I grew up knowing that I was broken somehow and it was my fault. At school, I heard things like, “Come on, you know better than this!” and “You are smart enough to know better!” and “If you would be a little less maniacal about your grades, kids wouldn’t be so mean to you.” At home, I heard that I was self-centered and careless. I had a big list of negatives I could tell you about myself, but only one positive: I was smart. But I didn’t have to work for my grades and test scores. They just happened, because I have a really good memory. So, the compliment felt a little like being commended for remembering my own birthday. It was watered down like being told that I was “nice” or “fine.” It lost its meaning.
And it was the only positive word I heard consistently, but I took all those negatives to heart and them inside. No one could know what was in my mind when I did the things that earned me those labels, because I couldn’t tell them, even though the background often made it clear that I was thinking of others and trying my best. The world was so confusing. I couldn’t figure out why in the world my attempts to be caring and loving always made the other person feel worse, and I didn’t have the verbal ability to ask anyone about it. I had a long list of negatives and only that one positive–smart–that didn’t mean anything anymore. I had a rock-bottom view of myself.
It wasn’t until my diagnosis and then a few years of living with it that I started to see other positive things about me, things no one ever mentioned before. These words mean so much more than smart ever could.
Some of them are my unique talents. I’m creative with words–poetry, persuasion, nonfiction stories. I’m a great editor, because my non-language-based brain gives me a wordless understanding of how it fits together. I’m really good with kids…mostly, my secret is to play and have fun, too, letting the kids have more freedom than most adults would. I build strong connections with them. I make sure no one is hurt, and we’re all good. Good and happy! And sometimes a bit loud!
There are some traits that help me. I’m a really hard worker, and I won’t settle until I’ve given a project the best I can give it. I’m very honest. There are some times you’re supposed to be someone you’re not…but I don’t get it, and I don’t like it, so honest it is. I’m good at seeing the good in others. And I’m really a pretty happy person, but I don’t pretend to be when I’m not. I’m passionate about making the world a better place, and I know that’s a giant goal, so I just focus on being kind to each person who bumps into my day. I’m passionate about advocacy, too. I think making the world better for autistic people will make it better for everyone.
Here’s the thing… I do still have challenges and traits that work against me. I get overstimulated very easily, frustrated quickly when I’m not able to communicate clearly, and I have a lot of fear about new situations and especially new people after bad experiences. It can be hard for me to change, switch gears, or try another way. But it’s a lot more effective to be able to identify those things myself instead of people throwing harsh words at me. It doesn’t help any of us to hear a bunch of hard words that we never expected to hear about ourselves–we aren’t quick to think on those words and work on change if we’re so badly hurt by words we didn’t expect. Sometimes it’s me that has to change, but other times it makes more sense to accommodate the world around me. Even if I identify a problem and see where I could make changes, I don’t do that until I’ve talked to someone who knows me and the situation. It’s just good to know I’m making a good choice.
My family still brings up issues here and there, but they involve me in looking at the problem and solving for possible solutions. These conversations are generally text-based, as I’m much better at communicating through typing, and they’re not brought up when I’m having a hard time or if I’m overstimulated. And when the tough stuff does come up, one change from my childhood is that I now have a very strong sense of myself and my strengths, so the hard stuff doesn’t knock me over. And my family understands me a lot better, so they know it’s never that I don’t care or that I’m not already trying.
Plants can grow to be strong, bright, and beautiful. If you see some weeds in the flower bed and douse the entire thing in harsh weed killers, you’re going to harm your lovely plant, too. If you spare the chemical but start yanking things out without watching to preserve your flowers, you might rip its roots out, too. Your plant has to have strong roots and a strong stem to hold its bloom up for everyone to see. If the roots are weak, it will die. If the stem is weak, the bloom will flop and only show its face to the dirt.
Give your kids strong roots, a strong sense of who they are and what they do well so the first harsh word doesn’t knock them over. When there’s a problem close by, be wise about how you get rid of those weeds so you don’t harm the child to his core in the process. Nurture that flower so it will become confident when the sun shines down and strong when the winds blow.
As a child who could only form a sense of self based on what others told me, I took in all of those negative perceptions, never knowing how much the adults didn’t know about me, never knowing myself well enough to see that their words might be completely wrong or even meant to hurt me. A child who doesn’t always understand social nuances and communication may rely on adults to help him find his roots. That’s the way to grow up with a healthy sense of self that will let him see his challenges as a great opportunity to work hard and accomplish something big.