“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”-Salvador Dali
The drive to improve and grow is understandable and encouraged, however when taken to an extreme, constantly seeking improvement can lead to perfectionism. Perfectionism causes misery as people expect the unattainable, holding themselves and others to a standard beyond what humans can achieve. Unfortunately, many people with autism have these perfectionist tendencies.
What does perfectionism look like?
Perfectionism can show itself in many forms for neurotypical people and those with ASD alike. One might notice someone not participating in an activity or task and wonder why. The person might be labeled as “lazy” or unsociable. Seemingly easy tasks can result in outbursts of frustration. An Aspie may rewrite a sentence over and over, erasing the pencil marks until a hole is created in the paper. It may seem that an autistic individual has a lack of initiative, requiring a prompt or reassurance at each step of the task. There can be a general paralysis at the start of tasks, or extreme frustration and outbursts at the end of tasks when the person perceives that more needs to be done, and yet there is no more time for the task. The drive to create perfectly correct work can result in the mismanagement of time, with a large portion of time spent on a seemingly trivial activity. Do any of these behaviors sound familiar to you?
Why are people with ASD prone to perfectionism?
In general, people can become perfectionists in order to receive the approval of others, and even themselves. Through their own eyes, to be perfect is to be worthy of love. Their desire to please others and avoid disappointment can lead to high self-standards. Society tends to view errors as a sign of failure rather than growth. And so errors are viewed as a sign of inferiority leading to disapproval.
In addition, the person with autism or Asperger’s syndrome may become a perfectionist as a way to bring order and predictability to a very unpredictable world. It can be soothing to know exactly what should be done, what rules to follow, where things should go. And their attention to detail allows for a degree of perfectionism that many neuro-typical individuals would have difficulty achieving. A fear of mistakes and hypersensitivity to negative feedback can manifest itself in an extreme response to criticism. Finally, black and white thinking can lead a person with ASD to miss the other options. To a person with autism, the choice may be either to do the work perfectly or horribly. They are missing a spectrum of options from excellent to good to ok to bad to horrible, and all the other gray areas in between.
What can be done to address perfectionism?
- Value and recognize that success is in the process of learning, rather than just the end product.
- Celebrate little steps forward, and point out the importance of each miscalculation.
- Describe and teach people with ASD to identify the gray areas, using a rubric, code of conduct, number scales, etc. describing each level of good or bad in various scenarios. Perfect should have no definition because we can never reach it.
- Practice different ways of doing the same task. There is comfort in knowing multiple ways to achieve a goal, especially when one way has been impeded.
In the words of Margaret Atwood: “If I waited for perfection…I would never write a word.”
Let’s embrace our beautifully imperfect world!
Rebecca J. Weaver is a Certified Autism Specialist at Independent with Autism, working to empower individuals with ASD. Need help creating your success strategies? Check out IndependentwithAutism.com for more information.