Self esteem and Aspergers

Self esteem issues are very common in people on the autistic spectrum, from what I have noticed. Indeed, self esteem issues occur with most learning, neurological and physical disabilities-basically anything that society sees as odd or different. In this post, I hope to explain the issues that low self esteem causes in people with Aspergers in particular.

The primary reason that most people with Aspergers, including myself, have self esteem issues, is due to bullying and people not being willing to make allowances for our social mistakes. Personally I have never met anyone with Aspergers who did not experience bullying in their school years and often beyond. Being socially awkward identifies us as targets in the playground. The fact that a lot of people with Aspergers are also physically clumsy doesn’t help matters at all. I always found that certain aspects of my Aspergers made me more sensitive to childhood bullies than other people. One example is the fact that I am a very literal thinker. Until a couple of years ago, I couldn’t understand that people would say spiteful and malicious things that they knew to be untrue just to hurt somebody’s feelings. I always assumed that people were just being honest and genuinely thought that I was ugly or a freak. If you are told something enough times, you internalise it and it becomes part of your self image. Many children with Aspergers are miserable in their school years-they are often isolated and excluded from playground games. If the only reaction your peers have towards you is to walk away, how are you supposed to develop a healthy self image of yourself as someone who is nice to be around? Of course, having these sorts of self esteem issues lead, in turn, to low self confidence, particularly in social situations where you feel that others will be judging you and looking for your flaws so that they can take great pleasure in pointing them out and ridiculing you for them. This compounds our social awkwardness and thus the vicious circle continues. At almost 27, I am still suffering from the effects of experiences I had before anyone even knew that my difficulties had a name, I still have days when I think the world would be a better place without me in it although, thankfully, these days are now few and far between. I always say that, until you have looked in the mirror and genuinely despised the person staring back at you, you will struggle to understand just how pervasive and destructive low self esteem can be. This is something that not a lot of people realise I struggle with as I tend to keep it to myself in my off line life,

Also a lot of people with Aspergers have a high level of self awareness and I count myself in this group. Whilst, in ways, this is a positive attribute to have, as it has enabled me to find a number of coping strategies to minimise the negative impact that Aspergers can have on my life, it also means that I am my own harshest critic. I am fully aware of how I come across to other people and of the weaknesses that I have and this means that I can often have a tendency to be incredibly harsh with myself if I don’t reach what I see as “typical” social standards. I see my friends socialising and envy the ease with which they can do so. Over the years, this has led me to become rather despondent and, although my social skills have improved immensely since my diagnosis, with the help of social skills sessions and patient friends and relatives, I still berate myself at times for the fact that I still have weak social skills. I try to remember at these times that Aspergers is a social and communication disorder and therefore it is amazing that I have made the progress that I have within the context of my diagnosis but this doesn’t always help and I just have to wait for the low mood to pass.

The final main reason for low self esteem in those of us on the spectrum is perhaps the most damaging one-it is the fact that there are people out there who wish to take away the essence of our beings and “cure” us. I wrote about this in detail in my “Cure Debate” post so I won’t go over it again too much but suffice to say that, if you are aware that every little quirk and habit you have is scrutinised and labelled as an autistic trait and thus something to be “dealt with” and, in some cases, punished by the use of aversive therapies, you don’t exactly feel good about the way that you are. If you spend your whole life aware that people disapprove of the way you are and think it would be better if so much of your life simply vanished, you’re not exactly going to feel like you have a right to be happy and to be proud of the achievements you have made. I know that a lot of people involved in the cure debate will argue that they want a cure primarily for classic autism rather than Aspergers but my point remains that it is still damaging to someone’s self esteem to want to change so much of their personality. As I mentioned before, I support attempts to make the lives of people on the spectrum more enjoyable by minimising the negative impacts of autism on their lives but this is completely different to the idea of curing them for the reasons that I have mentioned in my post on that debate.

Now we come to the devastating point of all this-the impact that having such a poor self image can have on peoples lives. A very high number of people with Aspergers have mental health issues such as depression and anxiety as described on the National Autistic Society website. 

http://www.autism.org.uk/working-with/health/mental-health-and-asperger-syndrome.aspx

As a member of several Facebook groups for people with Aspergers and an online community for people on the spectrum, I have also come to know that there is a worryingly high number of people in the Aspergers community whose childhood memories are so distressing that they fit the diagnostic criteria for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is also a depressing fact that people on the autistic spectrum are more likely to commit suicide than those who are not on the spectrum. Indeed, some reports have cited that, in children, those with autism are up to 28 times more likely to take their own life than those without autism as discussed on this blog by Lynne Soraya.

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/aspergers-diary/201303/new-research-autism-and-suicide

These are the people who go through life feeling rejected at every turn, who are turned down from jobs and are then made to feel bad about themselves for having to rely on financial assistance from the State when, if they were given a chance to prove themselves in the first place, they would be able to hold down a job, who spend their days despising who they are and wishing for a tiny bit of relief from their racing thoughts and who take their feelings out on themselves in a variety of ways. These are the people who society often views as “outcasts” but, ironically, the reason why such “outcasts” exist is because society is so fixated on the “typical” that it shuts out those who it deems not to meet its arbitrary standards.

Next time you see someone with Aspergers or autism, please remember how they may be feeling inside and have compassion for them. We struggle daily to get by in a world which often seems to revel in making us feel like failures and sometimes just a small amount of kindness can make our day so much better.

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