yourself out in the mirror and come back and try again”; “Well we have a Positivity Challenge here, let’s do our best to look and sound positive”;“It’s okay to say you didn’t like something, but you can say so with positivity, please? Think about how you look and sound and try again, OK? I’m looking for a 3 or 4!”
Talk about autism and Asperger’s and positively frame it….BUT acknowledge that there may be some issues. One issue might be positivity! Agree between the two of you to point out to your child if you think you are noticing autism spectrum issues getting in the way of his or her being positive. Be a team! It’s okay--you love them anyway!