A few months ago, I watched a lecture by Sam Goldstein about resilience. At the start of his talk he mentioned how in Utah, teachers used to begin IEPs with a discussion of a child’s strengths. They’ve moved away from this in recent years because, as he put it, many teachers felt that listing what a child can already do well is a cursory exercise–in other words, a form of busy work that was taking up time they could be using to list all the things the child can’t do.
Now imagine that child moving through school, trailing this long list of things he can’t do behind him. That’s twelve-plus years of people emphasizing what he’s bad at and what he needs to fix. If he’s lucky, he has at least one cheerleader in his corner, telling him what he’s good at. Because when he sits down to fill out his college applications or goes for his first job interview, no one is going to ask him what his worst subject is or what he can’t do.
Transitioning into adult life requires knowing your assets. Universities and employers are looking for people who know how to put their strengths to work for them. Assets, Goldstein says, insulate us from risk and make us resilient to adversity.
The tension between building on assets versus fixing deficits is at the core of what we face as autistic people living in a neurotypical world. Much of what is framed as interventions and skill building and self-improvement is about being more normal, about “passing” better. But that feels like a Sisyphean task.
My social skills are never going to pass for neurotypical. I can roll that boulder uphill all day but I won’t get to the top. I’ll improve, yes, but I’m no more likely to become a charming conversationalist than I am to become the lead violinist with the London Philharmonic.
Building on assets feels more doable, and ultimately better for my self-esteem. If I’m working from strength, I’m more confident, more likely to succeed. I have a foundation, no matter how small, to build myself up from.
In my adult life, knowing my assets has helped me understand what kind of work I’m likely to succeed at, what parenting style suits me and how best to divide up family responsibilities. Knowing my assets and structuring my life to take advantage of them has made me resilient in ways I hadn’t considered pre-diagnosis.
As I thought about how this concept could be applied to other areas of my life, I realized that it goes beyond assets and deficits. It’s also about working with what I have, working from a place of comfort and compassion toward myself.
For example, tactile defensiveness impacts my daily life in a variety of ways. I could look at my tactile sensitivities as a problem to be fixed. I could embark on a program of desensitization with a goal of wearing any type of clothing, eating any type of food and being receptive to light touch. Being able to do the things that “normal” people do would make my life so much easier, wouldn’t it?
Well, yes, if I could magically transform myself into someone who didn’t have tactile sensitivities, I guess it would. But that’s not reality. The reality is that if desensitization were possible for me–and I’m not convinced it is–the cost would be high.
The alternative to seeing my tactile sensitivities as a deficit to be fixed is to look at what works for me and build on that. I can find clothing I like in fabrics and styles that don’t trigger my sensitivities. I can plan a well-balanced diet made up of foods that I enjoy eating. I can tell my partner what type of touch I like and ask for more of that.
Building on what works for me is a lower cost option. It feels more natural. It says, this is how I function and here’s how I can turn that into a positive. This goes back the social versus medical models of disability. Are our bodies machines in need of fixing or do we need to discover the right approach to accommodating how we’re made?
Of course, there is the question of how broadly this theory can be applied. What about when something really does need to be fixed? When what I’m doing is hurtful or harming others? Where is my asset or strength in that scenario?
More and more, I’m finding that when I’m doing something hurtful, it’s because I’m hurting. I’m working from a position of weakness. When that happens, I need to look at what I can build on to get to a place of strength. Reducing my need for control means building up my capacity for self-reliance. Stepping out of my comfort zone means relying on the people in my life who love and support me.
Sometimes we spend so much time focusing on the deficits, on what we’re bad at and what we need to improve and what makes life hard, that we forget how powerful our assets can be. We also forget that life is for living. There’s no medal for most improved at the end of it.
I don’t want to can be a perfectly valid reason for not doing something. The same goes for I have better ways to use my time and energy. Choosing which deficits to fix and how is up to each individual. Do the benefits justify the cost? Sometimes. I have a long list of things I’ve changed in my life since getting diagnosed, things that were worth the effort. The list of things I don’t feel the need to fix is equally long. My energy is an important resource. It’s not unlimited.
Slowly, surely, I’m learning to think about making changes in terms of what I want instead of what I think I should want, and what I truly want is to feel strong and capable and whole.