Saturday, 8 October 2011

Autistic Low Self Esteem and the Autistic Community

When some adults make the realization that they are on the autistic spectrum, instead of feeling liberated, it can plunge them into feeling even worse about themselves than they did before. Before they knew what they were, they could tell themselves they just weren’t trying hard enough, or the right way, or they were just stupid, or imagining it, or it was other people’s fault, etc, etc. They had hope, in other words, that someday they would find a way out of their difficulties, and become ‘normal’. Being told you have autism, then, destroys this hope. It can feel like being told you’ve been sentenced for life.

Some try to deny this, and adopt an attitude of ‘Okay, now I know what’s wrong with me, I can fix it’ – only to find there is no ‘cure’, no magic pill or surgery or treatment to make them ‘normal’, no ‘social skills training’ that will transform them. Or they can become depressed and self-punishing (or more so, if they were already), plunging into even lower depths of self-hatred than they already were in, because ‘now I’m really fucked!’ Some end up trying even harder to be ‘normal’, and dreading anyone finding out about their ‘terrible disease’.

All of this, of course, is connected to their low self-esteem, which in turn is connected to both the highly negative public image of autism, and also to how they have been treated by those around them – regardless of whether others know they are on the spectrum or not. When you’ve had a lifetime of being laughed at, yelled at, sneered at, scorned, scolded, ridiculed, condemned, rejected, ignored, bullied and harassed; of being told you’re useless, not good enough, a failure, a loser, stupid, weird, crazy, anti-social, cold, arrogant (to list but a few of the many insults commonly thrown at us), when it’s been made abundantly clear that who and what you are is not valued in the slightest, it’s really hard to have a good self-esteem. Then you add on top of that the images of autism and Aspergers that are common in the media and the public perception – cold beings with no emotions, no interest in other people, incapable of love or empathy or caring for others, obsessed with weird things, lost in their own private worlds, often incapable even of speech; or (if a little more ‘higher functioning’) semi-robotic geeky computer nerds with no manners or social graces, no sense of humour or imagination, again no emotions, and probably with poor personal hygiene as well. It’s not a pretty picture, and why would anyone want to identify with that, or be identified with it, in other people’s minds?

The only way out of this hell of self-hatred is to find your own kind. Only in doing so, can we ‘compare notes’, discover what strengths and weaknesses we really have, start destroying the myths and the negative stereotypes (at least in our own minds), and form a truer image of what it really means to have autism. We can find support, friendship, understanding, and acceptance. We can look at other autistics and see, hey, they’re not so bad, maybe I’m not so bad either… No, we probably won’t get along with or even like every other autistic person we meet, and we may even meet some who seem to come close to the stereotypes. But the aspie/autie communities are still the only place we have where we can be ourselves, and find others like ourselves, and even more importantly start undoing the damage a harsh, unaccepting world has done us.

Because it’s time to start undoing that damage. Time to throw off society’s negative image of us, time to start believing in ourselves, to start feeling okay about our autistic selves, to realise that while we have our problems, there is nothing wrong in itself with being autistic. This is hugely important, so I’ll repeat it – THERE IS NOTHING WRONG IN ITSELF WITH BEING AUTISTIC. I doubt I could say this enough. In the past few decades women, gays, people of colour, and all manner of groups have rejected the usual negative images of them, and, believing in themselves, formed new, positive images, that in turn changed society’s image of them, and consequently how they were treated. We can do the same. But first of all we need to start with what’s in our own heads.

I’m not saying it’s easy, I know (oh, how I know!) it isn’t. And my heart goes out to all those who still suffer from poor self-esteem because of their autism/Aspergers, especially those who haven’t yet found any others like themselves, or who have (online perhaps), but are still in their day-to-day lives socially isolated and/or stuck in negative environments where they continue to be badly treated because of their autism. I know how it can be a huge struggle just to get through each day, and emotionally limp home to recharge your batteries for another round tomorrow; and how being part of some neurodiversity movement can just feel like an added burden, or as impossible as flying to the moon. I know that feeling, only too well. But even if we can’t get ‘out there’ and be some hotshot activist, we can still change in ourselves. We can reach out to others like ourselves, we can reject other’s condemnation of ourselves, we can change the image of autism in our own heads. We can realize that’s it’s okay to be different, that ‘normal’ is over-rated, that we are okay just as we are, as our truly autistic selves. We can love ourselves, and each other.

Because if we don’t, for sure no-one else will.


  1. It's hard to undo a lifetime of damaged self esteem, but it can be done. The first thing we often need to do and to face is that we are who we are and that's ok. Some of us feel isolated, some of us feel victimized, some of us feel shunned, some of us feel shame... most of us feel all those things at some point, but are told that it's our own fault or that we were just not seeing things properly. When we learn to trust our own perceptions and be at peace with who we are, even if others aren't, then new doors can open. Helping young aspies, and older ones who are still struggling is so important to do in the ASD community.

  2. Asperger Liberation Front!! (ALF)

  3. My life as A gay ASD person makes me feel like An albino afro-american, I feel pitied by those who don't hate me.

    1. So know the feeling, i am gay too, and had the same problems within the lesbian community. I largely haven't socialised with them for ages as a result, and know of only a very few other lesbian or gay aspies/auties. It's hard - you want them to accept you as you are,but they prove no more accepting than straight people do. :P I have felt more accepted by my fellow aspies, whether gay or not, than i did in the lesbian/gay communities.

  4. I don't know about self esteem being the answer. Self esteem, I think, is partly the problem in a culture that thinks however they feel is ok. Donald Trump may very well be a symptom of the self esteem movement. I prefer to be more Zen. What hurts is people not getting me. They don't understand that understanding how the world works is what drives me. And they talk down to and ridicule me when they think I'm not noticing. Rejection hurts. It makes me angry. There's not a lot I can do to stop those feelings. The angst, no doubt can be alleviated by those who get me and I get them.

  5. Richard, people like that are not 'high in self esteem', they are smug egotists, and probably narcissists or something similar. True self-esteem is another matter altogether. It's about being comfortable in your self, without feeling the need to impinge on anyone else.

  6. I can relate to this. 59 years of discovering the multitude of things you can't do only to have even your parents say you are not trying hard enough, lazy, or not spending your free time training or learning how to improve oneself wears down your self esteem. My father finally tells me I had autism when I was in my forties. It was no secret to my parents that I had something major wrong with me when I was a baby and infant. I don't want to feel this badly about myself but at the same how can you feel good about always being the worst at everything you do or embarrassing myself in front of others which is a pretty good description of who I am.

  7. How can you feel good about yourself? As i say above, the first and most important part of it is finding your own kind, preferably IRL, but online is a good start, and often easier. The second part is self-acceptance, as my friend 'Quiet Contemplation' says above. You are what you are, and that's good enough, because you are a human being worthy of existence, no matter what others think of or say about you.
    The third part is finding the things you are good at. It might be anything from the classic aspie 'computer nerd' stuff, to gardening, to knowing all the different types of trees or insects in your area, or all about a particular German Emperor and his times, or astro-physics, carpentry, cooking... pretty much anything really.
    So there are things you're not so good at... okay. Accept that, and go from there. Embarrassing yourself? Ah, social embarrassment kind of goes with the territory of being autistic. A lot of it is because we're a) dealing almost solely with NTs, whose social skils will *ALWAYS* outstrip ours. The other part is we're often trying too hard to be accepted, to be 'fake NTs' ourselves. We can't. Letting go of that can often ease our shame at being ourselves.

    Know that you have worth, and are a valuable human being in your own right. :)

  8. William, I get where you are coming from. It is hard work to find that kernel of truth from within to keep us going. It is enough to wish me on another planet!

  9. What if you can't find anyone of your own kind? Or worse, you find those of your own kind, and you don't like any of them? What then?

  10. What if you can't find anyone of your own kind? Or worse, you find those of your own kind, and you don't like any of them? What then?

  11. I feel the same way, I don't know how to find anyone like me. I have always been belittled and told I'm not good enough starting with my mother and into every relationship sibling, husband, kids, co-workers etc. I have torn myself apart and tried rebuilding myself to not do the things that bother people not be different to be like them. Everytime I think I'm on the right track I find out I'm wrong, that I'm not appreciated, the joke, the outsider. I wonder if I should just give up. If you stop hoping stop trying maybe it won't hurt so much to be the freak, the person who walks to their own drummer. I so want to feel good about myself but it's hard when everything you do is never quite good enough to overcome the autistic tendancies that bother people.