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Expectations and the harm they can do

I was planning this post on expectations and, I have to be honest here, every time I thought about it, I was reminded of the times I have let people down. So, that kind of proves my point before I've even begun!

Expectations can be the enemy of the aspie peace of mind. Like my earlier post about my school days and in the post where I talk about the various jobs I've had, expectations play an important part not just in life events like school and work, but also in our inter-personal relationships.

The expectations of other people define us in much the same ways as how they talk about us and to us. Again, referring to an earlier post about self esteem, expectations of us doing badly can be as much a factor as when people hope or assume we will do well.

Let's look at negative expectations first and get them out of the way. These are the ones we tend to get from people who don't really mind if they hurt our feelings or who care more about the thing we will do wrong than our self-esteem. So the teacher who is determined we won't misbehave again is focused only on the behaviour that has gone before and what she expects we'll do as soon as she isn't watching us this time. Her opinions are vocal and damning, especially to our parents and often while we're present. In her mind, there's no point talking about us when we're not there - it's not as if we don't know what we're doing, is it?

You come away from this sort of treatment believing you can do no right, because most of the time you have made no effort to do wrong, and still you managed it. So if it's that easy to get it wrong, it must be practically impossible to get it right.

The negative expectations of the teacher become self-fulfilling as whatever drives you to behave in class in a certain way, be it nerves, a crowded, noisy environment, missing home, feeling over-tired: all these things combine to cause your aspie behaviours to take on a life of their own and all the bad things spouted by the teacher come to fruition.

This sort of negative cycle of you fulfilling bad expectations can be stopped in its tracks with the right treatment. I don't mean you change personality overnight, but in the teacher example, you just need the right teacher over-seeing the class for the negative behaviour to be curbed and changed, usually by simple measures such as the teacher showing they like you and care about you. With younger children it can really be that simple; though the teacher may still need to keep an eye on your more creative escapades.

Negative expectations from family members can be far more devastating. With a teacher, especially the type to take against you or your behaviour, you are very rarely the only one in class who is suffering. You can usually see others being told off as well as yourself, even if you're the 'star of the show'. You also tend to get sympathy from other children, despite bringing the trouble on yourself.

With relatives, negative expectations are also built on behaviour which has caused them difficulty, but it is all made worse by the fact they are closer to you due to being related and, usually, their wishes and expectations are supported by your parents.

If you do something a relative doesn't like, such as fiddling with the frilly trim of the cushions every time you visit, then you are told to stop. Those cushions, though, oh my but they're frilly. And you know what? The frill has a silky edge on it and when you play with it, you can feel the silk tickling your finger ends. Before you know it, the cushions are removed when you walk through the door.

Your parents would support your relative in this. They don't want to have you fiddling with someone else's cushions when you visit and causing bad feeling. They want a nice visit without an upset relative. Also, you've been told by them and the relative to keep off the cushions. It's not as if you don't know!

The cushions are removed but you still have a reputation as a fiddler. Relatives, especially the more elderly ones, love repetition, especially when it comes to children for some reason. Once you've done something that sticks in the mind, you're always going to do it. And, as an aspie, you probably will.

Those cushions will be brought up every time you visit. They will probably even tell you where they've had to put them, to keep them safe from you. There will be warning looks and reminders of what you did. In other words, negative expectations that you'll do it again.

It doesn't take much effort for this to become negative expectations of you doing something else, similarly annoying and unabashed. You may even find the fiddler reputation following you from relative to relative.

This example can be transferred to just about anything, but keeping it within the friends and family circle. Your aspie as a child and teenager is trapped within family confines and must visit people and behave a certain way while there. Any negative expectations 'enjoyed' by the aspie follow along with them, and there is ample opportunity for them to be brought up again and again.

A quick example for a teenager may be the decision of what to do after school. You can guarantee everyone will ask them what their plans are for when they've left school. This sort of conversation lays the teen open to opinions and expectations galore; they are seen as an open subject where people who know them well can say what they expect them to do.

I think part of the problem with expectations is that they are always linked with someone's personal opinion of the aspie, but are a way of commenting on the aspie without it seeming too personal. It's more acceptable to say that the teenager is expected to stay on at school because of past results, than to say you think they're making a terrible decision. The voicing of expectations is a milder form of giving an opinion, a way of saying what you think while disguising it as something the aspie should know already.

For instance, if the aspie teen has had good results in Maths but doesn't want to go back to school, it's seen as acceptable to talk about high hopes you may have had for them, because the aspie brought it on themselves by being good at maths. It's seen as better to talk about what you expected of them than to say to the aspie, what a terrible decision you're making!

You can see that expectations and talking about them, negative or positive, are a sneaky way of expressing opinions which may otherwise come across as too personal or strong. Unfortunately, the effect is the same as if you had voiced the opinions. Aspies are not stupid, they can work out you are disappointed without you having to come out and say it.

As far as positive expectations are concerned, these can be as bad as the negative ones. The negative ones are familiar. After years of getting it wrong, they become an unwelcome, but often-seen, face at the door. The positive ones are worse because they are often voiced by people you want to please and who really care about you. They express hope for the future and faith in you, the aspie.

You see, aspies often have little faith in themselves, due to low self-worth. Being told by someone else that not only are you a great person, you're also expected to do great things; it can be too much.

Someone with aspergers, at any age, struggles with thinking about the future and what they will do in it. It requires planning and some confidence that it can be carried off without stress or mishap. To be told you are expected to go into that future and achieve things, and that those things are directly linked to you and your talents, is terrifying.

It means pressure is put on you to do well, to fulfill your potential, to not mess it up. It's this last one that makes the teeth grind and the eyes flicker with fear. We're so used to messing it up, we can always see that as a possibility. What we have more trouble with is the thought of independently achieving something without it going wrong.

Added to this is the inability to see it as less than black or white. Either we will or we won't mess it up. We won't partly mess it up but do okay. We won't mostly succeed with a few hiccups. No, it's all or nothing. And as the past is strewn with pebbles rather than sand, we can't see this new venture going smoothly.

We're then faced with your hope. Oh dear, the hope. The light in the eyes as we see that the muck-up aspie is being imagined as the hero of the hour. Within us, we believe that we can put out that light and leave you disappointed. Again.

Even if we have some confidence in our abilities and aren't convinced it will all fall apart, the very fact you have these positive expectations is enough to ramp up the pressure and make it all seem a little too much to face. It doesn't matter that your intention is to support and cajole: we can see past your subtleties in this area, if no other. We know you have the hope, we can smell it.

This is why so many aspies are put off from trying. How frustrating to see all that potential slink off to its bedroom and close the door, hoping to pretend nothing was in any danger of changing and everything will remain the same.

I can imagine you feel very downhearted at times like this, when your aspie is being obstinate and not wanting to go for the big dream, or the little dream, or even the tiny one with the sparkle in it.

This is where it becomes important to make everything about stages and sections. Imagine the task in hand as being chopped up so it can be digested in pieces. If you have any hope of helping your aspie to get past the barrier of expectations, then it's with this staged approach, where you make it seem possible by not being a giant task, but something that can be done a little bit at a time - even if those little bits follow right on from one another.

Don't lose hope (just hide it better!). Keep on with the support and the pep talks. Try to sidle past the obstinate look and stomping feet. Don't let them away with it and then, sometimes, do. It's a judgment call as to whether your aspie will  gain or lose by pushing for the thing you know they can do. Is it for you or them? What good will it do? Is it something they can't afford to do without? Will they love themselves less if they fail?

Each situation is different but do hold off from voicing too many expectations. State the facts of what it might be like and how it can be planned for. Make it seem manageable and you may be surprised by an unexpected willingness to have a go.

In the end, as always, expectations are only that. In the real world of the aspergers child or adult, they can only do what is achievable at the time. The important thing is to have you waiting at the end of it.


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