I have never really known how to define success. For me, it has always seemed connected to how I’m feeling and subjective to circumstances. Along with being diagnosed as autistic later in life, come holes in my general knowledge of life. Ideas and concepts I probably would have learned if I was included in the social life of school and society while growing up. I’m gradually filling in the holes of my knowledge, such as defining success.
For example… the other day, a program manager came to my home to introduce a new support person to help a family member. While getting to know each other, I decided to tell the support person I was autistic. I made the decision to share my diagnosis with him because I wanted us to be able to sustain effective communication. I asked for no hinting, no social nuances, and for our communication to be open and honest- blatantly honest. The program manager leaned in his direction told him, “It will be ok, she has letters after her name and is really smart.” Then she followed that up with, “we’ll talk about it (me?) later.” I was done. That meeting was over. According to the program manager, I was a successful autistic person because I had ‘letters after my name’ and I was ‘really smart’. I defined my success in closing down the meeting after being insulted.
Right before that I had a business phone call with a few people who knew I was autistic. I was not included in most of the conversation. When I spoke I was articulate (not something that happens all the time for me) and explained some misconceptions about autistic people. I could tell when the conversation started again, that my words didn’t have the weight of the other two non-autistic people. What I said had been essentially dismissed. There was a stigma about autistic people that got in the way of my advocating for autistic people. Here, I defined my success in speaking up while faced with assumed incompetence, and their own preconceived notions about autistic people.
When I have flashbacks from PTSD caused by the trauma of growing up autistic, I used to feel like a failure, just for having them, no matter how I was able to cope and regulate my emotions. Flashbacks can be very abrupt and debilitating to the point where everything feels hopeless and I feel helpless. I now define my success by my willingness to choose coping skills to help bring myself back to a state of peacefulness, even if it takes a while for them to work.
So, for me, I’ve learned success is defined by every battle fought and won in maintaining and celebrating my autistic self. I used to think if I encountered, for example, insults, preconceived notions, and/or flashbacks from inflicted trauma in a short period of time, I was more of a failure in life than a success. Now I understand success is defined more by winning the battles, not just in achieving the accomplishments – and getting letters after my name.