Sometimes autistic people are asked to list the things they love about themselves, or asked to describe yourself in 4 words. This can be for a therapy session, a job interview, or anything inbetween. [If employers are reading this, here are some tips for making job interviews accessible.]
I find this to be a difficult task regardless of the context. I will explain why in this post.
The difficulty of this task has real consequences for autistic people and contributes to our high unemployment rate, including autistic people with high educational backgrounds. We often undersell ourselves, but only because many neurotypical people have no problem embellishing their traits.
Positivity Shouldn’t Be a Requirement
This request to list what you love about yourself reminds me of how Jameela Jamil talks about the body positive movement. She notes that for her, she wants to be able to be neutral about her body. She shouldn’t have to love every single thing about her body or be positive about it all the time, and she should be allowed not to care so much about her features or appearance as much as society wants her to. This shouldn’t be a requirement for her as a person.
That’s kind of how I feel about this. I’m not saying we should go around actively hating ourselves or beating ourselves up. It just means that we may not show autistic confidence in the same way that neurotypical people do. Unfortunately, this becomes a disadvantage when trying to get hired for jobs, when writing up CVs, and when trying to apply for schools or applications such as fellowships or grants.
We may seem to sell ourselves short because we don’t know what the “standard” for selling yourself is in the first place. And we may not see how “selling yourself” is an important or real skill, even if in our current society, it is. Further, just the idea of talking yourself up may make you feel physically ill or unsettled.
It’s okay to be neutral. Sometimes it’s as if I’m masking when I’m told to talk myself up, even if the things I say are true to other people. Thinking positive thoughts often may help reduce other people’s mental health issues or mental distress. For me, it’s more about negating the negative thoughts I have with realistic (i.e. often more positive) ones, rather than trying to pile on positive things about myself. If I try to force positive thoughts on myself, they simply feel fake.
And I do have to remind myself, especially when I do something well, that it’s okay to be proud of the job I did and be happy with it. To me, that’s what positivity is. It’s not about who I am but about what I’m doing and how I take care of myself. For example, I may be proud of myself for focusing on self-care rather than productivity.
Thinking positively to me is more about actions than about inherent things about my character. Character traits are too vague and abstract. It may depend on the context as to what actions I take in a certain situation, so how can I say I’m always X characteristic? Sure, I could say I’m hardworking, but what does that mean, and compared to whom? Hardworking at what? The meaning of these abstract concepts gets lost for me. I need context.
It often seems like neurotypical people throw these words out without much thought and very little hesitation.
When I’m trying to describe my traits, it becomes a philosophical question – Am I hardworking? How do I quantify that? How hardworking is the average person? Are we including hobbies or just activities that make money? Yes, this is my thought process for every single vague descriptor I consider putting out there.
The Real-Life Consequences
- Quick learner
- Can think on your feet
- Effective communicator
When I think about attempting to list things I love about myself, these are the phrases I think of, which are often put in job descriptions. I’ve been thinking more and more about what I have to offer in this world. I look at job listings sometimes and I see those phrases.
To neurotypicals, I’m probably none of those words.
I learn well, but slowly, and ask many clarification questions which can annoy other people. However, once I know something, I really know it. If you write me an email, I can “think on my feet” but not if you ask me in person. And the same goes with being an “effective communicator.”
How do you describe those qualities in one short punchy catchphrase?
It’s as if they printed a large watermark over the description that says
“Autistics Need Not Apply.”
Autistic Positivity Looks Different
If I was ever asked what I love about myself, and asked to write it down, I’d make two lists: One to appease whoever’s asking, and another just for me. This is because the traits I would truly list aren’t considered positive to most people, even if I think they are.
My safe, dull positive list I’d show to neurotypicals:
- I’m hard working
- I learn well
- I’m detailed-oriented and thorough
- I will speak up if I have questions
- I know what I don’t know and am happy to ask for clarification.
My real positive list:
- I stopped caring about what other people think.
- I’m open to learning about issues in marginalized communities and changing my language – at least I try to listen and boost their voices.
- I’m autistic.
- I do what I want.
- I figured out most of my disabilities on my own by doing my own research.
- I’ve tried to reach for what I want to do, even if it didn’t work out yet.
- I know when I need to quit and save my energy.
Here’s the issue: 4 out of 7 of those items on that real list are likely seen as negative to other people. Being autistic? Not caring what other people think? Knowing when to quit? Doing what you want? Those characteristics could be seen as selfish, aloof, or even lazy.
It’s hard to list positive traits when the people asking have preconceived notions of what a positive trait is.
They don’t see how amazing it is that I don’t care what other people think, after spending much of my life pleasing others, following rules, and seeking external validation for my actions. They don’t see how amazing it is that being autistic is positive for me! They don’t see that not knowing when to quit has been detrimental to my health and has led to autistic burnout. They don’t see that doing what I want is a phenomenal achievement compared to my previous fawning responses due to stress.
My positives really are that I care a little less, and that I am a bit more selfish. As autistic people, we’re socialized to put other’s communication needs ahead of ours, to be quiet if we’re too loud, to speak up if we’re mumbling, to be less rude, to stop complaining, to stop “being negative.”
How many things have you put in the negative category of your personality because of how our society sees us?
I’ll tell you right now – It’s probably too many.
My Questions for You
If we didn’t live in the society we did, what would you like about yourself, right now?
Are there things you like about how you have changed or grown?
Are there things you like in terms of what you’ve done?
Are there things you are proud of unlearning?
We’ve been given negative labels since we can remember. Suddenly, someone asking us to list what we love about ourselves? It can be daunting and nearly feel fake. We get labeled as too negative, defiant, or argumentative from a very young age. It’s no wonder it can be difficult to state positive traits about ourselves. How many times has someone labeled us in a positive way? It’s as if being asked to think about ourselves in this way creates cognitive dissonance or dissociation because it’s not something we’ve ever really thought about in the first place. For so long, thinking about ourselves positively wasn’t really an option.
It’s okay to like things about yourself that other people don’t like. It’s okay to value those things. And it’s okay to remind yourself of that when you’re not feeling good about yourself, too.
Just because you may not be able to list off abstract words to describe yourself doesn’t mean you are worthless. You have value. You just need to find it and relabel it as worthy and valuable and important. You don’t have to have a “positive list” to feel good about yourself. That’s not a requirement.
As autistic people, we shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone else to list positive things about ourselves. We should be allowed to exist on our terms, with what we value, even if the people around us don’t see it.
I hope you find a way to relabel some of the things in your negative bin, even if it takes a while.
Really, you deserve it. You really do.