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The Myth of the Under-Achiever

Somewhere along the line it became normal to label aspergers as under-achievers. I don't want to beat about the bush on this one. I'm not planning to cover it in ivy and call it Art; this is a standard response which crops up again and again. Aspergers often equals under-achieving, a failure to fulfill potential. And, to be completely honest, I prove that point myself.

I have said before that I was an academic at school. I tried hard, enjoyed exams (a freak in more ways than one), I wanted to go out into the world and have a career, as well as getting my degree.

Alongside this I always wanted to be a writer. In fact, I always was a writer, the being a writer is just what happens when you get published. I wanted to spend my whole working life sharing the stories which rampaged through my head. But writing was a hobby, something you did in your spare time. The rest of your working life was the proper job. If you happened to become successful with the writing, then that could become the career - until then, it was delegated to the role of interloper, time-sucker, parlour trick.

In the defence of anyone who ever told me to get a proper job, I was also easily distracted, unlikely to knuckle down and write every single day, only producing full works when the inspiration carried me far enough. When it did carry me, then the magic happened, but I didn't have the necessary maturity to realise I had to write even when I didn't want to.

So, the under-achieving side of things had its claws in everywhere. In the writing, with my need to only get out the typewriter when the muse struck and in the jobs I did after I left school.

When I left sixth form, I knew I had to work. I wanted to, I was very keen to get out into the world (ignorance: bliss). It didn't take many days of having a proper job for me to realise I needed to go and finish my A levels and escape to college. It's amazing how much incentive you can gain from working at the bottom of the pay scale in a public-facing role.

In the two years between leaving school and going away to college, I managed to fit in four paid jobs and one voluntary one. Volunteering at Oxfam at the very start of my career was the one I liked the best, because the old ladies I worked with thought I was their pet teenager (I was), I liked it when they had fights and there was always tea and biscuits on offer. Also, they were pleased to see me every day.

The paid jobs followed a pattern which became familiar over the years. I would start a job and it was going to be perfect. You've no idea how perfect it was going to be. I was going to love it, they would love me, I would progress quickly and be the boss in record time. Etc. Except it never quite worked out like that.

My good intentions would be eroded by difficult days, monotony, malicious colleagues (not many of those but it only takes one), more monotony, routine and no escape when I was feeling delicate and needed to be alone. I would do my best and mostly it was good enough. Then, over time, it would start to wear me down and the thought of going into work would become almost as painful as the work itself. It became difficult even to think about going in, until I couldn't stand it any longer and moved on to the next job.

So, despite my brains and my need for approval, I was still the under-achiever at work because I never lived up to my potential. If every day had been like my best days, or even my good days, there's no telling where I would be now. For certain, I would not be writing this blog. I'd be a high-powered business woman with a nanny and a gardener. I also wouldn't be writing my books about different worlds, a yearning for change, magic in everyday life and dogs as big as horses.

I loved college. Learning for its own sake, mixing with all kinds of clever, interesting and barmy people. Tutors who treated you like real people and who were more eccentric than me! Imagine that, a real-life tutor who made me seem almost normal, introducing me to the magic of religious philosophy. Francesca, if you are out there and reading this, the things you opened up to me are in every single book I write: thank you!

After college, the shadow of the proper job reared its head again and I slipped back into the under-achieving cycle. I did have some happy years as a stay-at-home mum - absolutely no under-achieving there! - and then back to work again.

It wasn't until I started working for myself that I realised what was wrong with all those jobs. Well, actually, not much was wrong with the jobs, it was me who wasn't right. Working for myself, I was able to structure my working days and take time off when I needed to recuperate from the world. If things became too stressful, I didn't need to quit and move on, I just needed to take time out. Knowing you have this release valve is often enough for you to hardly ever need to use it. It's the perspective that matters.

From there, I followed the path which led me here, to you. I learned enough about myself to look back over my patchwork CV and realise what had been going wrong and why. I was able to look back and see that I would have been unsuitable for any job that added stress to my life, without an acceptable Exit signposted into the plan.

And this is where I need to come back to the theory of the under-achieving aspie. This is the point where I say *@?$&X*! to it. Yes, you heard me, I said *@?$&X*! and I meant it!
Aspies do not under-achieve: everything they do is an achievement. I don't mean that to sound patronising, I’m being genuine. Let me show you.

On the outside, when I arrive slightly late for work, looking disheveled, I have been under-achieving again. I am more than capable of being on time, of organising myself and presenting myself in an appropriate manner. There are people at work with me who have far greater burdens in life and who arrive with a cheerful smile and immaculate hair.

Now, let's take another look.

I was awake half the night, thinking about coming in. The stress has built to a point where I feel physical pain when I think about it. When I sit watching TV with my family, part of me is still at work. When I talk to people about other things, I'm thinking about work. When I do the washing and there are work clothes in it, I feel that muddy pit in the bottom of my stomach curdle as I anticipate having to wear them again.

When I washed my hair last night, I forgot to dry it properly because I had to get my clothes ready for work today. I was feeling upset and trapped, so I sat with my family for longer than normal and went to bed late. Then when I couldn't sleep, I thought of what I could do today, instead of being at work. And I yearned for that other life.

When I woke this morning, I was mentally exhausted. I should have been on time but I couldn't focus because I knew I was coming in here, instead of staying at home, where it's safe.
I need to be safe right now. I need to be away from here. I fantasise about leaving at lunchtime and never coming back, I get a lift from that image of me walking out of the door, away from the flickering neon lights and the need to be happy and cheerful and always as people expect me to be.

I know my colleague has a greater burden than me and I admire her. I also know that, for her, work is a release and she heals by being there, just like I would heal if I went home.

I didn't under-achieve when I went to work, I did what I could with what I have. I made the best of it and, when I could stand no more, I left. When I had recovered and felt healthy again, I applied for another job and the cycle repeated itself. Some jobs lasted longer than others, often thanks to the good people I met while working there, the sort of people who, just by being themselves, are a healing, restorative force.

Please, though, don't use the words 'under-achiever'. For an aspie at school, with brains to spare and an ability to work for hours on end on something they love, it is not under-achieving when they can't cope with homework, school, the people, the noise, the smells, jostling in the corridors and the light as it streams through the windows, inviting them out into the clear, clean, loving day, away from everything harsh and unreal.

For the aspie at work, they don't under-achieve when they get things wrong after doing it right a hundred times, or for snapping at people or using the wrong words, or turning up late. It isn't good working practice, but neither is it under-achieving. It doesn't matter what they can do or what they're capable of; today they are only capable of turning up and being here, and that was with a force of will that was practically used up when they made it out of the house.

For the aspie who could have had a career, but prefers a quiet, low paid job with part-time hours and spends the rest of their time doing something pointless that doesn't bring in any money. They are definitely not the under-achiever: they are the wise one who discovered the key to success. They earn enough money to get by and spend the rest of their time doing what they love. They know the value of time and life, because they have found out how to combine what is necessary with what they are capable of maintaining.

And my last word would be for the small child, just starting out in their school career. They will most likely be displaying the more active face of aspergers, where it can present like attention deficit disorder. They will be cantering around the playground, accidentally pushing people, behaving badly, being naughty and loud and forgetting to stop all that once they're back in the classroom.

They can achieve more, they can work when they want to and they can't tell you why they do it. They don't under-achieve either, what they are doing is rushing at life to see if it will back down. They are shouting, here I am! and waiting to see what shouts back. They still have their enthusiasm for the new and unknown, they still want to learn all there is to know.

Their only under-achievement is in not being able to carry that enthusiasm forward through their lives, without losing self-esteem or becoming too tender on the inside. And even that isn't an under-achievement, it's a by-product of being different in a world which only values differences it can understand.

The next time anyone uses the words potential and achievement in relation to your aspie, imagine that small child, mouth wide open in a joyful battle cry, eyes bright as they survey the crowded playground, looking for their next big adventure.

That's where we all wish to be, in that moment of shining pleasure, the wind blowing, the sky clear and the doors wide open to the day.


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