Giving our autistic kids the freedom to make decisions and learn from their own actions prepares them for adulthood. Allowing them to fail today supports their ability to leave later in life without us having to be with them every minute.
Presume Competence to Grow Independence in Our Kids
Encouraging the framework in our kids that leads to independence requires letting go of some of our innate parental senses, such as how we want to hover over our children to prevent failure. When we insist on complete control of our children, we do not presume competence. Instead, we presume incompetence, with the underlying belief that our kids cannot learn and achieve growth unless we always step in for them.
When we presume competence in our children, we believe that they possess the ability to learn and develop. We trust that they will grow without our overcompensation. Children process overcompensation as I don’t believe that you are capable, and this thwarts their motivation to learn and grow independently.
To help our kids learn from life itself, to experience failure, doesn’t require drastic measures like letting go of a safety net. We can still be there for our children, but the modeling and guiding that induces independence can be achieved through subtle everyday life experiences.
Here are 10 ways to let your kids fail now to support success in their future:
1. Do Not Do What Your Kids Can Do for Themselves
Offer help where help is needed (for what they are unable to do) but allow your children to attempt things that stretch them, even if it means that they might fail. Allowing your kids to think flexibly and understand different perspectives in life, cope with change, and integrate information from multiple sources and challenges, helps them develop dynamic intelligence and gain independence.
2. Set Consequences for Actions
We all learn from the mistakes that we make when we ignore our boundaries. When we stay out too late, we feel horrible the next day. When we drive too fast, we get a speeding ticket. When we establish boundaries for our children and teach them that actions have consequences, we set them up for success.
This can be as simple as telling your child that they must pick up their toys by 10:00 a.m. if they want to go to the park. Unless an extenuating circumstance happens that prevents your child from picking up their toys by the set time, cancel the trip to the park.
Do not help your child escape the consequences. Do not pick up the toys for them. Do not remind them to do so. Do not give in to any negative behavior if the trip to the park gets canceled.
3. Health and Safety First
Set “non-compromisable” boundaries and limits that protect the health and safety of your children and your family. Explain the possible health and safety outcomes of particular behaviors and discuss the consequences (i.e., loss of privileges, etc.). Always be transparent with any mistakes or poor decisions that you personally make.
“We all make mistakes, but this is what happens… (explain your outcome). We pay for our poor choices. I cannot, and will not, hover over you every minute of your life, but I can encourage you to not make these same mistakes.”
4. Celebrate Failure and Encourage Effort
Sometimes, our greatest efforts in life just do not pan out for us. But it is often the effort that matters – it is what keeps us putting one foot in front of the other. We keep on trying. Our kids are no different. Allow your kids to fail and then celebrate it. Celebrate the good efforts that were made.
This will help them to take on risks, try new things, to get out of their comfort zone. If they succeed, they can celebrate their accomplishment. If they fail, help them to see their efforts and celebrate exactly that.
5. Resist Coming to the Rescue
Neither failure, nor success, can be achieved by your children if you consistently jump in and come to their rescue. They can’t learn from their actions and thought processes if they do not experience the outcomes. Relational information processing, the ability to think situations through, and to obtain solutions when there are no “right or wrong” answers, is a goal for our autistic children that can be achieved when we resist coming to the rescue.
It can look like this: You are simply observing, knowing that your child is facing a decision. You shrug your shoulders to communicate “I know, this is a tough one,” and then give them a thumbs-up gesture, “You can do this!” You do not step in and decide for them. If your child asks for your guidance, ask them to tell you what options and outcomes they foresee. Encourage them to contemplate the solutions.
6. Give Your Children Space
Do not manage your kid’s relationships or communications for them. Give them the space to learn for themselves. Step back and allow your children to develop these areas of Dynamic Intelligence, which are crucial to have a quality of life:
Social Coordination – The ability to observe and continually regulate one’s behavior in order to participate in spontaneous relationships involving collaboration and exchange of emotions.
Emotional Referencing – The ability to use an emotional feedback system to learn from the subjective experiences of others.
Declarative Language – Using language and non-verbal communication to express curiosity, invite others to interact, share perceptions and feelings, and coordinate your actions with others.
7. Do Not Manage Your Children’s Work for Them
Help your children understand schedules, deadlines, and responsibilities, but give them the task of keeping up. Share what works for you, and help them to get started, but leave them to develop their own planning and coping skills. This means letting failure happen and allowing them to grow from the consequences.
8. Don’t Give in to Guilt
Guilt can lead us to reach for the “easy button” for our kids. Life is never perfect for anyone. When we give into guilt as a parent (i.e., I am being a bad parent for not stepping in…), we teach our children that there is a quick and easy escape route, which negates their need to cope. Teach your children how to handle disappointments, and model it yourself, but drop the guilt.
9. Encourage Your Children to Try New Things
Encourage your kids to take risks and try new activities. Guide your children to develop an attitude that trying new things is fun and that they do not have to be perfect at it. This provides the opportunity to learn from any failures, and to prepare for future challenges.
10. Promote Decision-Making
Your home and parent-guide style can be a haven for your kids to learn decision-making. Challenge your children with age-appropriate activities and family-based chores that encourage thinking for themselves. Allow your kids to make choices that give them a sense of control, which leads to independent thinking and actions. Your children are prone to failing when your parenting style is less directive, but it encourages your children to develop vital skills of independence.
Resources for Education, Connection, and Support
We all want our children to reach success in life. You are not alone in this journey. Whether you are new to the world of autism or have spent years trying to find answers, we can put you in touch with the resources and people to help you move forward. If you’d like to talk to RDI® professionals, parents just like you, and adults on the spectrum, join our online learning community.