Fact-checked by Vincenza De Falco, Autism & Learning Disabilities Specialist Coach.
Learning to lose gracefully can be challenging for an autistic child, but it is an important skill to teach. There are different reasons why it is hard, from difficulty regulating emotions to an innate feeling that anything less than perfection is unacceptable.
Every child is different, but teaching an autistic child to lose gracefully is essential and can positively impact their life.
Playing Well Is More Important Than Winning The Game
Often, autistic children aren’t given very many opportunities to lose. Some autistic children have trouble controlling their emotions, and losing can upset them.
As a result, people in their lives may protect them from having to deal with losing. Despite this, you can use a few great techniques, such as role-playing or social stories.
It is possible to teach an autistic child to understand the concept of losing, and there are different techniques you can use. It is vital first to understand why losing is more challenging to know for an autistic child, and then you will be able to customize the method that works best.
Learning to master this skill will allow your child to have better relationships with peers and enjoy playing games, regardless of the outcome.
What Makes Losing Difficult For Autistic Children?
Losing is difficult for all children. Everyone needs to be taught that it is okay to lose and that it is a part of life. Losing is a way of learning.
It shows you what your weaknesses are and what you need to work on so that you learn to play the game better. Losing should be the thing that drives children to work harder and learn.
However, it isn’t quite that simple. Autism is complex, and autistic children often have a spiky profile. This means that an autistic child may be far ahead of his or her peers in some areas and far behind in others.
Learning how to lose isn’t always the first skill that parents and other adult supporters of autistic children choose to focus on.
Besides, some autistic children have trouble with the “Theory of Mind.” This refers to the ability to understand the desires, intentions, and beliefs of others. While many children develop this skill between the ages of three and five, some studies have shown that autistic children develop this skill later.
It may be difficult for children with Autism to understand that it is okay if other people are good at activities and win.
Another reason that learning to lose can be challenging for an autistic child is that he or she may have rigid thinking. For example, the child may believe that winning is the only acceptable outcome, and anything short of being the best or the first is a complete failure.
This child may not have learned that it isn’t possible to win every single time.
This can happen when an autistic child has been allowed to win all the time. Sometimes, it is easier for caregivers to let the child win than to handle the potential emotional outburst that follows a loss.
If the child hasn’t developed the skill for losing, then the child simply doesn’t know how to do it gracefully, and there is a good chance that he or she doesn’t understand it.
Finally, many autistic children like to have control over their environments, and losing can bring out bad feelings because they do not have control over the game. When you roll dice, the outcome is random, and this can be a difficult concept for some autistic children to grasp.
Every child is different, and autistic children have various reasons for having trouble with losing, but the result is the same. You can use methods to teach them how to accept losing, and this will benefit the child in life.
Role-Playing To Demonstrate Losing
Role-play is a handy tool for helping children with Autism. For the child, it is more comfortable to practice difficult skills. Often autistic children have more difficulty when faced with the discomfort of losing in a strange environment, and they might not view losing as a possibility.
Role-playing allows you to familiarize the child with the concept and develop coping skills for the future.
Start off by talking about what you are going to work on. Tell the child that you are going to teach him or her a skill to make losing more comfortable. Tell the child that you want to pretend that you just lost a game. Then you can create a simple script and tell the child what it is.
Once the child understands what you are doing, you can model the correct behavior. Show the child that it is okay to be disappointed but that you will congratulate your opponent and say something along the lines of, “Good game.” Then have the child give it a try.
You should practice this method because the autistic child will become more comfortable with it through exposure. You can add to it over time and expand what you have taught. For example, you might move to how to show good sportsmanship when you are dealing with someone who is a bad winner.
Once you feel that the child is comfortable with the concept, you might introduce another child to the role-play situation. This is the first step toward learning to lose in a peer-to-peer case. Supporting the child as he or she practices this role is crucial.
Once the child has a good handle on this skill, you can try it out in a game situation. This is an authentic situation that is close to reality. Let the child know you are still role-playing, and you can take the losing role first to model the correct behavior. Let the child try it, and be sure to give plenty of praise when he or she does it well.
Role-playing can be a handy tool for teaching an autistic child how to accept losing, and you can start with the basics and build. Role-playing is fun and engaging, and it gets good results.
Let The Child Watch You Lose First
Another method of teaching an autistic child to lose is showing the skill. You can begin one-on-one and tell the child that you want to teach him or her a new skill. Choose a game or activity that is not very important to the child so that losing is not as stressful.
You can begin by allowing the child to win two or three times. Each time, you should model the appropriate reaction as the “loser.” Then, you can tell the child that it is time to change roles. You will want a visual prompt prepared, such as a picture of two opponents shaking hands.
Use the visual prompt to help the child react appropriately after losing.
You will want to reinforce the importance of staying calm and accepting the loss. You can also make connections, such as telling the child that he or she is winning in sportsmanship. Show the child that there are more ways to win than only winning the game.
This can be particularly helpful if you are working with an autistic child who always desires perfection.
Use Social Stories That Teach It Is Okay To Lose
In 1989, Carol Gray developed the concept of Social Stories when she was working as a teacher in Michigan. The philosophy behind them is that communication goes both ways, and this difficulty is shared by the child with Autism and the communicative partner without Autism. Social stories help to explain social rules to children.
You use specific criteria when writing a social story, and you need to keep it simple. The idea is to provide a context for autistic children to help them understand the concept of losing. For example, you can use short sentences to tell a story.
You might start with a simple situation. You can tell a story about how a child doesn’t want to lose, but everyone sometimes fails. You can address how the person who loses might feel but show that they accept the loss.
Finish the story with a lesson that teaches a concept where it is helpful for others to have a turn to win or that you can’t win every time.
Watch Videos Of People Losing Games Gracefully With Your Child
Video modeling is a method where you take videos of people modeling the skill you want to teach. You might have videos of people winning and losing. You can watch the video with your autistic child. Start by discussing what you and the child observe in the video.
There are many examples of people losing graciously; these are excellent videos. As you watch the videos, have the child point out what the people might be feeling. You can discuss how you know what they are feeling.
This will help to build awareness of how body language and facial expressions show others what you are feeling.
This is an excellent method for starting a dialogue about what people feel when they lose and how they show it. It can be very informative for the child. After you watch the video, try playing a game and acting out the behavior you saw in the video.
How To Practice Losing
You will need to practice no matter what method you use to teach an autistic child to lose. You should start with mock games between you and the child. As in the “teaching the skill” method, let the child win a few times.
Make sure that you model appropriate, losing behavior. When it is your turn to win, shake hands, and use visual prompts to help the child remember how to respond.
It is essential to praise the child for a job well done. This will help the child understand that it isn’t only about winning. It might also be about doing an excellent job of showing good sportsmanship.
As you practice these skills with the autistic child, he or she will become more comfortable with the concept of losing.
In the next phase, you will want the child to practice in safe environments playing with other children. You can be there to remind the child of appropriate reactions, but this is a critical step to developing the skill.
Finally, you will want to practice in other environments with other people. Over time, the child can learn how to handle losing and build up an arsenal of tools.
It Matters How You Play The Game
It can be challenging for autistic children to understand the concept of losing, but it is something that you can teach them. It’s all in having the ability to find effective ways to communicate and help them make sense of the concept.
Often autistic children don’t understand how other people feel, and you can help them learn.
There are different methods you can use to teach losing to an autistic child, and you may want to use all of them in various forms. The reality is that when you reinforce the idea that losing is something that needs to be accepted by using different methods and different scenarios, the child has a better chance of understanding it.
Start slowly and be sure to model appropriate behavior and reactions. Practice with the child and praise him or her for having the correct response. Slowly build on your success and move to more real-life scenarios in safe environments.
As the child develops this skill, it will become more manageable, but giving the child the tools to cope is crucial.
Teaching autistic children how to lose can also help build their resilience, an essential skill they can continue to develop and practice throughout their lives.
Learning to lose gracefully is difficult, but this skill can be mastered if you spend time giving an autistic child the tools to handle it.
Vincenza De Falco is an Autism & Learning Disabilities (LD) specialist coach with extensive experience working with young people with various needs in different settings. Her passion for Autism & LD started as a volunteer at a multi-functional provision for Autism while studying for a BA in Theatre, Education, and Deaf Studies.
Throughout her career, Vincenza continues her professional development alongside working within numerous support and leadership roles in education and charities. Having gained Level 3 in Speech and Language Support, HLTA qualification, Level 3 Award in Education and Training, and Level 3 CMI Coaching qualification, Vincenza has furthered her expertise in Autism & LD.
Entering the Third Sector as a Project Manager developing and delivering a specialist NEET program, she subsequently joined ThinkForward’s newest venture DFN MoveForward, supporting young people with Autism & LD to successfully transition from education into paid employment. Through 1:1 coaching, family support, and training employers to become Disability Confident, Vincenza builds bespoke programs for young people with work readiness and employment goals. Through Vincenza’s passion for creating systemic change in Disability and employment, she forms part of the successful partnership running the DFN Project Search Supported Internship at Moorfields Eye Hospital.