When you tell an autistic child that the result doesn’t matter and that they only need to “do their best” then that’s what they believe. But it’s not always true, is it?
I very much doubt I am the only autistic person whose school report consisted of some variation of “could try harder”. That’s what I got, all the time. Even when I was trying my absolute hardest and I was exhausted at the end of every day.
I went to a very old, very academic secondary school. It was a grammar school in all but name. Everything about it- the reputation, the uniform, the association with the right church, the selection process- was designed to set it above and beyond other schools. We were just better than the other state schools in the city.
Being an old-fashioned sort of school (honestly, they taught Latin and had a classics society) and it being the early-mid 90s, they didn’t really go in for the touchy-feely stuff. They probably still don’t. It was a high-paced, strict, rigid, academic atmosphere; a complete disaster for a dreamy, creative autistic child. The minute you started slacking, it was detention for you. And more detentions until you started picking up the pace. More comments about how you were happy to settle for mediocrity (actual comment from my school report), how you were lazy and stubborn and generally not good enough.
You start to believe it all after a while, don’t you? I felt like I had no one on my side. I had a best friend, who I lost touch with after school. I think probably I wasn’t that nice to her. I was in a terrible place mentally. But she couldn’t protect me and I don’t think she completely understood why I was behaving the way I did. I certainly didn’t, and I didn’t understand until I was 33 and had my autism assessment. I don’t think my parents realised exactly what was going on. I didn’t really talk to them about it because I didn’t know how. They just yelled at me too for not trying hard enough.
So there was me, trying my damn best and being castigated by a whole team of adults for still not being good enough. No wonder my self-esteem and confidence are completely fucked to this day.
So, how do you pick up the pieces when your best wasn’t good enough?
Reframe your expectations from an autistic view point. I am not a defective, lazy, messy neurotypical. I am Autistic and I am damn proud that I’ve survived all this shit and lived to tell the tale. I still slip all the damn time, but holding yourself up to NT standards is a recipe for shite self-esteem. We’re not them. We’re us. And we’re amazing because we’re still bloody here.
Count the small victories. My school wanted to break me. They wanted me to conform. But I went my own way. I never broke and became what they wanted. Fuck you, school.
Define your own success. My school’s idea of success (and probably my parents’ too) was to go to a good university, get a degree and a respectable career. You know, a lawyer or a doctor or a vet or something like that. My idea of success is an excessively large herb garden full of weird and wonderful and unusual plants. I could spend hours there. I am happy there.
Find friends that feel the same way. This is why I love the Autistic community so much. In the past I felt completely alone and was always worried that someone would find out the truth about the real me- that I was faking it all. But my autistic friends get it. And no matter how weird or dark the story, there will always be at least one person that says “me too”. I love you all, you give me so much strength.