By Dr Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood.
What is Embracing Autism?
We recently wrote an article about Compensation as a coping mechanism for autistic individuals living in a world dominated by non-autistic people. We discussed that differences in the social codes and expectations used by autistic and non-autistic people can lead autistic people to often feel that they are misunderstood and do not fit into their community, and as a result, they can utilise a variety of different coping mechanisms. We described Compensation as accepting the core features of autism and creating a life that allows for those features, without diminishing or compromising the authentic autistic self.
Other Definitions of Compensation
Whilst we have presented our own evolving view of compensation, we are aware that there are other definitions, and it is important to understand and acknowledge these definitions. For example, Livingston, Shah and Happe (2019) investigated compensatory mechanisms in 136 autistic adults and defined compensation in autism as using alternative cognitive routes to achieve neurotypical behaviour, particularly in the social domain, thus creating a lack of observable autistic behaviour. They relate the process to camouflaging, which they describe as an autistic person’s efforts to hide their autism and to “blend in” with their social environment. They go further to say that both concepts, camouflaging and compensation, are new in the field, and need refinement in their definitions for better understanding.
The same group of researchers in 2020 published a study to further explore compensatory mechanisms in autism using a novel checklist based on asking autistic adults about all the compensatory mechanisms they use to overcome difficulties in social situations. The resulting compensations that were discovered include:
Masking – Either increasing or decreasing social behaviours already present in the person’s repertoire, for e.g., holding back your true thoughts and opinions, trying to speak in a similar way to the group, but not saying very much.
Shallow Compensation – Strategies that allow the person to produce neurotypical behaviour, but do not resolve the underlying cognitive difficulty of perceiving the other person’s perspective, for e.g., using learned scripts, appearing to use eye contact by looking at the person’s eyebrows, using active listening by paraphrasing what the person said.
Deep Compensation – Strategies that successfully solve the perspective-taking difficulty, for e.g., using algorithms built earlier for interpreting mental states based on multiple factors such as logic, context, facial expression, and tone of voice), inferring mental state using own values/interest etc.
Accommodation – Strategies that help accommodate, but do not necessarily alter either social behaviour or cognition, for e.g., working in an environment where your social differences are actively accommodated or embraced, living in a foreign country so that your social differences are attributed to you being from your country of origin and being unaware of the social conventions of a different culture.
Accommodation by Embracing Autism
We are grateful to Livingstone and colleagues for their important research to help us understand the many forms Compensation for autism can take. Our own interpretation, based on our extensive clinical experience and current research, is that masking and shallow and deep compensation are compensatory trajectories that tend to lead to negative outcomes such as autistic burnout and depression and may be understood as different forms of camouflaging autism.
In contrast, Accommodation as Compensation stands out as the only strategy that involves actively seeking out environments and people that accommodate one’s autistic characteristics. As such, this is a compensatory strategy requiring less cognitive demand and mental energy suppressing autistic characteristics. The authentic self is not hidden and there is a greater likelihood of good outcomes, such as employment, making and keeping friends and reducing the risk of mental health problems.
Accommodation is a good description of this compensatory mechanism. Our own opinion is that it is helpful not only to accommodate one’s difficulties but to also embrace one’s strengths. We suggest the use of a new name for Accommodation: Embracing.
Embracing autism imparts a sense that we are not just making concessions to difference, or adjusting the “norm” so that autistic people can “fit in.” We suggest the term Embracing because of the positive energy it imparts, not just accepting autistic challenges and accommodating them but embracing autism -, understanding autistic strengths and challenges, and metaphorically embracing them.
What Does Embracing Autism Look Like?
Embracing autism has three distinct stages:
Awareness – A recognition and understanding of being autistic and what that means for the person at a deep psychological level, to explain aspects of their past, present, and future, as well as knowing their own cognitive, personality, practical and other strengths, and challenges.
Acceptance – There may be grief in this stage, but as we understand the authentic self, we recognise that we are unhappy with certain aspects of who we are. We may prefer a different version of who we are but remember acceptance can take time.
Embracing – This is fun. Moving past the hard work of awareness, recognition and some grief, this is the part when you start to design the life that will suit you, based on your hard-won self-knowledge.
As in our previous article, we include examples of compensation, but this time we wish to present these as examples of Embracing autism:
- Recognising that the office politics and social games of the corporate world are not a good match and deciding to be self-employed.
- Choosing a life as a wildlife researcher living in a remote region in recognition of the soothing effect of nature on the nervous system, perhaps developing a passion for the reptile world or insects and recognising that people are more of a source of stress than fulfillment.
- As a teenage girl at school choosing to be in the library with books for companions rather than mean girls who play silly games of exclusion and gossip.
- Going to university to study psychology because people are confusing and bewildering and seeking to understand their motives and to help them understand themselves.
- Developing a special interest in friendship because of loneliness and a strong need to connect with peers but no idea how to do so.
- Becoming a nurse in ICU or critical care because there is no time for small talk, you have the ability to stay calm in a crisis, and there is an abundance of structure and routine and like-minded colleagues.
- Deciding to stay in the job you have been hired for and saying no to promotion to management or team leadership.
- Choosing a career in accountancy because you have a special ability with numbers and a phenomenal memory for tax rules and protocol.
- A career in the creative arts because you feel most alive when you are creative and people in the arts love and embrace eccentricity. You are also able to express your thoughts, feelings, experiences and personality through the creative arts.
- Moving to a country such as Japan because you love the order, politeness and symmetry of the culture and if you make a social faux pas you are forgiven because you are Australian or English, so how would you know the intricacies of Japanese culture?
- Becoming a specialist in autism or developing expertise with animals such as being a vet or designing cattle-handling facilities or an academic in entomology. You can indulge in your interest at leisure and be paid to do so.
There are many, many examples of compensation, and the result for our autistic members of the community is fulfillment and living as a first-rate ‘Autie’, not a second-rate neurotypical.
Ways to Encourage Embracing
You or your loved one may be using one or more of the coping mechanisms described and feel trapped and in despair that it is not leading to the life you hoped for or expected. For this reason, we include the following ideas to encourage the use of Embracing.
- Recognise if you or your loved one is suffering from anxiety, depression, a behavioural disorder such as ODD, PDA, or a personality disorder. The first approach is to seek therapy and support for these outcomes if they have evolved. There are approaches and treatments for each of these conditions. It is important to remember that an effective treatment for mood disorders is environmental rather than behaviour modification.
- Develop your self-awareness in terms of autism. What are your strengths because of autism and what challenges are your most significant? It is helpful to undergo this process with a counsellor, psychologist, psychotherapist, social worker or autism mentor who really understands autism.
- Decide which is your leading autistic strength and your most significant autistic challenge.
- These two areas of self-awareness will be crucial to designing a life or aspects of your life that allow you to make compensations to give yourself what you need for both personal fulfillment and self-care.
- If you are struggling with any of these suggestions, talk to others who know you and care about you, complete questionnaires online about understanding self and strengths, or seek the help of professionals who specialise in autism.
- Believe in yourself. The journey toward self-awareness and fulfillment is a wise choice and you are worthy of it.
In summary, we have described various current definitions for the coping mechanism in autism of Compensation. As a result of our analysis, we have discovered that the strategy of Accommodation is viewed as a form of Compensation. We have recommended using the term Embracing for the coping mechanism of Accommodation, for the purpose of extending the definition beyond its current one, in a powerfully positive way. Overall, we have recommended Embracing as a successful coping mechanism for autistic people.
Where to From Here?
If you are autistic yourself or a professional or parent/carer of an autistic person, we highly recommend attending our upcoming Masterclass: Therapy and Support for Autistic Girls and Women. We will be presenting live in London, or you may attend via Live Webcast. We will be discussing various ideas and strategies to increase self-awareness and healthy compensatory coping mechanisms.
If you are particularly concerned for your child or adolescent’s mental health due to unhealthy coping mechanisms, we can recommend attending:
Livingston L A, Milner V, & Happe, F. (2019). Lancet Psychiatry, 6:766-77.
Livingston L A, Shah P, Milner V, & Happe, F. (2020). Molecular Autism.