Self-awareness is a term you hear thrown around a lot. But, what does it actually mean? Generally speaking, self-awareness is being aware of all aspects of yourself. This includes your personality traits, feelings, body sensations, actions, and intentions.
As an individual with autism you may be wondering, how do I become self-aware and why is it important? These are great questions. Today, I want to explore the concept of self-awareness. Then, I will explain why I believe it to be one of the more important things we teach at our autism therapy clinic.
Why is being self-aware so hard?
Based on my experience as an autism therapist, I have found that most of my autistic clients have felt misunderstood and criticized by people in their life. Being frequently criticized, corrected, bullied or invalidated is a common childhood experience for folks on the spectrum. Others in their life might not understand their sensory sensitivities, feelings, or unique needs as a person on the spectrum.
Growing up, when a child on the spectrum shares how they feel, often they hear replies like: “stop overreacting”, “don’t be so sensitive”, or “don’t be so difficult”. These invalidating messages communicate to the child with autism that it’s not ok to be the way they are. What a painful message to receive as a child! It makes sense why a child with autism would stop sharing how they feel. They don’t want to be hurt by invalidation again. Naturally, a child might start to ignore their internal cues about how they are feeling and what they need. This makes it much harder for the child to develop self-awareness.
Another reason why it can be hard for a child on the spectrum to develop self-awareness is because others might not honor their individuality. Let me explain. A child on the autism spectrum might think differently and process the world differently from others around them. If they are surrounded by people who criticize their way of thinking and perceiving, the child is left feeling confused and bad about themselves. The child might try to act like others to avoid being criticized for being different. We call this masking. As a result, the child doesn’t develop a clear sense of identity. They don’t know what they want or need. Their self-awareness is limited.
Understanding Your Bodily Cues
To be self-aware you have to first understand the ways your body and mind are trying to communicate with you. For example, when you meet a person and your heart races and your cheeks become hot, that might be your body’s way to communicate attraction or embarrassment. You have to tune in closely to your body’s messages to figure them out.
Unfortunately, this is especially challenging for individuals on the autism spectrum because they’ve been conditioned to push their bodily sensations away for fear of invalidation or social rejection. So in time, they actually become less in-tune with their bodily cues.
The IFS Model and Self-Awareness
When you’re aware of the way your body and mind are communicating with you and sending you signals, then you become much more self-aware. In our clinic, we promote self-awareness through teaching a model called Internal Family Systems or IFS model. I think of it less as a therapeutic coping strategy, and more as a way of being. It’s a way of staying in tune with yourself, with your feelings and needs. It’s not a model specific to autism. All people can incorporate this model into their everyday life.
Let me briefly describe the IFS model through an example. Have you ever heard someone say, “A part of me feels excited, but another part of me feels scared.” Think about when you started a new school, job, or relationship. You probably had mixed feelings, like excitement and fear. A part of you was excited and a part of you was scared.
Naturally we talk about ourselves in terms of parts. Humans are not constructed in a unitary way, where we can only feel one way. Nope! In fact, we often feel more than one way at a time. In IFS, we refer to these different internal experiences as parts. The model is called Internal Family Systems to indicate that we all have a family of parts within us, or a variety of internal experiences. The goal of this model is to become aware of these parts of ourselves. To become Self-aware. To understand your feelings and needs, and learn how to honor your feelings and advocate for your needs.
Why You Should Care About Being Self-Aware
In my autism therapy groups, lots of individuals with autism ask me why they should bother with being more self-aware if it’s not directly going to solve the problems they’re experiencing? It’s a fair question, so I want to take a minute to address it.
Self-awareness isn’t a coping strategy or behavior management technique. It’s literally a state of awareness. People ask, “how can a state of awareness fix my problems!” Well, knowing how you feel and what you need is essential to being able to advocate for yourself and get your needs met. Knowing what makes you feel comfortable and safe also helps you set healthy relationship boundaries, so you feel safe, understood, and respected by others.
Let’s illustrate this through an example. Imagine you get home feeling drained from the day. You felt frustrated by a misunderstanding that happened earlier that day. Your social battery feels depleted and you need to recharge through some alone time. However, your loved one doesn’t understand how you feel and your need for alone time. Your loved one wants to spend time with you, feels ignored and offended, and so starts nagging you. Your frustration and irritability is already high at this point and so you say something rude. Imagine instead, if you recognized the signs of sensory overload in your body and could have self-disclosed your feelings and advocated for the important need for alone time. With greater self-awareness you can advocate for your needs and set relationship boundaries that will ultimately make it easier for you to be in relationships.
Autism Therapy and Autism Group Therapy Can Help You Become More Self-Aware
If you’re struggling with self-awareness or other issues pertaining to being a neurodiverse individual, then autism therapy or autism group therapy can help. We talk a lot about the IFS model and what it means to be self-aware. Furthermore, we dive into helping you get to know your parts and healing the burdens they may be carrying.
Begin Online Autism Therapy or Autism Group Therapy in California
If you would like to begin working on yourself and think autism therapy or autism group therapy may be a good fit for your needs, then I encourage you to reach out to our California-based autism therapy clinic for support. We would be honored to work with you. To begin autism therapy in California, follow these steps:
- Contact us for a free phone consult.
- Like us on Facebook to stay updated on our practice.
- Sign up for our newsletter.
Or… Take an Autism E-Course
If you are not in California but are wanting support as an autistic individual or parent, there are options for you! Consider our sister website, Neurodiversity School. Check it out if you want to join an online community of neurodivergent peers. To get started, follow the following steps:
- Sign up for our newsletter
- Check your inbox for more information
- When the website launches, take the quiz and find out what course is right for you or your loved one!
Other Options at Open Doors Therapy for Individuals with Autism:
Our Palo Alto, CA-based Autism Therapy Clinic serves teens and adults on the autism spectrum. More specifically, our therapists support those who identify as high functioning, having Aspergers, and ASD traits. We are also proud to offer support to the families of those with an autism spectrum disorder.
Our services cover a wide range of challenges that individuals on the autism spectrum might experience. Our skilled autism therapists specialize in individual counseling for autistic teens and adults, parent counseling, group therapy, and countless social skills groups! Right now, we have groups for neurodiverse working professionals, college students with autistic traits, teens & caregivers, and gifted youth & caregivers. We also offer social skills groups for neurodiverse adults, women who identify as neurodiverse, a mothers group, and a summer social skills college transition training program for youth transitioning to college. Reach out to us for more information on our services or to schedule a consultation.