“I said Lord please give me what I need.
He said there’s pain and misery.
Oh sweet oblivion feels all right.”
– Shadow of the Season – by Screaming Trees
“Self knowledge is a dangerous thing.
The freedom of who you are.”
–There is No Time – by Lou Reed
Helping children develop insight into their strengths and weaknesses is a process that involves time, planning, and consideration from parents. As childhood fades into adolescence and young adulthood, parents need to help their increasingly independent sons and daughters develop more fully realized senses of themselves. The closer kids get to completing high school, the more their direction in life is shaped by their own choices and preferences. Parental guidance remains important but begins to take a back seat as adolescents become more mature and independent. As they make choices about their education, career, family, and friendships, it’s crucial that adolescents have a sense of which choices are likely to yield success and which ones are likely to breed frustration. The task of helping them come to a sense of self-awareness assumes even greater importance – and often involves greater challenges – when the children in question have learning issues or other special needs.
While the advantages of having self-aware kids are obvious, determining the best way to get there isn’t. A big part of the confusion centers on when and how to start that process. For some kids, the fact that they’re unaware of any major differences between themselves and their peers can be a substantial factor in helping them stay confident and resilient through a big chunk of their childhood.
In the realm of social skills, the concept of theory of mind plays a big role. Theory of mind is a set of cognitive skills that enables people to recognize that not everybody holds the same set of perceptions, beliefs, and knowledge. These abilities exist to varying degrees from person to person but for some, particularly among people on the autism spectrum, perspective taking comes only with concerted effort. Sometimes, no matter how quirky or idiosyncratic they may appear to others, some children and adolescents with autism don’t recognize that not everybody has the same set of special interests, anxieties, or perceptions that they do. In the long run, this presents some obvious challenges. However, during childhood, this lack of awareness can serve as a temporary scaffold for their self-image. This “sweet oblivion” can grant kids a reprieve from the insults to self-image and resiliency that might spring from a greater recognition of their issues. Helping these kids focus on just how different they are from their peers can seem like “piling on.” I used to work with a boy on the autism spectrum who, in addition to his social issues, had a mild speech impediment. On one occasion, he proclaimed to anyone who’d listen “I’m smawt! I’m good wookin’! And I’m vewwy athwetic!” He really was smart. Good looking? Well, let’s be charitable and say that’s a matter of personal taste. Athletic? Not by a long shot. His self-awareness may have been lacking but his self-confidence served him very well throughout his childhood.
Compared to the short-term, counter-intuitive benefits that can emerge from a lack of self-awareness, the advantages of helping kids arrive at a greater understanding of themselves are not hard to fathom. People who have a realistic sense of their own strengths and weaknesses are more likely to place themselves in settings that accentuate their assets. Adolescents who have a hard time reading social cues, seeing the effect that their behavior can have on others, and struggle to make social connections would probably do well to recognize that careers in public relations or sales might not be their best options. On the other hand, an emerging ability to step back and look at yourself objectively is likely to point you in the direction of things you do well. And it’s more likely that you’ll be able to seek out help and support in your areas of weakness when you need to.
I’ve seen a lot of kids with Non-verbal Learning Disorder go through the ups and down of this conundrum. NvLD resembles Asperger’s Disorder in many ways. In my experience, however, children and adolescents with NvLD tend to see others’ perspectives better than kids with Asperger’s Disorder do. They often have well developed verbal and concrete language skills that can potentially serve them well in educational and occupational settings. But once they get to middle school – an angst-ridden period for anyone – things can get very rocky. School work tends to involve more organization and integration than it did in the past and socializing becomes more sophisticated, abstract, and nuanced. Both realms can be taxing on these kids as their executive function delays become more obvious. At some point, they start looking around and thinking “Look at me! I’m so much smarter than these other slobs in my class. But they have such an easy time making friends and getting good grades. Why is it so hard for me?” The recognition that there are some important differences between themselves and their peers can make the already difficult road through adolescence – an uphill slog for anyone – even more overwhelming.
So how are parents supposed to figure out this dilemma? Is it possible to help children and adolescents come to grips with their learning styles without sacrificing their resiliency and sense of self-worth?
Recently, Academy MetroWest hosted a parent workshop entitled When and How to Talk to Your Kids About Their Learning Styles. We brought in Dr. Gretchen Felopulos, a neuropsychologist from Massachusetts General Hospital and a school psychologist at the Cambridge Montessori School to lead the discussion. She did a wonderful job! If the parents who attended the workshop got even half as much out of it as I did, they’re in good shape because it was immensely valuable to me. Late in the discussion, I posed the same question to Dr. Felopulos that I discussed above. How do you find what she described as “that lovely balance between giving some information, some explanation and context without spoiling the peacefulness that they have about their existence?” She urged parents to look for small openings. For example:
“If they were to come up with some sort of dilemma like ‘I don’t get why everyone was going to so and so’s party last night. Why didn’t I get invited?’ You look for these windows of opportunity. Not necessarily to get out the video on Asperger’s or the Arthur PBS episode but just to say ‘You know what?! This is really important for us to talk about. Let’s think about all the things you’re good at. Make a list. Draw a picture. Make a chart. Then – what’s hard for you? What are things we know you’re working on?’ so you first get a lay of the land.”
To me this suggestion made perfect sense. To whatever extent you can, you follow your child’s lead. If their ideas suggest that this topic is something brand new or alien to them, you’ll want to tread lightly. Remember that a dawning sense of self-awareness is potentially threatening to their self-image so it’s important to avoid clubbing them on the head with it. On the other hand, if their responses give you the sense that they have some awareness of what makes them tick, you can begin to take the conversation even further. Sweet oblivion really can feel all right but it only takes kids so far before the glaring shortcomings of that approach to life start making life even more difficult.