How Do You Spell Support?
It occurs to me that for most of us, autistic or not, the ability to seek out support when needed is at its core an issue of trust. Though I would never presume to speak for all individuals who share my autism spectrum diagnosis, I daresay that it is a fair bet that many experiences mirror my own on some level. All too often, I find myself swinging wildly back and forth between a paralyzing fear of trusting anyone (think Murphy’s Law in hyperdrive) and placing my faith in individuals or situations without limits. Needless to say, neither extreme is effective in the long run, which raises the question: How do we know who we can count on to offer support when needed? Taken one step further, how do we know when it is safe to trust, whether that trust is being sought in another person, or a set of circumstances? After all, in the adult world, success hinges on one’s ability to be not so much independent as interdependent. We must be able to get along with others, and we must be able to get support on a regular basis, whether we want to or not!
I have been blessed with some amazing students with Asperger’s Syndrome diagnosis—not to mention the two amazing young people with whom I share my home. A common theme I have encountered across the board—whether at work, home, or in my own head—is this admittedly pretty insane idea that to ask for support is to admit weakness, to declare defeat, to pronounce oneself a failure. My best guess is that all too often, we have found ourselves to be woefully—albeit understandingly—ignorant of the intricate social rules that tell our neurotypical counterparts who is and is not trustworthy.
I believe that at any given point in our lives, we all want to be able to seek out and receive support as needed from trustworthy individuals. If our capacity for determining who is and is not trustworthy is impeded by our autistic wiring, then how will we ever get it right? When I make the same mistake over and over, I am living the definition of insanity when I believe that this time, things will turn out differently. Ultimately, I not only end up feeling terrible about the results of my actions, but less and less likely to trust my own judgment about the motivations of others in the future. I cannot help but think that my adolescent counterparts feel the same way, only without the “wisdom” that one gathers with age and experience. Many of our children and students with ASD are being asked to learn how to recognize when they need to ask for help, for support. This is a pivotal skill for anything that resembles success in the adult world. But if being able to trust other people and forces beyond our control—and most of all our own judgment—needs to come first, then are we missing a crucial step in this lesson? Is this a lesson that can even be taught?
I think it is. Call me crazy, but I think we can teach our young people born with Theory of Mind deficits how to trust wisely. In my own little world, I am learning how to do this with lots of support from trustworthy individuals. I did not enter the situations where I have found these people with unbridled trust. Quite the opposite, in fact. Fresh from more than a few situations where trusting had left me feeling helpless and defeated, I was quite guarded, trusting no one and nothing. In my professional life, I found myself side-by-side with individuals who I learned to trust thanks to the way they treated me: with honesty and respect, compassion and friendship. So I would venture a guess that our young people who need to learn to ask for support need first to spend quality time with individuals who treat them with honesty and respect, compassion and friendship. This in turn becomes a lesson to us all. For who among us—autistic or not—doesn’t benefit from spending quality time with others who treat them with honesty and respect, compassion and maybe even friendship? Perhaps this is Universal Design at its finest.