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It's Got To Be Perfect

It's Got To Be Perfect

Image: Istvan

Afraid to try.
Afraid of making mistakes.
Meltdowns after getting it wrong.
Obsessed about fixing errors.
Incredibly high standards.
Perfectionist.

Does this sound like anyone you know?

Being a perfectionist can be a common autistic trait. I’ve lost count of the number of times Max has rubbed through the paper trying to erase all evidence of a spelling mistake. If an art project doesn’t quite work out or a Lego model is put together incorrectly, it must be completely destroyed. If there’s so much as the tiniest imperfection in his food it gets thrown away. Colouring outside of the lines? Factual errors? Spelling mistakes and typos? These upset him greatly. Committing thoughts to paper causes him so much anxiety that he can’t even get started, yet suggestions or constructive criticism strike like daggers to his self-esteem. He strives for perfection, and won’t accept anything less.

And I understand him completely, because I’m exactly the same.

There are two sides to the perfectionist coin - striving to make everything perfect and getting upset when it's not. So while on the one hand setting high standards for yourself can create an admirable work ethic, the fear of making mistakes can also cause so much anxiety that it leads to frustration, depression, embarrassment, social isolation and meltdowns.

So why is it common in autism? Why is it so stressful, and what can you do to help?

What contributes to perfectionism?

Rigid thinking

Every task has a threshold that defines how far we have to push ourselves towards achieving success. It’s called ‘good enough’ - somewhere short of perfection that allows us to stop and move onto something else. But ‘good enough’ can be a pretty vague concept, one that can be extra hard to understand if you have a tendency to think in absolutes. Right vs wrong. Good vs bad. When there are no shades in between then the stakes are raised and success becomes an all-or-nothing kind of deal.

Anxiety about change

Every mistake is a change from what was planned and expected - even if you start out assuming that you’re going to fail, it’s unlikely that you’d be able to foresee exactly when and how you’re going to mess up. Mistakes aren’t predictable, so the sudden appearance of something off-schedule is extremely stressful for someone who prefers sameness. Striving for perfection is a way of taking some control over that randomness.

Social comprehension

People often laugh at mistakes and if you struggle to understand the way other people communicate, it’s really easy to feel like the laughter is directed at you. That feels like crap and it’s something that everyone tries to avoid. This kind of misunderstanding also makes it hard to interpret the social consequences of making a mistake - Did anyone notice? Are people mad at me? Do they like me less? - which adds to the anxiety of making one. Not to mention that it’s easy to break social rules when you’re not aware that they exist, so sometimes it can feel as if you’re always making mistakes.

Attention to detail

When you’re skilled at picking up on details you tend to notice variations and mistakes, no matter how small they might be. It can be hard to step back from that and see the bigger picture, the overall success in spite of the errors.

Hyperfocus

When you're super-focused on the task in front of you, it's less likely that you'll notice the people around you who are also making mistakes - striving for perfection makes sense when you think that everyone else is doing it too.

Perseveration

When disengaging attention is a struggle, it can be hard to let go of a mistake and stop thinking about it. Focusing on failures and replaying them over and over feeds the anxiety about making mistakes, which in turn increases the need for perfection.

Literal thinking

Misinterpreting figurative speech creates lots of opportunities for getting stuff wrong, and misunderstanding the consequences of mistakes can increase the fear of making them (“If you mess up, you’ll get fired”).

Executive functions

Disruptions to cognitive skills like planning and organization can make it difficult to figure out where mistakes are being made, and what you need to practice to stop them from happening.

Communication difficulties

Making a mistake usually means you need to get help. But when you have trouble knowing who, when and how to ask for help it can be stressful to be put in a situation when might you need it. It might make you reluctant to admit that you’ve made a mistake, or even stop you from trying at all - because if you don’t try then you can’t fail, and if you don’t fail then you don’t need help.

Hypersensitivities

Voices that seem loud can feel harsh and criticizing, especially for someone who also has trouble understanding the nuances of verbal communication. This can make any kind of correction, no matter how small or subtle, feel like a threat to be avoided at all costs.

Cue the screams of perfectionists everywhere.

What can you do to help?

Reframe thinking about mistakes

It’s okay to make them - not just okay, but expected. Learning is a gradual process, and making errors is just a part of that. If your kids are perfectionists, try listing out the steps they need to take to learn a new skill to reassure them that they’re not expected to know it all just yet. Keep visual records of their progress, so you can show them that with time and practice they're making fewer mistakes.

Set an example

If your kids are perfectionists, help them to understand that everyone makes mistakes. Make a point of noting when you stuff something up, and take it in your stride. “Oops! I did that wrong. Never mind, I’ll try it again...”

Reduce the stress

Never laugh at their mistakes or those of other people. Be patient with their anxiety about making a mistake and the need to correct them - let them use pencil or a computer to write with so errors are easier to fix, and allow plenty of time. Give space to vent frustration away from the work that they're doing, so it doesn’t get destroyed. Be mindful that obsessing over their mistakes might make them want to isolate themselves socially - don’t force them to participate, and explain that nobody thinks badly about them because of the mistake.

Reward the attempt

Gently encourage them to try new things, and reward their attempts regardless of the outcome. Speak softly when offering suggestions and tread carefully with criticism.

Introduce some grey

Help them to understand that success doesn’t have to mean perfection. Define the 'good enough' threshold so they know how to recognize their own success, and try working to a deadline to help them know when to stop.

Break the cycle

Obsessively thinking about mistakes leads to more anxiety, which in turn can lead to more mistakes. Help them to work through each perceived failure, then redirect to a task with a high chance of success.

Make success easier

Give them plenty of opportunities to experience success. Make sure they have supports if needed, alternate difficult tasks with ones they find easy, and help them to set lower standards for success to avoid constantly feeling like a failure.

Teach them how to prioritize

Not all tasks are of equal importance or consequence. Show them how to identify the ones that are worth working hard on.

Talk about consequences

Show that mistakes can be survivable. Work through the possible outcomes of not being perfect by playing a game of ‘What if’ - so what if you don't get 100% on your spelling test? What if you colour outside the square? What if you don't find the perfect picture to go with your blog post about perfectionism? Sometimes it's the fear of not knowing the consequences that drive the need for perfection.

 

The bottom line

Remember that no matter how frustrating it can be to live with a perfectionist, it’s a hundred times more frustrating to be one.

This article was first published in October 2012.

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