My previous blog about an autistic personality and theory of mind raised quite a few questions. One reader commented in an email that the anxiety expressed by a person in no way reflects their own theory of mind. I do agree that emotions, by themselves, do not necessarily indicate that a person may understand and have beliefs about oneself and others. However, in many cases anxiety is a reaction about things that are happening in our lives. If a person is anxious for example because he knows that his parents are expecting him to graduate from college and he is having difficulties doing so, then that person has theory of mind.
Some emotional states seemingly lack a precipitating cause. This is the case for many autistic individuals who suffer from a chronic mild depression (dysthymia). They will describe themselves as “down in the dumps” and lacking interest in normal daily activities. They will end withdrawing to their bedroom and playing with a computer for most of the day. For some autistic individuals, this chronic depression is often tied to a personality trait, that is, one of low self-esteem.
I have found that the cause for anxiety, depression, and mixed states in many autistic individuals is sometimes tied to a lower self-esteem. People’s self-esteem derives, in part, from how they feel valued by other people. In effect, self-esteem predicts or indicates socially valued characteristics of that particular individual. Lower self-esteem makes you agonize about problems, whether they are real or imaginary, and withdraw from social contacts.
Having high or low self-esteem does not necessarily predict outcomes, nor does it protect a person from developing depression or anxiety. In this regard having self-compassion is more important for well-being than self-esteem. We have to teach our autistic children to give themselves permission to be imperfect and make mistakes. They need to recognize our shared humanity; the fact that we are all fumbling and improvising our way through life. Curiously, I believe that we share more with each other in our imperfections than in our strengths. Early interventions that offer the teaching point of self-compassion molds a person’s character in a way that makes them more successful in coping with daily events; making them more adaptive to life’s challenges.
As parents, we need to be supportive of our children. We need to stress to them that they are not alone. We need to teach by example to treat ourselves as we treat others. Be tolerant, -allow children to feel their emotions. and use those moments to make them cognizant of similar emotions in others. In the end, self-compassion will boost happiness, resilience and self-image while reducing the risk for anxiety or depression.
Casanova MF. Autism Updated: Symptoms, Treatments and Controversies. Amazon Publishing, 2019.
Casanova MF. Autistic personality and theory of mind. Amazon Publishing, 2019.