The six characteristics listed above are a good place to start in identifying your own child's potential strengths. But keep in mind that it's not always easy or simple to identify strengths. Nor is it easy to determine which behaviors that usually manifest themselves as weaknesses can be redirected to make them strengths. When your child's endless discussion of the detailed features of myriad video game characters is getting in the way of social interactions and family plans, it can be a chal lenge to recognize that this behavior is reflective of a great memory. Observe your child's behavior in a variety of contexts and consider the following questions:
• What does your child enjoy? When he has free time, what does he choose to do? What things does she ask you about? What things does he tell you about? What kinds of items does she ask you to buy? What subjects in school does your child enjoy the most? In what types of family activities does he or she have the most fun?
• When is your child most successful? Think about areas in which your child is currently doing well or has succeeded in the past. Are there particular subjects in school in which your child gets good grades? Does your child do well at spelling bees or memorizing math facts, but have trouble doing word problems or answering questions about what she's read? Does your child perform better in certain types of social settings than in others? Can he join a group of kids playing a board game, but not ride bikes with the neighborhood kids? Do adults often comment on how charming your child is and appear puzzled at his or her difficulties with peers?
• What does your child not mind doing? Also considering what your child least dislikes can be informative. Does your child willingly go to the dictionary to look up a word for you when you're reading the newspaper, but asks you to do the simplest arithmetic for him, such as "How many days are left in this month?" A child might refuse to help with mowing the lawn but not mind organizing the bric-a-brac in the living room or putting away the dishes.
It may be helpful to record your observations in a journal. Nothing elaborate is needed, simply a daily or weekly list of things that your child seemed to enjoy, tolerate, or succeed at and the settings in which the activities took place. Ask your child's teachers or care providers about the activities your child enjoys and excels in during class or after-school care. Compare the answers you get from others to your own ideas to obtain a broader picture of your child's behavior. See if a consistent picture emerges.
Depending on his or her age and abilities, your son or daughter may be able to participate in the process of identifying strengths. An open discussion with your child about his or her unique characteristics can build self-esteem (some additional resources for doing this are mentioned at the end of Chapter 8). One psychologist who frequently works with children with AS-HFA frames the task as creating an "operating manual" for the child. Explain to your child that you have decided to create such a manual to help the child better understand himself and to help others better understand him. Make a list of things you have noticed your child enjoys and excels at. Ask if your child agrees with these strengths and if she can think of any others. If she needs help, give some examples of possible strengths ("Are you good at reading? Do you like everything neat and in the right place? Can you tell if I'm going the wrong way to school?").
Finally, examine the observations you have made and look for patterns or themes. Use the list of strengths that we described as a guideline, but be open to other possibilities. Do the areas in which you've seen your child succeed have anything in common? Are there shared features in the types of activities your child prefers? During what kinds of activities does your child have the most fun? Do the things your child enjoys or is willing to do reflect strong memory, academic or visual skills, a desire for order and rules, passion for a topic, or a gravitation toward adult company?
Remember that every child is unique and that your child may show different strengths than the most common ones described in this chapter. Perhaps your daughter's verbal skills are extremely advanced, suggesting that explaining something verbally would work better than making a visual list for her. Maybe your son craves quiet and displays a calm, gentle nature that would make him an ideal candidate for a job working with animals. Be open to all possibilities. The main idea is to look for themes and commonalities among your child's preferences, inclinations, strengths, and passions and then to use them on a daily basis to inform all sorts of issues, from chores, discipline, and positive family relationships, to school and future jobs.
There are many practical reasons to take advantage of the unique abilities that are part and parcel of AS-HFA. Taking advantage of your child's natural abilities can make things easier for both you and your child. But again, the most important aspect of focusing on strengths may be the boost it can provide to your child's self-esteem. Many children with AS-HFA are painfully aware of their shortcomings. They work overtime at school, at home, and with therapists to try to overcome their difficulties. Often those who interact with these special and unique children fail to emphasize the many areas in which they excel.
Capitalizing on the things your child does well can help you feel good about yourself and your child. For your child, maintaining a focus on strengths and natural abilities can have long-term positive effects on motivation, self-esteem, and achievement. In the remaining chapters of this book, we give specific guidelines for how to use your child's strengths to overcome the difficulties often associated with autism spectrum disorders that arise at home, in school, in the workplace, and with others.
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