And I can imagine the sheer diversity among those who need it: autistic adults who struggle in the workplace, dyslexic children who struggle in school, the ‘black sheep of the family’ or the friends who don’t fit in… and honestly, it’s difficult writing advice to match so many different people’s circumstances. Nonetheless, I’ll try. As usual, feel free to pick and choose the bits that apply to you.
I’ll start by saying…
First things first, I don’t like the title of this article.
Most specifically, I don’t like the word “coping” when discussing difference. We shouldn’t have to cope with being different – we should be celebrating it! The fact that so many people (including myself) have to use the word “cope” says a lot about how unfairly people get treated if they dare to be different to the crowd. We deserve better.
I hope that, by the end of this article, you’ll be able to shift your focus from ‘coping’ with standing out to celebrating the fact that you do, and seeing the opportunities that can often come with difference.
You probably don’t realise it, but the world needs you.
Although your initial response might be a sarcastic “yeah, right”, it’s helpful to wonder where humanity would be without those who are different.
I work as a special needs tutor, in addition to being a writer. Almost all of my students are autistic, and have a variety of reasons for being outside the education system. Without going into details, very few of them have positive reasons for needing people like me. And a lot of the time, they have been taught (deliberately or not) to hate their neurodivergence, or see it as a synonym for “everything wrong with them”. When I first found out I was autistic, I was led to believe the same.
I make sure to tell these young people that they’re just as valid and useful in society as everyone else – the only difference is that they’ve not (yet) found a place where they’ve been allowed to play to their strengths.
I then tell them that nearly every useful invention was probably invented by either an autistic person or a dyslexic person.
And you know what? Not all of them were geniuses. People love to say that Albert Einstein was blatantly an undiagnosed dyslexic (and to me, he was blatantly autistic too), but the bit they forget to mention is that you don’t need to be a genius to be brilliant. The world is full of dyslexic inventors who never got a university degree.
So how did they succeed? They found a place in the world where they were able to play to their strengths. Where their strengths were relevant, needed, and appreciated.
They didn’t succeed by extinguishing all their differences, and trying to look so normal and boring that people suddenly decided they were brilliant.
Believe me, I’ve tried that route. Here’s what happened.
When I tried to make myself ‘less autistic’
It was 2009 when I learned I was autistic. It was one of many things I learned during the worst year of my life, when everyone seemed intent on making me feel bad about myself.
And like I said, at the time I thought autism meant “everything that was wrong with me” (but I chose to ignore the fact that I had some crazy mathematical skills and an astounding memory, both of which were the result of my Asperger’s too).
So the obvious conclusion for me was “the less autistic I become, the better off I’ll be”. So I tried to change my personality to be as similar to everyone else as possible, and stamp down my Asperger’s until there was nothing visible left of it.
It… er… didn’t work.
There were two reasons it failed. First of all, it made me sadder than ever before. My commitment to hiding my real self (and teaching myself to hate my real self) just meant I’d lost sight of who I really was. I was no longer my own person, but a sad brain looking for commands from other people for who I was supposed to be.
I didn’t allow myself to have my own identity. And I knew that if I spent every day pretending to be someone else, one day I’d wake up and the real me would have vanished. The fake version of me would be the only side of me left, and it was a scary thought.
And the second reason it didn’t work? I literally couldn’t be normal if I tried.
Sure, people noticed a change in me. But it wasn’t a positive change. To them, I must have looked like someone trying to speak another language and doing a terrible job of it.
Their reaction wasn’t “Wow, Chris has finally become a more socially acceptable person”. It was more like “What on Earth does Chris think he’s doing?”
Even though I was socially inept before those days, I had still been me. When I tried to change myself, nobody knew who I was trying to be. And honestly, neither did I.
I imagine some people are reading this and thinking “well if hiding my differences won’t work, then I’m stuffed”.
I get it. Back then I thought the same thing.
Life changed when I started playing to my strengths. More specifically, I got a job in a special school, working with teenagers similar to myself, and was able to give them guidance that few others could. Suddenly, I was not only doing things I was good at, but being seen to be doing things I was good at.
A few years later, I started Autistic Not Weird. Now I travel nationally and internationally teaching people about autism, help autistic people online and offline, and have a novel coming out featuring neurodiverse heroes. And I don’t have to hide my diagnosis anymore – in fact, my autism is seen as a strength! (I’m not going to lie, there are obviously still difficulties. But life is much healthier now that those difficulties aren’t seen as the most defining part about my existence.)
So in a sentence, this is my advice: instead of changing who you’ve always been, find an environment where you can be your real self.
(A while ago I ran a series of three-minute autism advice videos, the first of which was “Stop trying to be normal!” Here it is if anyone wants further insights on this point.)
Because I have to ask this next question, to everyone who feels the need to supress their neurodivergent self:
If you did change yourself, who would you REALLY be doing it for?
Seriously, it’s an important question to ask yourself. Is this change for your benefit, or somebody else’s? Will it be you who benefits from this, or someone who would never have liked you anyway?
If the change really does help you: for example, changing the way you handle stressful situations or changing your self-perception for the better, then sure – do it. But if the only beneficiary is another person, ask yourself why you’re bothering.
(I should say that, once in a while, changing for other people can be advantageous. For example, becoming more patient to help your children as they become teenagers. Or being more prepared to take on housework after getting married. But these changes are done out of love, not fear. They are a reflection of how much you value your loved ones, rather than a shame-based suppression of your actual self.)
I imagine some would read the heading above and think “but I would be changing for my own benefit, because it would stop people bullying me.” But even if it protects you, ultimately that change would still be for the bullies. The change would just be a way of asking the bullies to leave you alone, not an act of self-improvement on your part.
Changing yourself should be about taking steps to becoming the best person you can be, or an act of sacrifice for someone you love. Not something to appease people who dislike difference.
Finally, there are a few important things that need to be mentioned, and need to be remembered.
“Normal” people still get sad.
“Normal” people still have self-esteem issues.
“Normal” people still wish they were someone else.
There’s this misconception among some people that “normal” is this beautiful land of milk and honey and double rainbows, where nobody has any problems or is ever made to feel inadequate.
Trust me, I’ve tried to be normal. It’s not that great.
And given the choice between struggling as my real self or struggling as my fake self, I’d rather have my real brain to guide me.
Ok, so how DO you cope with being different?
So whatever the solution to being different is, it’s not getting rid of your differences. So how can we be ourselves in a way that helps us?
Well, I’ve got three tips.
1) Surround yourself with the right people.
Yeah, I’m not going to pretend this one’s easy. Some of our company can be out of our control. (Although perhaps not as much as we’re made to think. Even jobs can be moved away from, for example, as difficult as it might be.)
Even if you’ve got no choice in some areas of your life, surrounding yourself socially with like-minded people can be extremely helpful.
And you know what? They don’t even have to be like-minded people. Not many of my closest friends have brains similar to mine. Finding other autistic people is great – my life is a lot richer now I know so many of them – but the main aim is simply to find people who know your brain and appreciate it.
Important point: if you’re anything like me, you may have a sense of “Aspie loyalty” as I used to call it, which may compel you to not move away from the people you currently hang around with (even if you know they’re a bad influence). Be very careful with that: I used the same misplaced sense of loyalty to hold on to my school ‘friends’ who not-very-secretly hated me and were actually quite harmful to me. There’s an important difference between being “disloyal” and looking after yourself in the way you deserve.
2) Find a place in the world where you can play to your strengths.
You may have noticed, I use that phrase a lot. And I make no apologies for that. Like you read earlier, life changed for me once I did.
If you’re human, you have strengths. That’s the rule. And you don’t have to be the best in the world at something to consider it a strength. Heck, chess is a very big strength of mine, but according to FIDE rankings I’m 162,070th in the world. (But I’m the 2,279th-best player in England. Woo hoo!)
In 2013 I didn’t really get the chance to do anything that I was truly good at (other than chess). Wow, times have changed: last month I was in India delivering a talk about how to nurture autistic brains. I’d love to go back in time and tell my younger self what the future was going to hold. The opportunities are there, even if they’re hidden.
3) Don’t just make peace with who you are. Actually enjoy who you are.
One of the first things I learned in therapy was that your opinion about yourself means a huge amount. It even affects you biologically. And I spent years trying to “make peace with myself”: coming to terms with being autistic and recognising that I wasn’t actually as faulty as I thought.
Eventually I managed it. But then I realised… should that be enough? Is that it? Am I comfortable with just making peace with myself, or do I have higher aims than just not hating myself?
I actually want to enjoy who I am. I want to look at my social awkwardness and give it a fond laugh, rather than feel nothing but shame. I want to be proud of my freakish memory abilities rather than feel embarrassed about them. I want to recognise what I’m good at and love the fact that I’m good at them. I want to base my opinion of myself on what I’m good at, not what everybody else thinks I should be good at.
I know how difficult it is because I’ve been there. But find the things you’re good at, and dare to like yourself for them. You deserve it, and you’ve earned it.
But what if other people don’t appreciate all those good things about you? Or see you being your real self and choose to dislike you for it? Just remember this phrase, which has helped me ever since I was sixteen.
To those who have needed advice on coping with being different, I hope this has been helpful. Again, feel free to pick and choose which bits apply to you. And as always, you’re more than welcome to join Autistic Not Weird’s Facebook community, or take a look at my YouTube channel. (Oh, and since Facebook only alerts 7% of a page’s followers to new posts [on average], feel free to subscribe to this blog using the box in the right-hand column if you want to avoid missing new articles.)
Underdogs, a near-future dystopia series where the heroes are teenagers with special needs, is a character-driven war story which pitches twelve people against an army of millions, balancing intense action with a deeply developed neurodiverse cast.
Chris Bonnello is a national and international autism speaker, available to lead talks and training sessions from the perspective of an autistic former teacher. For further information please click here (opens in new window). Autistic Not Weird on Facebook