Six Reasons Why Autistic Children Might Struggle With Losing

Last week I was at a school party with my daughter for Halloween. She’s not a fan of parties yet wants to be there too. It’s a huge internal struggle for her as she as she wants to be there like everyone else but realises she is different too.

The free dancing, general socialising, and snacks were hard enough but worse of all was when the games began.

My daughter loves games. She loves the rules and obeys them precisely. She likes that they are organised, structured and fair. The only problem is…she has to win!

They played one game which she lost right at the very start.

In front of her peers she could not hide her upset and I had to remove her from the room to save her embarrassment.

It’s now over a week later and she still can’t get the fact she lost out of her head. She can’t process it or make sense of it.

Of course all children can find it hard to lose but for autistic children it can be so much worse.

It’s not about just telling them to be a ‘good loser’, or using logic to explain that only one child can win out of everyone there. There are very valid reasons why autistic children can find losing hard and before we can help them we need to understand them better.

1. The Spiky Profile

Autism is a complex disorder and it usually comes with what is known as a spiky profile. This means that a child’s development is at different levels in different areas that what might be expected for their age. So, for example, while my daughter is on par with her peers in maths ability she is years behind in social skills. While her peers have mastered ‘good sportsmanship’ she isn’t there yet. It doesn’t make her any less it just means she needs extra patience and understanding. All children develop at different rates but somehow society expects all children to accept losing gracefully by the time they start school. For many autistic children this just isn’t realistic.

2. The Overgeneralisation

When my daughter loses in her mind it isn’t just a game, it’s everything. Her mental health deteriorates so quickly and it escalates from ‘I didn’t win that game’ to ‘I am useless at everything’ in minutes. Nothing will persuade her out of the mindset that she didn’t win so therefore she is terrible at everything, everyone hates her, and there is nothing she is good at at all. Many autistic children can be like this. They process the game as something of major significance and losing becomes the be all and end all. All rational thought leaves and they judge themselves by the sole fact they lost at one thing. While some may think this is ‘stupid’ or ‘childish’ it is a very real anxiety and needs patience and understanding.

3. The Humiliation

One thing my daughter can not abide is being the centre of attention in a negative way. She hates people staring at her or seeing her as different. Her social anxiety makes her believe that everyone thinks of her as a loser so the humiliation of publicly losing a game just reinforces that fact in her own mind. The shame of not being the best, the embarrassment of having to ‘sit out’ and the added cheers from others who continue to play only make this worse. Despite the fact she knows it is fair she will argue that ‘it’s not fair’ because in her mind fairness equates to only her winning. Which leads to the next point…

4. The Expectation

Losing well takes practice but how can you practice something that causes so much anxiety you can’t cope? It doesn’t matter how much you try to explain to my daughter that the reality is only one child will win and statistically that is very unlikely to be her, she will then argue that is ‘should be’ and ‘could be’ her so she plays with the attitude of ‘I am going to win because I want to’. While this is admirable and makes her play well and push through her social anxiety about joining in, it all falls apart very suddenly when she doesn’t win. It’s a catch 22 situation because if she accepted she was unlikely to win she would never agree to join in in the first place! I. Her mind she has already played out the game already. That’s the only way her anxiety will allow her to play but her imagination has her winning so when the reality is different the crash is big. Expectation vessel reality is always a hard one for everyone.

5. The Inability To See Things From Others Viewpoint

My daughter isn’t selfish. She is actually one of the most empathetic children there is but when it comes to games her anxiety becomes so high she goes into self preservation mode. In that mode she can’t look at someone else’s point of view so forcing her to congratulate the winner won’t work. She feels cheated and angry at the winner so how can she say ‘well done’ to them? Her own feelings and upset become so huge they are overpowering preventing her from having empathy for anyone else at that precise moment.

6. The Lack Of Control

One of the hardest things about any sort of game, wether it’s snakes and ladders or musical bumps, for an autistic child can be the absolute lack of control they have over any of it. The randomness of what you may thrown on a dice, or having an itchy nose when you should be frozen in musical statues is uncontrollable and that can bring huge anxiety to many children. They can’t predict and they are out of their comfort zone which can cause upset, frustration and challenging behaviour.

You would think with all that my daughter would hate games. In fact the irony is she loves them! Yet no matter how many different games we play she still finds it deeply distressing to lose.

The important thing is I recognise that and I understand and we continue to work on good sportsmanship often.

Like everything it’s about patience, understanding and compassion.

So the next time you see a child crying because they lost at pass the parcel or getting angry because they were ‘out’ at musical chairs spare a thought for the difficulties they are dealing with and remember we can all struggle to lose…especially when it comes to football!

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14 thoughts on “Six Reasons Why Autistic Children Might Struggle With Losing

  1. This is such a great post. Losing has been a problem within our Aspergers family. Most of these have applied at varying times. The most common one has been the humiliation. It’s that complete feeling of being inferior and/or so much ch worse than everyone else. This feeling completely takes over causing a complete withdrawal from the activity.

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  2. Wow, you summed this up really well! My son is the same way. Same thing happened at his Halloween party. He lost at a game of tic tac toe with pumpkins and gourds and lost it. He went to the corner of the room and just whined and pouted holding his head in his hands. He hates being the center of attention – especially in a negative way – you’re right on~! The teacher asked if she could play him, telling him she was really good – and let him win. And that made him feel better which was great for the sake of the party, but he can’t always win. He likes games as well, and we spent a lot of time over the Chutes and Ladders board this weekend. And I had to keep stopping him from cheating. When he loses, it becomes a defining quality of himself. He will say things like, “I’m a loser” or “I cannot play this game – I can’t do it – I am not the best” and it brings him down emotionally. It’s tough! Anyway, I can relate and really like how you broke it down like this!

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  3. Reblogged this on Autism in Our Nest and commented:
    Declan loves to play games but he has an exceptionally HARD time when he loses. This is why he has fun with activities like High-5 soccer. I read this post by faithmummy about why autistic children struggle with losing and could really relate. Please take a look! I found the post to be very insightful!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: Six Reasons Why Autistic Children Might Struggle With Losing – Reblog – Autism in Our Nest

  5. I am finally getting my son diagnosed in feburary. I have known along time there was something different about him. He is not scared of heights. He runs away from me in public places. He does not look me square in the eye when I am talking to him and when I am talking to him about something serious like fire he changes subject. Now when we do his homework he will mess up one time and it’s the end of the world. He says I can’t do it. I’m not good enough. He rather be tapping pencils together or playing with tools. When he is in class he cannot concentrate. One little noise interrupts his concentration. Then he tells me that the soft noises hurts his ears. His attitude, anger aggravation has gotten worse over the past six months. He cannot sit still I mean he is running, jumping or climbing 24 hrs a day. At the age 4 he was diagnosed with global developmental delay and they suspect mild autism but they did not diagnose. My family thinks he is just all boy but my gut instinct and my mother instinct knows something is different.

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  6. Thanks so much for such a well summarized post! Right on target! I keep going back to the question with which you started Point 4:Expectations. How do we practice this skill when playing the game causes so much stress and beats down on self esteem? My son’s self-esteem is so low now! Private therapists, special needs school and us at home have been working on this since my son was 3-4. He is now 11 (almost 12) and he STILL struggles with it! What techniques have you guys tried? I feel like we have tried and seen everything out there!

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  7. I remember getting a shock when I lost a race at 6,but got used to losing- so hated games! I had the same problem with getting turned down by romantic interests as I didn’t know why I was always rejected until I was diagnosed- I stopped bothering with men after that, thinking that if one’s meant to be it’ll just happen when I’m not expecting it- though I’d panic since I wasn’t expecting it!

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