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Success and autism

Victoria Honeybourne is a teacher of pupils with special educational needs, including autism. She also has a diagnosis of autism. In this article, she reflects on her own and other people's experience of 'success'.

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Autism and Success

‘Knock at the door, twenty-four.’

‘All the threes. Thirty three.’

I was eleven years old in a game of stand-up-bingo at a school family quiz evening. In stand-up-bingo, all players start standing up and, as soon as a number on your card is called, you sit down, out of the game. The last player standing wins the game. By the time there were only a handful of us left standing I was beginning to feel panicky and nervous. Not because I was excited about being close to winning, but because winning the game seemed to be the worst thing that could ever, ever happen to my eleven-year-old self. On the inside, dread was overtaking me, my heart was pounding and my head was spinning. When the next number was called I looked at my card, tried to feign a look of mild regret and sat down calmly.
  
Annoyingly, my mother decided to draw unnecessary attention to the situation by asking loudly, ‘Let’s look at your card. Did you really have 87? I didn’t think so. Stand back up. You’re still in the game.’  There followed a minor scuffle between the two of us over the bingo card in question, ending only when I announced I had eaten it and chewed noisily to prove the point. Knowing that my mother would not wish to draw attention to the fact she had a bingo-card-eating daughter, she sat down and did not mention the incident again. (I hadn’t, in fact, eaten the card, merely hidden it expediently up my sleeve).

Little did I realise that this was to be the first of many, many times that I sabotaged my own success, and it was only as an adult and after my Asperger’s diagnosis that I began to understand why.

As a teacher of pupils with autism and SEN, I see this ‘success avoidance’ often being repeated by others. It seems that, for some children and adults with ASC, success can be a scarier prospect than failure and at times this can seem almost incomprehensible to parents, carers and educators who just want to see a young person do well and celebrate their success. How often do we see young people repeating unhelpful patterns of behaviour, failing to complete what they start, suddenly changing their mind, procrastinating, aiming for perfection, missing deadlines, being absent at critical times, or deliberately jeopardising something they claim to want badly? All are very successful ways to avoid success.

Bingo!

Let’s go back to my 11-year-old self, standing in the school hall, clutching my bingo card with a sense of impending doom. At the time I couldn’t articulate why the situation had caused me so much anxiety, and my family and friends at the table certainly couldn’t understand it. However, over twenty years and a diagnosis later, I can now understand why I never thought success was all it’s cracked up to be. In the bingo example, it was quite straight-forward. I was terrified of winning. People would have turned around to look at me and applauded (highly embarrassing and uncomfortable). Others may have said, ‘Congratulations’, or, ‘Well done’ (which I would have taken literally and therefore found highly illogical and stupid considering it was a game of luck; I hadn’t done anything well when you think about it and wouldn’t have known how to respond). I would have had to pretend to be excited and grateful about accepting a prize which I didn’t want (I wasn’t convinced at the time I could have pulled this off successfully) and, perhaps worse of all, I imagined that family, friends or the prize-giver may have hugged me, patted me on the back or shook my hand (I hated my personal space being invaded). So, all in all, this seemingly pleasant and innocuous experience of winning a bingo game at a family quiz night, resulted in a huge amount of anxiety for me.
 
So, just why do so many individuals with ASC find they sabotage success?

The way success is celebrated

Large graduation ceremonies, parties, nights out, meals with family and friends, presents, speeches, congratulatory phone calls, socialising, public praise, hugs …. some of these things can strike fear into a lot of individuals with ASC who may go to great lengths to avoid these social anxieties!

Success can make us feel like a failure

The bingo game was one example of this. Winning would have meant showing the room full of people just how much of a failure I was. My inability to use the most appropriate facial expression, words and body language would have been made obvious and my differences emphasized. 

Paradoxically, being seen as successful can be as worrying as being seen as a failure. Being perceived as ‘successful’ in one area may mean other people will fail to recognise difficulties in other areas. If somebody gains academic or work success, for example, it can sometimes be difficult for others to believe that the same person struggles to cope with some basic, everyday situations.

Success is often gained through pretending to fit in

To be successful academically, vocationally or socially we all have to learn how to ‘play the game’ and to compromise. However, for some individuals with ASC this can create a major internal dilemma. Going back to the bingo example, even had I managed to ‘pull off’ the appropriate responses and get through the ordeal, I would have felt deep-down, a failure. Receiving positive feedback from others (being told that I was becoming more sociable, for example) would have only compounded the negative view of myself (‘Why am I not good enough how I am? Why do people only like me when I’m pretending? I’m not really enjoying this situation, why all the fuss?’), leading to further low self-esteem.

We may not feel we deserve success

The links between autism and low self-esteem are well-documented. For some individuals with deep-seated negative beliefs, sabotaging success can help to prove the validity of these beliefs. Added to some inflexibility of thought patterns, individuals can subconsciously avoid success as they don’t feel it is deserved.

Society doesn’t always allow us to be successful

Finally we have to look at the wider role society plays in how people with ASC are perceived. Often, even the most well-meaning of gestures cannot please everyone. I am reminded of one pupil who expressed his disappointment of winning a music competition for children with autism. ‘But, Miss, it’s not like it was a proper competition for normal people, was it?’ Many people want to achieve success despite their autism, not because of it.

Positive discrimination can also have its downsides. Were you successful in getting an interview because you ticked the disability box, or because of your relative merits? Positive steps towards equality such as this can, just sometimes, leave a little window open for self-doubt to creep in.

Success and autism

So, maybe it’s time to take stock and reconsider what is meant by success. It can come in all shapes and forms and need not be celebrated in traditional ways. Next time you see a young person with ASC hurtle towards sabotaging their own success, take a moment to find out just exactly what may they be afraid of and how you could help.

Oh, and incidentally I have to say, as an adult, the bingo situation would now cause me no anxiety whatsoever! I have learned how to accept praise and touch, know that others don’t interpret language as literally as I do, and can cope well enough in most social situations.

Author: Victoria Honeybourne

Date published: 17 February 2015

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net