(This is part 6 in an ongoing series devoted to the topic of autism and depression; click here for a post that collects and summarizes every article in the series.)
As a kid on the autism spectrum, I received a lot of pressure to blend in and hide differences. As an adult on the autism spectrum, I now know what the consequences are for that kind of pressure.
When you are young and traits that are part of who you are receive negative reactions from people- especially from parents and teachers- it can very quickly erode your sense of confidence and well-being. This, in turn, creates a perfect storm for self-loathing and depression.
Interventions aimed at hiding…interventions that establish a goal of blending in: ultimately, these devalue individuals and do more harm than good. I’m not saying that therapies and supports are bad; I’ve just learned that they work best when they are based on respect for a person’s unique personality and way of being.
I think about this a lot when parents write in and ask, “My child/teen hates their differences and their spectrum diagnosis…how do I help them?” Unfortunately, this is by far the question I receive the most.
Since I can only speak for myself, I don’t know how effectively I can answer that question. But if nothing else, I can think back to my own experiences and consider what kinds of feedback might have been helpful in my own life.
With that in mind, here is a list of ten things I most needed to hear when I was growing up on the spectrum. I don’t know if this can help others think more clearly about who they are, how they relate to the world. I just know that, for me, getting better meant reversing a lot of the feedback I was getting from the rest of the world. (And to be honest, my adult self could have used some of this a little sooner as well.)
Ten things I needed to hear:
1. You will hit social/developmental milestones in your own time, in your own way…and there’s nothing wrong with that. Ignore those who say otherwise.
2. Trying to “fit in” will make you feel miserable. Actually “fitting in” will make you feel worse. You’re different. Go with it.
3. Forcing yourself to hold eye contact will make you feel more alienated, not more connected
4. Trying to learn body language will make you feel more alone, not less alone.
5. Navigating the obstacle course of small talk will always feel mentally exhausting. You’ll begin to feel happier when you learn to politely avoid it.
6. Social awkwardness is your social radar; when people react poorly to it, you know to avoid them. When people are accepting of it: they’re the ones to trust. Your awkwardness: love it; use it.
7. When you feel shame, it means you’ve absorbed the values of the wrong people. When you feel at peace, it means you’re living on your own terms.
8. When you feel resentment for the socially adept, it means you’re trying too hard to be someone you’re not. When you feel acceptance and compassion for the socially adept, it means you’re living on your own terms.
9. Many people do not value difference, and that’s okay. What’s important is that the right people value difference. Avoid the former. Surround yourself with the latter.
10. You can’t do it alone. You’ll try…you’ll lose hope that it’s even possible to receive help or feel connected to another person. But the good people are out there. Finding them will be worth the effort.