Literalness, Uncertainty, and Perfectionism

Literalness, Uncertainty, and Perfectionism

It is hard to know what other people expect from you when growing up in general (and when you’re autistic). Most expectations other people have of you are not explicit, even from a young age. That ambiguity can make you go to extremes (i.e. perfectionism) to make sure that you meet others’ expectations. This is particularly apparent in school.

“Write this essay well.”

Ok, well how good is “well”? Can I turn in one sentence? That’s an obvious no, which I understand. But what is good enough? What is well? What should the final product look like? We get stuck in this cycle of anxiety due to uncertainty about whether something is good enough to other people – not whether it is good enough for ourselves (that can also occur but is a different source of anxiety).

Part of this is also because our assumptions from neurotypical language are often wrong, and we are often aware of this. I really like the swimming pool theory from autisticality, explaining the different ways that people learn. I definitely relate to the interpolation method described, which is first learning more of the details or specific examples of a subject before understanding the whole concept. This learning style often isn’t taught or even understood in standard education.

The Perfectionism Cycle

Here is the cycle of anxiety that occurs that brings on perfectionism in autistic people:

“Write an essay about X topic and make it sound good.”

autistic person: Writes essay -> Does it sound good? -> What even is “sounding good?” -> Works more -> person thinks “Well, to be on the safe side, I should try to work on it even more, and make it better” -> Works more -> Does it sound good now? -> Works more -> What if the teacher doesn’t like it? -> Works more -> What if it’s not good enough because I don’t know what they expect from me? -> Better keep working on it -> Works more -> Maybe I should ask? But if I ask, what if they say it is horrible? I don’t want it to be horrible. I should probably keep working on it -> Works more -> I don’t want them to think I don’t know what I’m doing. I know the assignment, I just don’t know how much detail they want. -> Works more -> Ok, I guess I should turn it in now, I’ve been working on this way more than the other students. -> Goes up and asks if this is “good” -> Teacher says “well, it’s pretty good.” -> You have another hour to turn it in so you spend 50 minutes working on it to make it “good,” worrying you will not get a good grade. -> You anxiously hand it in 5 minutes before the deadline do to make sure it’s not late. -> A few days later, you get it back and you get an A-. You’re not sure if that means it was “good enough.” You assume it probably wasn’t. This cycle continues for most, if not all, of your education.

As a kid, I would ask adults “Is this good?” and often I wouldn’t get a straight answer that I was looking for: “yes.” Therefore, I thought it wasn’t good enough (I mean, it wasn’t even good!), so I would keep working on it. So even when I got a decent answer, I thought I was letting them down by not making it “good.” And that anxiety can drive you into a cycle of perfectionism like the one shown above.

Expectations and Anxiety

No one ever directly tells you what is expected of you in school, or outside of school. No one gives you the format of the exam, tells you it will be vague multiple choice, and you will have to choose between 2 simply because of semantics, because maybe they’re technically both right if you think of it this way versus that way. Everyone else seems to take the test just fine, with no questions. I’ve never seen someone ask about how a question is worded in elementary school or junior high school.

No one tells you what “good” is. Ever.

And that uncertainty, since we don’t naturally understand neurotypical implicit communication, is what creates the anxiety. We often can’t make assumptions based on someone’s tone of voice or demeanor, because they said the same exact words as they did 2 weeks ago, and last time, they meant that the essay should be good, but now they actually don’t care about this assignment they’re going to grade, and most kids will just write a paragraph and be done with it and get an A. That uncertainty is what makes us obsess over assignments. Because words mean something, regardless of tone or demeanor! Because what if we didn’t get those assumptions right? We often don’t implicitly understand what “good” is by NT standards, so it’s usually a rational fear. There are times where I have gotten it wrong the other direction – where I’ve tried so hard to tamper down my perfectionism that the assignment wasn’t good enough at all, so I never tried that approach again.

Neurotypical Issues with Literal Language

No one is going to tell us what those standards are, even if we ask.

If you ask, you’re either going to look really ridiculously ignorant and the teacher/prof. will be very confused with you, or you will look like you’re trying to somehow cheat or get ahead by asking that question. But it’s really just because many neurotypical people don’t have access to the way we interpret sentences – they don’t have easy, immediate access to literal interpretation. And I think that’s partially why some autistic people can be really good teachers. We don’t assume that other people know anything (if we are teaching them anyway, not if we’re just having a regular conversation! Then we might say things completely convoluted and out of context), and that immediate literal interpretation actually gives us an advantage when explaining new concepts to people. You have to know how to phrase things in different ways, to be flexible in their learning style, and if you can’t easily think literally, or change your perspective on what you already know, then you might not be able to reach that student. You have to know what the student is asking to answer it – and if you don’t understand how phrasing could be confusing on the test you made, then how can you even help that student? How can you answer the question? If you don’t see the literal interpretation, you can’t explain it. That is the reason I never asked questions in class. When I did ask a question, I got that really confused look from them, because they thought I was asking a question on a foundational concept. Nope, I was asking about how something was phrased! But they didn’t get any of that, and simply rehashed a concept, and walked away like that was a “good enough” answer..

It doesn’t help that different people have different ideas of “good.” I thought there was always a standard idea of “good.” So the first one I learned, I thought, ok, it has to be at least “this good” but it probably needs to be better than that to be approved. I wrote way too many details on tests due to the ambiguity of the question and the confusion I had, so I wrote as much as I could even if I didn’t know if I was actually answering the question or not. And when I actually got the guts to ask about what a question meant in college during an exam, the professor couldn’t really tell me anything without giving me the answer somehow (what they said to me), so my theory was right: Asking about interpretation would be unhelpful. It’s a test, so they worry they are helping you answer the question, when really you just want to know what the question is in the first place!

Many non-autistic people think autistic people are rigid, but I find that we’re highly more flexible in this kind of thinking than they are. I find neurotypical people particularly rigid when it comes to education, especially the assumption that if you don’t understand something, you must not have been paying attention. I paid attention constantly, but saying the same words over and over again isn’t going to help me understand it anymore than saying that practicing an instrument incorrectly would help me play better.

Tips for Teaching Students

Sometimes, that’s just not how a person learns. Part of this issue can be mitigated by clearer communication from non-autistic people. If the student says the word “phrasing” when asking about a problem, then try to understand that it is about that specific problem! Not about “the material” that is covered in class. Ask what the question implies, and tell them directly, literally, what the question is implying, that you automatically are interpreting, that the student is not. If you are unsure, ask the student if they are having problems with the actual steps of solving the problem, or the assumptions of that particular problem, or the wording of that particular problem. Ask the student if they understand what they are trying to solve for. If they say no, ask them if it is due to how the question is worded. If they say yes, then talk about what the problem implies – does it assume things that are obvious to you? If so, mention those things (ex. assume X object is 1 foot tall)! If they say no, then it’s probably not about the phrasing. It still may be about that specific problem itself, and how what was taught in class applies to that very specific problem.

It seems as if the automatic assumption made by teachers, when students raise their hands and ask about a problem, is that it’s about the problem. And more often than not, it is actually about the wording of a problem, or some assumption that they missed (some rule that you had to implement in the problem, for example, or using a specific formula that is involved with that concept, but not explicitly stated in the problem). So much of my trouble with math and physics was due to those kinds of things. And usually, no teacher had an answer for me. A lot of teachers say that physics “just takes a lot of practice,” when really, what I now understand is that you are supposed to find the hidden assumptions and implications in the problems by doing so many problems. That’s what many teachers mean when they say you “just have to practice.” But if I can’t find the assumption in the first place, how am I supposed to learn how to do those word problems? The idea is that you see a pattern. I’m very good at seeing patterns in things, but not when those things are based on neurotypical wording and neurotypical assumptions about information, because they’re often not really patterns. Each problem has a different kind of assumption or implies specific things based on the wording that is completely different from another problem. But I don’t automatically see the implicit information in problems, so I don’t even have a template for such a pattern. That’s why I spent about an hour or two hours on each physics problem, just trying to figure out what they were asking. I just couldn’t see it. And no one seemed to know how to point it out to me.

Subconscious social processing is invisible to most of them,  so when asked about this invisible entity, they just keep reading the question to you like it’s not there at all. That’s why I didn’t ask that many questions in school. I knew that no one could really help me with it, mostly because no one ever did.

Tips for the Student

I’ve gotten better at understanding that these assumptions exist. However, it is rather frustrating to know that most of the trouble with my learning is due to how the problems are created in the first place. It is good to be aware of other people’s learning styles, especially if you’re teaching someone or helping someone who doesn’t think the way you do. Personally, I don’t get a lot out of visuals, so someone telling me to simply look at a picture isn’t very helpful for me. I’ve now learned to tell other people this – “Actually I don’t really learn well with visuals, do you mind explaining it?” If I need clarification on something that I know is due to hidden assumptions in wording, I will say “do you mind rephrasing that? I’m just a bit literal and have trouble with abstract concepts, so I’m not sure what you mean by [repeat their words here]” so that they know not to simply repeat what they said.

Hopefully, in the future this kind of learning style will be taken into account, and these assumptions will explicitly taught when needed. Also, it’s important to remember that many things that seem easy to neurotypical people are quite hard for us because they may rely heavily on social norms or unspoken rules. I may have had an easier time with particularly hard problems because they were more explicitly laid out for the student, compared to very simple problems. Being literal doesn’t mean that you are less capable of learning or getting good grades compared to other people. It’s simply important to be aware of, as not knowing about this can often wear on one’s self-esteem in school, as teachers are confused as to why you are so frustrated by “easy” problems but can do “hard” problems just fine. If you’re around supportive people, it’s good to ask clarifying questions even though you may feel like you should know that information – often clarification is helpful for other people anyway, who wouldn’t necessarily think to ask about it.

Ironically, I don’t think this blog post is very concise or clear, but I’m going to post it anyway. Doesn’t have to be perfect.

4 thoughts on “Literalness, Uncertainty, and Perfectionism

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