Building Resilience – An Important Life Skill
Throughout life, every person faces challenges, obstacles and difficulties that they must overcome. The ability to bounce back through adversity is called resilience. Resilience involves working through challenges in a proactive way which helps build confidence and mastery in overcoming difficulties. Being able to do so supports personal growth, mental health, and contributes to positive feelings of self-worth and self-esteem.
Resilience is a self-replicating skill because once a person has successfully managed a challenging situation, they’ll feel more confident about their ability to overcome difficult situations. As confidence grows, so does resilience.
Autistic people face specific challenges that can cause setbacks around feelings of confidence and self-worth. Living in a non-autistic world can be overwhelming and frightening. A lack of accommodations can lead to anxiety, stress and burnout. Communicating one’s needs successfully can be difficult, particularly if there are not appropriate supports in place to be able to do so. A lack of predictability can be stressful; new activities can trigger meltdowns or shutdowns.
Without resilience, autistic people can find life increasing challenging, may not able to cope with new things or changes, and may want to withdraw from social situations. Building resilience early on in life can help a child feel confident to take on new challenges and succeed.
What are the positive aspects of resilience?
Resilience helps an autistic person:
- make their way through life’s milestones in a positive way
- build self-confidence and self-esteem
- build a strong self-identity
- manage change or unpredictability
- recover from setbacks or disappointments
- reduces stress and anxiety
- succeed in challenges and also accept and learn from mistakes and failures
- understand the need for practice to develop a new skill
- set the stage for a more independent adulthood
- understand social-emotional boundaries and limits and work within those
- foster a sense of place in the world and a feeling of belonging
- build the confidence to take on new challenges
- transition from childhood to adolescence to adulthood
What gets in the way of resilience?
Some factors can hinder or make it difficult to acquire resilience such as:
- Invalidation – This happens when a person’s identity, self, safety, experience or beliefs are invalidated by others. This can happen through bullying, abuse, violence, or discrimination. An invalidating statement is “you can’t” instead of “you’re learning how to” or “I am learning how to teach you”. Validating and reassuring a person not only builds confidence but it also is essential for a trusting relationship.
- Assuming Incompetence – This happens a lot to autistic people and can take a variety of forms such as assuming they can’t make decisions, live independently, work, or have friendships or relationships. Assuming incompetence can become a negative and damaging self-fulfilling prophecy that robs an autistic person of confidence and the ability to try things on their own.
- Overprotection – Parents or those in caring/supportive roles may want to protect autistic people from facing challenges or difficulties. Constant shielding can cause a person to lose confidence in their ability to do things. Self-doubt hinders resiliency.
- Negative messages – Autistic people are often defined by their deficits rather than their strengths. They’re told what they can’t do rather than what they can. This type of messaging creates difficulty in acquiring resilience.
- Past failures – This can work both ways as a learning tool or obstacle to gaining resilience. If mistakes are emphasized and focused on by adult role models or important people in a person’s life, it can have a negative impact on resilience. Negative responses to failure can be traumatic or cause ruminating thoughts. Failure needs to be put in perspective as a part of life and support provided to move on and try again. Talking about failure in a non-judgmental way and how to use the learning experience in a similar situation will support resilience.
- Perfectionism – Wanting to be perfect and fearing failure around a specific activity can be anxiety-provoking. It can prevent a person from trying the activity or if they do start it, from completing it because of worrying that what they do will not be good enough. The need to be perfect is often mistaken for avoidance or challenging behavior.
How do we build resilience?
Building resilience is all about practice. The best way to do this is through a series of controlled challenges and then add to those challenges in small increments. Think of it like sports training – go slowly and increase challenges through new exercises. Ideally, when a child masters one challenge this will build their strength and confidence to take on the next challenge. It’s especially hard for parents to watch their children struggle with tasks, but it we always step in our children don’t learn and grow.
I will give you an example of a controlled challenge with my own two autistic children who are now adults. When Marc and Julia were 13 and 11, I had them volunteer with me at a farmer’s market that my adult figure skating group owned and operated. My children knew all of the volunteers from being at the ice rink with them so they had some predictability. They were given simple jobs to do and ask they gained mastery of those tasks, more were added in small increments. They were also given clear expectations about the work environment such as they couldn’t use tech devices while on the job, they had to wear a uniform, and they took their instructions from the market manager, not me.
Over the 9 years that they worked at the market, their confidence grew in a number of areas. Both were able to cope with seeing dogs on leashes (that was a phobia at the time they started volunteering), they earned points every shift which they could cash in for things that they wanted (the more expensive the item was, the more points required so they learned that one has to work more hours for a pricier item), they learned how to report to a manager, take instructions from a variety of individuals, and my son’s diet grew from less than 10 foods to eating every fruit and vegetable he was exposed to at the market. Marc took pride in and felt confident eating the things that came from his workplace. That later morphed into a horticulture course for him growing his own fruits and vegetables in a garden, which then lead to him eating soup and salads at the age of 21 – something I thought would never happen.
Marc and Julia were well supported in trying new experiences at the market but at the same time, these risks were well supported. By providing support, anxiety levels were kept well in control and any mistakes made were seen as a learning experience. Volunteering at the market lead to other job experiences that they were able to do with greater ease because of all the skills they gained volunteering in a controlled, low pressure environment.
Key Concepts Around Resilience to Convey to Children
The key concepts to tell children around resilience are:
- Just because something seems difficult, that isn’t a reason not to do it.
- With some help, you’ll be able to overcome difficulties.
- No one masters a skill right away – they have to practice. Don’t give up just because a skill takes practice to learn.
- When trying something new, it’s ok to ask for help from a parent or someone you trust.
- Overcoming something hard will make you feel really good and will mean you can do it again in the future and it probably be easier.
- It’s ok to compete and it’s also fine if you don’t win.
- If you don’t get it right the first time, it’s fine.
Building self-confidence and self-esteem at an early age will be very strong protective factors for long term well-being. These are also the building blocks for resilience and independence which are the foundation for a successful adulthood.
Goodall, E. and Purkis, J. (2018) The Parents’ Practical Guide to Resilience for Children aged 2 – 10 on the Autism Spectrum. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
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