Let’s talk about why autistic kids aren’t asking for help. If we don’t fully understand the problem, how can we begin to understand a solution? The point of this post is to bring awareness to how invalidation over time can lead students to stop advocating for themselves. Then I share some tips for helping students feel more comfortable to ask for help again.


My second year working as an SLP in schools I did one of the most incredulous things you can do in our position – I was offered help with my 70+ student caseload…and I said I was fine. *facepalm*

I wasn’t fine, at all. I was drowning. Help would’ve been like a god-send while my physical and mental health were crumbling. So why was I so goodness stupid to turn down help when it was explicitly offered to me?

My brain irrationally decided that accepting help would be worse than the alternative, figuring it out on my own. It’s a make it work moment, as Tim Gunn would say in Project Runway.

As a young child, when I would ask my mother for help, she used to tell me, “God gave you a brain for a reason, use it.” Figure it out, she’d insist, thinking that she was helping, preparing me to grow up in this world that will never be easy or fair.

So there I was, out of school, a working adult, and still going by the “figure it out yourself” code, feeling as if somehow asking for help or accepting it even was wrong. If I couldn’t figure it out myself, with this brain God gave me for a reason, then I must be stupid. Inadequate. I’m not thinking or working hard enough. If I accept help, I’ve failed.

But I’m not stupid for not asking for help. I have a trauma response that is no longer serving me. I don’t see an offer of help as something I can trust. My brain is convinced that just like any other time I’ve needed help, asking or accepting it will somehow make things worse. And I know I’m not alone in that negative thought pattern.

Digging into the “why”

We ask ourselves why when we watch our autistic or otherwise neurodivergent students clearly struggling, but refuse to ask for help. Why would they not ask for help? Why are they pushing help away instead of accepting it?

In schools, we work on explicitly teaching asking for help and other self-advocacy skills we deem important. Because the student needs to learn to ask for help. But it’s not that simple. Your student isn’t going to learn to ask for help until they’ve unlearned not asking for help.

There’s a reason underlying why your student isn’t asking for help. And until we understand the deeper reasons, we’re not going to be able to convince the student that asking for help now is the best move for them.

Your student thinks that asking for help will cause something worse to happen than continuing to struggle silently and alone. Why? Let’s explore some possibilities.

Invalidated Perceptions – My world and your world are not the same.

Autistic people with hypersensitive nervous systems experience the world differently than people with typically functioning nervous systems. People without a hypersensitive nervous system response can’t relate to feeling physically ill or in pain from common sensory stimuli.

These hypersensitive kids often internalize the belief that their subjective perceptions of the world and natural responses to it are objectively wrong.

The lights are too bright? No, they’re normal. Those shoes help your feet not hurt them. There’s nothing wrong with the food. You can’t possibly feel the seams of your clothes.

There’s ten different appliances in the room plugged in that buzz with electricity and you can’t block out that buzzing – you feel it in your brain – but nobody else knows what you’re even talking about. They don’t hear anything, so why would you?

It’s entirely confusing to live in a world that denies your own reality. And after a while, you learn that asking for help is futile. You learn that you can’t trust other people to believe you enough to really help.

Some of your autistic students, especially those with a highly sensitive nervous system, won’t ask for help because they’ve already determined that asking for help doesn’t get them help, but punishment. Criticism or shaming. Or flat out being told that their perception of reality is not accurate. If you’ve been conditioned to not trust your own perception of need, then how will you know when to ask for help?

It’s not that autistic kids are inherently less capable of asking for help from adults compared to other kids. But when early in life an autistic kid repeatedly asks for help and they aren’t taken seriously or helped, eventually they stop considering help as an option.

Hyper-independence – Persisting through challenges myself is superior.

Hyper-independence is a trauma response, but a trauma response that an individualistic society praises.

American society values independence, self-sufficiency, individualism. We praise when students don’t need help. In the education world, “grit” is lauded as a valuable characteristic that will make students succeed — “grit” meaning perseverance when faced with challenges or difficulties. Psychologist and researcher Angela Duckworth coined the term “grit” that grew momentum when she presented her research at a Ted Talk in 2013. She described her findings that identified “grit” as the common denominator in children who became successful. (You can view the TedTalk here if you’re interested. She’s a great speaker.)

Now, fostering “grit” is not mutually exclusive with encouraging kids to ask for help when needed. But in viewing persisting through challenges as superior, we may incidentally suggest that asking for help is inferior. If persisting through hard things is positive, then pausing and asking for support can be seen as negative, even if it’s not framed as negative by the teacher.

It’s easy to make the association that asking for help is like a form of defeat, or giving up. Saying that I’m here to help you isn’t going to be perceived as a positive thing when what’s viewed as best is not needing help in the first place.

Multi-generational neurodivergent families can teach this hyper-independent response to their children as a survival mechanism. Autism in people without intellectual disabilities were rarely identified in older generations. Difference was often not tolerated, acknowledged, or understood. So unidentified autistic parents can incidentally teach their children that they cannot rely on others for support, as they learned from their own upbringings.

And that makes sense. Perhaps that’s even served them well for a while. So what can we do when our student has already determined that asking for help isn’t worth it before they even try?

Exploring the “how” – Meeting kids where they are at.

A neurodivergent brain that thrives on pattern recognition is going to expect those previous patterns to continue. Picking up on the pattern that asking for help doesn’t actually lead to help, but instead leads to more problems is not accidental. Unfortunately, once the pattern has been established, the brain is going to look for anything that reinforces it.

So what do we do?

We need to find ways to break the pattern. We need to not only break that pattern, but give our kids an alternative they can trust. To make asking for help feel like a good thing again. Easier said than done, but recognizing the problem and obstacles is certainly a good start.

Breaking the Cycle of Invalidation

We don’t need to wait for the student to bring their problems to us to show them, especially when your students feel uncomfortable talking about their needs. We can be proactive in demonstrating that we are a trusted person to ask for and receive help from.

Talking about emotions, personal experiences, and being vulnerable can be quite hard. For both the students and you as the professional. But in my experience, if you can break through your inner nervousness and open a vulnerable discussion acknowledging emotions, the outcome is worth the effort.

Personal Example 1 (Autism & sensory issues):

The first session I led with a new group of autistic students, I selected a Ted Talk video to watch and discuss about autism. In the video, the speaker Jac den Houting says, “I’m not disabled by my autism, though; I’m disabled by my environment. […] If we started designing shopping malls that were quiet, dimly lit, predictable, and sparsely populated, well, I’d still be autistic, but I might not be disabled by shopping malls anymore.”

Your student might not have ever heard someone say that to them before, let alone an adult in a position of authority. If that’s the case, you are breaking a pattern learned from growing up autistic in a world built for neurotypicals. Before introducing any kind of problem or situation in their life, you’re priming them to see that you are a person who might believe them. Because when you acknowledge that the world is traumatic and assaulting to the senses, you are telling them that you can acknowledge their perspective as valid too.

It becomes much easier to ask for help when you know that person will believe you, accept you, and work together with you, support you without judgment. Trust is earned. Think about ways that you can present yourself as someone who your autistic students can trust.

Autistic people like when things are predictable, when they know what’s going to happen. So one way to establish trust is preemptively demonstrating what would happen if they asked for help. Make your response to requesting help predictable. You will believe them, be understanding, non-judgmental, and treat them with respect. If those positive responses can be expected, then it will be far easier for your student to ask at least you for help.

Personal Example 2 (ADHD & motivation):

For students with ADHD who struggle with motivation for completing work that doesn’t interest them, I like to show a YouTube video made by Jessica McCabe (HowToADHD) that directly talks about the ADHD brain’s challenges with motivation. The video visualizes motivation as a bridge to cross to get to the other side (“doing the thing). She describes the ADHD brain’s motivation bridge as missing some planks and validates that the person with ADHD isn’t lazy or doesn’t care, but that they are struggling due to these missing planks, and then gives some suggestions for how to add those planks to the motivation bridge and make doing the thing easier.

Again, validating the neurodivergent person’s struggles as real and not their fault (even though they are still responsible for managing them) can help your students see you as someone safe, someone they can trust.

Challenging Hyper-independence

If your student is demonstrating a tendency toward hyper-independence, then it is important to counter this perspective that total independence is the goal we are striving for. Total independence is an unrealistic goal, as society and community negates independence. As a community, we want to welcome and include different minds, bodies, and skills. Individuals within a community don’t only rely upon themselves. We rely on others every single day.

Openly acknowledge that we do not have to be strong and independent all the time. That everyone needs others — literally we need people to grow our food, package and deliver goods, build and repair houses, fly planes even, if we want to travel across an ocean. It is normal and expected to need help from others. It is normal and expected to get help from a teacher.

By challenging the hyper-independence that underlies reluctance to ask for help, we are directly addressing a mental barrier, breaking it down and presenting a different point of view.

Then we can begin to help our students recognize when to ask for help, practice how to ask, work on generalizing asking one person for help to other people, situations, and other self-advocacy skills. To start though, we want to focus on listening to our kids, students, clients with the intent of being a supportive figure.

A student identifying even one person who understands their neurodivergent perspective and struggles can make a huge difference in their willingness to ask for help.

Let me know if you found value from sharing this perspective.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *