Perseverance and Passion (aka “Grit”): Is it Possible for Autistic Children?

By, Meghan Murphy

When the qualities necessary to be “gritty” are also the qualities that are often a core deficit of children with autism, how are we supposed to support that child in developing such an important trait? These are very dynamic and powerful skills that can possibly take years to develop and become confident in. These are also qualities that are often the main focus of my client’s RDI® program.

As a professional in the autism field, the word grit can be intimidating. It requires a growth mindset, requires resilience. Grit requires an internal motivation to be successful, as well as the ability to think and plan and persevere. In her 2013 TED talk, Angela Lee Ducksworth defined grit as a, “Passion and perseverance for very long term goals. Grit is having stamina. Grit is sticking with your future day in day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years, and working really hard to make that future a reality. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon not a sprint.” She talks about grit being the single most important characteristic a person must have in order to be truly successful.

G- Growth Mindset

Grit requires a growth mindset, as opposed to a fixed mindset. We need to be able to recognize that we can change with effort. Our brain is constantly changing based on new challenges, new failures, and new successes. If we live in a fixed mindset and believe that talents and knowledge are innate or fixed, we are limiting ourselves to a tremendous amount of growth and potential. How can you help your child with autism experience a growth mindset? Reflect with them! Think about an experience your child has had recently that involved some failures, and most importantly, provided them with many learning opportunities. Talk about their experience. What happened when they failed, how they may have been feeling, how they overcame the failure. What worked, what didn’t work, how can they improve next time. Be careful to not ask each of these questions and expect an answer from your child, which will likely place a high level of demand and possibly lead to withdrawal. Remember, they learn from your modeling, so do just that. Talk about your own observations of his or her process. Most likely, they are going to absorb some, if not all, of it.

R- Resilience

Spotlight mistakes and failures. As humans, we build resilience by failing, making mistakes and trying again.  It gets easier to fail when we have had similar experiences in the past that build our confidence that we will get through it. Sometimes, children with autism need to hear from their guide when they are failing, and how they have the ability to get through it. By spotlighting the entire process, they will begin to understand that a mistake or a failure is ok, because they know they have the tools to get through. For example, let’s say your child is trying to ride a bike and falls off. You see them get frustrated, start to yell and walk away. A few minutes later, you see them return to the bike and try again, this time more successful than the first attempt.  Instead of a simple, “good job!” go into more detail and spotlight the entire process for them. Try saying, “I noticed that you got frustrated when you fell off the first time. You probably didn’t want to do it again. But then you tried again and look! You were able to do it!  I am so glad you decided to get back on the bike.” It is important for your child to hear the entire process, for being aware of these little moments of resilience, so that possibly next time they encounter a failure, they will remember your words and that they are capable of trying again.

I-Internal motivation

Just “be” with your child. As we have all learned in life, we don’t always get a reward when we do something correctly. Many times, we strive to succeed because of our own internal motivation. Does your child require the motivation of an external reward to interact with you? Try just being with them. Sit next to them and look at pictures. Go for a walk and comment on your observations. Swing next to them and let them know how much you enjoy spending time with them. Communicate both verbally and nonverbally that you value your connection and you don’t always have to be completing a task together. The more they are given opportunities to simply engage without feeling the demand of a task, the more likely they are going to be internally motivated to complete a task with you because they want to, not because they will get a reward.

T- Think, Plan, Persevere

Perseverance and grit in autistic childrenGrit requires a lot of thinking, planning and persevering. One must think about their long term goals, create a realistic plan, and persevere when things get tough. Thinking about a long-term goal requires a level of self-awareness that allows us to consider what the goal should be and how we will be able to achieve it based on our knowledge of our self. Self-awareness is often a core deficit in people with autism. As a way to support your child in deepening his or her self-awareness, start to talk out loud! It may sound silly, but as you probably know, your child is absorbing most of what we say, even when we don’t want them to! Start commenting on their strengths, their challenges, things they seem to like or dislike, or their overall mood. Comments such as, “You’re laughing pretty hard at that, I think you like that video,” or, “I’ve noticed that when you speak in front of your class, you start talking really fast and fidgeting with your paper. I’m wondering if you feel nervous when you’re up there,” could be helpful in your child gaining some deeper understanding of themselves.

Grit. A powerful, yet intimidating word.  Don’t let the meaning of it derail you from guiding your child to develop it. Remember, as a parent, you have a very powerful job. You get to shape your child’s perception of the world and of themselves and guide them in ways that teachers, therapists or peers cannot. Have fun!

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