There’s a common belief that encouraging people to do things they are uncomfortable with or afraid of will eventually make those situations more comfortable and help them do them more willingly in the future. There’s a common belief that autistic people are incapable, flawed and afraid, and can be taught to function better, to be more outgoing, and perhaps to enjoy life as others believe life is to be lived and enjoyed, and that the way for autistics to get more out of life therefore is to repeatedly get them stepping out of their comfort zones.
After a lifetime of trying them out, I can say that, for me, these theories are bullshit and damaging. Furthermore, it’s ableist to apply standardised ideas of a well-functioning existence so generally.
The problem with this theory of pushing, of “facing fears” and of introducing repetition to familiarise a situation to me is simple: It’s often not that I am frightened, it’s often not that I am unfamiliar with a situation, nor that I am inexperienced; I am usually very well aware of what a situation will entail, I am competent at most tasks and situations, and I am very often not nervous but I am in fact burnt out when I am being expected to push myself further. And as the years go by and the number of times I have pushed myself beyond the natural grows, the burn out gets worse. Nothing gets better. If anything, I would say that after years of acting and getting that performance just right I am actually regressing now.
I simply don’t want to do things because I am empty.
And repeating things that push me out of my comfort zone doesn’t challenge me, it doesn’t educate me in the ways of a better life, it doesn’t enrich me, it doesn’t build my confidence either. The one-size-fits-all Cognitive Behavioural Therapy I began a couple of years ago wanted me to deal with everything that made me anxious so I could be less anxious and get on with my life, but I’m so very tired of that deal with it approach.
I don’t ever step back after an event and say ‘I’m so glad you pushed me to do that, thank you.’ Never. I mean never ever. I simply don’t say it and I never feel grateful. Because what this behaviour actually does to me is chip away at me. It wears me down, steals my resolve, and leaves me struggling to recover. It really is quite ridiculous to force a person to do things they are not happy doing. If I want to sit in a corner and not stand in the middle of a room chatting, let me sit in a corner. I’ve figured out after 45 years that it’s preferable for me.
I’m clever, I’m able; I can pretty much do most things. I’m one of those invisible, autistic women who look and sound normal. But I am not normal. I have limits.
I have a natural, inbuilt need to socialise less, to regress into myself more, to make my own rules, have my own timings, make my own challenges and to wander off on my own at times. This natural version of me is not allowed to show through enough though, and I’m out of my comfort zone pretty much every day while others satisfy themselves that I’m leading a pleasant, functional life – I am described/diagnosed/labelled as “high-functioning” after all.
I was a child once. I made myself fit. When I saw that any of my behaviours risked making me look quirky or abnormal, I suppressed that behaviour. I made myself a thoroughly respectable version of a highly functioning individual. Only I didn’t realise what the long-term and ongoing effects of years of pushing oneself out of one’s comfort zone would be.
We autistics have our own ideas of functional and functioning well. And they are not the same.
Functioning well for me means feeling sane, feeling happy, feeling a sense of achievement – and one that I have judged as an achievement not someone else. It means having a quirky routine, an empty social diary (whatever one of those is), feeling a sense of control over myself, and at times feeling led by imagination and the paths of thought that lay themselves out before me rather than being led by a clock. For me a “full life” in conventional terms sounds like hell. And I can tell you it feels like hell too.
When you see someone who is autistic performing well, functioning highly – acting just like a non-autistic person, ask yourself how hard they had to work to get that performance just right for everyone else, ask yourself just whose idea of high-functioning you are using here because there’s a good chance it’s all fake and they can’t wait to get home and throw off the pretence.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could stop trying so hard to not be ourselves…?