Monday, June 20, 2016

Identity formation in children with ASD: are you a cat or a horse?

Today’s blog is in answer to a query received by me regarding how to facilitate identity formation in a 13 year old with autism.The teenager in question, lets call her Penny, has severe challenges with theory of mind i.e. relating to/understanding another persons state of mind and responding to it appropriately. Hence Penny frequently misreads tonal variations in others speech, such as when she says to me, “ Ms. Huma why are you screaming” and/ or “don’t make fun of me”, when I am only trying to explain something to her in a deliberate tone. Another example of Penny’s struggle with appropriate social skills is when she made a loud comment about a child’s oversized teeth and called him ‘bugs bunny’ on his face, not realising how he would feel. On being told that her comment had been hurtful she insisted that she was only telling the truth. This is also referred to as ‘mind blindness' and is typical feature of the Autism Spectrum Disorders found in varying degrees in individuals with autism.

Penny goes to a mainstream school where owing to her brash and self-focused attitude, forming friendships with other children is a struggle. She has expressed her loneliness in school and helplessness in relating to others through her artwork in the art therapy sessions that she comes to me for once a week. Judging by my communication with her, it is evident that just as Penny lacks insight into others, she has very limited awareness of herself as well. 

Penny is at the cusp of what Erik Erikson, in his theory of psychosocial development,  calls the stage of ‘identity vs role confusion’. According to Erikson’s lifespan theory of development this stage lasts from 12-18 years of age (adolescence) and is crucial for identity formtaion. During this time, youngsters are trying to gain independence, relationships with peers become very important, and fitting in with others are the main goals of this period.

But in Penny’s case, her diagnoses of autism puts her in a very precarious situation where  her chances of achieving success in the aforementioned psychosocial stage of her life are hugely challenged by her condition. Failure to develop a healthy sense of identity may put Penny in danger of developing a low-self esteem and lack of confidence which can lead to a sense of failure, isolation and perhaps even depression.

So how to help Penny develop: self-awareness (who am I?), acceptance of the self (I have challenges that many others don’t) and goals for her future (I also have many strengths that I can build on).

Below are a few ideas that I would like to share with you. As an *art therapist I would incorporate the following in my sessions but the idea behind each directive can be adapted to other modes of interaction such as  games, social stories and role playing etc.

  •       Draw yourself as an animal/animals. What qualities or weaknesses within the animal/s do you associate with?

  •       Divide a paper in quarters. Draw yourself as a child in one1/4, as you are now in the next,  how you see yourself after 10 years and then 25 and so on.

  •       Draw a self portrait of yourself on one side of the paper and on the other how you think others see you.

  •       Draw yourself as an animal, plant or object in an environment.

  •       Draw all the things you like about yourself in a circle and the ones that you don’t like outside the circle. Now transform one of the things that you don’t like into something that you like.

 The above directives could help Penny gain some insight into herself by tapping into her subconscious through her artwork and then analysing it with her to help her with self-awareness. Frankly, these exercises could work for anyone, you and me including but especially for Penny who may be more visual than auditory as most children on the spectrum are.

All stages of life are interdependent and we hope that all our children pass through each successfully, but as parents of special needs children, we know that the effort that we need to put in is significantly more at each stage. Hence, educate yourself  in order to empower yourself and your child to conquer each and every stage. Penny or your child or mine may never fit in with others or have friends to hang out with,  but  they can face all of these difficulties if they are proud of and believe in who they are . Instead of changing them to become ‘us’ let’s celebrate their differences. Yes, we must equip them with skills that we all humans need to live in society but let’s love them for who they are right now and not what we want them to become.


*Art therapy can only be conducted by a qualified art therapist.

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