I haven’t written anything here for a while, having been busy with other projects. But I have been thinking. And one thing that’s been on my mind, is how so many of us spectrumites - and I definitely include myself in this, especially in my earlier years – have a tendency to drift somewhat passively through life, with the result that eventually, we find ourselves living lives we never expected or wanted. Lives which don’t ‘fit’ us and make us unhappy, or which are actually outright bad – abusive or dysfunctional relationships, crappy or no jobs, substandard housing conditions, etc, etc.
There are probably lots of reasons for this, not the least of which is that when we’re young, we simply don’t understand the world around us, and hence don’t grasp that we need to consciously take control of our lives. And even when we do realise it, we haven’t the slightest idea how to start. But start we must - and so I thought I’d list here some things I’ve learnt along the way, to help us do exactly that.
1) Overcome Our Fears. I’ve already written on this, so I won’t go into it in depth, suffice to say that if we can’t control our anxiety, fear or outright panic, we can’t gain control of anything else in our lives either.
2) Learn To Manage Our Emotions. Auties almost always seem to have difficulty with recognising, managing and expressing their emotions. But as with fear, only when we’ve recognised what we’re feeling, can we then learn how to best manage, express or cope with it. Learning to recognise physical clues is often the first step to doing this – that fluttering in the stomach that means fear, the tight jaw that signifies anger, the slap-in-the-face feeling of surprise, etc.
3) Learn Our Meltdown Triggers. This is a progression of 1) and 2) really. If we’re having meltdowns in public, there is no way our life feels under control. It can even lead to ‘bridge-burning’, where we just run away. And once a meltdown is started, it’s almost impossible to stop. But if we know what triggers it, and learn to recognise the feeling of impending meltdown, then we can either avoid those situations, ask for accommodations or changes, or just allow ourselves to quietly leave when it’s all getting too much.
4) Address Our Executive Dysfunction Issues. Gaining control of our day-to-day lives is an important step. There are many tools that can help us – daily routine plans or charts, visual diaries, diagrams, lists (I am the ‘List Queen’!), labelled peg boards, baskets and bins and other visual aids; also simplifying tasks and eliminating clutter and excess possessions so there are fewer to keep track of. Sometimes we may need help to establish these new methods, at least in the beginning. But it’s always worth trying, until you find the ones that suit you best.
5) Learn To Say No. Sometimes we agree to too much, in a futile effort to please people and be liked. But in doing so we can stress ourselves to breaking point, and fail to do even half of what we’ve agreed to. Learn your limits, and respect them, and you can then insist others do so too. And when we’re comfortable with saying ‘no’, then we can also discover when and what we want to say ‘yes’ to.
6) Stop Expecting Perfection. The search for perfection can both paralyse and isolate us – wanting to make the perfect decision, or make our creations perfect, or have other people be perfect. But that perfection doesn’t exist. We make mistakes, and it’s okay to forgive ourselves for them – because we aren’t perfect either. We can create something that has flaws, and it will still have value. Other people can have flaws too, and still be worth knowing. Accept imperfection, act, make a decision, and/or let something go, and move on.
7) Plan Ahead. If you need to do something or go somewhere new, then find out all you can ahead of time. Things like maps, some public building plans, bus and train timetables can often be found online, and online maps often have street cam views. Libraries, Citizens Advice Bureaus, Automobile Associations and bookstores are also good places to find useful resources. Keep persisting till you have all you need, and rehearse whatever you need to rehearse. So what if ‘nobody else’ does this – you do what YOU need to do.
8) Learn From Others. Most of what I have in terms of ‘social skills’ has been learnt through decades of observing others. As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t recommend the ultimately exhausting level of people-watching I did, but it’s nonetheless true that watching others will often give us clues how to do things – whether it’s dealing with a snooty receptionist, deciding which knife and fork to use in a fancy restaurant, or asking for changes at work. It can also give us clues as to how to handle a particular job, what sort of career you might like to pursue, and even (sometimes) how to ‘do romantic stuff’. You probably won’t be able to do it exactly as others do, but you can gather ideas that can be adapted to suit your own needs and style.
9) Be Proactive. Do what you need to do, rather than wait for others to do it for you – chances are they never will. If, for instance, you don’t have enough info in order to do something you want or need to do, research or ask people questions until you do. (Don’t let fear of ‘looking stupid’ stop you – you’ll look even more stupid if you don’t know something when you’re meant to.) If someone hasn’t contacted you when arranged, don’t freeze into passivity and endless worrying - contact them, if only to ask (politely) for an explanation. If you’re the recipient of bullying or abuse, keep complaining to authority until it’s stopped, and/or you can remove yourself from the abusive person. If there’s anything about your life you don’t like, do something – or several somethings - to change it.
Above all, act, rather simply react. Take charge. Often we try to control the little things that don’t really matter – the papers on our desk, the time we eat dinner – and neglect the big issues that do – the state of our relationships, the lack of a proper career, the co-worker who’s bullying us. But no-one is going to come in and wave a magic wand that fixes everything. If we’re lucky, we will receive support and assistance, but whether we do or not, ultimately it’s up to us to take control of our lives.
And yes, I know that all of these things can require a lot of hard work and none are easy or quick, but the alternative – a life that feels crazy, overwhelming, chaotic, out of control and maybe even abusive - can be catastrophic. Our lives are often reduced to shambles. I know, because I’ve lived such a life. Only when I began to take charge of it, in the ways listed above, did it begin to improve. It is my most profound aspiration that all on the spectrum - young or old, ‘aspie’ or ‘HFA’, ‘severe’ or ‘mild’, verbal or non-verbal – can gain control over their lives, and stand proud, independent and self-respecting, able to accept help and support but also to refuse patronising ‘management’ by others, however well-meaning.
Because we are valuable human beings - not the ‘broken’ or ‘deficient’ substandard creatures that all too many obviously think we are - and worthy of taking charge of our lives in our own right.