February 7, 2020

Mistakes by Autistics: Portals of Discovery, or Disaster?

“A man's mistakes are his portals of discovery.”

With this statement, James Joyce presciently captured a now well-accepted self help axiom that positions mistakes as positive, beneficial, and character-building. Mistakes are made in moments of stress, strife, inexperience, and ambiguity, when the demands of a situation bettered a person’s ability. But, in this manner, mistakes are a window to what we can learn and who we can become. We are encouraged to embrace mistakes as necessary learning opportunities for a meaningful, fulfilled life.

If mistakes are life’s ongoing pay-it-forward, why, then, do we continue trying to avoid making them? Experience has taught that the underbelly of mistakes, especially when they occur in clusters or repeatedly over time, can be far less inspiring. Mistakes can highlight flaws in maddening ways, and the pace and demands of life can hinder and prevent the transformative process.

The ultimate avoidance of mistakes — perfectionism — is an often-discussed autistic trait. The targets of autistic perfection — hobbies and careers that require significant precision; thoughts and routines that follow exacting rules; following difficult to understand and master social rules — are often ridiculed and pathologized. When positioned as a quirky trait or humorous trope in popular culture, the observer of these behaviors is permitted (and expected) to laugh. Think Sheldon Cooper. In such instances, the function of perfectionism is wantonly unexplored and misunderstood. Sure, we get a good chuckle, but we never discuss why Sheldon does what he does.

On the other hand, when we are not taking a light-hearted view of mistake-avoidance, we tend to hone in on the darker side. Perfectionism’s relationship with anxiety and depression, low self-esteem and poor self-concept, and risk-avoidance and rigidity creates a damning body of evidence to suggest that we should embrace mistake-making like we would a fluffy panda. Research indicates that these outcomes are almost unavoidable, which becomes proof that perfectionism is to be controlled, curtailed, medicated, and/or avoided.

“Social interaction has conditioned autistics to believe their mistakes are moments of betrayal by their own brain.”

What if we shift our reactions from mockery and pathology to curiosity? We uncover that perfectionism is not always an end goal. Instead, perfectionism might be best explained as the expert-level coping mechanism of autistics and the supreme achievement of masking. From such a perspective, mistakes are openings to another world purposefully locked from non-autistics.

Social interaction has conditioned autistics to believe their mistakes are moments of betrayal by their own brain. Mistakes have been met with aggressive correction from non-autistic family, friends, and society, warping all mistakes from learning opportunities into catastrophic and deadly indictments. Such responses show autistics that when they reveal autism, they are punished. Put another way, autistics learn that revealing autism is not safe - the ultimate “portal of discovery”.

Non-autistics have the luxury of framing mistakes as situational and even noteworthy. Autistics do not have this luxury. Mistakes are nothing less than systemic breakdowns. When viewed in this light, autistics pursuing perfection is not about achieving the pinnacle of success. Instead, perfection is a real-world shield used to survive.

In a hypothetically neurodiverse world, mistakes can highlight our common humanity without defining individuality. Until we make that world a reality, autistics don’t seem to have the luxury of making mistakes.

Or being themselves.

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