Social workers, here’s the practical guide to self-care you’ve been looking for

Essy Knopf social work self-care
Reading time: 5 minutes

Surviving the social work profession ultimately comes down to the self-care habits you establish in social work school.

The strongest habits reflect an understanding of priorities. Amid all the competing demands of school, you may ask yourself which to put first.

Is it school? Your placement? Your job? Your family? NOPE. 

Your number #1 priority is—and always should be—you. Because without health and wellbeing, you can’t properly attend other all the other priorities.

Many folk regard self-care as a nice “add-on” to their daily routine, such as a kind act towards one’s self, like taking a bath or getting a massage.

Such acts certainly matter, but self-care most importantly is ensuring you are getting the necessary sustenance for your body, mind, and spirit.

I’m someone who considers myself to be fairly well-versed in self-care principles. But even so, I still struggle to practice it.

What doesn’t help is that I, like most, have certain gaps in my knowledge of self-care principles. For example, it was only in my late 20s that I found out about sleep hygiene, a practice essential to getting a good night’s rest. 

For this reason, I’m going to start with a brief overview of the five fundamentals of good health (some of which I touched upon in my previous post on social work self-care).

The five fundamentals of self-care

1. Eating well. As social work students, we will often be so busy we end up relying on takeout. 

We can avoid this by meal planning and cooking in batches. Aim to get plenty of fresh plant-based nutrition

2. Getting sleep. While it’s not always possible, we should always strive to go to bed and get up at the same time each day. 

This is one part of practicing good sleep hygiene. Here are some other suggestions. Note that experts recommend getting seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

3. Exercising daily. All of us should aim for 30 minutes of “sweat-breaking” exercise every…single…day. Yep, you heard right!

If you’re short on time, consider doing a YouTube aerobic class. Failing that, try for a 20-minute walk around the block.

4. Staying social. It’s crucial that we dedicate time every week to enjoying the company of friends, family, peers, and partners. It’s all too easy otherwise to find ourselves caught up in an endless cycle of study.

5. Limiting intake. Sure, caffeine can help us shake off tiredness. And alcohol may help ease stress. But taken in excess, they may do us more harm than good

The same can be said of highly processed foods. When we’re strapped for time or low on funds, it’s all too easy to reach for a packet of potato chips or a can of soft drink.

Try to stock your pantry and bedroom with healthy snacks. The proximity of these snacks can help you with resisting the urge to splurge on junk food.

Enhancing mental resilience

Laying the foundations for good health has the added effect of supporting our mental health—a quality crucial to survival in this profession. 

Given some of us come to social work with a history of our own, stress can have the effect of triggering existing anxiety, depression, and/or emotional reactivity.

The good news is that these challenges can be addressed with time and daily effort. 

Here are some techniques that can help with maintaining your mental resilience. 

1. Meditation. This can be either guided or self-guided.

2. Breathwork. One example of this is the 4, 7, 8 technique

3. Grounding exercises. For instance, body scans.

4. Yoga. These days, yoga can be practiced from the comfort of your home, thanks to the variety of free classes available on YouTube.

5. Gratitude. A gratitude practice can include keeping a daily journal. Consider also writing down five things you’re grateful for on a regular basis, and/or sharing them with an accountability partner.

6. Affirmations. If you’re stuck on how to practice affirmation, consider using prompt cards.

7. Prayer. If you are spiritual or religious, know that prayer can have benefits similar to those granted by meditation.

8. Psychoeducation. Those of us with personal challenges such as anxiety and depression may find some benefit in self-education via bibliotherapy.

9. Therapy. Know that for many social work students, therapy services can be accessed for free through their school’s health center.

Coping with anxiety

Experiencing anxiety while attending school is perfectly normal. Taken to the extreme, however, it can be crippling. Understanding the mechanics of anxiety may go a little way to helping. 

Anxiety boils down to overestimating a threat and underestimating your safety and ability to cope. Of course, knowing this is one thing, but dealing with it is another matter altogether. 

For this reason, I would recommend revisiting the five fundamentals of good health discussed above. Are you fulfilling all of them? And if not, could this be contributing to your current stress?

After you’ve done this, ask yourself if exploring one or more of the practices I’ve suggested might help.

Failing this, know that you don’t deserve to suffer in silence. Ensure you seek support, whether from family, friends, your school, or community mental health services.

Self-education as self-care 

Above I suggested seeking psychoeducation about mental health challenges through bibliotherapy. Here are some books I have read and can personally vouch for.

1. The Anxiety & Worry Workbook by David A. Clark & Aaron T. Beck. This book contains worksheets that can help you with addressing your anxiety using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

2. The Happiness Trap by Russ Harris. This book offers exercises that draw upon some very useful Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) principles and skills.

3. Feeling Good and When Panic Attacks by David D. Burns. These books draw upon CBT to teach readers how to overcome depression and anxiety.

If you’re interested in exploring mindfulness and applying some of the principles to your life, there are three additional books you might want to investigate.

4. Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

5. The Places That Scare You by Pema Chödrön. 

6. When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön.

Self-care and overcoming social work imposter syndrome

It seems that social work imposter syndrome is a rite of passage—but also a positive sign that you’re on the way to becoming a competent social work professional.

Imposter syndrome after all indicates self-doubt. And self-doubt reflects self-reflection, which is the first step to self-improvement. 

Still, when engulfed by these negative feelings, it’s helpful to remind yourself of the following advice by Judith S. Beck, from her book Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: Basics and Beyond:

My goal is not to cure this client today. No one expects me to. My goal is to establish a good relationship, to inspire hope, to identify what’s really important to the client, and perhaps to figure out a step the client can take this week toward achieving his or her goals.

What Beck is stressing here is that the only true measure of professional success in this profession boils down to a single factor. And this factor is our willingness and ability to meet our clients where they are at.

Wrap up

If you’ve found any of the self-care advice I’ve shared here useful, let me know in the comments. 

And if there’s anything you’d like me to cover, reach out and I’ll do my best to address it in a future blog post and video.

Please note that all of these tips and more are available in my free guide to surviving and thriving social work school.

The ‘dark patterns’ that keep us hooked on gay geosocial apps

Essy Knopf dark patterns gay geosocial apps Grindr
Reading time: 8 minutes

To what does the gay geosocial app Grindr owe its success? Is it the fact that it was one of the first, or that its design employs highly manipulative “dark patterns”?

To understand Grindr’s extraordinary success—one that allowed it to achieve ubiquity in the gay community, and to become a fixture of popular culture—we have to go back to its launch.

On March 25, 2009, Grindr was officially founded by San Vicente Acquisition LLC. The app’s arrival came less than a year after Apple launched its App Store.

Certainly, the absence of direct competition boosted Grindr’s popularity. That said, the app didn’t represent a reinvention of the online dating wheel, so much as a refinement.

The app’s designers implemented existing features already present in existing web-based services, such as Gaydar and Manhunt, combining these with the ability to see other users based on proximity.

The geosocial aspect didn’t just endow all interactions with an exciting sense of immediacy—it accelerated them.

No longer tethered to web-based services only accessible via computer, gay men were suddenly able to respond and arrange meetups on the go.

The excitement, speed, and convenience enabled by Grindr were so attractive that a raft of other dating apps soon emerged to challenge its dominance.

The enduring popularity of dark patterns

Tinder, OkCupid, Scruff, Hornet, Hinge, Bumble—all of these apps represent iterations of a winning formula. New look, same great taste.

The more successful apps such as Scruff simply lifted features wholesale from Grindr, while others like Tinder introduced new mechanics, such as the ability to swipe to like or decline users’ profiles.

Not all geosocial dating apps flourished or even survived the mobile app development boom, one which, of course, was closely tied to the rise of smartphones.

Those that did however hadn’t so much caught the wave of a trend or were simply meeting an unmet need. They endured because they used manipulative tactics user experience specialist Harry Brignull calls “dark patterns”.

Dark patterns in action in gay geosocial apps

On Brignull’s “Dark Patterns” website (now referred to as “Deceptive Design”, he lists a number of strategies typically used by websites to control user behaviors.

Brignull offers creative analogies (e.g. “roach motel”) and compound words of his own invention (“confirmshaming”), detailing the extent to which website designers are willing to go in the name of profit.

In a 2020 interview with Wired, he summarized one of the major outcomes of dark pattern strategies: maximized retention of the user base.

“Lots of companies will make it hard for people to leave,” Brignull noted. “They are going to get around to it eventually, but if they might stay for an extra 10 percent of the time, or 20 percent, the accounts might live just a little bit longer.”

“And if you’re doing that en masse for hundreds of thousands of people, that translates to enormous amounts of money.”

Many of these dark patterns Brignull describes don’t pertain to geosocial dating apps, but those outlined on a sister website do.

Dark Pattern Games runs a registry that names and shames video games it says use dark pattern strategies. (Note: The site does not appear to be directly associated with Brignull, and its provenance is unclear.)

These strategies I would argue are present in many gay dating and hookup apps, given most of them incorporate gamification in their designs. 

While Grindr is hardly an exception to the norm, it receives credit for being the first gay geosocial app to succeed in mainstreaming dark patterns. 

For this reason, I will use this particular app as a case study, exploring the presence of temporal and psychological dark patterns and their impact on the user experience.

Temporal dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Daily rewards: Logging into Grindr usually provides users an opportunity to collect messages sent from chat partners following their previous login.

User profiles appear in Grindr’s grid-based layout based on both proximity and how recently they have logged into the app.

Logging in therefore increases the chances of one’s profile being seen by those currently browsing the app.

This may thus trigger an influx of fresh messages, increasing the daily reward output and thus incentivizing users to return.

Grinding: Not to be confused with the popular verb for using Grindr, “grindring” (though the similarity here is ironic), this term refers to when apps force users to perform repetitive busywork to achieve a sense of advancement. 

In the case of Grindr, this involves screening countless profiles to see if they meet certain attractiveness and compatibility criteria.

This involves fielding cascades of unsolicited messages and photos, as well as chatting with an endless procession of old and new users.

Advertisements: Grindr forces users to watch ads before they can read or respond to messages from other users.

Besides buying a subscription membership, there is no way to bypass these ads. 

Infinite Treadmill: This term refers to when an app renders success or completion of a task impossible. 

Grindr’s old motto was “get on to get off”, with the app presenting itself as a kind of matchmaker between two people (or more) who were presumably seeking an in-person interaction. 

But meeting someone, whether it be for friendship or a sexual and/or romantic liaison, Grindr renders this almost impossible due to its gamified design.

To explain: in order to secure maximum responses, users have to continually engage with the app. For example, by logging in frequently, and tailoring profiles, messages, and photos to solicit responses from as many other users as possible.

When one receives such responses, which represent attention and validation, they positively reinforce our continued use. 

These responses also motivate us to continue tailoring our profiles, messages, and photos to maintain or increase these responses, rather than in service of a physical goal, like meeting another user.

The effect is an experience that can be likened to an endless cycle…or an Infinite Treadmill.

Can’t Pause or Save: Exchanging messages on Grindr is inherently fun and rewarding, and so we may find ourselves keeping at it well beyond what we might have initially planned.

Even after we close the app, we continue to receive push notifications from other users when they message us. These notifications serve to summon us back to the app to continue our conversations. 

But given other users also don’t linger on the app indefinitely, with many logging off—often without notice—this creates an impression that all exchanges are fleeting.

The possibility of missing out on said exchanges (and the possibility of a friendship, sexual, or romantic encounter) creates tension within the user. 

Fear of missing out (“FOMO”) thus drives many to routinely log back into the app and respond to any outstanding messages.

Due to the proximity/recency factor I mentioned above, logging back in pushes our profile back into prominence, drawing attention from still more users. 

This inability to “pause” means our Grindr interactions continue indefinitely, intruding into our daily life.

Psychological dark patterns in gay geosocial apps

Illusion of Control: When scanning the Grindr user profile grid, new or unfamiliar profiles are more likely to stick out and inspire curiosity. 

Human beings are inherent novelty-seekers, a fact Grindr’s creators capitalize upon by spotlighting new profiles/profile photos. 

The app does this by refreshing display grids periodically, revealing users who have recently arrived in one’s area, or who have updated their profile.

By doing so, the app directs the flow of attentional traffic towards these individuals, which can trigger a virtual “love bombing” by multiple users. 

To the recipient, being love-bombed may lead them to believe they are a highly desirable commodity.

To the sender, being able to love bomb comes with the expectation that one will receive a response. Both recipient and sender are led to entertain an illusion of control.

Variable Rewards: Messages (read: rewards) are received entirely at random on Grindr, and even when one is not on the platform through push notifications.

The lack of a predictable schedule by which rewards arrive is a form of intermittent reinforcement.

Intermittent reinforcement is commonly used by the gambling industry to manipulate clients into continually “playing the game”, even when doing so might spell financial ruin.

This has been demonstrated using Skinner boxes, an experimental device that uses intermittent reinforcement to create addiction even among pigeons and rats.

Intermittent reinforcement is successful because it does not encourage scrutiny or self-reflection. In the case of Grindr, it promotes a kind of minimalist, reflexive communication style that characterizes social media: swiping, liking, and commenting. 

Grindr users thus respond to the existence of others in the same casual, noncommittal fashion they would a social media post, knowing this is all that is required to obtain a response and therefore validation.

Aesthetic Manipulations: Grindr’s gamified design promotes interaction as a free-for-all, rather than a deliberate and purposeful pursuit of individuals for a concrete, in-person outcome.

The design doesn’t nudge users towards meeting in person, something that could easily be achieved by imposing limitations such as capping the total number of messages exchanged between two users.

To do so, of course, would result in a drop in the user base, and total time spent on the app, thereby reducing opportunities to monetize users’ continued use.

App makers, as discussed in a previous blog post, do this not only through advertisements and subscription services but the sale of user behavioral data.

One way in which Grindr is able to keep people on the platform is the spotlight effect that funnels collective attention towards specific users based on their salience and novelty. 

Being spotlit can leave one with a conviction in one’s own appeal, even if this effect ultimately is temporary and likely to be withdrawn after the app ceases to spotlight one’s profile.

The one-way flow of messages may be replaced by complete silence—often within hours of an initial login or photo update. The validation feast offered by Grindr thus leads to virtual famine.

The app promises the fulfillment of our subconscious desire to be seen as attractive, desirable, and worthy, before withdrawing it rather suddenly, and dangling it again when one receives attention again subsequently.

You see, famine on Grindr is rarely total. Because the app has a large user base, and because users frequently change their locations, one’s profile is routinely discovered by a new batch of users. 

This intermittent reinforcement leads us to interpret these crumbs as evidence of a forthcoming meal. So we optimistically make do with what we can get, holding out for the possibility of future successes.

We tell ourselves that just over the horizon, our next lover or partner is waiting and that the only way to secure their affection is by continuing to login into the app and play the “game”.

Optimism and Frequency Biases: Being love-bombed on Grindr is inherently memorable, given there are few instances outside of using the app where this will happen.

The experience may cause us to lean into blind optimism. After all, if one enjoys such success at first blush, surely one will never struggle to garner interest from others? 

And so we come to believe that our prospects on the app are not a product of its design, but rather us having a fixed amount of desirability.

Yet when one considers the hundreds of conversations they have had with other users, one realizes that only a tiny fraction of those conversations lead to in-person meetings. 

Such meetings are, at least in my estimation, a far more concrete reflection of one’s prospects. 

The app however coaches us to focus instead on what is referred to in social media as “vanity metrics”. 

This jargon refers to metrics that make us feel good but don’t translate to any meaningful results, such as the total amount of messages received, especially during the love-bombing phase.

Wrap up

Gay geosocial app makers have the advantage: they know our weaknesses and are willing to exploit them using all manner of clandestine dark patterns.

These apps may provide what we consider to be an essential service often for free, but they come with a hidden price tag.

Monitoring our behavior on their platforms from behind a one-way mirror, app makers continually tweak and finetune these patterns so as to further entrap us. 

All of this is done in service of profit, per a widespread form of profiteering I have referred to as “distraction capitalism”.

We users accept these manipulations because they wear the fun guise of gamification, and cultivate satisfaction through intermittent reinforcement.

But constant exposure to this kind of reinforcement can lead many of us to develop process addictions. 

Much in the same way we log in to social media to check for “likes”, we may find ourselves compulsively logging into gay geosocial apps like Grindr to collect messages and a quick hit of dopamine.

If you happen to recognize the role dark patterns take in your regular app interactions and are alarmed, know that there are far healthier alternative methods available for meeting other gay men

‘Breadcrumbing’: the gay dating app practice that destroys connection

Essy Knopf gay dating apps
Reading time: 6 minutes

If you’ve ever used a gay dating app before, you’ve likely experienced “flash in the pan” conversations that start and end abruptly, usually without explanation.

Turns out that the sudden appearance, followed by the sudden disappearance, of chat partners is often part of an intentional strategy known as “breadcrumbing”.

Prior to learning this term, I liked to refer to my experiences using a phrase of my own invention, the “sushi train effect”. 

If you’ve ever attended a sushi train restaurant, you can probably already see the comparison I’m making. For those of you who haven’t, allow me to explain.

The sushi train effect explained

At sushi train restaurants, fresh-made dishes are presented on small plates delivered using a circular conveyor belt, or the back of a toy train that follows a loop. 

Many usual favorites can be obtained via this method—everything from tempura to nigiri and uramaki rolls, dumplings, and more. 

Diners choose the dishes they want to eat then remove them from the belt/train. As they do, sushi chefs prepare new dishes to replenish the train’s stock with.

The effect is like sitting before a buffet—or rather, a never-ending supply of snack-sized meals.

When one logs onto a gay dating app, one’s profile is immediately presented for review by other users, much like a new dish appearing on a sushi train.

On apps like Grindr or Scruff, that image appears in a grid of other profile images, organized according to current proximity.

If it’s your first time using the app, or simply your first time using that particular image, your profile will exude an aura of novelty. A feeding frenzy will ensue, with other users flooding your account with messages.

These users may express keen interest in, and admiration for, your person, replying to you with an urgency that demands immediate engagement. 

‘Boom and bust’ on the gay dating app

If you reply, many of these interactions may end then and there, with the other user mysteriously withdrawing the instant they’ve obtained your attention. 

But if you delay your reply, you can often expect the other user—who has subsequently logged off—to reappear sometime later, offering what usually amounts to a lukewarm response.

Their interest, as it turns out, was only temporary, even opportunistic. A brief window opened, offering a tantalizing glimpse of a world of possibility, then swiftly closed.

One is thus given the impression that others’ availability is time-limited, and even then when you do manage to catch them on the app, there is often no tangible outcome.

Recipients of this sudden influx of attention may be left wondering if what they have experienced is not admiration, but a Pavlovian response—like the salivating of dogs at the sound of the bell. 

This is the first part of the “sushi train effect”: idolization by total strangers. The second part is devaluation.

As the aura of novelty fades, what begins as a flood will inevitably slow to a trickle. This can happen over the course of a day, or even a few hours.

Before one was treated as “hot property”, but now one is regarded as a bottom-of-the-barrel fixer-upper. One’s face or torso, once distinguishable from countless others, becomes just another brick in the wall. 

Like any dish glimpsed by diners circling the sushi train one too many times, one’s profile loses appeal through sheer familiarity. 

This meteoric rise, followed by a precipitous decline, creates an impression of “boom and bust” that can leave most app users feeling rather disoriented.

One moment, one feels seen and valued, and the next, it’s as if one has been discarded; reduced to yet another piece of flotsam floating in the modern dating and hookup sea.

‘The sushi train effect’ as a form of ‘breadcrumbing’

The third part of the sushi train effect is delayed revaluation. 

Take for example the user who declares their interest in you and agrees to meet in person, but who—when pressed for specifics—fails to follow through.

Sometimes, they turn on a dime, it feels like you’re chatting with a completely different person, one who now believes you are completely unworthy of the effort.

Other times, they may agree, only to cancel the meetup, citing some unforeseen event or complication. They may also indefinitely “bench” it, but without proposing a suitable date or time. Or they may block your account outright.

Then, days, weeks, months, or even years later, this individual will reach out again—prompted, it seems, by your convenient reappearance in their dating or hookup app grid.

They may offer an explanation for their disappearance, maybe even an apology for having flaked on you. Or they may simply pretend it never happened. 

What’s most confusing is when this person expresses the same level of interest they did on the first occasion. 

If you remember their sending mixed messages, you may feel tempted to address this directly. The alternative after all is silence, and merely contenting yourself with this sudden attention. 

Should you do this, you may become caught up in an amnesiac dance, make-believing it was circumstance and not a conscious choice that prevented your meeting the first time around.

The hardened skeptics among us however will throw the stranger’s sincerity into doubt, concluding that they’re messaging again out of pure boredom. 

And a lot of the time, we are justified in this belief. Many app users are merely hunting for attention, like an addict hunting for their next fix. Their interest has less to do with us as people and more with the renewed novelty we represent. 

To return to the sushi train analogy: dishes once declared ho-hum are often reappraised by diners after a long absence, and may thus regain some of their former appeal.

Turns out this behavior isn’t exclusive to gay dating and hookup apps but is rampant in the wider dating world.

‘Breadcrumbing’ explained

“Breadcrumbing” is when a dater uses small amounts of attention or validation to keep you interested in them. Basically, what it usually boils down to is fishing for attention.

Daters typically leave “breadcrumbs” when they aren’t seriously interested in meeting. What does “breadcrumbing” commonly look like on a gay dating app? 

Microcommunication is a common example: users who repeatedly check in (“Hey”/”How are you?”/”What you up to?”), exchange brief pleasantries, but make no serious effort to sustain a mutual conversation.

Sudden disappearances, followed by sudden reappearances—much in the same fashion I’ve described above.

Small talk that goes nowhere. Breadcrumbers use small talk to sustain the interaction, even when they have no intention to take that interaction offline. 

Refusing to schedule dates. Breadcrumbers are usually reluctant to make any kind of commitment, as their main purpose in messaging is to secure attention or validation. 

Trying to set up a date is the quickest way to suss out a breadcrumber’s intention, as they will usually evade, make an excuse, or bail beforehand.

Refusing to follow through with plans. As noted, breadcrumbers refuse to meet in person, preferring instead the minimal effort involved in a text exchange.

In short, breadcrumbers like to talk a big game but will always balk, for various reasons. 

Some may feel lonely, bored, and/or insecure and are seeking a quick boost to their self-esteem. In such instances, breadcrumbers receive your responses as proof of their attractiveness or worth.

Alternatively, the breadcrumber may want contact with other gay men, but see face-to-face meetings as carrying risks or responsibilities they aren’t prepared to deal with. 

There are also breadcrumbers who are driven by a narcissistic desire they know they can meet by sustaining text banter with multiple suitors, often at the same time.

Whatever their motives, know that unless you yourself are using dating and hookup apps to breadcrumb, you’re likely to find these kinds of interactions to be unsatisfying and, ultimately, a waste of time.

Breadcrumbers are enabled by gay dating app design

Breadcrumbing is enabled by app design that reinforces this behavior while failing to hold those accountable responsible.

App makers are profit-driven, and in order to increase their profit, they need users to remain on their platforms as long as possible. Previously, I’ve referred to this phenomenon as “distraction capitalism”.

It follows therefore that these makers are willing to use all manner of tactics to guarantee this outcome. This includes refusing to set specific parameters for accessing and using the app. 

The problem with parameters—in the eyes of app makers’, anyways—is that they automatically screen out a significant segment of the user base. Monitoring problematic user behavior also requires hiring dedicated staff and thus comes with undesirable overhead. 

So like many other apps or web-based services, the designers opt instead for a more hands-off, almost-anything-goes kind of approach.

Another tactic used by app makers is gamification. I’ve talked about it before, but I’ll provide a quick recap here.

Gamification involves using positive reinforcement to reinforce users’ continued use, for example, through instant notifications, chimes, and flashy animations.

All of these stimuli are carefully calibrated to trigger neurochemical activity associated with success.

Gay dating app gamification thus doesn’t just trivialize human interactions—it frames interactions as opportunities to maximize the number of responses they receive, and therefore validation gained from others.

Taken to the extreme, this results in some users treating their fellows like human PEZ dispensers, whose only purpose is to disgorge attention upon demand.

Thus, when app makers prioritize the bottom line, they are willfully facilitating this kind of attentional exploitation. They are enabling breadcrumbing.

Users may thus find themselves caught in a perpetual loop of short-lived banter that never deepens into a lasting connection. 

Interactions come to resemble busywork, leaving those seeking something more substantive out in the cold.

Until app makers start using design to create a culture that promotes healthy interactions, those of us pursuing meaningful interactions would be better off spending our time elsewhere.

If you’re seeking some tips on how you can step away from gay dating apps, I’ve got you covered.

So what is autism, exactly?

Essy Knopf autism spectrum disorder
Reading time: 8 minutes

What is autism spectrum disorder? To fully understand this phenomenon, we have to employ the medical model.

Big disclaimer: the medical model is far from perfect.

According to this model, there is something inherently wrong with autistics. Historically, this rationale has also been used to marginalize and oppress us.

For most people, the social model is preferable, as it argues that the issue lies not with neurodiversity, but with society’s failure to accommodate it

The social model aims to destigmatize autism, whereas the goal of the medical model is to diagnose and treat.

Pathologizing aside, getting an ASD diagnosis can open the door to disability-related legal protections, supports, and services. This is one example of how the medical model can be of use to those with autism, and their loved ones.

So, what is autism spectrum disorder?

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5 (DSM-5), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurological developmental disability.

Autism is characterized by ongoing deficits in social communication and social interactions in a range of contexts. Other criteria for autism include “restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities”. 1 2

Autism symptoms manifest in the early development period and typically cause clinically significant impairment in key areas of functioning. 

To receive a diagnosis of ASD, these symptoms must not be better explained by the presence of intellectual disability or global developmental delay.

A diagnosis of ASD is typically accompanied by a severity measurement of “Level 1”, “2”, or “3”. Level 1 means the individual requires very support, Level 2 substantial support, and Level 3 very substantial support.

(Remember how I mentioned the medical model is pathologizing? An example of this is the DSM-5 terminology I just used, such as “disability”, “deficits”, “symptoms”, “impairments”, and “severity”.)

Autism often appears alongside other conditions, such as epilepsy, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, sleep problems, gastrointestinal symptoms, anxiety, and depression.

Who gets diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder?

Males are diagnosed with autism at three times the rate of females, but this doesn’t necessarily mean autism isn’t as common among females.3

One study found that autistic females as a population are better than males at hiding their autistic traits. This results in fewer diagnoses, later diagnoses in life, and misdiagnoses. 

It’s also been argued that autistic females may present autism in a way different from their male counterparts.4 And due to many measurements being male-centric, females may be overlooked by current diagnostic measurements.5

Additionally, autistics from racial minority groups are typically less likely to receive a diagnosis of ASD.6 Instead, they are more likely to receive other diagnoses such as ADHD and conduct and adjustment disorders.7

Many conclude that reflects medical disadvantages experienced by minority groups as a result of structural inequality.8 But it’s important to note that autism traits can also go overlooked or can be misinterpreted, depending on the sociocultural context. 9

Why are some people autistic and others not? 

There are no clear answers here, however, some studies point to a range of environmental risk factors and protective factors. 

These include advanced parental age, low birth weight,10 11 fetal exposure to the epilepsy medication valproate,12 intake of certain vitamins,13 maternal autoimmune disorders, environmental toxins, and breastfeeding.14

Links have been made between unique gut microbiota compositions and the development of autism. Other studies have indicated strong genetic influences, concluding that autism is highly inheritable.15 16 17

How does one get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis?

To get an autism spectrum disorder diagnosis, you need to be screened by a trained professional. 

For children, there’s a range of tools. For example, the Modified Checklist for Autism in Toddlers Revised, the Ages and Stages Questionnaire, and the Screening Tool for Autism in Toddlers and Young Children.18 19 20

For older adolescents and adults, the gold standard for autism diagnoses is the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS-2) module 4.21 Professionals typically use this tool alongside direct observations and taking patient history.

The Autism Diagnostic Interview-Revised (ADI-R) is another gold standard autism diagnostic tool that is suitable for both children and adults.22

Again, I want to point out here that these diagnostic tools may be gender-biased and thus more likely to detect male autistics than female autistics.

When seeking out a diagnosis, it is worth checking to see that the person doing the assessment is using the most current, research-backed screening measures.

If seeing a professional is not an option, adults can also use self-reporting tools such as the Social Responsiveness Scale, Second Edition: Adult form (SRS-2).23

Additional tools are available for assessing how autism is impacting one’s activities of daily living and quality of life.

How is autism spectrum disorder “treated”?

There is no biomedical treatment for autism spectrum disorder, however, psychotropic medications are available and often prescribed for those who are experiencing symptoms such as anxiety or depression.24 25 26

For autism specifically, there is a range of therapies, the most commonly used being Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).27

ABA is designed to help autistic children with the development of social, communication, and expressive language skills.

The dominant strain of ABA has been heavily criticized by autism advocates for violating individual autonomy and even doing direct harm to clients.28

Critics have also pointed out that there are conflicts of interest among researchers who publish scientific literature in support of ABA as an autism intervention.29

Clearly, there is room for improvement when it comes to current ABA intervention. However, ABA is one of the few treatments that remain widely accessible. 

In many US states, health insurance providers are required to cover ABA-related expenses under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

One alternative to mainstream ABA is Naturalistic Developmental Behavioral Interventions (NDBI). NDBI is more child-directed and provides intrinsic rewards for learning and participating.30

Other available interventions support the development of core skills among autistic children, such as social communication.31

Additionally, programs exist for young adults, such as the Program for the Education and Enrichment of Relational Skills (PEERS®).32

For autistic young people and adults, psychotherapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy are recommended for those who experience comorbidities such as anxiety and depression.33 34

These are available in both individual and group formats.35

Wrap up

So there you have it, my brief introduction to autism spectrum disorder.

Again, I want to stress that much of the content I shared is presented using the medical model. 

But remember: viewing autism exclusively through this lens is not only limiting—it also fails to give consideration to some of the strengths of being neurodiverse.

Check this blog post to learn a little more about some of the benefits of being autistic.

Gay dating and hookup apps and the hidden cost of ‘distraction capitalism’

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism
Reading time: 7 minutes

Gay dating and hookup apps dangle the promise of in-person interactions, yet no one wants to meet—because of distraction capitalism.

What I’m referring to here is an entire industry dedicated to keeping consumers distracted in the name of profit.

Those responsible for pulling our strings are called “the attention merchants”. And the bad news is, every time you and I get taken in, we lose. Here’s how.

The allure of distraction capitalism

Countless battles are waged daily for our attention by the attention merchants, and one of the first staging grounds is the living room. 

As a child, Saturday morning cartoons were my ambrosia, the accompanying advertisements always managing to instill in me a hunger for the latest tawdry Happy Meal toy.

Eventually, I outgrew these shows, graduating to watching soap operas instead. Specifically, the NBC series Passions

Checking in with the slow-churning serial every day after school, I’d reassure myself that I wasn’t there for the melodrama. No—I was watching ironically.

“Hate-watching” wasn’t common parlance at the time, but in hindsight, it describes this ritual perfectly.

Trysts with current affairs programs followed. Many of these shows trafficked shameless in scandal and outrage. 

Part of me lived for the exposés of crooks and ne’er-do-wells, as much as another part lived to denounce them.

I would watch victims tearfully recount how they had been mistreated, exploited, or abused. The viewers’ sympathy having been solicited, the reporter would then embark on a crusade for justice.

Clad in business attire and sporting a wireless microphone, this feisty individual would pursue the accused across parking lots, reciting laundry lists of misdemeanors while demanding answers and apologies. 

The alleged perpetrator would dart into a doorway or duck into a car, trying to make a quick escape. If we were lucky, the encounter would lead to a scuffle with the camera crew and maybe even an accidental injury.

These confrontations of course designed to appeal to the viewer’s emotions, and it was the contrived drama of it all that made watching them such a guilty pleasure. 

Yet my high school English curriculum had brought with it a certain awareness of the media’s manipulations. 

And so my adolescent self usually came away from these shows feeling glutted, maybe even a touch queasy, like I’d just eaten a whole bag of caramel popcorn in one sitting.

The effect was similar to that evoked by the gossip magazines I’d glimpse in racks while waiting in supermarket lines with my mother.

What drew my attention weren’t just the unflattering, doctored shots of celebrities looking either livid, sick, or sleep-deprived. Nor was it the chance to get a glimpse behind the showbiz curtain.

In my hard-nosed way, I was hoping to interrogate these publications’ very slippery relationship with the truth. The fact I engaged with them at all meant the victory, by default, went to said publications.

In the early ‘00s, the object of my fascinated disgust became reality TV, a medium that shamelessly massaged both the truth and viewer’s emotions for maximum effect. 

No surprise that when I finally moved out of my family’s home, I refused to buy a TV set. Who were these broadcasters to think they could determine what I watched and when?

What right did they think they had to expose me to shouty calls to action and appeals to open my wallet?

Often, walking into a room in which a TV was blaring, I’d catch myself shouting right back, offering a snarky retort for the benefit of those present.

Yet just as often as not, I’d surrender, plonking down on a couch, only to stir minutes—sometimes hours—later from a fugue state, stricken by the realization that for all my cynicism, I had succumbed.

Distraction capitalism at work

TV shows and advertisements, gossip magazines, and reality TV are just some of the cultural phenomena designed to capture our attention through constant intrusion, often without our consent.

But according to The Attention Merchants author Tim Wu,

the competition is fierce that the race will naturally run to the bottom; attention will almost invariably gravitate to the more garish, lurid, outrageous alternative, whatever stimulus may more likely engage what cognitive scientists call our “automatic” attention as opposed to our “controlled” attention, the kind we direct with intent.

This is probably why, for all my skepticism about Passions and current affair programs, I still found myself watching them, primal emotions somehow managing to bypass my intellectual defenses.

The attention industry is an almost omnipresent fact of daily life. Yet its merchants are constantly trying to outpace what Wu calls the “disenchantment effect”—that is, our becoming desensitized to their methods.

Merchants respond to our adaptation with adaptations of their own. They either “up the dosage”, going to even greater extremes, or they introduce a novel stimulus, “a distortion for the sake of spectacle, calibrated to harvest the most attention”.

Hence the soap opera’s endless stream of dramatic turns, the trotting out of fresh scandals, or social media’s endless stream of dopamine-triggering notifications.

Essy Knopf distraction capitalism

How distraction capitalism adapts

The shift towards an online world has seen viewers faced with more choices than ever, resulting in a mad scramble by attention merchants not just to find new revenue streams, but to keep us transfixed.

Many news publications for example now require paid subscriptions. And, in a bid to draw viewers, some have shifted away from traditional broadsheet style towards the kind of “gossipy, superficial, and click-driven” tone one might expect from a tabloid.

Working in digital news, I have glimpsed firsthand a kind of desperation that can sometimes indeed result in Wu’s deplored “race to the bottom”. 

Sometimes this may take the obvious form of clickbait. Other times it’s gratuitous “breaking” coverage that spills over into multiple news cycles, producing more anxiety-provoking commentary and speculation than concrete information.

This desperation is by no means new; as the old journalism expression goes, “if it bleeds, it leads”. The media attention merchants have long known that reportage on scandal, catastrophe, death, and disaster is sure to secure an audience. 

But the shift away from traditional media has certainly led to an intensification in tactics, such as the adoption of more intrusive methods like news apps using push notifications.

Under such conditions, public interest—traditionally the driving factor behind reportage—can become eclipsed by a desire for private profit.

Netflix: a case study in distraction capitalism

Where commercial broadcast television previously employed advertising, “over-the-top” media providers like Netflix have, as in the case of some news outlets, relied upon subscription services.

But Netflix has also adjusted to changing viewing habits by employing “bingeable” programming. They do this by releasing new seasons of TV shows all at once or acquiring old series en masse.

Where traditional TV may shape stories around ad breaks, streaming programming may eschew this structure in favor of one geared towards binge viewing, with one episode often bleeding seamlessly into another.

All of this seems designed to produce an effect New York Times journalist James Poniewozik calls “The Suck”, “that narcotic, tidal feeling of getting drawn into a show and letting it wash over you for hours”.

This style of bingeable programming is an ongoing experiment, backed by Netflix’s comprehensive access to viewer behavioral data

Operating behind a one-way mirror, the company’s data scientists observe trends and gather insights. This knowledge is then used to inform their programming model, and to keep viewers hooked.

This is not a development exclusive to Netflix, but one broadly employed by modern attention merchants in what Shoshana Zuboff has called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. (My take on the risk surveillance capitalism poses in the context of dating apps here).

When distraction becomes the ultimate goal

Author Tim Wu warns that for all the means now at the attention merchants’ disposal, it can still be an imprecise game. 

Technologies that enable more control over our choices than ever also “open us up to a stream of instinctive selections, and tiny rewards, the sum of which may be no reward at all”, resulting in a state of “distracted wandering”. 

Dating apps are just one example of this. As with social media, we may find ourselves regularly checking in with no express goal beyond securing the reward of a notification, a “like”, or a message. 

In some cases, this reward-seeking behavior can even spill over into addiction (I’m thinking here of operant conditioning). 

The allure is intensified in the case of platforms like Instagram, which democratize fame and promote self-aggrandizement. The result? “A chaotic mutual admiration society, full of enterprising Narcissi” who reward and reinforce each other’s behavior.

However purposeless our use of the attention merchant’s platforms might be, our very presence there is nevertheless regarded as a victory. Our continued reliance is, after all, “far better than being ignored”. 

Any usage after all results in surplus behavioral data that can be used by the service provider, or sold to third parties in what Zuboff calls the behavioral futures market.

None of this would be possible of course were it not for our always-connected culture, itself the product of technologies such as the smartphone, which renders social media check-ins, sharing, and selfies a mere reflex.

The attention economies as a result are now deeply embedded in daily life; normalized to the point that we often aren’t aware when merchants “nudge, coax, tune, and herd” us, to use Zuboff’s terms.

It is in the absence of such self-awareness, Wu says, that we inevitably find ourselves “in thrall to our various media and devices”.

Reclaiming peace of mind

Attention merchants profit from our involuntary behavior; from distraction and addiction, from funneling our desire for connection, validation, and information, into hypervigilant checking, comparing, competing, and performing for a horde of fellow digital voyeurs.

Involuntary behavior is the opposite of mindfulness, a quality widely accepted as being conducive to wellbeing. The degree to which the merchants exert influence over us can thus prove proportional to our health. 

Yet the media and technologies described here as noted are an inescapable part of modern life. 

Extricating ourselves from their hold requires fighting years worth of conditioning by the ever-hungry attention merchants, which more often than not feels like a fool’s errand.

We can begin by regularly “unplugging” and holding a “digital Sabbath”: a window of time such as a weekend in which to put down our devices and resist the urge to engage in checking emails, social media, Netflix, and the news.

It is only through such abstinence from the stimulation to which we have become so accustomed that we can achieve self-awareness about unhealthy attentional habits.  

We don’t need to suffer “fragmentary awareness” and the incessant interruptions of attention merchants. 

Rather, we should work to reclaim the concentration and focus that’s key not just to our productivity—but our happiness as well.

Takeaways

  • Recognize the attention industry at work.
  • Avoid involuntary distraction and addiction.
  • Reclaim mindfulness by “unplugging”.

7 creative and incredibly simple autism self-care techniques

Essy Knopf self-care techniques
Reading time: 6 minutes

Do you struggle with autism self-care? You may not be the only one.

Surviving in ableist societies can be taxing for many autistic folks at the best of times.

We may spend all our energy just trying to fit in—energy we may otherwise need for rest and recharging.

Added to this, many self-care techniques can feel like a chore, especially when we are pressed for time.

Trying to squeeze in one more thing into an already overburdened schedule when we’re already feeling overloaded can be particularly anxiety-provoking.

I remember once upon a time, the very idea of pausing to do meditation or a yoga class was enough to send me into a tailspin.

“That’s 20-30 minutes I’ll be losing from my schedule,” I would think. “20-30 minutes I don’t have!”

Given much of my workload was self-generated as a result of workaholism, my sense of urgency around time in retrospect didn’t make a whole lot of sense.

No one after all was demanding I submit a script in time for three different competitions. The deadline I had set for finishing my feature documentary was of my own devising.

The pressure of being a multi-passionate autistic

The issue in my case had to do with my fixating on the gap between where I was and where I wanted to be. I was a multi-passionate autistic with an array of interests I knew I could excel at…if only I knocked on the right doors and made the wrong connections.

This unsurprisingly is where I struggled most. Autistics face very real obstacles with social communication and interpersonal relationships. And yet I told myself that I could ignore these obstacles. Sooner or later, my labors would yield fruit.

And so I continued to work in isolation, in the service of various passions that I hope to turn into viable careers.

After years of this, I began to feel rather hopeless about it. What, after all, did I have to show for all my effort, save a few life experiences and college degrees?

My dissatisfaction drove me only further in my pursuit of achievement, which in turn made my self-worth dependent upon that pursuit.

The time pressure I thus experienced was not the result of external circumstances but toxic self-perceptions. I didn’t believe myself to be “good enough” or deserving of self-care until I had first “made it”. Yet failing to care for my own needs only increased my anxiety and this sense of time pressure.

For other autistics, external circumstances may indeed pose a very real obstacle to self-care. When we are strung out between the pressures of operating in a neurotypical world, alongside commitments such as work, school, family, and social lives, self-care activities certainly start to seem onerous, if not out of the question.

Yet no matter how strong the impulse might be to put downtime on the backburner, without adequate rest and rejuvenation, our ability to fulfill these commitments, and to pursue our passions, will suffer.

Should self-care techniques such as getting a massage or drinking water fail to appeal to you, consider exploring the following seven simple and unorthodox methods.

Essy Knopf autism self-care

1. Shower mindfully – an unexpected autism self-care activity

Don’t have time to recline in a bath? Not a fan of bubbles and scented soap? That’s okay.

If being pummeled by hot water is more your jam, follow this quick 5-minute guide to increasing your shower pressure.

Next, shake up your mindfulness routine by trying this exercise while standing under your showerhead. 

2. Shop guilt-free

Retail therapy can indeed have therapeutic benefits, but in excess, it can create debt that negatively impacts our mental health. Know however that self-indulgence doesn’t have to hurt your pocketbook. 

Visit a discount store with low-priced items. Hunt down little items you might not otherwise have budgeted for, but which you know will add some value or comfort to your life.

For example, a shower caddy, plastic storage tubs, or a new drink bottle. 

Whatever you end up buying, know that it is the act of spending money that generates the “feel good” feelings typically associated with retail therapy.

This way you’ll get all the benefits with none of the financial strain—or buyer’s remorse.

3. Have a lie-in

Pick a morning where there are no pressing matters to attend to and simply stay in bed.

Alternatively, use your morning to complete errands and spend the remainder of your day under the covers.

Make whatever adjustments are necessary to maximize comfort. Turn on your air conditioner, close the blinds, put your phone into airplane mode, make a cup of tea, light a scented candle, or switch on an essential oil diffuser.

If relaxing still proves difficult, and you find yourself battling anxiety, don a weighted blanket or a compression vest. 

These use deep pressure to help ease anxiety and are available to purchase online.

4. Ritualize a mini-hobby

Many hobbies require time and energy we aren’t always able to spare. If this is your experience, consider expanding your definition of the word “hobby”.

For instance, I was never much one for comedy, save for watching the odd opening monologue from a late-night talk show, schedule allowing.

When I discovered that these shows made a perfect accompaniment to my breakfast routine, I understood that maybe time wasn’t an issue after all.

Sure, enjoying Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, John Oliver, Seth Meyer, and Stephen Colbert isn’t strictly a hobby. Yet it can impart many of the usual benefits, such as supporting mental health and relaxation—in this case, through laughter.

By incorporating a mini-hobby like this into your day, we will stand a better chance of making it a habit, ensuring it survives peak periods of busyness.

In order to create a habit, we not only have to do it regularly—we also have to follow the four laws of behavioral change, as described by Atomic Habits author James Clear:

#1 Make it obvious.
#2 Make it attractive.
#3 Make it easy.
#4 Make it satisfying.

In my case, the enjoyment provided by watching these videos fulfilled law #4 (“make it satisfying”).

In order to “make it obvious”, I subscribed to each comedian’s dedicated YouTube channels so that their most recent videos appeared on my homepage.

By keeping my YouTube homepage always open in a browser tab, I enhanced the attractiveness of these videos (“make it attractive”). 

And by waking up early, I was able to eat and perform my new ritual at my own pace (“make it easy”).

5. Take a power nap

Napping isn’t just the favored activity of layabouts—it’s also a supereffective way to give your flagging energy levels a boost!

If your workplace doesn’t look favorably about employees taking catnaps, a quick lie down after a taxing day can help restore you.

Naps of between 10-20 minutes are considered ideal, as anything longer than 30 minutes can leave us feeling groggy upon waking.

Napping not only decreases sleepiness but can improve learning and memory while supporting the regulation of our emotions

6. Get some green therapy

The emerging discipline of green therapy—also known as ecopsychology—is concerned with using nature to help us recharge our internal batteries.

Multiple studies have demonstrated that the presence of nature can have a plethora of health benefits.

Venturing into the wilds may not always be possible, but you can reap the same benefits from visiting your local park. Twenty minutes as it turns out can be enough to relieve stress.

You reap similar effects using simulated green spaces. For instance, by placing fake plants around your home or workspace.

Another method involves slipping on a pair of headphones and listening to natural sounds, such as wind through trees or running water.

7. Try audio bibliotherapy

The act of sitting down to read a book in today’s helter-skelter world is becoming increasingly uncommon. But if you lack the patience to read the conventional way, you can always try listening to an audiobook instead.

Having your books read aloud to you can be an effective way to consume content without having to add to your already overburdened schedule.

Furthermore, if you’re suffering work-related stress or battling anxiety and depression linked to your busy lifestyle, reading books about these challenges can go some way to lighten your load and help you apply self-care techniques.

Healing through reading is known as “bibliotherapy”, and it can serve as a wonderful resource for those among us struggling to access support networks or the sympathetic ear of a therapist.

Books that teach self-care techniques

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the challenges mentioned above. But if you aren’t able to invest the time to seek out personally appropriate guidance, consider exploring the following recommendations:

8. Start a self-compassion practice to round off your autism self-care

Build a deliberate self-compassion practice with the support of the many free, downloadable resources on the Self-Compassion website.

Author Kristin Neff has prepared brief guided practices, a list of exercises, and tips for those new to the concept.

Finally, if you have a habit of going too hard on yourself and zeroing in on your supposed deficits as an autistic person, try adopting a strengths-based perspective.

Instead of looking at yourself as somehow flawed, acknowledge the many strengths that come with being autistic, which I list in an earlier blog post.

Yes, male privilege exists. But it carries a terrible cost—especially if you’re gay.

Essy Knopf male privilege
Reading time: 6 minutes

The dominance of the male gender is visible not only in male privilege,1 but also their overrepresentation in high-income brackets and their managerial roles.

It would be easy to assume that the many advantages enjoyed by males serve as a buffer against poorer health outcomes, and yet this isn’t always the case.

Men are for example more likely than women to die early from a number of causes, including suicide.2 This trend is not exclusive to the US but it is present globally as well

And these early deaths aren’t so much the result of lifestyle choices, some argue, as they are the profound loneliness lingering just below the surface.

The connection between male privilege and loneliness

In I Don’t Want to Talk About It, Terrence Real makes a compelling case for socialization’s role in contributing to the all-too-common experience of loneliness among older men.

He notes that boys compared to girls are typically less spoken to, comforted, and nurtured by their caregivers, leaving them prone to passive trauma, for example in the form of neglect.

Real notes they are also socialized to cut themselves off from their own feelings, their mothers, and from social support. 

That is, socialization teaches boys and men that entry to the club of masculinity is dependent upon their continued spurning of “dependency, expressiveness, and affiliation”.

Males are asked to uphold an impossible gender norm closely tied to the notion of rugged individualism.

Real says the cost of passive trauma and disconnection from self and others is that males suffer an unstable sense of self-esteem—and even shame—over their own emotions.

Forbidden the right of vulnerability, males have no choice but to emotionally numb themselves, internalizing rather than externalizing their distress. The result is covert depression. 

Having been trained to avoid others’ support, men inevitably turn to “defensive compensations” for this depression, such as drinking, gambling, or sex. 

The difficulty, however, lies in the fact that the resulting “addictions do to shame what saltwater does to thirst”.

Similarly, men may also seek an escape through grandiosity, or what Real calls the “illusion of dominance”.

Essy Knopf male privilege

The terrible loneliness of being at the top

What Terrence Real calls grandiosity, Lonely at the Top author Thomas Joiner describes as a fixation on earning money and building status.

Men in their 20s and 30s, he argues, are usually more self-focused than women. They assume an “either/or attitude toward wealth and status on the one hand and social connection on the other hand”. 

But as men age, this attitude wreaks a terrible price in loneliness, resulting in significant health disparities and higher mortality rates.

Joiner however diverges from Real’s thesis here by describing factors other than socialization as contributing to the male inability to form and maintain interpersonal connections later in life.

For example, he cites the “people versus things” gender dichotomy. Namely that from a very young age, boys are more interested in things, while girls are more interested in people. 

Males are by nature more inclined towards an instrumentality mindset, grounded in “assertiveness, self-confidence, competitiveness, and aggression”. 

This is opposed to the typically female, people-oriented mindset, which celebrates expressive traits such as “affection, cooperation, and flexibility”.

Joiner notes other differences, such as the fact that boys get less social coaching from each other and from men when compared to their female counterparts. 

Girls also have more gender- and age-diverse friendship networks. This contributes to females as a group enjoying greater interpersonal hardiness.

Having been spoiled with the “institutionalized, ready-made friendships of childhood”, men may fail to develop an appreciation for the “worked-for friendships of adulthood”.

Joiner claims that an instrumentality mindset can also lead to males developing a “don’t tread on me” attitude, best described as a “dogged self-sufficiency in the absence of healthy interdependence”. The links again to rugged individualism are, again, clear.

Joiner adds that “don’t tread on me” carries the tacit message of “don’t connect with me”. As argued by Real, men believe this attitude is necessary to preserving their conferred status as males.

“Don’t tread on me” combined with the single-minded pursuit of money and status normalized by our materialist culture can result in a more passive approach towards relationships.

Men as a result may be less likely to undertake the work necessary to maintain them.

In failing to feed or renew relationships, or to seek out new ones as they age, men may be setting themselves up for significant loneliness down the road.

The fact that men’s internal’s sensors are not fully attuned to their own emotional or social loneliness, Joiner agrees, further compels them to pursue said compensations. And rather than resolving loneliness, they only have the effect of compounding.

The health impact of engaging in addictive behaviors aside, loneliness itself can contribute to poorer health outcomes in later life while corroding one’s resilience and ability to cope with failures, disappointments, and losses.

When compared to seeking professional mental health, compensations are a more likely outcome among males, given that doing the former can threaten the male image of self-sufficiency.

And let’s not forget the stigma associated with male loneliness and accessing such services, which serve as obstacles in their own right.

How intersectionality can deepen male loneliness

Intersectionality argues that it is possible to simultaneously enjoy power and/or privilege in one situation, arena, or aspect of life, and oppression and/or disadvantage in others.

So while being male broadly conveys power and privilege, being an older male in Western society can have serious implications for one’s health and wellbeing.

If one happens to be an older male and have a minority identity such as “homosexual”, the impact can be exacerbated, for example through minority stress caused by stigmatization, discrimination, and prejudice.

This impact grows when one is also a person of color, a trait which brings many disadvantages in a White-dominated culture such as North America.3 4

The minority status of being gay male alone contributes to arguably higher levels of loneliness. And there is also the fact that gay men as a population have to work harder to gain entry to the “male club”.

Hostile attitudes towards homosexuals are often grounded in perceptions of their abnormality, i.e. “Too feminine”.

According to author Simon LeVay, gay men as a population are indeed different, exhibiting a “patchwork of gendered traits—some indistinguishable from those of same-sex peers, some shifted part way [sic] toward the other sex, and others typical of the other sex”.

In Gay, Straight, and the Reason Why, he cites studies that indicate that where it comes to instrumentality and expressiveness—typically male-favoring and female-favoring traits, respectively—gay men tend to be shifted towards the opposite sex

Having gender-shifted traits in a culture that defines masculinity by limited expressiveness can thus double the pressure felt by gay men to conform to the stereotype.

It also means they are more likely to experience the disapproval of, and rejection by, others who subscribe to the standard (toxic) definitions of masculinity.

Social hostility can generate internalized homophobia, feeding into higher-than-standard rates of depression and anxiety.

It also provides a rationale for the all-too-common flight by gay men into compensations. (Consider here the higher rates of substance use and abuse, out-of-control sexual behaviors, and other process addictions.)

The link between gay loneliness and the potential for harm for example has been demonstrated in a study linking riskier sexual behavior as an avoidance strategy.

Those who engage in this strategy are for example exposed to higher rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The solutions to male privilege disconnection

To summarize, masculinity is coded in Western society in ways that are emotionally oppressive to males, hence the term “toxic masculinity”.

This oppression is intensified especially the case if you also share minority identities, such as being gay and a person of color. 

When combined with a biological inclination towards instrumentality and a cultural bias towards rugged individualism, this can wreak great harm to our mental wellbeing and our relational world. 

From this comes disproportionately adverse health outcomes, which as mentioned run in the face of the perceived advantages of being a member of an empowered and privileged gender.

Unfortunately, gender coding and social conditioning have been in existence for thousands of years. The intricate tapestry of our gendered lives cannot be unpicked overnight.

All the same, there are actions we can take as males to address the hidden costs of our gendered identity. 

Namely, we can choose to embrace “dependency, expressiveness, and affiliation”. We can strive for a greater connection with our inner selves, and others.

Such connections can be forged, Joiner says, by engaging in shared rituals that create a sense of belonging, togetherness, or harmony, such as sharing a meal with loved ones.

Here are some other suggestions:

Connecting to nature: As men, we stand to benefit by interacting more regularly with nature. 

This experience can reduce loneliness, especially when it provides opportunities to interact with others. For example, through hiking or gardening groups.

Daily phone calls: However awkward as calling people up out of the blue may seem today, relying too heavily on text messages can have some serious downsides.

Instead, Joiner suggests calling one person daily, if only for a few minutes. 

Whether you have something pressing to talk about is not important. The goal here is to create connection.

Reunions: Organize a reunion with best friends from one’s younger days can be a great way to renews existing connections.

Given the male tendency to lose touch with friendships as we advance towards middle age, this is essential.

A reunion can also bring many of the benefits associated with indulging nostalgia

Sleep regularization: None of the above is possible if our sleep schedule is out of sync with those of others.

If this is the case, we should consider shifting our life patterns to promote social interactions. 

We can this by maintaining a regular sleep schedule and seeking out opportunities to interact with others, such as through a shared physical activity like a sport. 

The secret shame of being autistic in a world built for neurotypicals

Essy Knopf autism
Reading time: 7 minutes

As an undiagnosed autistic child, my favorite part of primary school was the weekly show-and-tell sessions.

It wasn’t so much the storytelling aspect of this activity that appealed to me, as it was the occasional chance to present.

But whatever the focus of my presentation might happen to be—dinosaurs, guinea pigs, insects—there was always a good chance it wasn’t shared by my peers.

This was a detail nevertheless lost on me. For all that truly mattered was the presence of a captive audience, bound by convention to listen.

In other settings, explaining to my classmates the, say, minutiae of insect classification, usually earned me a look of bemusement.

To hear someone use the term “bug” to describe a spider for example almost always led to a correction. 

Spiders, I would note, were arachnids. What set them apart from insects was that their body had two rather than three segments. They also had eight legs instead of six.

No one else lived for such factoids, and this was a source of perplexity. Worse still, my sharing of them was not meant to be received as criticism…and yet often was. 

And perish the thought that it might be interpreted as intellectual showboating. Yet the pearls of knowledge I so casually strew before my peers were received with indifference, or worse.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
My childhood had many moments of joy. But these memories are clouded by the prevailing sense was I was out of sync with the rest of humanity.

How autistic folks’ attempts to connect can backfire

Friendless as I was, I would tend the fires of my passion in quiet solitude, sometimes for weeks, if not months.

The merest of kindnesses—a “hello”, a smile, a polite question—had the effect of kerosene, sending flames bursting outwards.

It seemed irrefutable that others should prize the tender morsels of information I dispensed as much as I did. It didn’t even enter into my mind that the case might be quite the opposite.

Words would rush forward in great exuberant billows, and in my naivete, I would fail to read the blank looks I was inevitably met with.

These attempts to connect ironically had the inverse effect of creating disconnection

And so the distance between me and other kids would only grow, until we stood upon different hilltops, regarding one another warily through binoculars of mutual unease.

A ‘disastrous’ deed

While my show-and-tell sessions rarely drew more than polite applause, the desire to infect others with my passion remained.

Maybe what was required, I thought, was something of more obvious value. I set my eyes on one of my mother’s rings: a silver band set with a single, brilliant sapphire. 

I asked to borrow it, explaining that my purpose was to use it as a show-and-tell prop. Yes, I promised, I would bring it home that afternoon, and reluctantly, my mother agreed to lend the ring.

Arriving at school early the next day, I sat on the steps of my demountable classroom, toying with the ring and the idea of the warm reception that must surely await.

A classmate appeared, depositing her backpack on the rack that passed for school lockers. Accompanying her was a woman I assumed must be her mother. 

Joanna was transferring to another school, and today was to be her last day. I considered this tidbit. Joanna wasn’t exactly a friend, but wouldn’t it be nice if I offered her the ring? 

After all, this was a special occasion. And wasn’t it considered normal to present gifts on special occasions?

Indecision wracked my mind. I had given my word that I would return it to my mother. 

Yet if there was anything I understood about human relationships, it was that they were transactional. If I wanted people to like me, I would need to take the initiative.

My mind made, I stood up.

“Hey, Joanna.” She turned. “This is for you.” Joanna considered the ring, shyly teasing a blonde curl. Not understanding. “It’s a going-away gift,” I added.

“Well, that’s very nice you.” This response came not from Joanna, but her mother. A smirk eased onto her face. It was an expression I could not read, and which nevertheless made me uneasy.

“Joanna, what you say?” Joanna’s blank expression split into a smile.

“Thank you,” she said. And took the ring from me.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
I was never really “people-oriented”. Yet over time, my negative experiences led me to actively avoiding others’ company.

Stupidity, not disability

Less than an hour later, however, my doubt had deepened, becoming a dead weight upon my conscience. 

Having had the time to consider my impulsive act, I realized that there would inevitably be consequences. 

But when I returned home, hangdog, there was no blame and no bluster. Instead, my faltering explanation was met with silence. 

It was as if my mother had all along suspected that something like this might happen. 

The absence of a reaction stung. It felt like an affirmation of an unspoken truth: that I was stupid. 

I promised my mother that I would try to get the ring back. But when I returned to school the next day, Joanna was gone, and my attempts to reach her through one of her friends came to nothing.

The wounds of systemic ableism

This memory remains enshrined not as an act of shameless exploitation by an adult who had undoubtedly known better, but as one of the most disastrous acts of my youth.

When I reminded my mother of the incident more than two decades later, she couldn’t recall ever having the ring, let alone my blunder.

Yet how could she not? Was this possession not as precious as I had long imagined it to be?

To me, this incident reflected a longstanding habit of socially inappropriate behavior, which I would later learn was all too common among those with autism.

Yet for something so poignant as this to have had no lingering significance to the one person it should have, surprised me.

Just like the casual dismissals, the lack of replies to my comments, the way so many cut in line ahead of me on the handball court, I had notarized this event as just one more proof of my inferiority.

And gradually, I had retreated behind the walls of a crumbling bastion of false pride, manned by sentinels of shame and self-criticism.

It was a lonely existence, but it was safe, in that it was largely unpeopled by those who seemed to so scorn me on the basis of who I was.

In my mid-20s, I received a diagnosis of Asperger syndrome, and this would crystallize for me that it was not so much who, as what.

At last, the faultline that ran through the foundations of my social life had a source.

At last, I knew that I was not broken, but a survivor of a society grounded in systemic ableism.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
Me in my favorite pair of pajamas.

The catch-22 of being autistic

Yet until the moment of my diagnosis, I had no choice but to stumble my way through the intricate dance of social connection.

This dance was a necessary precursor to the embrace of friendship. And yet to me, it seemed frivolous and a waste of effort and time.

Others did not share this view. Nor did they see the virtues of my info-dumping, my dispensing with social niceties, and my papercut directness.

Without their friendship, there was often no socially acceptable basis for the sharing of interests I longed for.

But I persevere, storming the dancefloor, shirtfronting potential partners, and treading all over on their toes.

My prospects of friendship thus damaged, I found myself deprived of the emotional support many individuals who are neurodiverse need in order to navigate a world built for neurotypicals. 

I also missed out on the social coaching that might have otherwise helped prevent my missteps.

Without the label of disability, my only frame of reference was the one bestowed on me: a belief that I was a person whose lack was the result of choice, or some personal flaw.

The allure of the life interior

While I can see now that autism was the source of my social cluelessness, memories of my school years continue to pain me today. 

One of the earliest and most enduring was being invited to join a game of prisoner’s base in kindergarten. 

“Tagged” by a member of the opposing team, I was taken prisoner and deposited in an imaginary cell under the jungle gym. Here I was expected to remain, awaiting rescue.

In my imagination, this did not simply represent a return to play, but rather an acknowledgment that I was worthy. Evidence that someone—anyone—cared about me.

But that rescue never came to pass. I was left forgotten until the bell for class rang.

Hurt and confused, I took a vow of social abstinence, using lunchbreak to play make-believe on my own or to read.

This solidified my status as an outsider, denying me the warmth of others’ company, of which my own fire was but a weak imitation. Still, what else was there?

When fiction-based escapism was not jostling for my attention, I tended to various projects of my own devising. 

The first involved catching and cataloging the myriad insects living in my backyard. This was followed by a compulsive desire to write sprawling portal fantasy novels. 

During another period, I set myself to covering a length of green marble A1 card stock with designs for an adventure board game of my own devising. 

The game was meant to be played with at least four friends; that I was entirely lacking this requisite was a consideration I chose not to dwell on. 

It was, for the most part, a life interior. But eventually, it became a prison of self-narration. 

“You are worthless. You are unloveable,” went the familiar refrain, a refrain seemingly substantiated by my continued isolation.

Essy Knopf Asperger syndrome
Social awkwardness and the feeling of being apart only grew throughout my teen years.

Freedom by diagnosis

My life is sharply divided between two very distinct periods: before diagnosis with autism, and after.

Before diagnosis resembled a black-and-white etching. But in the months and years that followed, this etching became saturated with color, slowly assuming the richness and depth of an oil painting. 

Liberated of one label—being a “bad” person—and awarded another—”someone with a disability”—I began to consider myself in a new light. 

The critical dictator in my head was dethroned, his antique reign gave way to a democracy of thought grounded in self-compassion.

I came to understand that the shame I carried was undeserved. That I was not at fault for the unusual architecture of my mind. That I was a person of value. That I needn’t live a life sentence of “if only”. 

The skills I lacked could be learned. As for the friendships that had failed to take seed—these could be nourished into new life. 

With enough effort and persistence, the connection I had once craved when standing before my class during show-and-tell could be mine.

Magic words that can free autistic folk from low self-esteem victimhood

essy knopf low self esteem
Reading time: 6 minutes

Disrespectful people, pushy people, abusive people—chances are all of us have at one point in our lives encountered such individuals.

Sometimes we skate by, unharmed. Other times, the encounter is unpleasant enough to leave us with a sour taste in our mouth, bruised feelings, and an acute sense of injustice.

Autistic individuals I believe are especially vulnerable when it comes to being bullied and manipulated.

It begins with the fact that many of us have low self-esteem, resulting from living in ableist societies in which neurodiverse folks are treated as inferior.

Autistics additionally have been found to have a more deliberative (and effortful) thinking style. This can impair our ability to rapidly and automatically intuit others’ intentions.1

Our willingness to trust others and give them the benefit of the doubt—to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us—puts us at even further risk.

Turns out it’s no accident that toxic individuals are drawn to us like metal filings to a magnet. Rather, it’s the result of our fundamental struggles with knowing when and how to say “no”.

Low self-esteem: a recipe for exploitation

Low self-esteem can render many autistic individuals unwilling—or unable—to set boundaries and to push back when the situation calls for it.

This largely has to do with the kinds of negative reactions we might expect, reactions we have often endured due to our “weird” autistic traits and behaviors.

Others’ reactions in turn lead us to adopt negative narratives about our own supposed unworthiness and unloveable nature as autistics.

This erodes our self-confidence and undercuts our ability to be self-reliant, while also signaling our vulnerability to potential bullies and manipulators.

Another component of this is our tendency to second guess our own feelings and thoughts when confronted with difficult situations.

Many of us are often told that we’re in the wrong. We act with good intentions, only for neurotypicals to tell us that our intentions don’t matter.

All of us have at one point either been told we are too honest, too blunt, too insensitive, too difficult to follow, or too weird. It’s dismissals and criticisms like this that leave us prone to self-doubt.

Thus when challenged, many of us may spiral into helplessness and fail to stand up for ourselves.

Why confronting difficult and toxic people is so hard

It takes courage to speak our feelings of pain, helplessness, and anger. Having low self-esteem, therefore, means we are forced to fight battles on not just one but two fronts.

Firstly, we must validate our perceptions of a situation. This requires an acknowledgment of our worthiness, which can conjure guilt, shame, discomfort, and anxiety.

Secondly, we are standing up and demanding respect. There is always a fear that we might not be heard—a fear that is often borne out in day-to-day life as a marginalized minority—thus reinforcing our negative core belief of unworthiness.

Then there is the concern that the person we are confronting may retaliate—a concern, however wellfounded, that enables abusive people to remain in positions of power.

Low self-esteem can make us a target

When we speak out, the person aggressing may listen and adjust their behavior.

Those who harbor ill intentions alternatively may also decide that we aren’t worth the effort after all, and move on.

But should we fail to speak out—or if our “no” is not forceful enough to effect a change—toxic individuals can linger on.

If you’re dealing with someone with a taste for manipulation, they won’t surrender control so easily. 

There’s always the possibility they may redouble their efforts, draining your emotional well and tainting the waters with negativity.

The seven ‘buttons’ used by manipulators

So, why you? What is it about your person that clues these people into your weaknesses?

In Who’s Pulling Your Strings?, Harriet B. Braiker describes seven behavioral “buttons” that manipulators routinely use to pressure and coerce their victims.

It is only by becoming aware of those buttons, Braiker argues, that we stand a chance of resisting manipulators’ control tactics.

1. The disease-to-please: People with this challenge have made their self-worth conditional upon their willingness to do what others want or expect of them. 

Resisting the disease-to-please is likely to trigger guilt, a fact manipulative folk use to their advantage.

2. Approval and acceptance addiction: Are you overly nice? Chances are your efforts are motivated by a fear of rejection and abandonment. 

Manipulators leverage this fear, withdrawing approval and acceptance to force you into complying with their demands.

3. Fear of negative emotions: Experiencing anger and sadness is fundamental to the human condition. 

Trying to avoid negative emotions is next to impossible. Moreover, expressing them can be key to maintaining healthy boundaries. 

Those with this button try to bury and avoid negative emotions thus leaving them wide open to attack by manipulators.

4. Lack of assertiveness: People-pleasers struggle to say “no”. As such, they may struggle to stand up for themselves when the situation calls for it.

5. The vanishing self: Manipulators have no qualms about twisting those with an unclear sense of identity and core values into fulfilling their own needs and desires. 

6. Low self-reliance: Distrusting one’s perceptions drives us to seek the input and advice of others, leaving us vulnerable to external influence.

7. External locus of control: Those with an external locus of control believe that forces outside of themselves are ultimately responsible for shaping their lives.

This ultimately results in learned helplessness and an inability to assert one’s self in the face of manipulation.

Essy Knopf low self-esteem victimhood

From low self-esteem to high self-esteem

Manipulators as indicated capitalize on low self-esteem, which has the effect of only reinforcing their victims’ negative self-perceptions.

One could observe that the degree to which we can suffer low self-esteem is relational. Others can damage, but also repair it.

While a trusting, supportive relationship with a therapist or loved one is one way we can heal our sense of self-worth, the task of pushing back against manipulators ultimately falls to us.

Confrontation, however frightening, is sometimes necessary. This may be as simple as making explicit requests and seeking commitment. 

“I” statements are helpful here. For example, “I feel disrespected when you name-call. I’m asking that this behavior stop.”

Remember, you have a right to make reasonable requests and for them to be acknowledged. You are under no terms required to explain or defend yourself.

What you want in confronting a manipulator is some sort of change. That said, your demand needs to be framed as a win-win proposition. 

If, however, the other person won’t refuse to accept anything short of win-lose, lose-win, or lose-lose, be prepared to pivot.

Try these magic phrases

Some aggressors respond to feeling threatened by double-downing or escalating. This may take the form of deflecting, projecting, shaming, verbal abuse, and overly dramatic reactions.

Know these individuals may try to confuse the issue, gaslight you by playing the victim, and/or evading any responsibility.

Many individuals feed off conflict, and anything you say or do that plays into this will count as a win in their books.

Be sure to name any attacks on your person the instant they happen. Send a clear message to the aggressor that you won’t stand for poor treatment. 

Hold fast to your conviction that no harm has been done by your speaking up. Your goal here is to protect yourself, not the manipulator’s feelings—which probably weren’t in jeopardy to begin with.

Do not be drawn into a point-for-point debate. Instead, assert yourself by saying: “That doesn’t work for me.” “That’s not fair.” 

Resist any attempts by the manipulator to wrangle for control by delaying your response: “I need to think about it.”

If they try to force an argument, disengage: “This conversation is not productive. I’m leaving now.” 

If you’re feeling thrown off balance by the manipulators’ tactics, it’s okay to break off the exchange by telling them: “Actually now is not a good time.” 

A straight “no” will even suffice, followed by your departure.

And it’s perfectly acceptable to shut down the lines of communication until the other person agrees to follow rules of common courtesy.

If you’d like to try out some of these lines but are worried you might fumble the delivery, practice them in advance until you feel 100% comfortable saying them on cue.

Reappraising low self-esteem

These kinds of situations and encounters can inflame existing feelings of low self-worth among autistic folk, especially when bullies respond with escalation and accusation. You can address this head-on by taking stock of your actions immediately afterward. 

Check in with yourself. How are you feeling about what just went down? 

Were you fair in your conduct? Did you really behave unjustly, as the manipulator would have you believe? 

Imagine for a moment it was your friend making the same request of you. Imagine they told you that your behavior had hurt them. 

Would you have listened to them? Would you have been open to change?

If your answer is “yes”, then it’s reasonable to assume that it was a fair request.

The bully may accuse you of being equally at fault, but what they probably are trying to do is avoid culpability by muddying the water. 

Refuse to take on any of their accusations and combat self-doubt. Conduct an inventory of your alleged character flaws and use humor to inflate them.

Have you, for example, failed to be perfect enough? Are you insufficiently conscientious? Are you an extremely poor people-pleaser? 

Now try to name some appropriate punishments for these crimes. If the ridiculousness of it all doesn’t stop you in your tracks, then take it as proof that it is you—above all—who deserves the break. 

If these encounters leave you feeling stressed, consider practicing some of these self-care techniques, specifically devised for autistic folks.

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.