This is something that has always bothered me, even as a then-unknown autistic person. The difference between then and now, besides age (and hopefully, wisdom), is that now I have become more conscious of the dichotomy–conscious enough to put it into words.
The dichotomy, as is true for all dichotomies, consists of two elements.
The first element is the “I’m OK, You’re OK” sentiment that sprouted in the late 1970s and proliferated in elementary schools across the US (and heavens knows where else). This sentiment essentially touted that each person is “just fine” “exactly the way they are”.
That still might seem a little abstract, so I’ll provide an example that I found in a fantastic book about Generation X, titled “13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?” by William Strauss and Neil Howe, who were later credited with their own eponymous generational theory.
The example is this: a cartoon of a little boy, kneeling on the floor of a classroom during art class, with a big sheet of paper laying flat on the floor in front of him, and various writing and drawing materials scattered around the paper. The little boy is unmoving, defiant, and almost proud of not having drawn anything, as his teacher gushes over his “piece”, saying something like, “that’s wonderful, Johnny! Not drawing anything at all makes a profound statement.” (OK, I’m pretty sure I butchered that, at least in terms of wording, but the underlying message is the same.) 😉
This illustrates the Self-Esteem Movement in action, applied to the classroom. It’s just one example, of which there are countless numbers and mind-boggling variety. The message sent to the boy is this: whether he drew anything or not, or whether he put forth any effort or not, he received equal praise, encouragement, and reward.
This might sound warm and fuzzy. I mean, what’s not to like about teaching students the empowering concept of self-acceptance and self-esteem, especially early on?
There’s just one snag (the second of the two Dichotomy Elements I mentioned): this movement has been around for 40 years and today’s people, aged 18 and up, are no better off than previous generations. There is no actual Magical Self-Esteem Fairy.
This seems especially true for me, an autistic person. And I’m sure that I’m not alone in the autistic community in this regard, either.
There are reasons for that. Some of those reasons revolve around the fact that self-esteem induced without having been earned (through achievement, effort, action, contribution) results in an empty, almost guilty conscience, in a way. The “you’re great just because you’re you” message does bring about smiles and warm fuzzy feelings. However, it also often brings about a bewildered “what’s all the fuss about? I didn’t really do anything to deserve this gushing” that lurks just below the threshold of consciousness, remaining largely unrealized but vaguely sensed.
And, other reasons for the failure of the Self-Esteem Movement to be successful for me as someone on the autism spectrum involve the fact that it smacks of bullshit.
It didn’t take me too long to get the (nagging) feeling that the Self-Esteem Movement was bullshit, either.
Because the “I’m OK, You’re OK”, “you’re fine just the way you are”, rang hollow, empty, and gilded. Kind of like an item made of rusty iron painted over with a thin layer of platinum gold paint, while unscrupulous dealers trying to sell said item, describing it as “platinum gold” and asking a platinum gold-appropriate price. And my Logic Antennae and accompanying bullshit-o-meter had x-ray vision; I could see the rusty iron core.
In plain terms: one minute, my elementary school teachers were telling me we were wonderful just the way we were, and everything we did (or didn’t do) was profound, powerful, brilliant, and so on. And the next minute, those same teachers would scold and chastise me for…being different, acting independently, thinking unusually, blazing my own trail (usually by acting according to my nature and not necessarily by any specific intent to be a trailblazer).
The last thing I want to do is throw good teachers under the bus. It’s just that where I spent my earliest school years, the lion’s share of those teachers were anything but amazing. (Fortunately, I would encounter amazing teachers later, which probably saved my ass.)
When you’re autistic, you usually almost can’t help but be different. That’s a dripping whopper of an understatement, and it’s hardly news. The autistic difference permeates everything I do, say, think, believe, and so on. It’s pervasive, and it would be impossible to separate my autism from everything else that I am and everything else about me. There is not one aspect of my life that is not touched in some way by autism.
That’s not a bad thing; it is, however, difficult for people like my parents and my teachers. They had a tough road ahead, nevermind that my road was probably twister and riddled with more potholes.
My early school years, and the major players therein, sent me message after message that I was not so “OK just the way I am” after all. The canned phrases came across as mere, cheap lip-service. The same (mediocre to poor) teachers who reassured everybody that they were “just fine the way they were” still expected everybody to conform to a single educational mould, which did not foster creativity or allow much for individuality, and scorned those who were truly different.
Well hell. I didn’t think that the Self-Esteem Movement came with fine print–you know, something like “you’re awesome just the way you are…except if you’re autistic. Then you have to act like everybody else who is awesome just the way they are.”
See what I mean? Bullshit. Irony. Hypocrisy.
Truthfully, I’m not nearly as bitter as all of this sounds. Getting over it, however, is not a single event; it’s not as easy as flipping a switch. We’re talking about a lot of contradictory messages and a lot of misunderstandings that caused a lot of alienation and trauma and loneliness and a whole slew of other unpleasant concepts, during formative years, times in which I needed exactly the opposite. I didn’t necessarily need to be told that everything I did was blue-ribbon material, but I did need to be treated as though I was OK the way I was, especially since they were making a big show of saying those words. I needed to be included in that conversation, and instead I felt like an ostracized footnote, like the exclusions and other fine print in dubious advertising.
I do feel like I’m making progress, though. I can tell that I am because truthfully, I was a lot more angered by this last year, when my self-discovery and accompanying validation and vindication were still fresh and every fiber of my core wanted to holler “see?? I told you so!” and at that point, I didn’t even care if it would have been poor taste to gloat or even rub it in someone’s face.
The milemarkers of my twisty, potholed road signal my moving past the bitterness, moving past the temptation to gloat, sealing up the trauma and loneliness and moving all of the junk into cold storage, status: inactive. And I am passing those milemarkers, with each day and each step I take.
Since I did experience these situations and their surrounding issues, though, but didn’t write about all of them at the time during which they surfaced, and since I’m pretty sure I’m not alone, I feel I should make up for the lost time and write about them anyway, even if it’s (way) after the fact. Because there might be someone who needs this at some point.
To any and all of those people who experienced the same thing I did…
You may not have heard it from the very people who should have said it to you, so for whatever it may be worth, I’ll say it to you now:
You are OK just the way you are. Whatever is your niche, your purpose, your function, etc, whatever are your efforts, your dreams, your wishes–they are awesome. Whatever are your quirks, your oddities, your differences, and so on, they are just fine. They aren’t character flaws or anything you should try to change, especially for the sake of anyone else, at a sacrifice to yourself. Screw that.
Yes, you should keep striving to learn, help people, be kind, and so on. Yes, you should keep striving for improvement, self-evolution, self-transformation, enlightenment, awareness, acceptance, tolerance, and whatnot.
But we’re all works in progress. Nobody here has yet erased all their karma, freed all their demons, cleaned all the skeletons out of their closets. Some are probably pretty close, others have a lot further to go. It’s nobody else’s business where you are on your path, your journey, your life. It’s yours, not theirs. At the end of the day, when it comes to the deepest questions, you should only have to answer to yourself.
You are OK the way you are, where you’re at right now. It’s nobody else’s place to tell you differently.