They Love Me ... They Love Me Not
I want to be liked. There, I admitted it. It is important to me that others like me. This seems in direct contrast to an autistic spectrum diagnosis, which brings with it an implied lack of concern about the opinions of our fellows as related to our sense of self-worth. Popular opinion in the neurotypical world would have you believe that I pay little, if any, attention to whether or not others like me or find value in my contributions. For a long time, I believe this was a large part of my rationale behind not being open to considering whether or not I had a place on the spectrum. I cared what other people thought of me; I craved the approval of others—whether they played an integral role in my life or were merely on the periphery. I wanted to be liked, and I wanted this at any cost. Being liked, being thought well of, meant that I could avoid conflict. Avoiding conflict has been a motivating force in my little universe for as long as I can remember, going back to when I was a child and would get extremely defensive when “called on the carpet.” Which did not happen often, as I avoided conflict at all costs, after all.
Thanks to a series of disasters and miracles in my life of late, I find myself reaching a paradigm shift in how I think about myself, how I feel about my particular place in the scheme of things, and how my sense of self-worth has been tied in—for far too long—with how I perceived others to be thinking about me. I had already reached the point of being able to acknowledge that there was a decent chance that I was not always the best judge of what others were thinking. But that self-understanding did not go far enough in allowing me to get to the point of accepting that it was okay if everyone doesn’t like me, if everyone didn’t agree with me all the time, if everyone didn’t know what was going on inside my head and therefore could not respond the way I expected them to. That part is a process that is ongoing, and thanks to those aforementioned disasters and miracles, I am actually feeling as though I could shout, “Hey, there is a tunnel, and I see a light at the end of it!” This is most assuredly a positive on any number of levels, because one of the most important lessons I strive to impart to my students is how to accept feedback from their job coaches, teachers, and sometimes even fellow students when on the job. A tall order for even the most comprehensive Individualized Education Program! So while on the one hand, I feel extraordinarily grateful to have reached the point I am at now in my own social competence, with that comes a renewed sense of urgency at the professional task facing me. That goal set forth in an IEP that states that Student X will be able to accept performance feedback in an expected manner now more than ever seems to imply that the student has mastered the art of self-acceptance. And I think that may be a tall order for many of the young people in my professional life. Perhaps the lesson needs tweaking … with a disclaimer attached that reminds us—the teachers, the parents, the friends, the bosses—that along with the goal of teaching how to accept feedback needs to come the consistent reinforcement that negative feedback does not mean that one is not valued by the person giving the feedback. Rather, it is because we value you—the student, the child, the friend, the employee—that we are providing the feedback in the first place. When we stop learning, we cease to exist, and learning is an inherently interdependent process. So yes, I still want to be liked. BUT, finally, at long last, I can accept that some of the bluntest criticism can come from those whose opinion I most value—and really all that means is that they value me, too. I may not be at mastery level on this quite yet, but I am making marked progress towards the achievement of this goal.