Taking “Ought” Out Of Autism

Ought is a word I’ve heard too often in my life. If I had a penny for every time I’ve been told what I ought to be doing, how I ought to be behaving, I’d have enough for a nice new pair of shoes! Maybe not Jimmy Choo or Christian Louboutin but you know what I mean.

Ought is a word that does violence, imposing the speaker’s values on the recipient. It says that the person being addressed is in the wrong, that they must change to satisfy the speaker. It’s an insidious word, couching the statement in the guise of suggestion.

Being told what you ought to do can be harmful for autistic people like me who formalize sets of rules to govern our actions. It denies us the right to behave and express ourselves naturally: I’ve acquired a motley collection of inhibitions over the years as I have internalized the expressed preferences of those I’ve spent time around.

I realized a few years ago that all this was compelling me to try to pass as allistic, to mimic the behavior of those non-autistic people around me. I reduced my stims to barely noticeable actions, I’d push myself to stay when the environment was hostile — too crowded, loud or bright — and I neglected my self-care.

The result was that I’d melt down far too frequently, I would drink most evenings to try to shut off and relax. It was largely self-destructive; the way out for me was to learn to be more self-aware and to recognize my feelings, my mental and physical states. That led me to understand that I was trying to live up to other people’s expectations: what I ought to be like.

Discarding years of internalized guilt and shame about all the ways I’d been doing things “wrong” isn’t easy and I’m still some way from working through it all, putting it behind me. There’s a huge amount of anxiety involved in consciously facing the inhibitions and going against them.

Things like hand flapping, walking away to find peace and quiet, asking for accommodations; for example, moving to another desk at work away from distractions. All this goes against the grain of what I’ve been conditioned to believe, but it all has positive benefits for my well-being. And I’m learning to trust my own judgment about what is right for me.