Polly's pages (aka 'Donna Williams')

Ever the arty Autie

Autism and competition; she just won’t compete!


imaginary friend by Donna Williams I got a letter from a lovely parent about her teenage daughter, a wonderful long distance runner. Yet the coach was stumped. Why wouldn’t she compete? She’d just let the others pass her, retaining her same rhythmic pace.

Non-autistic people have a consistent capacity to simultaneously process sense of self and other. This is necessary to many things… to imagining what another person might think, to gaining insight about one’s effect on others, to having that insight AND being able to then apply that in altering one’s own behavior, to being fluent in social game playing, to remembering why to say hello, and to holding onto the point of a game, a race, a competition.

But whilst many people with Asperger’s get enough simultaneous processing of sense of self and other to gain some entry to these things, even they may find this cognitively waxes and wanes.

Of course personality figures too. Someone with personality traits which have a high need for admiration or recognition or even a high tendency toward narcissism or aggressive traits driving them to seek power over others or the conscientious trait which desires achievement will be MOTIVATED to strive to retain a consistent sense of self and other. Those with other traits, particularly the idiosyncratic, solitary, artistic, leisurely or devoted personality traits, may just not be designed that way. Then there are those with the sensitive personality trait or the self sacrificing trait may compete just to please or to help others but shirk the glory and achievement.
Environment matters too. In early childhood, my mother invested intensely in the promise that if nothing else I might succeed as a dancer (they don’t have to talk, socialise, they learn physically, musically and by rote) and I felt that my potential as a dancer was often the only thing between me and a Children’s Home. So whether it’s letting others down, pride in the one skill one has, or avoiding serious consequences, environment does also play a part. It may be able to prompt you through developing a skill to the point you compete not by intent but by default. You may incidentally become so highly trained you are just too good at something for others to do better.

So competition or the lack of it is a combination of cognitive processing abilities (often also physical abilities including motor planning), personality and environment.

Now some people with Aspergers and many people with autism swing between a sense of all self- no other and all other-no self
so when in all self mode, awareness of other people’s reactions, one’s place in relation to them or the consequences, can evaporate. In all other-no self mode, one can stop, stare and have little response yet be mapping everything the other person has done even though they may have no conscious awareness or access to what they think or feel about that at that time. So a lack of competition may be very normal for that cognition.

Personally, hierarchy scares me. I love equality. I have little natural desire to compete. I will defend myself… something bullies, abusers, stalkers and trolls have taught me over many years. But beyond the moment, it’s as if they evaporate. And I’m glad my brain works that way, even though it also means EVERYTHING evaporates pretty constantly… the boiling kettle, the cooking toast, the running water, where I put my bag down, who I was waiting for, what I had been about to do or say. And sure, I curse those often frustrating deficits, but fact is they also come with some benefits. I know this incapacity to multi-track means I’m more socially vulnerable, but I can’t help but also enjoy the rest which comes from being unable to stay on track (to a degree).
And I like rhythm, so in walking or jogging, that’s what appeals to me. I have outrun people but only when I fear they’ll grab or touch me and when I haven’t ‘turned invisible’ or into diversions and wished them away. I have playfully outrun people, usually to be the first one to get to do something ritualistic that I’m used to (no, I’ll get it). But the abstract concept of beating people in game or race so I can have the glory of being the best… well when I think of ‘the best’, I lose the part of ‘in relation to whom’. So I am much better at grasping how I’ve improved on my own standards and that’s part of being an artist, striving for what speaks to me through art.

Even in those who can retain a degree of simultaneous processing of self and other, the self-other thing fluctuates. Where for most people, holding onto a simultaneous sense of self and other, is like breathing, for many auties this requires CONSCIOUS EFFORT (this is in The Jumbled Jigsaw and also in Autism; An Inside Out Approach… both published by Jessica Kingsley Publishing ) . Like anything requiring constant conscious effort to hold it, attention, concentration, mental energy to do so, waxes and wanes. Sometimes one’s brain is just built that way (though Glutamine is an amino acid used as a ‘smart drug’ which can improve information processing).

I have a heap of skills. I’m great with lists. I’m wonderful at characterisations. I have relatively fluent gestural signing. I have some fluency in French, Italian, German. I learned French in a week. I am an artist, writer, singer songwriter. Other things I need assistance with – anything that involves multitasking, internal mentalising, holding more than 1-2 instructions, requiring sequencing or sustained attention, things requiring receptive language processing whether spoken or read words, things requiring good ‘real time’ processing or facial recognition, things that involve ongoing social-emotional entanglements or competition with others. So I have a load of skills, even more HALF skills, and some deficits which put me outside of the mainstream workplace. Its important to not commiserate when one has a half-skill. Better to find a quirky, useful place for it where it is valued in its own right for what it is not what it is not.

Donna Williams

author, artist, singer-songwriter, screenwriter