Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer. I seem to have had a really busy week, and I’m not sure where the time has gone, but here I am looking forward to a week of annual leave from work. In theory, I should be having a well-earned rest, but I’ve got tons of stuff to do. Such is life. Today, I want to talk about another aspect of life, though. I want to talk about how our culture is framing us as failures when we don’t make it.
Honestly, I never would have expected to be quoting the king of camp power ballads, Barry Manilow, in an autism blog. Life takes me to some strange places. Anyway, let’s get even stranger, and talk about classical Rome. The Manilow quote will make sense shortly. According to Roman statesman, philosopher, and skeptic Cicero, the slightly less famous Roman, Diagoras of Melos was an interesting character. Also a skeptic, and allegedly a rampant atheist (my kind of guy), Diagoras took great pleasure in making fun of people who put instinctive beliefs and opinions before thinking things through. There are a couple of great anecdotes, both, oddly, to do with ships…
One anecdote describes how one of Diagoras’s friends tried to convince him the gods really did exist. His argument was this: Look at all these paintings of people who miraculously survived shipwrecks! How could this have happened if the gods were not taking a personal interest in the safety of humans? Diagoras replied (one can imagine somewhat drily), Where are the paintings of all those who died in the shipwrecks? He had a point.
Another tale about Diagoras, also from Cicero, relates how Diagoras found himself on a ship in the middle of a storm. The crew, worried the ship would be wrecked, wondered whether they had angered the gods by letting this unbeliever onboard. The question was, of course, did the crew think all the other ships caught in the storm also had Diagoras onboard? Sometimes, it seems people would rather react, and think emotionally, than reason things through – a subject I’ve talked about often in this blog, recently. But these tales about Diagoras were from ancient times – surely people don’t think in such lazy terms these days, do they? If you think that, prepare to be disappointed. There is even a name for the logical error that was deployed in the paintings anecdote, above. It’s called survivorship bias, and it is all too common.
Survivorship bias is just one example of selection bias. Commonly a problem in flawed science or statistical analysis, selection bias occurs when someone ignores the data that contradicts the result they are after. In Diagoras’s paintings of shipwreck survivors example, it was pretty obvious his friend had ignored the data regarding those who had not survived – presumably much greater numbers than the survivors. It can be seen from this anecdote that selection bias is not limited to science and dry statistics, but affects how people think on a daily basis, and so it impacts all our lives to some degree.
This casual selection bias results from lazy thinking. It’s all too easy for any of us to form opinions based on what we would like to believe, rather than thinking things through and challenging our own assumptions. I suspect that many of the flawed assumptions commonly held by people are the result of a kind of heuristics reliance. Rather than having to expend the energy and willpower to analyse every little thing that comes along in life, people tend to use mental shortcuts, or rules of thumb. For example, you might have a rule of thumb that if the weather is cloudy in the morning, you won’t hang out your washing before going to work, because it might rain. This takes a bit less time than consulting, say, three different weather reports to see if they agree it will not rain today. The repercussions of using a rule of thumb in this circumstance are mild, and hardly a cause for concern. We make little uninformed decisions based on instinct all the time, and often it is no big deal. The problem comes when we take this kind of lazy thinking into areas where the effect is more significant.
When people talk or write about anything, they send a message into the world that might or might not be picked up by other people and repeated. The more influential a person, or the more famous or high-profile the person, the more likely they are to be listened to, and the more likely their message will be repeated and enter the public consciousness. If certain high-profile people churn out roughly the same type of message again and again, the message will become part of “received wisdom” – an opinion or idea that people tend to accept as fact because it is repeated so often. I’m going to come back to this point, once we’ve looked at the autism angle…
This is a blog about autism. I’m autistic, and I’m really interested in autism and social acceptance for autistic people. So, I’m quite often looking at the media, news outlets, and social media for autism-related content. There are certain types of stories I see again and again, and one of those is the autistic person did good report. This story comes in various forms; it can be the autistic person who achieved some educational milestone despite their autism, or it could be the talented autistic person achieving worldwide recognition of their talent despite their autism, or it could be a story about autism-friendly employers celebrating their autistic employees despite their autism. These are supposedly feel-good stories, but they give me cause for concern. And my concerns are not simply about the despite aspect, although that is bad enough. It’s hard to see how we ever achieve social acceptance for autistic people when every success story about an autistic person is presented as overcoming the challenge of being who we are. Don’t get me wrong; we autistic people often have many challenges to overcome, but far too often these challenges are actually imposed on us by neurotypical culture and society, so we shouldn’t really present success as being despite autism – it’s more correctly despite the world. But this is actually a digression. Let’s bring it back to the main point…
Very often, when I see the autistic person overcomes autism success stories, there is a revelation in the tale: the autistic person has been supported or championed by someone with power, wealth or influence. I’m not necessarily talking about billionaires, or CEOs, or presidents; just people with enough clout to open certain doors in certain situations. It could be as simple as the line manager who has a fondness for the autistic employee (maybe they have an autistic niece, or brother, or whatever), and they pull some strings. In fact, these success stories very often emanate from workplace settings, particularly when an employer wants to position themselves in the marketplace or media as inclusive. They love getting some ticks in their diversity boxes. There is often some concealed ableism in these tales if you know where to look. The “We must focus on people’s abilities, not their deficits,” type of comment from employers is simply another way of deploying the despite their autism trope. It diverts attention away from non-inclusive environments and attitudes, and puts the spotlight on the autistic person getting on despite their autism, along with a pat on the autistic person’s head, and a nudge-nudge, wink-wink, about all the support they’ve needed to actually get on.
These stories are often presented to shout to the world what a great employer a company is for their inclusive recruitment, but more importantly, they are also presented in the form of the trope; If you world hard enough, you can achieve all your dreams. If you’re a good little autistic person and work really, really hard, despite your autism, you too can be a leader in your chosen field. It creates a portrait gallery of all the autistic people who made it. But as Diagoras might have asked, Where are the portraits of those who didn’t make it?
I want to make this clear: For every success story you see about an autistic person making it on the back of all their hard work and never giving up despite their autism, there are many more untold stories of the autistic people who never achieved their dreams, despite working bloody hard, never giving up, and indeed, giving it everything they had. Hard work and determination are no guarantee of success; they never have been, and never will be, as history is full of talented, committed, determined failures. To present the story of someone’s success and frame it as, You too can achieve all your dreams if you work hard and never give up, is to sell a harmful lie. It is to point to the portraits of the survivors while ignoring the dead. To put it another way, a combination of hard work and determination might be a necessary condition for success, but it is not a sufficient condition.
I’ve said this success story narrative is harmful, but in what way? Well. if you’ve worked damn hard all your life, tried to do all the right things, kept up your determination in the face of setbacks, and not become complacent when making progress, but have ultimately met failure, you’re going to feel pretty pissed off to hear the story of someone who did make it, and who claims that with hard work and not giving up, you could too! This trickles down into the small crevices of the tiny successes and failures we experience in daily life.
The received wisdom that hard work = success comes with the corollary, failure is the result of not working hard enough. This mental shortcut accesses all areas of life, including the mundane. If you’re an autistic person who can’t face going into work because you are overwhelmed and over-stimulated, the neurotypical world tells you that you are weak, and you need to work harder. If you are an autistic person and your social anxiety prevents you from attending an event, the neurotypical world tells you that you should work harder at your relationships if you want to maintain them. If you know you are autistic, then you can try to build up a resistance to this kind of narrative, because you know where it comes from; culturally ingrained ableism. But if you’re an undiagnosed, unidentified autistic person, these narratives can be devastating, leading to depression. Do I even have to mention, yet again, that suicide is a leading cause of death among autistic people?
Out there in the neurotypical world, people who have achieved fame and fortune continue to peddle the myth that if you work hard and never give up, so can you. The self-help industry makes great use of the myth. People who are already rich and famous increase their wealth by releasing best-selling books which just drag out a couple of hundred pages of the message, work hard, never give up, and you will achieve your dreams. Best-selling self-help gurus will slap each other on the back while raking in the cash – a bit like Mr Manilow’s people who made it through the rain getting respect from the others who made it too. No respect for those who didn’t make it, eh? It’s a disgrace, really. And it overlooks the psychological and emotional damage it causes to those who don’t get a portrait on the wall of those who made it; the forgotten ones who gave it everything they had, and hit a stone wall. It makes those people see themselves as failures. And they will wonder, if their hard work was not enough, what is wrong with them? It’s not hard to see how a depressive spiral ensues.
Far too many people fail to understand the influence of pure luck in their lives. And by luck, I mean the many complex, unexpected events and circumstances that we all encounter in almost infinite combinations. I’m not saying there is no point in working hard – although there is a separate discussion to be had on the supposed infallibility of a hard work ethic. Go ahead and work hard, work smart, and be determined in the face of setbacks. But do not assume success will automatically come your way, and definitely do not accept that you are weak, or not working hard enough, or that you are simply a failure if success does not arrive. For autistic people in particular, success is often simply about surviving in this harsh, unforgiving, exploitative, neurotypical world. Not all of us can have mentors or coaches or personal champions to open doors and pull strings for us. Sometimes, all we can do is keep our heads above water, and the strength, willpower, and determination needed to achieve that is something most neurotypical people will never understand.
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That’s all for this week. Until next time, take care.
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Why Do I Write This Blog?
When I first found out I was autistic, I was a middle-aged adult and I knew nothing about autism. I quickly learned that there was a serious shortage of information and resources for adults in my situation. With this blog, I aim to inform about autism and autism-related issues as I learn, hopefully helping people who are on a similar journey of discovery. Like anyone who writes a blog, I want to reach as many readers as possible; if you like what I’m doing, please share it with your friends and followers. I will never hide this blog behind a paywall, but running the website does incur costs. If you would like to support, feel free to make a small contribution at BuyMeACoffee.Com.
You might also be interested in David Scothern’s blog, Mortgage Advisor on FIRE, which covers a range of topics including mental health issues and financial independence.