Why I’m no longer bothered by my mistakes.
Ever since I was a child, I remember being a total perfectionist. I would cry if I did not get the top score in a test and my face would swell with anger if my day did not go as planned. While other children would be playing in the sand pit getting messy, I would be the one too scared to play as I was worried about getting my clothes dirty. My need for total control and having an absolute meltdown when things were not perfect, was something that a six year old should never have to experience.
I still like to control my environment to some extent as an adult. This need for perfection and things to turn out as I planned is in fact an autistic trait. What I’m most curious about as an autistic person with a fascination with the human sciences, is whether perfection or a fear of making a mistake is intrinsically autistic, or if it is a survival mechanism we have adopted as a result of making ‘too many mistakes’ in a neurotypical world.
Speaking from my own experience, I remember getting an onslaught of negative feedback while at school. While I was academically gifted, teachers would think I was slow or “away with the fairies” simply because the idea of making eye contact made my toes curl. At the same time, I would be criticised by my classmates for being a loner or being sensitive. People say that criticism builds up a thick skin, but for me, it only made me more sensitive to criticism. You see, I was picked apart by these people for behaviour that was inherent to me. No matter how much you critique an autistic person for our idiosyncrasies, the more we retreat into ourselves and fear making another mistake because we know that we cannot correct these things (despite what some ABA Psychologists say…)
I carry around these childhood experiences in my back pocket as an adult. In fact, my pockets have got even bigger as being an autistic adult brings a whole new set of criticisms. I am not saying that all constructive feedback is negative, but when it is laced with discrimination because you differ from the norm, then it is hurtful. For instance, most of the ‘feedback’ I and many other autistic people receive, albeit with ‘well-meaning’ intention, is actually an attack on our neurology. “You need to speak a bit clearer”, “You need to listen more carefully”, “You must focus more”, “you need to socialise”, “you need to look me in the eye to appear more friendly”, “you need to have other interests” etc. This is not constructive feedback; this is telling us that our neurology makes you feel uncomfortable and therefore we need to change.
When I was an undiagnosed, naive twenty-something, I took all this ‘advice’ seriously and tried to change myself. That’s when the childhood perfectionism returned. I thought that if I could perfect these weird things about myself, I would avoid making mistakes and people would accept me. To any young adult or teenager reading this, here’s some feedback — this will not work. I mean, it could work for a day or two, but you will not be able to achieve neurotypical perfection because it doesn’t exist. In fact, neurotypical people are not perfect either (although sometimes they like to think they are).
I forgive myself for misunderstanding a social cue, I forgive myself if I misinterpret your instructions, I forgive myself for wanting alone time, I forgive myself if I talk over you because I don’t understand turn-taking in conversation. I forgive myself for not wanting to make eye contact when I’m feeling overwhelmed. I forgive myself for being clumsy because I lack fine motor skills. I forgive myself when my tone of voice is a bit blunt because that’s how I naturally talk. I’m usually quite good at spotting whether someone finds my behaviour weird. All I can say is that I don’t intend to make these ‘mistakes’ and I’m happy to explain to you why I make them.
Take any criticism of your autism with a pinch of salt, and throw that pinch of salt in the trash because you don’t need it. As you learn more about your strengths and weaknesses, then you’ll be better at filtering the good kind of criticism from the bad. I’m still learning which type of criticisms are worth listening to. I also know that if I make a mistake, it’s not the end of the world.