Moving Forward despite disabilities and difficulties
9th July 2021
Try not to let fear hold you back
Aspiedent helps autistic people develop their skills and move forward in life. Helping autistic people move forwards might sound like an easy thing, but it is not.
It requires us to expect autistic and neurodiverse people to put effort into things, such as their learning & development. It also involves acceptance of things they cannot change. For example, the world & their specific difficulties. We expect them to hold themselves accountable.
Sometimes, I want to help by doing things for the individual or by being hesitant to ask them to put themselves in situations that I know they will find difficult. But for anybody to reach their potential, they must be prepared to put themselves in situations that they find uncomfortable. Many autistic people struggle with uncertainty, but that is part of life and to move forward you have to learn to cope with situations that are rife with uncertainty.
We might be considered harsh because of this, but we expect development from the autistic people we help. Challenging them is what we have found is the best way to achieve it. It is difficult for anybody to move forward without being challenged. Unfortunately, challenging people is frowned upon by some in today’s world as it is seen as detrimental to an individual’s mental health. We would argue that it is more detrimental to mental health in the longer term if we do not allow people to endure hard times.
I know it is not easy. I had to make a difficult decision recently that involved me stepping up to the plate at work and moving forward. My first thoughts were: I am not good enough to do this; I am not responsible enough, I make too many mistakes, I am not a finished article. Will I ever be? I don’t know. I am frightened.
I am confident many of you reading this can relate to this.
It continued: I can’t deal with this. I am going to mess it up, I am an impostor. The words got harsher & harsher and more & more damning until before I knew it, I was a bit of a wreck!
But then I looked up and a voice said to me: If you spend all your time worrying about whether you are good enough for this, you are going to limit yourself helping anyone. Do not hold yourself back. Do not let the dark thoughts hold you to ransom. Now go forth and do it. Suddenly I felt better.
That said, there are some things you have to accept you or others cannot do or will never be able to do well. As well as forcing yourself to endure difficult situations to progress (which we expect the people we help into employment to do), we also have to accept limitations and accept that some goals are just not feasible.
The above stands despite the unhelpful myth that you can ‘be whoever or whatever you want to be’ or ‘you can achieve anything if you just put your mind to it’.
Some people with neurodiverse issues who struggle with certain things like social interaction, or learning new subjects, get told they lack confidence, which is not the case. They have fundamental issues which make social interaction or learning new things hard because the normal way of presenting material does not match the way that they learn.
For example, we recently did an autism profile for somebody who has major difficulties processing written information due to her underlying issues. She also has a conflict between her thinking style (heavily visual) and the type of activities she loves and is good at (working with and helping people).
This conflict meant that her attempts at gaining qualifications in the humanities or social care have failed despite her being highly intelligent. Her failures are because her way of taking in information is incompatible with study expectations in the areas of study she is interested in.
To add insult to injury, she was told that her difficulties resulted from simply lacking confidence. However, she quite clearly has an underlying impairment. This impairment came out clearly in her assessment with us and was consistent with her previous medical and educational history.
Despite her knowing this was probably the case, she was still devastated to learn that there was no simple cure for her difficulties. There were only things she could do to lessen the negative impact. Again, this harsh reality is never easy to hear, but it is necessary to go through it to move forward.
Sometimes, moving forwards means admitting that you simply cannot do something. I am not saying that you then do not do anything and expect things to work out for you all the time. But that you can recognise and accept when you cannot do something (with or without help).
To summarise, I believe everybody can achieve incredible things and should put themselves in frightening positions sometimes. But I do not think that somebody who is blind can suddenly achieve sight alone by ‘putting their mind to it’ or just having more confidence in their vision. The same as somebody who cannot take in written information efficiently due to an issue with actually processing information can’t suddenly start doing this by being more confident!
The importance of interacting with other people
People with autism sometimes have to work harder at getting social interaction. However, it is all the more important for an autistic person’s development and moving forwards.
It is easy and understandable that many people with autism and neurodiversity who we support have a wrong belief that we, and others around them, are faultless. Some believe we can do many things without difficulty and succeed without shedding blood, sweat, and tears.
No one is perfect. I probably will fail as much as I will achieve. And that is the same for the autistic people we support who deep down want employment but do not currently have it, nor know how to get it. We do not have all the answers. We can help and support them, but ‘at the end of the day’ it has to come from them: they have to the effort in.
Some people we work with want everything to be ‘just right’ before they do anything (I have a bit of this problem). They worry about the wrong things. They concern themselves with little issues they can relate to rather than bigger, fundamental issues. They are concerned that negative social experiences in the past will repeat.
Sometimes they feel that interacting with other people in the world is an afterthought and not a fundamental part of moving toward achieving their goals (for example, employment).
Maybe we should try and communicate to them more that we, as the people who help them progress, are not immune from struggles. We are all on our own journey. In fact it is because we struggle that we are able to help and mentor people. We have ‘been there, done that, and got the T-shirt’!
Putting yourself in ‘unsafe’ spaces to develop
To achieve, taking calculated risks is probably the most important thing anybody can do. You have to give up your security blanket (even if only for a while) to move forwards. But what is also important is that you put your faith in the things you cannot control. This ties in with accepting what impairments you have and working with them (despite how disabling they can be).
With those people we support, taking risks is sometimes about trying new things. It includes putting themselves in challenging social situations and forfeiting their perceived safety.
For example, I used to be very timid of strangers. I often thought people would bite me (not literally) when I spoke to them. Of course, I did not want to get bitten. One day I woke up and decided I did not want to work at my job as a checkout operator in a supermarket anymore. I decided to hand my notice in that week even though I had no other job.
As I had just got a qualification in Fitness training, I started to go around all the gyms in my area, talking to the staff, and distributing my CV. Eventually, I got a job as a fitness instructor at a national gym chain.
During this period, the gym had a policy to measure performance on the amount of our ‘gym floor interaction’. Head office phoned three members a day at random who had visited the gym that day and asked them if anyone on the gym floor (me) had interacted with them. That is, start a conversation with a stranger out of nowhere!
If the member said no, our score went down. This policy meant I was monitored regarding my interaction with gym users. To keep my job, I had to force myself to start conversations with people who were using the gym (and as I said, I was timid).
The gym was a busy city centre gym in the legal quarter of the city centre, where people often came to do a short and intense workout on their lunch break. These circumstances meant that not everybody wanted to chat, and in fact, some people would be downright horrible if you interrupted them.
Needless to say, I disliked this interaction policy. However, looking back, it was a great thing to go though. Now I quite happily talk to anyone and everyone and better handle rejection. These are useful skills for running a business.
We need to challenge autistic job seekers to do things they find uncomfortable to help them to succeed. (Even though they might hate us at the time!)
Try not to let fear or negative past experiences hold you back
The points I am trying to get across here are quite simple. Truly helping people with autism & neurodiversity develop and be in successful employment, often means putting them in difficult situations and expecting them to cope.
Everyone has limitations that we have to accept. However, this does not mean shying away from doing anything that makes us feel insecure, frightened, or overwhelmed. In particular, interaction with other people is vital to ensure we do not lose sight that life is supposed to include struggles and that it does for everyone.
Try not to let fear hold you back. Through great adversity and the use of courage come great things.