Throughout my life I have found myself in trouble on numerous occasions. I think this is because other people think that my behaviour is strange, naughty or thoughtless and sometimes the things that I do come as a complete surprise to others. But when people look a bit deeper and try to understand me, my behaviour completely makes sense. I’m no longer “difficult” but someone that is very anxious and has quite severe and complex communication difficulties.
The issues surrounding my behaviour usually happen because I have difficulty communicating with people and they have difficulty communicating with me.
I have three excellent examples I can think of. The first is when my workplace was organising the local community fair. This is a fair where local shops each have a stand and the fair attracts many people from the community. My workplace had a stand and my colleagues had asked me whether I could help out on the stand. My immediate thought was “no!” I tried to say to my colleagues that I wasn’t able to help out but somehow this communication was either lost or ignored and, as what normally happens, I ended up doing something I didn’t want to do – in this case, I ended up helping out on the stand at the fair.
We can all develop our empathy for other people. It starts with putting yourself in another person’s shoes. This means as though you were them, not as though they were you. Here are some ways you can do this.
1. Focus on the other person’s personality
When we are talking to someone, it’s common for us to forget that the other person is different to us. It’s common for us to make assumptions on what people like and dislike and, more importantly during conversation, what they might find interesting to talk about. To ensure the other person has a positive experience whilst talking to you, it’s a good idea to focus on topics that are of interest to them.
For example, I have difficulty talking to people who tend to talk only about their interests and have little interest in mine. It means that they have trouble putting themselves in my shoes. They are talking to me as though I was them, rather than as if they were me.
I was once asked by someone, “How do I know if my behaviour is because I’m ASD or is it merely who I am?” It was a good question and one that I have many times pondered over myself. There’s not a clear or easy answer.
First, we have to decide what exactly is personality. A definition is, ‘the combination of characteristics or qualities that form an individual’s distinctive character.’ Now, to me, that also suggests that ASD could be considered part of an individual’s personality.
I haven’t always thought that ASD was a part of someone’s personality, but views change. Today for the purpose of this article I am thinking that there is some sort of overlap…
For someone to have ASD, the criteria is that they have to have lifelong “persistent difficulties” in these areas of life:
- Social communication and interaction
- “Restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests” (this includes sensory behaviour)
Perhaps our personality determines how we respond to these impairments?
But then there’s another problem of what is personality – because personality could be anything from “hard working” “patient” “sensitive” “grumpy” “quiet” “thoughtful” “cold” “selfish” “organised” “rigid” “chatty” … there are an infinite number of words we could use to describe any individual’s personality.
Maybe this therefore isn’t the best way.
Therefore, I will talk a bit about my life and compare how I react and what I do with how I think I would react and what I would do if I didn’t have ASD. This might be the most interesting way for me to discuss this. It might be best to talk about how people have described me, rather than wholly how I describe myself and also to look at how the majority of other neurotypical people are so that I can compare myself with them.
Being autistic is just one way that someone can be ‘different.’ People can be different in various other ways such as their personality, abilities, sexuality, race, age, gender… etc. These are known as primary characteristics of diversity, which are inborn and cannot be changed. There are also secondary characteristics of diversity such as where someone lives, their religion, education, how they communicate, the language they use, how they look and dress, etc. When you consider all of these factors, there are actually so many people who are different from ourselves that we come across each day.
A major contributor to having serious mental health problems, for me, is that feeling of being different. I accept that I am different but I don’t want to always feel like I am. I know that a lot of autistic people feel the same way.
So how can society be adapted to help people feel less different which in turn might improve their mental health? Here are some ideas…
People with ASD may have strange diets and atypical attitudes towards eating. A serious complication of this can be a person having an eating disorder illness. Sometimes though, these habits are just normal and make sense if you remember that the person has ASD. Here is some insight into strange diets, problematic consequences and potential strategies to these. I’ll also note some of the possible positives of atypical eating habits.
I understand that lots of autistic people don’t have much trouble making friends, their difficulties are more to do with keeping them. I can relate to why keeping friends can be hard, but personally I think I have more difficulty making friends. In this article I will look at some possible reasons why this is and suggest some appropriate strategies.
I often find myself in a bit of a dilemma. Like many autistic people, my natural way of being is to be a perfectionist with a strong attention to detail. Through working, I have learned that the primary problem with being this way is that it can slow you down and really halt progress. This is an issue for me because, as well as being detail-orientated, I’m also very impatient and can’t stand it when things are taking too long. These two character traits are conflicting but they’re also really good traits to have for anyone who is an entrepreneur or runs their own business.
I have a good friend who is a graphic designer. He works best when he’s an employee, although he tells me that he would love to go freelance. The issue he has (that he realises himself!) is that he spends too much time tending to the detail of his work and as a consequence misses deadlines, takes very large amounts of time to finish projects, and sometimes doesn’t even finish projects at all if he is not happy. He is someone who has almost too much patience! His patience holds him back! He would love to work for himself but he acknowledges that his perfectionist nature is a hindrance rather than a help a lot of the time.
I care about details too, however I’ve had to learn to find a balance between being detail-orientated and getting things done. This has meant learning to 1) manage impatience and 2) manage attention to detail.
If you have a dog or know a bit about dogs, you’ll know that canine professionals often talk about dogs who are understimulated (dogs that need more mental/physical stimulation). There’s the opposite too – dogs who are overstimulated.
A lot of dog owners think that the reason their dog is too energetic, too bouncy, too hyper, etc. is because they are not getting enough stimulation (not enough walking, games, not going out enough, not enough training, etc.), but sometimes it’s because they are getting too much.
I have learned a lot about sensory overstimulation from learning about my dog. I think that we can learn about ASD from dogs.
I’ve been thinking about the Freeze response to anxiety. A lot of people know a bit about Fight and Flight and less people think to remember Freeze. Let’s consider Freeze and how and why it might happen to people with ASD.
What does ‘frozen’ look like?
An autistic person who is frozen might exhibit the following behaviours:
- Not being able to speak
- Not being able to take action
- Saying the wrong thing
I have a bit of a problem looking at a lot of the literature and listening to people talk about “the positive traits of autism”. Whenever I hear or read these lists I usually largely disagree with them, because I feel that what is being listed is actually more to do with an individual’s personality rather than their ASD (here’s an example).
I’ve taken a different approach for this blog article – the majority of the characteristics listed in this article are taken from the DSM-5 criteria, which says that a person must have “persistent difficulties with social communication and social interaction” and “restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities or interests” (this includes sensory behaviour).
My disclaimer is, as always, always remember that everyone is different. Get to know yourself or your loved one personally.
Here are my thoughts on how the persistent difficulties an autistic person has could be turned into strengths: