I don’t understand why, as a society, we tell young children to believe in themselves more than we tell anyone else. Don’t get me wrong, children need encouragement; I just don’t think they need as much as they’re getting compared to the rest of us, because it’s not until we get older that we stop believing in ourselves so much. That “I can do anything” message sounds hollow as we come to understand the physical limitations of our bodies, our financial limitations, and so on. The more we realize we can’t do, the harder it is to imagine ourselves being happy in the future, and the fear that sets in as a result takes a long time to get over. I know because I’m experiencing it, right now, not for the first time, but at a much higher level than before.
I never had problems with self-esteem as a kid; if anything, I believed in myself too much, to the point where I threw a fit whenever I couldn’t do something, or when my parents or teachers wouldn’t even let me try. And those moments of doubt never lasted long once I became a teenager, but they still came around pretty frequently. The last few years of middle school, I had just gotten my autism diagnosis, and I thought it made me so special, like I had some kind of super brain that I had to show off. My classmates were not so impressed, however, and they would do everything they could think of to give me sensory overload and get a bad reaction out of me. And they got that reaction, every time. What’s worse is that the teachers were more upset with my meltdown than they were with the instigators, and this took the biggest toll on my self-esteem. My parents always sided with the school when they heard about these incidents, and while my grades were always good, it made everyone wonder if I was gonna make it in high school, never mind the real world. No matter how well I did in class, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the world was against me.
Things did get better in high school; I acted out less and less as the years went on, and I learned how to advocate for myself. But the old self-esteem problems just got replaced with new ones as I tried to figure out who and what I really liked, and what I wanted to do with my life. Some were things all teenagers experience (getting turned down by someone I had a crush on), while others were classic Leah being Leah (arguing with classmates and criticizing teachers whose style I didn’t like). What some fail to understand is that autism doesn’t go away as autistic people get older; we may be better at controlling how we act, but the issues are still there, and it still takes effort not only for us to try and fit in, but for neurotypical people to try and understand why we act the way we do. My thinking was very rigid because I am autistic, and that’s why I was always so argumentative. When no one understands why you feel attacked just because someone disagrees with you, it can make you question whether you’ll ever have a place in society.
The only thing that makes me still believe in myself despite all of these obstacles is the knowledge that it won’t last forever. Either I’ve just been incredibly lucky my entire life, or I’m really good at finding solutions when I’m near the breaking point, but every snag I hit seems to resolve itself in the end. I carried that attitude into college, and it served me well, reminding me that no matter how boring or difficult a class was, I would pull through as long as I stayed determined. Getting rejected for job applications hurts, but a summer has never passed where I’ve come up empty-handed.
Still, despite all of these successes, my self-esteem sinks to pretty low levels sometimes, as I wonder what I should be doing with my degree, or if I should go in a new direction altogether. I’m in law school now, and some subjects are hard for me to grasp or even take an interest in. I often question whether I made the right choice in coming here, if I really have the heart to tackle the big issues I came here to face. So I keep reminding myself that everything has worked out before, and I try my best to hold on to the hope that it will again.
This is why adults need that extra encouragement, especially young adults who feel like they should know what they’re doing and don’t. And people on the autism spectrum could especially use that confidence boost, because with our sensory issues, motor difficulties, and social challenges, it can be easy to feel like the world wasn’t built for us to live in. Not everyone who struggles with these self-esteem problems has been so lucky that they all work out, so that little bit of moral support could go a long way. My parents may have been doubtful whenever I acted out in school, but they still believed I could do better, and I would not be where I am now if it weren’t for them always being in my corner. The year I graduated from UNH, someone in my family gave me a bracelet for Christmas with a message engraved on it: “She believed she could, so she did.” That sentence has become my personal motto.