The Need For Success

by Catherine Faherty

Most of us learn through trial and error. Life presents us with opportunity to live through our mistakes as well as through our successes. We remember what to do differently next time. We understand the connection between our behavior and its consequences. This process works so naturally that many current parenting manuals suggest discipline methods, which promote situations that allow children to learn through the consequences of their actions.

In contrast, learning by trial and error can be so unpredictable and even frightening to children with autism that they become unwilling to try. Many parents of children with autism have watched as their child avoids involvement in any activity until he or she can do it perfectly.

It has been observed that the need for success among many children with autism is immediate and total. They are so averse to making mistakes that many don’t risk trying until they are sure that they can do it perfectly and flawlessly, without failing. They don’t easily learn from mistakes, nor do they see the connections, the process, and the relationship between making a mistake, almost succeeding, and achievement.

To expect a child with high functioning autism to learn only through the natural events of trial and error is to risk raising a child whose self-image is sacrificed to a feeling of shame and harsh self-judgment. Children who see only polarities (good/bad, black/white, right/wrong) naturally will come to the conclusion that they are bad or wrong when they make a mistake. One adult with autism said that as a child, he perceived life as “failure after failure.”

Mistakes are an unavoidable part of life for all of us. However autism, with its distinctive characteristics, automatically causes a higher degree of ill-timed behavior, awkwardness, and sometimes, total misunderstanding. Consequently, children with autism experience even more mistakes than the average child! The fact that they do not make connections between their behavior and its consequences, and that they do not easily learn from their mistakes, only makes these experiences more random, senseless, and unbearable.

The teaching strategies that parents and teachers of children with autism rely on must embrace the principle of building on a solid foundation of mastered skills and competence. Daily observation and constant assessment are essential. Teaching strategies that are designed to prevent failure and reinforce accomplishment will help to ensure that learning is free to take place.

Catherine Faherty,
Author of Asperger’s…What Does It Mean To Me?
Article From “What Does It Mean To Me”, Chapter 2: Ways of Thinking

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