Sunday, December 4, 2016

Perfectionism and Living on the autism spectrum

I want to discuss a very personal topic as it relates to how I view myself and how living with an autism spectrum disorder manifests in my own life.  Although I appear to be self confident when talking in front of people and doing speeches, the truth is that I struggle with being a perfectionist and feel that I am not good enough. This gets manifested in low self confidence, being concerned of how others perceive me , asking for reassurance all the time from family and others who work with me, internally questioning my beliefs and anxiety.   Unfortunately, as I grew older and accomplish more milestones such as graduating high school,  graduating college, and getting a job my perfectionistic ego has only gotten bigger.  I constantly feel that I should be doing more  than I am now and should not make any mistakes or short comings.  This attitude crosses all domains including work, friendships, how I view my autism as well as school performance.  On the plus side, being a perfectionist has made me achieve a lot and has helped me survive through college and pulling mostly A's and B's in my classes as well as helping me developing a good work ethic as an employee.  However, it has the detrimental effect of creating unnecessary anxiety and lowering my self confidence and self esteem and also creating unrealistic expectations on myself.

You might be asking what being a perfectionist has to do with living on the autism spectrum since typical people also  struggle with holding perfectionistic attitudes.  How this ties with autism is that from an early age,  we are put into  behavioral therapies and social skills training classes which  strive to assimilate us into acting normal.  Traditional behavioral therapies such as Applied Behavioral Analysis reward children for displaying desirable behaviors and ignores them for displaying autistic behaviors such as hand flapping, scripting, jumping etc.  This gets reinforced in schools through special education programs and goals written in the Individualized Education Plan which have a strict baseline dates in which such goals should be met.  This is a true depiction of my life as I look back of  when I was going through school and the trajectory of how I developed a perfectionistic attitude.  I went to a lot of therapies as a child and went through various social skills classes as well as starting behavioral therapy when I was in eighth grade.   Sometimes, I felt I was always placed under a microscope in which I felt that all of my behaviors were constantly under surveillance by my parents, therapists and support staff.   My behavior was always measured with data sheets, emails, monthly team meetings, annual IEP meetings etc.  A specific moment in my life in which I really felt that I was under constant surveillance is when I was sent to a two week camp (that I did not want to go) at my behavior therapist's suggestion during the summer of my senior year in which all the activities were closely monitored and all centered on learning cognitive behavioral techniques and to see how well I could perform independent living skills like cooking and cleaning. Let's just say that I was happy to go home when those two weeks were up.  Although the people in my life had good intentions and I wouldn't be in the place where I am now without all the skills that I learned as a result of these intervention and experiences, it contributed to my need in pleasing people and anxiety in needing to be perfect and normal.  My experience and others on the spectrum that I talked to who have anxiety related to the desire to be perfect shows that behavioral interventions and school programs should be less focused on making autistic people act and look at the world in a neurotypical way and be more holistic, relational, and to take into account the needs, thoughts and feelings of the student and client. Another aspect I would like to see in the development of new treatments and interventions for those on the spectrum is the focus more on mental health and developing autism acceptance and positive self esteem for those on the spectrum.

Now as a young adult on the spectrum, I am slowly learning to not be so perfectionistic and to get anxious over the little stuff.  I am learning that I am good enough and that I should not be so focused on what others think of me and to feel more confident in the choices I make instead of doubting and questioning them.  It will be a slow journey since I have held these attitudes for years but I feel that the journey of letting go of my perfectionistic scripts would allow me to develop a greater self acceptance and to enjoy each step of my life journey.   After all, it is about the journey and not the destination that counts.

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