Autistic Consultant & British Psychologist, Wenn, leading by example to empower autistic individuals and promote quality co-produced research

Self Esteem

Once there was a time when Wenn felt isolated and without hope. Living with a mis-diagnosis of Schizophrenia for over twenty-five years, his sense of 'self' was non-existent. Now, Wenn has found both himself and his space. A place of belonging, purpose and most importantly, a place of hope. Hope for the future. Enjoy the journey!

"I want to share my autistic understanding with others. This may then help them to understand what being autistic is like and in doing so a bridge can be formed, running from my world to theirs. Making the journey into their world is never easy. Although I have achieved a great deal in the past few years, I still need to rely on a network of people around me to support me at home in Warrnambool, Australia. Especially my family, including my partner Beatrice without whom I would not be able to do the work that I do."

Being diagnosed with an AS in August 1994, I would suggest that I experience the same kinds of difficulties as others diagnosed with AS. For example, I dislike change (prefer routine), I tend to be obsessive, I become anxious very easily and I tend to take what is said to me literally (For example: "Hop up on the couch for a minute while I talk to mum" say's the doctor. After hopping up and down on the couch for exactly one minute...I tell the doctor that his minute is up!

Before I received a diagnosis of AS I thought that my difficulties in every day life were because I was not as intelligent as other people. The only way that I could cope with my daily confusion and frustration was by living according to my rules, rituals and routines. If someone projected into my thinking or conversation I felt almost violated! "How dare they interrupt my space and distract me from my course. Didn't they understand that now I would have to start over again, recapture my thoughts or plans and schedule it all again!" Well, actually Wenn...No, they did not. You see...people talk to each other quite often. They don't need to put their thoughts on hold to do this, or even take time to go back to the beginning of their sequence of events after the conversation finishes. They can move from one thing to the other....most of the time.

To have a sense of 'good self-esteem' means to have a positive image of one's self, of one's identity. The word esteem, itself, means, 'to hold in high value of...'. If a child grows and develops, over time, with the knowledge that they seem to upset people frequently, misunderstand the world around them often and constantly be in trouble for one thing or another... what is this going to do to their sense of being a valuable and positive contribution? I know that for me I felt a constant pull between being angry with others for failing to see my view point, and despair at my inability to get things right.

Each of us has a script that is both contributed to by our own evaluation of self and the judgements made of us by others. What is written in your script? What is written in mine? Does it say positive things about you or about me? I believe that the internalised script that I live my life from can either promote a healthy sense of self, or, a very unhealthy one. If I feel valued and welcome, then the image I have of my worth and of myself should also be one of value.

I am very unevenly skilled. I have huge problems with being disorganised, getting lost, using public transport, understanding others, and just the practical interactions of social situations. If my sense of value came from being good at everything, being an achiever at school, work and home, being able to get into other's minds and be in tune with them all of the time. Well, my self-esteem would be zilch. However, when my self-esteem is high, rated on the fact that because I am, I am of value and any extras that I might possess are a bonus, then I can begin to build a positive picture of me!

Some Practical Tips
1. Focus in on the successes, not the failures, mistakes or 'could be improved'.
2. Discuss with your child/spouse how they view their own achievements and/or progress.
3. If they think they are 'the best' ask them to explore their reasoning with you.
4. If they think they are 'the worst' ask them to explore their reasoning with you. Be careful not to use 'why' questions and always frame or structure your question so that they have a framework to respond in. Avoid open-ended questions, we don't know how to answer them!
5. Ask permission to work with them on any improvements they think might be necessary.
6. Ask permission to comment on their progress from your perspective.
7. Never assume that your comments for their improvement will be welcome, either ask to be invited to comment or share your own experience with them, if allowed to, being careful NOT to compare yours to theirs. Just state the facts.
8. Always comment on any procedure that is done well, but aim not to comment when it is misdone!
9. Avoid using words that denote something is 'bad', 'rubbish', 'a mess', 'awful', 'could be better', 'poor', or 'incompetent'. Individuals with AS can be quick to pick up on all that they are not, rather than on what they are or could be!
10. Offer lots and lots of positive reinforcement. I don't mean bribes, but well-timed approval is terrific. Not only does it let us know that we are OK, but it's' useful in teaching us what the most appropriate response might be. An example taken from a book I read states: "...He always monopolises the dinner table conversation, so one day I waited for a pause as he was eating, and I said 'you know Barry, you talk much less at the table than you used to.' ...and sometimes you listen to what others say and follow the dinner conversation' (Dewey, 1992, cited in Frith, 1992).