By Dr Michelle Garnett and Professor Tony Attwood
What is Compensation?
Compensation is one of the many coping mechanisms that has been discovered by autistic individuals to try to cope with being different in a society dominated by neurotypicals. Compensation refers to accepting the core features of autism and creating a life that allows for them, without diminishing or compromising the authentic self. It is about saying, yes, I am autistic and quite introverted, so I am going to make compensations for that in my life. I give myself full permission to live and work alone and to keep my contact with others to a level I can manage well. Of all the coping mechanisms to use compensation is one of the most healthy and successful. Compensating for being autistic means that the individual understands and accepts the advantages and challenges that autism affords them and designs their life to suit them.
Why is Compensation Important?
Whilst compensation has been studied alongside camouflaging as a coping mechanism largely used by girls and women, we know that both genders use compensation. It is an important coping mechanism to know about and understand because of the advantages it gives above many other coping mechanisms for being autistic.
Other Coping Mechanisms for Being Autistic
There are several coping mechanisms for being autistic, and this article will now focus on camouflaging, internalising, externalising, controling, and egocentrism. These coping mechanisms are not unique to autism, and one person may use several of them at the same time or over the course of their lifetime. We find it helpful to recognise them, because this leads to greater self-awareness and strategies to assist if the coping mechanism itself has become the problem.
As mentioned above, a common coping mechanism used by autistic girls and women and some boys and men is camouflaging. Camouflaging refers to a strategy of keen observation of how others socialise and then imitating their actions and behaviours. The person may take fragments of behaviours, and develop scripts for different social occasions, or may adopt someone else’s entire persona. Camouflaging requires close self-monitoring and vigilance to ensure all the elements of socialising are being utilised, from the use of eye contact to monitoring body language and tone of voice, to knowing what to say in response to questions. However, the person is highly anxious that the social ‘mask’ will slip, and there is a high price to be paid for making a social faux pas. Whilst camouflaging can lead to success including “fitting in” socially and the development of friendships, a career, and a relationship, it is exhausting, feels inauthentic, and research has shown can lead to clinical levels of anxiety and depression.
Another coping mechanism for being autistic in a society that largely does not understand or accept autism is to internalise the distress and loneliness. The person notices that they are different and subsequently self-blames and criticises themselves. An internal dialogue commences and gains traction that includes thoughts such as, “There is something wrong with me,” “I am unlikable”, I don’t fit in and I never will because I am not good enough.” Essentially the core belief is: “There is something fundamentally wrong with me” and the person feels unworthy and defective. As you can imagine, this coping strategy leads to clinical levels of depression and anxiety, as well as social withdrawal and a very narrow life.
An autistic person who externalises to cope tends to blame others for their suffering. Their experience of themselves and the world is difficult, hence the need for coping, but instead of looking within for the problem as the internaliser does, they look outward and blame external factors such as other people, their circumstances or society. This mode of coping tends to lead to high levels of anger and many meltdowns. The person may blame their parents, schoolteachers, peers, people who have bullied them, their lack of opportunity, an employer or the way society works. They may spend much of the day ruminating on how they have been wronged and may have elaborate revenge fantasies. Similar to internalisers, they tend to avoid people, and can be very socially isolated. Extreme externalising may lead to additional diagnoses of oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and antisocial personality disorder.
Two very common characteristics of being autistic include daily high levels of anxiety and the related issue of intolerance of uncertainty. A coping mechanism for these aspects of the autistic experience is to seek to control your experiences, primarily by imposing control on your physical environment and the people around you. Some autistic people do this by seeking repetition, for example by doing the same thing over and over, enjoying the predictability and consistency that results. Others seek to control other people, insisting that other people follow their orders or routines and ensuring that life goes their way. A manifestation of this coping mechanism is avoidance of complying with other people’s requests, because to do so leads to feeling out of control. When this coping mechanism dominates social interactions the profile of autism can look very much like Pathological Demand Avoidance syndrome (PDA), and requires a unique understanding, approach, and management style.
Lastly, some autistic people, as a coping mechanism, start to believe that the problem lies in other people, that there is something wrong with them, and that they themselves, in contrast are always right. As this coping mechanism starts it can look very much like externalising, but it becomes deeper when the person starts to view themselves in a very grandiose way, that they are more intelligent, socially skilled, and capable, and other people are stupid, unreliable and untrustworthy. They can start to see other people as mere objects who get in the way of their own goals and become very egocentric at a cost to the people who love and care for them. An extreme outcome of the coping style can be a narcissistic personality disorder.
What Does Compensation Look Like?
By now you are probably wondering, is there a coping mechanism that is not fraught with risks and could lead to a more fulfilled life? Happily, there is, and it is compensation. But what does it look like and how can it be achieved? As mentioned above, compensation is about acceptance of being autistic and living a life that allows fulfillment of those autistic characteristics. Here are some examples:
- Recognising that the office politics and social games of the corporate world are not a good match and choosing 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, developing a passion for the reptile world or insects, and that people are more of a source of stress than fulfillment.
- As a teenager at school choose 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.
- 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.
- Choosing to stay in the job you have been hired for and saying no to promotion to management.
- Choosing accountancy because you have a special ability with numbers and a phenomenal memory for tax rules and protocol.
- Choosing 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, 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, cattle-handling or entomology, because 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 Compensation
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 compensation.
- 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.
- 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, or social worker 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 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.
- 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 methods of coping with being autistic in a world that largely does not understand or accept autism. Overall, we have recommended compensation as a successful coping mechanism for autistic people. We are concerned with certain types of coping methods and have highlighted the importance of understanding the type of coping that is generally used, to know how to help.
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 Sydney, or you may attend via Live Webcast. We will be discussing various ideas and strategies to increase self-awareness and healthy compensatory coping mechanisms.