Saturday, April 6, 2013

Autism Acceptance and Morality

April is "Autism Acceptance Month." Some organizations have called it, "Autism Awareness Month," but because so much of the negative advertising of many autism charities, autistics like myself have re-titled the month, "Autism Acceptance Month." It seemed most charities only wanted to make people aware of the negative parts of autism, leaving out the good parts!

 I've had a tough time accepting my autism since the day I was diagnosed. The part I hate most about it is that I need help in areas and ways that other people don't. Because of that, I feel like I'm not equal to other people. So, "Autism Acceptance Month" has given me a lot to think about.

Autism is a difference in neurological wiring. Although some aspects of this are disabling, they are balanced by the many strengths we also have. Autistic people generally have a great eye for detail, an unparalleled conscientiousness, sincerity and honesty. In general, we're the people you can count on to be careful and hard workers. Lying is actually a complex social skill and so  if we're ever able to develop it, it is usually later in life.

"Autism Acceptance" is a movement toward helping other people understand and have empathy for us, rather than trying to change us into being like people we are not. In regards to our identity, I completely agree that we should not be told we're not as "cool" or "normal" as other people and should change. In regards to our behavior, I agree that it is unfair to expect us to do certain things easily, but I think it is also unfair not to expect us to try at all. Working to improve ourselves is not the same as seeking to cure ourselves or become a different person. If we don't try to do a little better each day, we are cheating ourselves and the world out of better relationships and productivity.

Most people know that autism can make learning to do social things a lot harder. Yet, the challenges go well beyond social things. Our brains are not wired to put things in prioritized order, although we can be obsessed with order. 

When most people think of autistic children, they picture them lining up their toys or putting them into categories. Each time I see those pictures, I laugh. I was one of them. Only dolls I loved were given real names. The dolls I didn't like very much were all put in one category. They were ALL named, "Sue." I loved to play "landlady." I'd organize "The Sues" in neat categories in cardboard boxes and come along to collect the rent. "Librarian" was another fun game for me- "The Sues" would line up to check out books and I would stamp them and keep track of when Sue #4 had an overdue book. (Wow- it must have been fun being one of my dolls- ha!)

However, the order I come up with isn't usually a practical order. The order I come up with is usually order for the sake of order, to make sense of an overwhelming world. The way I like to order things is not always (or even usually!) what the world thinks is important, and sometimes I don't care. Leave me alone and don't disturb me while I re-sort my computer folders or socks!

What is most important? What comes first? Hell, if I know!

This is why: As an autistic person, I have severe deficits in "executive functioning."

Here's a basic summary of what executive functioning means:

Executive Functioning (EF) is  "a set of processes that all have to do with managing oneself and one's resources in order to achieve a goal. It is an umbrella term for the neurologically-based skills involving mental control and self-regulation." 

Executive functions help you manage life tasks of all types. For example, executive functions let you organize a trip, a research project, or a paper for school. EF also governs all levels of task management, including prioritization, scheduling and seeing the "big picture." Lack of executive function can make inhibition tough and when I want to stop something at an appropriate time (actions, thoughts, etc.) it is very difficult. Also, shifting focus from one situation or task to another takes me a very long time. 

I used to find it humiliating that I wasn't able to be as organized and focused as I wanted to be, but then I learned that I don't have much innate strength in that mental capability, so it is pointless to beat myself up. I was like a blind person beating herself up because she can't see. What a useless thing to do! So, I have a home health care provider who helps me organize my life every week.

I run my own business. This means I manage lots of things and juggle multiple projects. I can do this without great executive functioning, because my helper and I sit down once a week for 2-3 hours and break down my priorities, goals and task lists. Once that's set, I don't worry about it anymore. The first thing this helps is anxiety level. I can relax and just follow my schedule and routine. I'm at least three times more productive than I've ever been in my life. It is awesome.

I've also found that learning the Catholic rules of morality have anchored me, so that my daily anxiety is reduced. Even so, I can drown in moral ambiguity, worrying on and on about something probably inconsequential and minor while ignoring something that borders on a grave sin. That's one of the many reasons I keep myself in spiritual direction.

Let's see what happens when an autistic person prepares for confession! The first thing usually suggested in preparing an examination of conscience is to review the ten commandments carefully. The content of the ten commandments is basically the same but the commandment numbers are divided up differently by Jews, Protestants and Catholics. And for the autistic person, this alone is a cause for anxious alarm. In Catholicism, the first three are basically about our relationship with God and the last seven are about our relationships with others and society. Catholics are encouraged to run through an examination of conscience nightly. Most guides to confession are very detailed and being a fairly contemplative person, I am actually more aware of problems with my relationship with God than I am with other people.

So, as an autistic Catholic, I would normally spend quite a lot of time on the first three and when I am tired of it all, go through the rest without much concentration-- I mean, I'm not murdering or stealing, right? And, it's almost impossible for me to successfully lie. And, I'm autistic, right? So, any social screw-ups are just my disability, right? Not to worry!

But, guess what? My Spiritual Director has started asking me to focus on my relationships with others first. This is a big switch for me mentally. It's easier just to say that I'm not very good with people and it's my disability, not a moral issue. Yet, if I'm not aware of the impact my behavior has on others and I'm not focused at all on trying to improve that, then yes, it is a moral issue. It's an issue that needs to come first.

If autistics are so honest and without guile, there is no serious sin autistic people can get into, right? Wrong. We want to belong an fit in, so we can be prone to peer pressure. Peer pressure can lead to everything from drug use to serious criminal activity. Computer hacking is sometimes a problem behavior for those on the spectrum. We can be misled by false teachers. We can get so caught up in one direction or track of thought that we don't fulfill important responsibilities or we emotionally neglect the people in our lives. Some can do some crazy impulsive things. There is a lot of room for error and some serious error. I can attest to how easy it is to spin completely off the rails. I'm very good at it.

Yet, to get the best grasp on these problems, it is most helpful to start focusing more on our relationships with other people and putting that focus first. Without consciously doing that, it may never actually be done at all.

I think I'm finally learning "autism acceptance." People said I was a "child prodigy." I was supposed to be "better" than other people all through life. My family and society had high, high expectations for me.

It's been SO hard for me to admit I need help and that I cannot manage completely on my own. It's been SO hard for me to realize I'm a good person and still a very smart person in spite of the fact that I feel like such a mess. I never wanted any of this. 

Want it or not, it just is.

God, help me today and every day to accept that being autistic does not make me less than anybody else.

Autism Acceptance is the key to making peace with ourselves AND to growing more responsible with our lives.


  1. Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing that. God Bless you!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you liked it. God bless you too!

  3. Thank you for sharing! As a member of the OCDS in Puerto Rico and as a mother of a teenager with autism, your post gives me a new perspective. God bless you!