Adolescence may be the first time that children with AS-HFA begin to form an identity by pondering questions like "Who am I?" and "Where do I fit in?" and "What will I become?" These aspects of adolescent development pose a significant set of challenges for young people with AS-HFA.
One such area is definition of self-concept. Research suggests that boys and girls use different strategies to determine their own self-concept. For girls, self-concept often relates to perceptions of physical attractiveness. Young women with AS-HFA may find this problematic due to the close link between perceived attractiveness and social mastery and popularity. Among boys, physical prowess composes an important aspect of self-concept. Again, this presents a challenge for children with AS-HFA because of the common link between autism spectrum disorders and motor coordination problems (see Chapters 2 and 3).
Closely related to self-concept is self-esteem. Many adolescents experience periods of low self-esteem. Parents of children with AS-HFA can expect the same. Sources of low self-esteem among children with AS-HFA usually relate to wanting to be liked and to have friends but not knowing how to succeed.
Morality is another facet of adolescent identity development that is often problematic for children with AS-HFA. Although moral rigidity and righteousness can be a notable strength for children with AS-HFA, it can also cause some social difficulties. Superficially clear-cut moral guidelines can lead children to make poor judgments in adolescence, when interactions become more sophisticated and complex. Like many adolescents, children with AS-HFA may develop strong religious or political beliefs in response to these ambiguities. After reading a book on the meat-packing industry, one young woman with high-functioning autism decided that eating meat was unhealthy. In addition to simply changing her own diet, she attempted to influence others by pointing out to classmates and the school cafeteria staff all of the health dangers that the nonvegetarian menu items were likely to pose.
Problems with identity and self-esteem present a serious challenge to children with AS-HFA and their families, but there are several strategies you can use to deal with these issues. As we discussed in Chapter 5 and at the end of Chapter 8, emphasizing your child's strengths and special characteristics will help him or her develop positive self-esteem. For example, if your child has a great memory, you might jokingly refer to him or her as "Memory Master." Calling your child by this nickname when he demonstrates the skill makes clear that he has just done something special and gives him an easily referenced positive way of looking at himself.
Many teens and young adults with AS-HFA don't realize that their feelings of awkwardness and not fitting in are common and experienced at some point by almost everyone. Few people make it to adulthood without experiencing teasing and rejection. Help your child understand that this experience is par for the course. Sharing some of your own personal experiences during your teenage years can impress on your child that everyone experiences self-doubt as a teen and relieve some of the anxiety about herself that she may be experiencing.
There are also some published resources that were developed to assist in the exploration of self-identity: I Am Special, by Peter Vermeulen, and What It Means to Me, by Catherine Faherty (see the Appendix for more information).
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