There is a lot of discussion about the different sensory reactions people on the spectrum have to the physical environment, such as the distress they may experience from loud/unexpected noises, fluorescent lighting, and clothing labels.
But there is another form of sensitivity I often see in members of the AANE community, which is not discussed as frequently: an extreme hypersensitivity to criticism. This is when even the smallest kind of suggestion or correction has a huge impact. More intentional types of criticism result in crushing the person’s self-esteem or might provoke strong reactions. Even more significant is the lasting effect this has. Adults in our community say that not only has this criticism been internalized and has negatively impacted their self-esteem, they are still thinking about these painful moments decades later.
If people who interact with those on the spectrum are unaware of this sensitivity, they may unintentionally cause long-lasting, negative emotional damage.
We don’t know if people on the spectrum are wired to be emotionally sensitive; this quality is not inherently good or bad. It is clear, however, that life experiences, especially as children, can magnify this sensitivity. Some of these experiences include:
- being corrected frequently
- being bullied by peers
- constant negative feedback from parents and teachers
- being dismissed and excluded
- feeling like they never get it right.
Over time, people may perceive criticism, even when it was not intended. Sometimes even positive feedback can be interpreted as negative in light of the person’s bad experiences from the past.
Adults on the spectrum describe this sensitivity as having a devastating effect. Many say they feel drained, stressed, withered, diminished, or worthless. They report their constant thoughts are:
- “It’s my fault. I screwed up”
- “I’m always wrong, and the other person is always right.”
- “It feels like a jungle out there.”
- “It’s a minefield figuring out how to avoid criticism.”
As a consequence of this sensitivity, people on the spectrum may:
- Avoid social situations and school.
- Isolate themselves when they must be in groups.
- Shut down and not talk, thinking if they don’t say anything, they can’t be criticized.
- Apologize for everything they do in the hopes that it will prevent criticism.
- Try to be perfect, because if they don’t make a mistake, they won’t be criticized.
- Attempt to imitate the behavior of socially successful kids or adults.
- Criticize THEMSELVES early on in social interactions as a way of trying to beat the other person to it. It hurts less if the person says it themselves.
But all of these efforts may meet with limited success, cause exhaustion, and reinforces a poor self-image.
Advice for Parents: Self-Esteem is Key
Although many parenting experts discourage the “coddling” of children, especially as they get older, I have the opposite opinion about parenting. No matter their age, kids need emotional support and praise. When a child is feeling heavily criticized, the most important goal is to help them build self-esteem. Kids on the spectrum generally don’t receive positive affirmation from their peers, so it is up to parents and teachers to provide it.
Incorporating some of the following suggestions into the way you interact with your child can help them grow into resilient adults who feel good about themselves.
- Build Confidence Through Strengths. Encourage children on the spectrum to do things in which they excel to promote success. This doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be challenged, but try to create as many positive opportunities for your child as possible, and praise your child for their successes, as well as their efforts.
- Communicate Acceptance. Always let kids know that they are accepted (and loved) for who they are, no matter what their challenges are or what mistakes they have made.
- Create Environments for Success. When possible, try to foster optimal environments. This is child-dependent, but possible adaptations may include lessening social time within groups, minimizing sensory elements that cause stress, and implementing IEPs that appeal to strengths.
- Guide Towards Self-Advocacy. At the appropriate maturity level, help your child be self-aware, name and talk about the issue, and understand it. Self-awareness is the first step toward accepting and valuing yourself.
- Establish Support. All children should have at least one understanding and accepting adult in their life who can act as a mentor and provide social guidance.
- Consistent Message. All adults working with the child should make sure they interpret the child’s behavior or communication correctly. If a child’s behavior must be modified, adults should try to do this gently and matter-of-factly, with a clear explanation, not critically.
- Create Opportunities for Leadership. Consider putting the child in leadership positions such as tutoring or mentoring younger children or “leading” an interest club. In my experience, this type of opportunity can have a positive impact on kids’ self-image.
- Stop Any Bullying. Address any bullying or exclusion immediately. Be aware that this can happen online, by peers, or by adults (such as teachers or coaches).
- Find the Right Balance. When interacting with your child on the spectrum, be kind and generous with praise. As frustrated as you might feel in the moment, please try not to yell or raise your voice, or say critical things. This is generally unhelpful for kids on the spectrum and is unlikely to change behavior.
This is a lot of advice, and you may think, “easier said than done.” Remember, this whole talk has been about not being critical of your child; also, do not be critical of yourself. Parenting is hard work, especially when you have a child with different needs, and it is important to forgive your own mistakes and move on. The goal is not reaching “parenting perfection,” but rather to work towards understanding & appreciating your child and doing the best you can.
In conclusion, children on the spectrum constantly receive feedback that can all contribute to a sense of being inherently flawed. This makes it more important than ever for parents, teachers, and other adults to balance out criticism with praise, unconditional acceptance, and an emphasis on strengths.
What makes your child special? What have you learned from them? What are you most proud of? Whatever the answer, make sure you let your child know.