Build your self-esteem as an autistic with strengths awareness

self-esteem confidence strengths autism Essy Knopf
Reading time: 5 minutes

Many of the messages we get as autistics living in an ableist society remind us that we’re different. And this difference, more often than not, is treated as a negative—at the cost of our self-esteem.

When confronted with the unique traits and behavior of autistic folk, many neurotypicals (NTs) typically respond with discomfort, annoyance, hostility, and even vilification.

Sometimes they do it out of ignorance—a kneejerk reaction to something they don’t understand. They may also simply view autism as a “deficit” or “fault” that needs to be corrected.

Acknowledging areas for growth

There is a tendency within the autism community to react defensively to the “autism-as-deficit” paradigm by casting autism exclusively as a strength. 

Given many of us feel that our autism is an intrinsic part of our identity, it makes sense that we should feel compelled to defend it. 

Personally speaking, I would much sooner rather celebrate my strengths than look at myself through the lens of inferiority.

At the same time, I recognize that being autistic can come with some downsides. For example, I find my various sensory sensitivities to be a nuisance. And I wish I could form and sustain relationships with the ease enjoyed by many NTs.

Should I treat these downsides as a reflection of my worth? Definitely not.

That said, I do think there is value in recognizing our personal areas for growth. For me, this is developing stronger social skills.

Self-esteem starts with acknowledging strengths

Areas of growth aside, I think there is merit in focusing on strengths. Being autistic is can convey quite a few. For example:

  1. We enjoy peer relationships characterized by absolute loyalty and impeccable dependability
  2. We are free of sexist, “age-ist”, or culturalist biases; able to regard others at “face value”
  3. We are willing to share our mind, irrespective of social context or adherence to personal beliefs
  4. We have an ability to pursue personal theory or perspective despite conflicting evidence
  5. We seek an audience or friends capable of enthusiasm for unique interests and topics
  6. We take consideration of details and spend time discussing a topic that may not be of primary interest
  7. We listen without continual judgment or assumption
  8. We are interested primarily in significant contributions to conversation, preferring to avoid “ritualistic small talk”, or socially trivial statements and superficial conversation.
  9. We seek sincere, positive, genuine friends with an unassuming sense of humor

And as employees, we are also known to be: reliable, persistent, perfectionists, easily able to identify errors, technically able, and to have a sense of social justice and integrity.1

We are also willing to question protocols, can be highly accurate, attentive to detail, logical, conscientious, knowledgeable, original in problem-solving, honest, and likely to thrive on routine and clear expectations.

In a majority of situations, these qualities are quite beneficial. They also contradict the autism-as-deficit paradigm.

Are you ‘strengths blind’?

Strengths vary from individual to individual, and may manifest physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, or spiritually.2

We may not be aware of those strengths and how they may have helped us to cope with the challenges of day-to-day life. But they’re still there, regardless.

Failing to recognize our strengths is called being “strengths blind”. Four factors can prevent us from seeing them.

Firstly, a lack of awareness of said strengths, resulting from not practicing self-awareness or feeling disconnection from our identity.

Secondly, we may not see our strengths as meaningful. Thirdly, we may downplay them as ordinary, rather than extraordinary.

And fourthly, we may overuse our strengths to the point that they create problems.

One commonly overused autistic strength is passion. 

To elaborate: autistics can have something of a reputation for wanting to share knowledge about their areas of interest, even with the most casual of acquaintances.

If we’re not careful, we may end up talking at length and scarcely allowing the other person to get a word in edgewise.

In fact, we can become so caught up in the act of sharing that we fail to take notice of the subtle—and not-so-subtle clues—that the other person is getting annoyed, or feeling frustrated and overwhelmed.

Yet in moderation, this character strength can be hugely advantageous. Passion for instance can enable us to become leading specialists in our chosen fields.

Putting our strengths into practice

So, how do we overcome strength blindness? By growing our strengths awareness.

You can begin in your own life by reaching out to your closest friends and family members and asking them, “What do you think my strengths are?” 

Their responses should give you a clear idea of what you excel most at. Alternatively, you can take this character strengths and virtues questionnaire.

Some common strengths or qualities are creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective, bravery, perseverance, honesty, zeal, love, kindness, social intelligence, teamwork, and fairness.

Other qualities are leadership, forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation, appreciation of beauty, and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, and spirituality.

The great thing about character strengths is that most are not in any way shaped by our being autistic.3 (Small caveat: many autistics may struggle with social intelligence and teamwork, and yet we also love to learn and are very curious.)

Once you’ve identified our strengths, select your topmost three. Now ask yourself, what activities do you do in service of those strengths?

Chances are when you do those activities, you’ll feel great about yourself. Why? Because they are impactful, and because they provide satisfaction. 

self-esteem autism Essy Knopf

Strengths-based habits improve self-esteem

When we do these activities and receive a positive result, it affirms our strengths and builds self-esteem.

If you’re struggling with self-esteem issues, make a conscious plan to do at least one of the three activities when you feel down or like you’re struggling.

If love is one of your strengths, perform a kind act for someone, such as buying a friend a gift. If appreciation of beauty is a strength, visit an art gallery or public garden. 

If creativity is a strength, pick up a pen or paintbrush and start creating.

Of course, doing the occasional activity can only take you so far. If we really want to grow our self-esteem, we should make these activities into habits.

Set aside a regular time in which to do each of the activities you identified. Incorporate them into your daily or weekly schedule, until they become habitual.

Wrap up

Why is making activities into habits important? Because habits create a powerful snowball effect.

The more we exercise our strengths, the more they feel like a part of our character. The more we orient our character around our strengths, the more capable we feel.

The more capable we feel, the greater our sense of self-worth. The greater our sense of self-worth, the more likely we are to embrace our strengths. And so the cycle goes.

What are some of your strengths, and how do you express them? 

And what’s one new habit you could commit to over the coming week? Share your responses in the comments.

Autistics mask to survive systemic ableism—at the cost of their self-worth

systemic ableism autism masking Essy Knopf
Reading time: 6 minutes

Autistic individuals learn early on that if they want to survive in a society shaped by systemic ableism, they have to mask their true autistic selves and hide many of the accompanying traits.

But over time, masking damages our self-worth. And it may also fuel internalized ableism.

So why then do we persist in doing it? Because while accommodations are sometimes made for people with disabilities, but they are by far the exception to the rule.

In the case of autism, accommodations can be even less likely, due to what clinicians call “disguised presentation”. That is, their autism isn’t always that obvious, or they are actively “camouflaged by the autistic.

Sure, neurotypicals (NTs) may view and treat autistics as if they are also NTs. But when they do, they set the bar for acceptance impossibly high.

When NTs expect autistic folk to think and behave as they do, the moment the autistic individual has a mask “lapse”—for example, by being overly direct, or failing to read social cues—the NT will misattribute that lapse to another cause. 

Because of systemic ableism, NTs assume that the masking/non-presenting autistic is simply behaving in a certain way because they are “selfish” or “rude”, and not because they are actually autistic.

They may even respond by criticizing, judging, punishing, and excluding the autistic individual.

Systemic ableism & microaggressions

The issue here is not merely that NTs are intolerant of neurodiversity and the differences it presents. It’s that NTs, in general, operate from baseline ableist expectations.

Most I believe are oblivious of the extent to which this ableism informs their thinking and leads to microaggressions.

Microaggressions refer to the “commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups” (see Microaggressions in Everyday Life).

Microaggressions can happen within the families of autistic folk. For instance, I remember my own parents calling me “antisocial” for being a bookish introvert.

They also play out at school, with kids slapping all kinds of hurtful names upon their neurodiverse peers.

Some teachers would tell me that I lacked “common sense”, and that my handwriting was “poor” and “sloppy”. Turns out, all of these traits were part and parcel of my being autistic. 

But even having a diagnosis doesn’t necessarily guarantee understanding and compassion. 

Shortly after receiving my own, I had a friend suddenly touch me from behind. When I reacted with shock and explained my reasons, this friend responded by cussing out my “Asperger syndrome”.

Rather than apologizing for having startled me, this friend did what so many NTs did and called out my autism as being the problem.

Miscommunications & Theory of Mind

These misunderstandings are compounded by issues related to a skill called “Theory of Mind”.

Theory of Mind (ToM) has been defined as: “the ability to recognize and understand thoughts, beliefs, desires and intentions of other people in order to make sense of their behaviour and predict what they are going to do next”.

Autistic folks typically have impaired ToM. What I’ve noticed however is that our unusual thinking style and behavior can also general a kind of temporary ToM impairment among NTs. 

That is, NTs tend to ascribe NT motives to everyone, but doing this to autistic folk can lead to confession and misunderstanding.

To give an example: when I got into trouble as a child, I would usually be upfront upon the truth, believing that my confession would be taken at face value. 

But protesting my innocence or admitting to my naivety would rarely win me favors. In one case, an adult suggested I was “stupid” for expecting them to believe my story. 

What happened here was that this individual couldn’t fathom my intentions, and thus concluded my being honest had to be an act of deception.

Even with a diagnosis, NTs may continue to mistake an autistic’s intentions. 

For example, during one visit to my parents, my mother told me she was going to make some pasta sauce.

She explained that she was going to fetch a can of tomatoes, indicating what I took to be a bucket-sized can.

Knowing my mother had a tendency to bulk-buy, I thought she indeed meant to fetch a can of that size. Because of my impaired ToM, I interpreted her gesture literally. 

When I expressed my confusion over why she wanted to use such a big can, it didn’t occur to my parents that I was genuinely confused. 

Instead, they—in their own confusion—accused me of being a smart aleck.

We mask because authenticity is risky

This quality of failing to adjust expectations when dealing with an autistic individual can sometimes be the result of the disguised presentation I mentioned earlier.

In such cases, autistics present themselves as NT, and in some cases, this is deliberate (camouflaging), with the autistic trying to mask their disability for fear of being attacked or marginalized.

Like NTs, autistics want above all to be accepted for their authentic selves. But when autistic authenticity collides with ableist expectations as in the situations I’ve described above, disaster can result.

Due to our impaired ToM, it can be hard to understand NTs and to anticipate how they might react to our actions. So we become master imitators and concealers. 

We mask, knowing that by hiding our neurodiversity, we are shielding ourselves against a perplexing and often hostile world.

Sometimes these compensations can be positive and adaptive. Sometimes not. 

A positive example is overcoming noise sensitivity by wearing headphones whenever out in public. A negative example is avoiding talking about one’s interests, for fear of misreading social cues and rambling on.

But masking is self-defeating

Autistics will often tell themselves that they need to change in order to fit NT expectations. But this really is an expression of internalized ableism.

Furthermore, ignoring your needs and hiding your differences as an autistic is almost always self-defeating. 

For instance, years ago I had a friend who would invite me to the movies. Personally, I find sitting in a movie theater to be sensory torture, with people constantly rustling bags and crunching on popcorn.

But rather than explaining this to my friend, I went along with her invitations, usually at great discomfort to myself.

Feeling shame over my sensory problems, I refused to tell her about the issue. Eventually, I started making excuses for not being able to join my friend, who came to believe I was intentionally avoiding her.

Difficulties with executive function are common among autistic folk. Personally, in the past, I have struggled in particular with self-organizing, managing my time, and staying on track.

In one case, a manager unloaded on me over this, accusing me of being self-absorbed and irresponsible.

Rather than reacting defensively, I admitted my mistakes and asked this manager for advice on how I could improve certain executive function skills.

She replied by telling me that my request was “beyond the scope of her role”.

It was one thing to turn professional feedback into a personal attack, but to then deny me support was quite another.

This is, unfortunately, a common experience for autistics. Often we’re told that we have done wrong, without being told how to course correct.

Systemic ableism creates internalized ableism

Until my diagnosis with autism, I didn’t have a framework by which to defend my difference. Having long been challenged and attacked over my autistic traits, defenses have usually felt necessary.

Of course, even without having fully understood the whys and hows of my challenges, I could have still spoken up and tried to negotiate accommodations.

What stopped me, however, was the belief that I was somehow choosing to be difficult. Having internalized ableism, I had come to feel inferior and ashamed of my difference. 

My self-esteem consequently became conditional upon the approval of others. This led to me adopting a workaholic lifestyle, in a bid to prove my worth to myself, and to others.

Personal boundaries blurred, to the point that I feared I was always somehow responsible when something went wrong.

Such was my shame that even after my diagnosis, I shied from the company of other autistics.

I convinced myself that the people who frequented autism-related groups weren’t like me, that I was somehow more “high functioning”.

What I feared—but dared not acknowledge—was that to be in their company might make me “one of them”. 

Ableism creates so much stigma around disability, that despite everything I knew, I still believed my autism to be a kind of flaw or personal shortcoming.

Wrap up

Systemic ableism oppresses by demanding that autistics abandon their identities and silence their needs. The presence of systemic ableism in autistic lives, however, can be countered. 

We can start by leaning into authenticity, which Brené Brown defines as the “daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are”.

One immediate way we can embrace our authentic selves is by seeking out fellow autistics around whom masking is not necessary.

After all, the neurodiverse community exists to normalize individual experiences. It does not mandate masking, and it works to combat the stigma that can make having a disability such an isolating experience.

Autistic readers, how does ableism show up in your life? Do you recognize any of the forms of internalized ableism I’ve described here? Drop a comment below.

Is there a place for the graysexual identity within the gay community?

Gray-a demisexual graysexual asexual Essy Knopf
Reading time: 4 minutes

Apparently being gay also means being hypersexual. At least, that’s what many of us have been led to believe.

But human sexuality expresses itself very differently from person to person.

Today, I want to talk about two forms of this—gray asexuality/graysexuality and demisexuality—and the struggle many of us experience fitting in.

Gay hypersexuality

At 18, when I was just starting to explore my gay identity, I found myself drawn to nightclubs. This seemed like the best venue in which to meet other gay men and hopefully make friends. 

Each club usually had a cover charge, but as a poor student, I often found myself balking. One time a bouncer laughed at my reaction.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “You’ll get laid.”

I remember feeling absolutely mortified. How could he have so mistaken my intentions?
Yet it was, as it turned out, a fairly normal assumption to make.

Inside these clubs, I frequently saw people sizing each other up across the dancefloor.

And when I tried to make small talk with strangers, I’d catch them looking over my shoulder at the latest person to walk through the door. Many people I met appeared to be solely looking for casual sex. 

Frankly, I was so bored by this idea, that I’d often end up sitting in a corner and browsing the free gay publications. 

The articles and advertisements I saw within seemed, again, to speak to this hypersexual facet of the gay identity—a facet that is often quite narrow in its definitions.

Being a graysexual in the gay ‘monoculture’

The gay community is, at least in theory, an inclusive one. In practice, however, it can lean towards being a monoculture.

The term “monoculture” refers to cultivating one kind of crop at a time. This is compared to polyculture, where one cultivates multiple crops at the same time.

The gay monoculture promotes the idea that all gay men should be hypersexual and openly discuss their sexual preferences with one another.

Sexuality for me on the other hand has always been personal and private. I’ve rarely felt any need to disclose my preferences with anyone, friends included, nor to actively pursue sex.

When I met other gay men online or in person, I’d explain that I wanted to be their friend and get to know them. For me, the familiarity and safety provided by a friendship were necessary before progressing the relationship.

Intellectual connection and interpersonal compatibility were also important, and I couldn’t be sure of either on short acquaintance.

But many people received my request to get to know them as a rejection. I was, in their view, friend-zoning them.

It seemed I had failed to grasp a common but unspoken belief: that when two gay men come into contact, sex must result.

What are graysexuality and demisexuality?

Given casual sex in the gay world is often treated as a kind of handshake, this expectation makes sense.

This is not to say that gay culture is monolithic. It arose after all as a response to the constraints of heterosexuality.

But this tendency to lean towards a single expression of sexuality can be marginalizing and oppressive to those who don’t and can’t follow it.

It’s only in the past few years, after coming to identify with the gray asexual and demisexual labels, that I’ve understood why gay hypersexuality never sat right with me.

What does it mean to be gray asexual, also known as graysexual, gray-a, and gray-ace? 

Graysexuals according to the Demisexual Resource Center

  • feel sexual attraction infrequently, of low intensity, to few people, or in specific circumstances
  • feel sexual attraction, but have no desire to act on it; have confusing or ambiguous feelings of sexual attraction
  • feel that sexual attraction is not a meaningful concept to them personally

Graysexuality clearly has many possible definitions and is experienced differently by each individual.

Demisexuality on the other hand involves “feeling sexual attraction only after forming an emotional bond”. Some consider demisexuality to be a subset of gray asexual.

In my case, I relate to both labels. I experience sexual attraction, but in limited circumstances, and at a low intensity.
These feelings are often ambiguous, aren’t that important to me, and I usually have little desire to act on them.

And if I do, full enjoyment is rarely possible unless I have first formed an emotional bond.

Quite a lot of fine print. And not exactly something one drops in a casual conversation.

When being graysexual conflicts with allosexuality

Allosexuality—that is, feeling sexual attraction—is often treated as the norm, so graysexuals and demisexuals like myself may thus find themselves pushed into the margins.

For example, we may often feel like our lack of sexual interest and/or drive is a problem and that something is wrong with us.

If we don’t indulge in hypersexuality, we may feel like we’re somehow failing the gay acid test.

Another fact to consider is that in gay culture, being sexually desirable is, unfortunately, often tied to self-worth. Having a lack of sexual interest in others may thus be interpreted as rejection.

Not wanting to engage in sexual activities may be perfectly comfortable for you. But failing to meet allosexuals’ expectations can create discomfort, if not frustration, for some.

Many a time, I’ve found myself in situations where another person clearly wanted a sexual outcome. When that outcome didn’t happen, some individuals would only pressure me further.

Sometimes I froze, and sometimes I gave in. When I did manage to find my voice and refuse, hurt and anger could result. 

Wrap up

It’s hard not to feel somehow wrong or at fault in these situations. You get to thinking that maybe it’s on you to be more upfront about your preferences.

But even when we are upfront, there’s always the possibility it might be explained away.

I’ve had more than a few people tell me that I “just hadn’t had the right sexual experience or partner” yet. Ironic, given that’s an argument that’s been used against gay people for having an interest in members of the same sex!

It isn’t fair that allosexuality is treated as a default and alternate sexual expressions as abnormal. We gray-aces and demisexuals feel blamed or shamed for failing to meet some kind of sexual mandate.

This is, after all, a fundamental part of who we are. And our diverse identities are just one variation of many that exist within the LGBTQI+ community

So enough about me, I want to know: do you identify as graysexual or demisexual? 

If so, what’s it been like for you? Let me know in the comments.