Taking “Ought” Out Of Autism

Taking “Ought” Out Of Autism

Ought is a word I’ve heard too often in my life. If I had a penny for every time I’ve been told what I ought to be doing, how I ought to be behaving, I’d have enough for a nice new pair of shoes! Maybe not Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin but you know what I mean.

Ought is a word that does violence, imposing the speaker’s values on the recipient. It says that the person being addressed is in the wrong, that they must change to satisfy the speaker. It’s an insidious word, couching the statement in the guise of suggestion.

Being told what you ought to do can be harmful for autistic people like me who formalize sets of rules to govern our actions. It denies us the right to behave and express ourselves naturally: I’ve acquired a motley collection of inhibitions over the years as I have internalized the expressed preferences of those I’ve spent time around.

I realized a few years ago that all this was compelling me to try to pass as allistic, to mimic the behavior of those non-autistic people around me. I reduced my stims to barely noticeable actions, I’d push myself to stay when the environment was hostile — too crowded, loud or bright — and I neglected my self-care.

The result was that I’d melt down far too frequently, I would drink most evenings to try to shut off and relax. It was largely self-destructive; the way out for me was to learn to be more self-aware and to recognize my feelings, my mental and physical states. That led me to understand that I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations: what I ought to be like.

Discarding years of internalized guilt and shame about all the ways I’d been doing things “wrong” isn’t easy and I’m still some way from working through it all, putting it behind me. There’s a huge amount of anxiety involved in consciously facing the inhibitions and going against them.

Things like hand flapping, walking away to find peace and quiet, asking for accommodations; for example, moving to another desk at work away from distractions. All this goes against the grain of what I’ve been conditioned to believe, but it all has positive benefits for my well-being. And I’m learning to trust my own judgment about what is right for me.

Peer Pressure

Peer Pressure

I’m the first to admit I can be a stubborn character. Once I decide on a course I can dig my heels in and pursue it come hell or high water. For the most part I choose to do things I enjoy – that includes being helpful because that makes me feel good as a result. But I don’t do anything because I feel I ought, because I want to conform, because everybody does it.

I really don’t care be pressured by people into doing something I don’t want to do. Any time I get that kind of pressure I start to feel irritated and I can quickly get angry and snappish. I’m not a naturally rebellious type. I don’t take stands to make a point or to be contrary. I do it for purely personal reasons, not to fit in with some group of people.

I’m the eternal outsider; I never feel fully part of any group: I don’t get that involved. And to a large degree that leaves me immune to the pressures that social groups can bring to bear on their members to conform. I feel no need to think, speak or act the same way as others. I have enough confidence these days not to worry if people don’t like what I do. I’m comfortable in my own company, doing my own thing.

I keep trying to understand peer pressure; to work out why so many people have a need to be part of a social circle. I find it all very confusing. Are these people’s values really so malleable that they may be changed to match the group norm? My values are deeply ingrained and have been consistent throughout most of my life. Do these people go against some of their natural inclinations to follow a stronger urge to conform and be accepted by the group? If so, wouldn’t this cause an internal conflict, some feelings of discomfort or even guilt?

I’ve seen people act in certain ways when in a group that they would never consider doing when alone. This can include being critical of and putting down people who are not members of the group, and even bullying. There appears to be a suspension of personal responsibility: whatever the group does is the responsibility of the group rather than devolving to each individual within it. There appears to be self-censorship: there must be no disagreement within the group, so no member feels able to take a dissenting position on anything.

I find it all rather depressing and dispiriting. Is it a failure in education that people are so reluctant to think for themselves and stand up in defense of their values? Or – a darker thought – is it just human nature? Are we doomed to a society shaped and dominated by inter-group rivalries and conflict?

Enough of this – I dislike ending on a negative note and this subject is getting me down. I’ll just continue to hope for enlightenment and respect, and treat others as I would like to be treated in return. Perhaps it’s just a drop in the ocean, a solitary candle against the darkness, but at least I can hold my head high.