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Resilience through an Autistic lens

The concept of resilience as a coping tool once made me bristle with contempt. It sounded like the ultimate invalidation--"Life is hard, you just have to be resilient!" I'd been told to "pull myself up by my bootstraps" so many times, and resilience just sounded like more of the same. Thankfully, I learned to think about resilience in a different way and have come to rely on it often as a useful coping tool.



Thanks for nothing!


Right before I realized I'm Autistic, I was at one of the lowest points of my life. I had a fancy "grown-up job" that seemed to be slowly killing me for reasons that nobody else understood, such as "every chair hurts my body," "other people are breathing too loud," and "can't understand what they want from me." I now know that what I really needed was validation from the Autistic community and neurodiversity-informed support from someone like an autism life coach.


But I didn't know that yet and didn't know where to turn. I endured a demoralizing first (and last) appointment with a particularly unhelpful psychologist. I felt incredibly hopeless and alone when I left his office that day. Outside his door hung a handmade banner made of paper plates and yarn that read "RESILIENCE."



Resilience? Yeah, right. How am I supposed to be resilient when every day feels like a maze of discomfort and confusion and nobody understands why?



How I figured it out


I started my journey to resilience in a very small way, long after seeing that banner on the wall. I was staring down what promised to be a completely horrible day, including hard labor in the rain, talking on the phone, and providing customer service to an impatient crowd. I knew it was going to be perfect storm of torture: sensory, auditory processing, masking, mental processing, time pressure. But in that moment, I realized something that changed everything:


No matter how bad today gets, no matter how shut down and depleted I become, I will get to be home tonight in my bed. I will be dry, quiet, and alone. Nothing that happens today can take that away from me. No person in this room can tell me I don't get to have that. Time will continue to pass, this day will end, and I won't be in it anymore.



That was all it took. That thought worked so well and made me feel so empowered that I started intentionally re-creating it in other hard situations. It became a habit that grew and grew, and the idea of resilience finally made sense to me.


Did that day absolutely suck? You bet it did. I'm pretty sure I shut down in front of everyone and a bunch of people got mad at me, several times. Resilience doesn't pretend that our needs, differences, and challenges as Autistics aren't real. Instead, it gives us a way to remember what's on the other side of hardship and believe that we know how to get there.



Finding the pattern


Resilience is not an action, like trying hard enough that you somehow bootstrap yourself out of this capitalistic hellscape. Neither is it an attitude, nor a change in perspective or outlook on life. Instead, I think of resilience as a sort of bargain with reality.


What's that, reality? You're going to suck for me right now? Well fine, because you've tried that before and I'm still alive. I bet, in a little while, I'll be doing pretty okay.



The bummer of resilience is that you have to wait for it to show up. Unless you are some kind of reincarnated deity, you won't be able to feel resilient after the first (or tenth) bad thing that happens to you. You have to repeatedly watch yourself survive, cope, and eventually feel pretty okay. It takes an unfair number of years to see that pattern and really believe in it. Then, you have to get into the habit of remembering the pattern the next time things get ugly. Easier said than done, I know. But it's better than the whole bootstraps thing, right? And if anyone can recognize and remember a pattern, it's us Autistics!



Resilience can't fix everything


Like all mental health tools, resilience isn't a cure-all. And because Autistics often tend to take things literally (without even meaning to), I think it's important to spell out exactly what that means. No coping skill or tool should take the place of addressing aspects of your life that aren't working and need to change.


Resilience can:

  • Be your mental life raft during hard times

    • "Most days at work are tiring, but I generally have enough spoons left to care for myself. Today is particularly hard, but I know it will be over soon."

  • Help you feel like there's hope through the ups and downs of life

    • "I'm feeling mixed up after moving to a new home, but I remember that this happened last time, too. I felt better after I re-established my morning and evening routines, so I'll concentrate on that first. That will probably help everything else seem less chaotic."

  • Build your sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem

    • "It sucked when I had to have that stressful conversation with my mom. But afterward I helped myself feel better with music and jumping around. I fixed my whole day. It feels great knowing I can do that for myself when I need to."

  • Reinforce the importance of stimming, special interests, and other self-regulation tools

    • "I felt like I wasn't going to survive that stressful appointment, but amazingly I felt totally fine after just bouncing on my toes a bit. I'll try to do that more often. If bouncing can help with something that stressful, I bet it will help with other things, too."

  • Teach you to accept that life will always have challenges without feeling hopeless and doomed

    • "Okay, this is going to be a really hard week. But I've had really hard weeks before. I can reach out to my support network, use my skills, and come out the other side."


Resilience does not:

  • Take the place of support and accommodations

    • If your job won't let you wear hearing protection in a loud place, this is not okay. Don't try to be resilient and "just get through it." Seek help (from someone like an autism life coach) in standing up for your rights around workplace accommodation.

  • Make a harmful situation safer

    • If you are too overwhelmed to drive safely, don't try to be resilient by forcing yourself to drive anyway. Park your car and take a rest and stim break, call a friend for a ride, or hire a rideshare.

  • Solve ongoing, long-term issues that must be addressed

    • If you need to use resilience for the same thing over and over, it's time to try to find a way to change the situation. Resilience can get us through difficulty, but it can't prevent burnout when your life doesn't meet your needs.

  • Excuse other people's harmful actions

    • Being able to survive abuse with resilience does not make that abuse acceptable. If you feel like you need to be resilient every time you are around a certain person, it is likely time to evaluate whether that person should be part of your life.


The right tools for the job


Are you still skeptical about resilience or not sure when it's the right coping skill to use? An autism life coach can help you figure it all out, along with many other aspects of your life. To learn more or get started right away, contact us today! We can help you learn to change the things you can in your life, and to be more resilient through the things you can't.

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