“You are enough. Just you.”
So simple, right?
We sometimes say it, but do we really mean that? Because it doesn’t count if you don’t mean it.
In the context of girls and women with autism we lose sight of this seemingly simple principle with a regularity that is stunning. In fact, it happens so easily and so naturally, that many never even realize that it occurred or understand the damage that it caused.
I argue that what many girls and women with autism hear when that advice is given is, “You are enough. Just you. As long as you fit in while you do it.”
She Will Never Feel More Different Than When She Strives to Fit In
In my case, while many seemed willing to concede my intelligence, I felt as though few understood or accepted me, even worse, that few loved me. I spent my entire childhood and a good part of my adult life feeling that because I was different, I failed to measure up.
Let’s face it, being different hurts. Acceptance is not automatic, confidence can be hard to come by and self-esteem may be fragile at best. A lifetime of trial and error can lead to insecurity.
As a result, I became an overachiever of epic proportions, achieving at levels people did not think possible for me in areas that did not come naturally to me. I developed systems to get me through the things that were tough for me.
I succeeded in doing a crazy good job of compensating for my autism. So successful was I that I made it 44 years without a diagnosis. (You can read about how I got my diagnosis in my post, “Coming Home: The Clarity of Knowing My Confusion Stemmed from Autism.”
In other words, I looked successful while I was dying inside. Trying hard and all of this effort did achieve worldly success at some level, but mostly it equated to a feeling of spinning on a hamster wheel. I remained no closer to fitting in. It looked good, but I knew better.
No one ever gave me permission to be myself, so in an effort to survive, I imitated others.
I now know that this phenomenon is common place. It happens to girls and women with autism all the time.
How avoidable and how devastating for us all.
She Simply Wasn’t Made to Conform and That Is Okay
I suggest that few girls and women with autism are up to the challenge of true conformity and none should be asked to pay the price to get there. After all, a lifetime of needlessly chasing the impossible is exhausting and unnecessary.
So where do things go wrong and what do we need to do to stay on track?
We Unintentionally Require Her to Conform – on Purpose
Yes, you read that right, we unintentionally require conformity on purpose.
We offer institutionalized conformity training. Sounds harsh, right. But this result occurs through nothing more than well-intended (or sometimes not-so-well-intended) therapy or services or parenting gone wrong.
How it Starts
In the “old days,” unless severe, autists were not diagnosed, there were no formal services, and we were all expected to perform and behave the same way as our peers. If we did not, we were considered different and, unfortunately, inadequate – at least that is how it felt.
Sometimes “help” came in the form of advice, disappointed looks and other signs of frustration experienced by peers, caregivers and teachers. At other times, “help” looked like you were left to figure things out for yourself.
Now if we need assistance in reaching that goal, there are services, treatments, medications (not for autism per se, but for comorbid disorders), diets, protocols, self-help books, etc. (Read my post, “Comorbidity: Autism and Its Closest Friends”)
How It Shifts
In seeking these services, we or one of our caregivers (hopefully) start with the (probably) well-intended goal of improving our quality of life through personal growth. At some point, however, we (or our caregiver) often lose the initial goal of personal growth and replace it with the goal of making sure the person being helped conforms to the model of achievement and success imposed on us by a society – a society that works to make sure everyone “fits in.”
If you are working with someone to help them be the best they can be, you are helping them. If you are working with them so that they will better fit in, will not be noticeable etc., you are helping you. Hopefully helping someone be the best they can be will naturally result in them fitting in in the sense that they are happy and (at least reasonably) comfortable in the world. Also, helping someone work to fit in where that is THEIR goal fits the former not the latter description.
It is a very different thing to offer someone training so that they can be the best they can be, or so that they can be as comfortable as possible, than it is to believe that the only way to achieve this goal is through conformity. In fact, the two may be exact opposites.
At the commencement of my own counseling for autism, it was suggested to me that I should practice making facial expressions in the mirror, I was spoken to slowly as though I was not capable of understanding simple communication and it was suggested that even though I was high functioning I may not be able to be successful in the world.
You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. Me.
Uuuummm…NO. I just won’t accept that.
How It Ends
I would argue that those who experience this institutionalized shift toward conformity are also at high risk for damaged self-esteem, undermined confidence, heightened anxiety and hindered personal growth. I am going to say that again: HINDERED, not furthered, personal growth.
And yet, this shift happens so frequently, so quietly and so quickly most never notice it. The difference, however, between helping and damaging is terrifyingly thin.
The unfortunate result may be that we lose those we are trying so hard to help. And sometimes, tragically, the person we lose is our own self or our child(ren).
I deserve better. All girls and women with autism deserve better. Really, EVERYONE deserves better.
We Let Her Fall Through the Cracks
This result can also occur naturally. Girls and women with autism, like myself, may have fallen through the cracks and are trying to survive the best they can on their own.
What will they do? Just what I did.
The natural process of socialization deems that we all try to learn to fit in. In fact, research shows that girls and women with autism are showing a propensity to be social imitators even without any formal services or interventions and thus, are at high risk for just this result.
AND we reward these girls and women for their efforts.
So, far from working toward self-actualization, they work to get better at imitating others. AND they can be really, really good at it.
But they haven’t really learned to fit in, they learned to fake it. And they may never make it.
The reality is that a high percentage of girls and women with autism will never reach their full potential, because, whether intentionally or unintentionally, we led them to failure – we did not embrace them for who they are so they did not embrace themselves. It starts when they are little and often continues without any trigger to stimulate course correction.
Her Growth Should Be Personal
While sometimes personal growth is hard, please know that help is not help if it hurts without sufficient benefit.
More than that, worldly success or the appearance of it doesn’t guarantee emotional or mental health, requirements I would argue for success in personal relationships. In our world, as long as you look successful, it is assumed that you are successful. The age old cliché should say, “If it doesn’t look broken don’t fix it.” Because that is how we live. And with unfortunate regularity it is actually very, very broken.
Girls and women with autism, just like everyone else, need and deserve to be able accept themselves, they need to like themselves and they need to love themselves.
Just. As. They. Are.
Not as whatever they can be turned into or whatever they can turn themselves into.
It wasn’t until I became an adult that I received permission to just be me. And only then because I gave it to myself. Best Gift Ever!!!
I feel so fortunate to have reached the place I am in today. I want ALL girls and women with autism to join me in self-acceptance!
She Should Use the Resources She Needs to Meet HER Goals for HER.
I want to qualify what I am and am not saying here.
I am saying that everyone should be encouraged, taught or helped to accept, like and love themselves. They should be taught their value and their worth. I am saying that people need to feel loved and valued for who they are and not who they could become if they work hard enough and make enough changes.
I am not saying that people who have a need for services should not receive them. Services for purposes of controlling biological conditions, healing, expanding opportunities and personal development receive my full support.
I can, however, tell you in my experience and my reading on this subject, much overstepping has occurred (generally with the best of intentions) such that the message to those who are different often becomes, “We need you to change who you are so that we can deem you to be valuable.”
Can we honestly say, especially in regard to girls and women and autism that efforts are focused on enabling them so self-actualize? Girls and women with autism, do you feel free to be yourselves? After all, I am arguing for you, and hopefully you feel I have adequately represented you. If not, please let me know!
(To all of you girls and women with autism out there…)
You are Enough. Just You.
Don’t be afraid to live that truth.
I wholeheartedly applaud those girls and women with autism who are on a path to personal discovery. To all of you, I encourage you today, to leave behind the notion that you have to work to “fit in” and to keep your eyes on the prize…personal development – to be the best “you” you can be.
Hats off to caregivers whose focus is on growing feelings of acceptance, confidence and self-esteem of their kiddos when conformity may, on the surface, seem easier. Keep going!
You will always be more successful just being you.
If you haven’t already gotten there, set the goal to get there because YOU. ARE. ENOUGH. JUST. YOU.
She is enough just as she is with Her Autism!!!
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