What Drives Perfectionism in Autism & How You Can Help Your Child Cope.
Posted by: Sue Atkins
I’m working with a lovely 9 year old boy, who is on the spectrum, to help his self esteem and his perfectionism as it’s causing him anxiety.
What Drives Perfectionism in Autism & How You Can Help Your Child Cope.
In today’s society, perfectionism seems widely accepted & no big deal. Lots of high achievers ‘suffer’ from it. After all, what’s wrong with holding high expectations? I understand that, as I always work hard and do my best & I believe in setting standards for my life and developing a self-awareness that drives me to become a little better every day. However, there’s a fine line though between striving for excellence (a “good thing”) and dysfunctional perfectionism (which isn’t such a good thing).
Actually, Perfectionism is the enemy of Greatness.
Perfectionism is not about being obsessed with perfection. It’s an unhealthy need to do things perfectly, appear perfect, and have perfection surround you.
Perfectionism is driven by fear: fear of making mistakes, fear of disapproval, and fear of not meeting impossible standards and unattainable goals, all to avoid or minimise shame, blame, and judgment which can also be self-inflicted.
Perfectionism is strongly linked to depression, anxiety, and other disorders, because it makes the person feel like they are never good enough.
Attention to detail, and doing things the right way are both really admirable traits, but as I like to say “Too much of a good thing isn’t always best.” There is a fine line between striving for excellence (a “good thing”) and dysfunctional perfectionism (which isn’t such a good thing). When I was working with children who suffered from perfectionism I tried to help them find a balance between their fierce and relentless backlash of self-criticism, that came if they didn’t meet their own self-appointed (and impossibly high) standards, & doing their best.
As Tony Robbins said when I trained with him in Florida, “Perfection is a ridiculously low standard because you can never achieve it.”
As a former Deputy Head teacher, I used to ‘Talk & Teach’ the children struggling with perfectionism to live by the mantra “Trial and Correct,” rather than “Trial and Error.” It made a big difference. A talented athlete, footballer, musician or dancer will practice for years until they have achieved a really high standard & near-perfection; but they don’t berate themselves for falling short at times. They will analyse their performance, and try to do something better the next time, but underneath all that hard work, their attitude is “I will work hard & do my best. That’s all anyone has a right to expect of me, and that’s all I have a right to expect of myself.”
The perfectionist, on the other hand, will beat themselves up for not getting things exactly right – whether it’s passing the ball, a maths problem or cleaning the kitchen floor.
I remember when I was a Year 1 classroom teacher, one of my 6-year-old boys was on the spectrum with high functioning autism, anxiety, and perfectionism, became very agitated during maths if he got a sum wrong & he particularly hated story writing as he felt there wasn’t a ‘right or wrong’ way to do it. Sometimes he tried to exclude himself from any ‘competitive’ type games or activities, as he really disliked being ‘wrong,’ ‘out,’ or to lose. His frustration always was directed towards himself. He never lashed out, hurt anyone or had a complete meltdown but he did start banging his head violently with his hands. Talking to him rationally didn’t really help as I remember saying to him “Sometimes you just need to do your best, and that’s good enough,” & I asked him ‘Does that help?” “No” he replied honestly and bluntly.
I also remember another boy called Ross who had tantrums at school when the lesson came to an end or we went out to play, or we went for lunch, or we changed topic. The obvious answer is that children on the spectrum don’t like change, but I started to see a pattern and I asked Ross, “How do you feel when we have to stop working?” His reply astounded me “I’m scared that if I hand in my work, I’ll never get a chance to go back and make it perfect.” So, the solution was simple: I got a colourful purple tray and got him to create a label for it that said “Ross’s Box” and when it was time to move on to something else Ross put his work in his own tray & I told him that I would find time for him to be able to go back later and work on it some more, if he want to and that was the end of his tantrums & meltdowns.
There are two sides to perfectionism: The first, and more obvious side is the need to get things “Just right & perfect” – an impossible goal, because no amount of effort is EVER going to help the person achieve perfection. The second side, often under-appreciated & understood is the incessant self-blame for failing to get things right.
In the classroom this can take the form of outbursts. Children with perfectionism often procrastinate, or attempt to avoid a task altogether, not out of “laziness,” but out of pre-empting their fear of failure, and their fear of self-inflicted self-blame.
Unfortunately, lots of teachers often don’t understand this, and as a result they set up behavioural plans designed to instil “compliance to the task,” rather than focusing on the child’s perfectionism and self-criticism. What’s needed is a positive behaviour support plan for the child to help them manage their internal critical voice.
Perfectionism & Autism
Perfectionism is very common among people & children with autism. As the name implies, perfectionists are driven to do everything perfectly. Logically they know no one is perfect, however, when they make a mistake or perceive that they have ‘failed’ they emotionally beat themselves up verbally, physically or mentally saying things like “I’m so stupid/ useless/ hopeless/ incompetent. I can’t do ANYTHING right.” Perfectionism can be both a good and a bad thing: those who have it are often very hard workers and put their best effort into everything they do. But this comes at the high cost of their mental and sometimes physical wellbeing & health.
So, just ‘Pause To Ponder’ if your child seems noncompliant in terms of completing their homework. Look a little closer before getting angry, frustrated or berating them as they may be suffering from an insurmountable burden they are placing on their own shoulders.
What drives perfectionism in autism?
There are several factors that cause perfectionism in people with autism. Here are just a few of them:
- Black and White/All or Nothing Thinking: Common to typical perfectionists, many perfectionists on the spectrum, tend to feel that their work is either perfect or dreadful, with nothing in between. So, they think that they are either succeeding or failing at any given task. This black and white thinking is the cause of their anxiety and distress. I teach the children to ‘tap’ as I show them how to use Emotional Freedom Technique to reduce their anxiety. It empowers them to feel more in control when they notice their own triggers kicking in and I help them notice what those triggers are.
- Attention to Detail: When people are extremely attention to detail-oriented, they are naturally going to be more likely to notice even the tiniest errors, spelling mistakes or flaws.
- Social Issues: Many perfectionists feel that people will only love them or view them as having worth if they do everything right. This may also be the case for children with autism. A child on the spectrum who struggles with social cues may not know what their peers are thinking or feeling when they make a mistake so it causes them high anxiety & stress.
- Perseveration: Children with autism often get “stuck” on certain repetitive thoughts. As a result, they may be unable to stop thinking about whatever mistake they may have made, which fuels anxiety about making future mistakes. Tapping can help relieve these repetitive thoughts.
- Communication Difficulties: If children have trouble knowing how to ask for help because they struggle with communication, that makes failure even more stressful because how do they get help if they don’t know how to ask for it?
How can I help my perfectionistic child?
Helping your child with perfectionism is challenging, but not impossible.
Here are some suggestions:
- Constantly remind them of the truth.
The human brain is an amazing thing; if you tell it a certain message, over time, it will begin to internalise the message. So, make sure the message your child hears regularly, at least from you, in a relaxed, positive, confident tone is the truth. The secret is to be relaxed, positive and compassionately consistent. Constantly tell your child that no one is perfect, and it’s okay not to be. The only thing that can reasonably be expected from them is their best effort. Model that behaviour too as your child is constantly watching, listening and learning from you too all the time!
- Define & Explain “Best Effort” and “Good Enough.”
We use words all the time but do we ever stop to pause about what we mean by them? A child on the spectrum is very literal and may not fully comprehend what you mean when you say ‘Do your best ‘ or ‘That’s good enough.’ For some children it may mean “working conscientiously for a reasonable amount of time and putting lots of thought into the task.” For others, especially perfectionists, it may mean “working until it’s perfect or I have a mental breakdown.” Help your child define what a healthy, “best effort” looks like and when something is “good enough.” Make sure your child understands that they don’t have to do things perfectly to succeed; if your child is a black and white thinker, they may legitimately believe they can either perform perfectly or fail miserably, with no in-between! Help them learn to find that healthy balance over time.
- Provide plenty of time…within reason.
It’s not realistic of you to expect your child to change their perfectionistic tendencies overnight. So, as you help them learn to let things go, give them plenty of time to complete tasks…but also put limits on that time so they can rest and avoid overdoing it. Perhaps put a clock near them and set a reasonable time limit. Perhaps create a place, like ‘Ross’s Tray’ where your child can leave their homework to return to do a little more another time. But do monitor them.
- Give them a visual way to gauge their progress at something.
People with autism are often visual learners, so create a visual way of helping your child see their progress. Take a snap shot on your phone of their story when they start and after working on it so they can see how far they’ve come. Take a photo of them learning to ride their bike and after a few weeks. Also ‘Talk & Teach’ them to see their PROGRESS when they learn a new skill like ice skating or cooking or doing up their shoe laces or playing the piano, so they can gradually begin to see that they make fewer and fewer mistakes. This can help teach them that learning is a process, not an event.
- Be an example & model making mistakes & getting things wrong.
I as recently working with a family where the Dad was very driven and worked in Sales. He hated making mistakes & getting things wrong so their home was very unconsciously tense and the girls were picking up on this and were becoming anxious around making mistakes too. I encouraged the Dad to deliberately make mistakes and certainly to talk about when he gets things wrong and to laugh about it! By modelling a change in behaviour he gave his girls permission to do the same & the family atmosphere in their house relaxed.
- Make sure you’re not accidentally reinforcing your child’s perfectionism.
When your child succeeds at something, it’s easy to reward or shower praise on them for the success itself rather than the effort they put into making that success happen. Encouragement is about the process – the journey, whereas praise is about the results. So, to help your child relax more and enjoy the process – celebrate & help them feel good about their effort not just the finished product.
- Be patient & make sure YOU’RE not the perfectionist.
Just notice your attitude, words, feelings and mindset towards mistakes because unwittingly you may be adding to your child’s anxiety if you are the perfectionist…
A lot of the tips I’ve talked about are also applicable if you are the perfectionist:
Pause to Ponder:
- From time to time remind yourself of the truth—that it’s okay to be imperfect.
- Stop yourself as soon as you realise that you are having negative thoughts about your imperfections and replace them with more reasonable, balanced thoughts. It’s okay if you don’t believe them at first; just practise.
- Manage your time effectively. Not all time is equal. Some things in life deserve more effort and time than others so work out what’s most and least important, and devote your time and effort to them accordingly. Remember children spell love T-I-M-E!
- Give yourself deadlines if you spend too much time on certain tasks.
- Be patient & forgiving of yourself too
My thanks to A Stout & The Autism Site http://blog.theautismsite.com/category/ways-to-help/