Wishing to be different…
Years ago, I had a student, as he was packing his books at the end of class, say, “I wish I wasn’t autistic.” He caught me off guard. He was a great kid and was experiencing some level of grief over the fact that he wasn’t “normal” …whatever that is. I don’t even remember what I said. I’m sure it was something trite and useless like “recognizing that you are different is the first step to building better skills” or “you have a lot of unique skills associated with your autism that make you the person you are.” These things might have been true, but they ignored the basic gist of his statement: he wanted to be different.
Working to be better…
I should have told him “No. You are wrong to say that. What you really want is to be better.” Different implies that you want something else, anything else, but this. Better says that you know who, what, and where you are and you want an improvement on this situation as you see it. That’s the problem most people have with goal setting and self-improvement attempts…wishes without analysis.
I am not on the spectrum and other than some type of mish-mash of clinical and empathetic experience, I speak completely out of turn on the issue of what it feels like to be autistic, but…wishing to be different is a discouraging and fruitless activity. We are all gifted, for better or worse, with a specific sequence of DNA. When activated and influenced by the environment and the probability of large numbers that something might go slightly wrong, this string of nucleotides produces the human animal that we are. You are powerless to do anything about it.
Using goal setting to be better
Before we all start eating too much comfort food and building playlists of slow and mournful songs, let me clarify. I am not saying that you can’t do anything about your situation. On the contrary, I am saying you can take any number of actions right now to improve your future from this point forward. There are many things that I have done in the past that I would love to make un-happen, but that is not possible. What I can do is be honest, evaluate the cause of the misstep, consider what it will take to clean up the resulting mess, and understand how I can avoid making the same mistake in the future. Some might ask what does my social incompetence have to do with another’s structural or chemical brain difference? Well, nothing…and everything. It’s not the same in its origin, but the solution system, that will make life better is very much the same: effective goal setting.
- Make an honest assessment of who and where you are. Everyone has skills and deficits. The only real question is how do you use yours to meet others’ expectations. You are you and no amount of self-help seminars or books-on-tape are going to turn you into anyone else. Figure out your strengths and build on them. (And don’t start with that “I have no stenghths” nonsense. Yes, you do. Pessimism is not a strength you can build on)
- Focus on one challenge at a time. If there is a situation that reoccurs on a regular basis that, if you could stop, would make a significant change in your happiness, start there. Be patient. As the maxim says, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” The unspoken corollary to that old chestnut is that one day someone laid the first brick and based on that single brick, a city was born. Pick something that matters and sharpen your skills around that thing. When you have it down, move to the next important thing. You will probably find that fixing the first thing also solves more than one other related problem.
- Be persistent with your goal setting. If you stopped trying after the first time you tried anything, you probably would be the world’s largest potato:
- walking, you likely fell down the first time you tried it,
- talking, the only thing that kept you from starving was your ability to point as you grunted and your mother’s unwillingness to let you cry incessantly,
- even eating, have you ever seen a baby eat? Disgusting!
- Give others the space to make a new decision about you. You have a history. Just because you want to change doesn’t mean that everyone around you is going to give you a clean slate. As you grow in your competence, others around you will grow in their confidence.
- Use goal setting to build a new habit or practice that will replace the old unsuccessful habit. When I was younger, everyone was trying to quit smoking, the cool habit that many picked up in the 1950’s that they found out later would kill them. You could pick out the ones who were successful: They all gained weight! They had replaced the habit of smoking with the habit of snacking. I’m not saying that packing on a few pounds will solve your social challenges. What I am saying is that if you have a tendency to miss or misread facial expressions, gather a list of probing questions that you can use in those situations. Instead of just nodding or changing the subject, which might be your current strategy, ask a question like “How did that make you feel?” or “What did you think about that?” or “What did you do then?” At first it will feel awkward, but as you practice you will see how it changes your experience.
- Give yourself a break. You are never going to be perfect. Stop trying. We tend to think that others have fewer problems than we do. If you think of some talented athlete or performer, you might think that they have it all figured out, but if you really knew them you would soon see that they have problems and deficits too, just different ones than you and I have.
What I wish I had said…
I really wish that I had been able to gather up my sage thoughts all of those years ago for that young, wonderfully autistic young man. The years have been a wonderful adventure for him. He is now an adult, employed, and married. If I had been quicker with my wits I could have claimed some credit for his success. As it is, I will offer this to you:
Don’t wish for something else. Wish for something more!
There is a better version of you waiting on the other side of your next decision!
Here is another take on goal setting and being the best you can be for young adults on the autistic spectrum from Seattle Children’s Foundation. It is an older post but makes some great points