Autism and Learned Helplessness

Negative response to our struggles and trauma

Have you heard about “learned helplessness”???
It is not something that happens only to autistic individuals, but can happen to anybody

“Learned helplessness” comes about when we begin to believe that no matter what we do or what we try, we will not be able to change our lives, our circumstances, our selves, or any situation we may find ourselves in.

Autism fills our lives with sensory challenges and struggles. Our responses can be those responses to trauma, fight, flight, freezing, or fawning.

Over time we may develop a negative thinking pattern, that says “what is the use? I can’t get out of this situation” “what is the use? I just can’t do what they expect me to do”!

This negative thinking can become deeply embedded in our daily lives, our responses to almost any challenge. We may give up trying, completely, especially in cases where we are overwhelmed.
People who are abused often develop learned helplessness as a response to physical and emotional abuse. We have all heard of many cases where an abused person refuses to leave a partner because they believe they are helpless to stop the abuse or change their situations. Abused children can develop unhealthy patterns of behavior in reaction to continual abuse as well.

Think of the multiple ways in which an autistic individual might fail where the general population does not. We have many more “opportunities” for failure every day.

Autism predisposes us to negative experiences through continual bullying, intimidation, childhood training using strong negative reinforcement such as spanking, humiliation, punishment for unintended mistakes, etc. We struggle with mistaken understandings, sensory overwhelm and overload, poor coordination, poor understanding of the intent of others, and frequently we lack insights into task performance and problem solving which may be obvious to others.

We soon learn to wait to be told what to do rather than take initiative. We soon learn to become apathetic. No matter what, we will be criticized, scolded, mocked, bullied, hurt physically, we will fail and fail and fail. Do you relate to these struggles? Many autistic individuals probably will!

I have been reading about learned helplessness and am amazed at the comments from psychologists and therapists saying that almost all autistic individuals they have worked with have had some form of learned helplessness.

Individuals with learning disabilities may have parents and caretakers who just “do it” for them because they struggle and are slow with whatever is asked of them.

Individuals with perceptive struggles may have the same problem.

I don’t do it right, exasperated caretaker, partner, parent, etc etc either writes me off or punishes me, taking over and “showing us” by doing ” it ” (the chore, the skill, the task assigned or expected) themselves how easy the action is and shaming us, punishing us, and even more deeply convincing us that we are inept, stupid, useless, a loser, a bad and willful person , etc. No wonder we give up!

Depression can have its roots in learned helplessness. Can you understand why this may be so?

We may give up on trying to do those things that are hardest for us. We develop a negative mindset. “what is the use of trying”. We resist challenges, we break down, refuse to even try. One more scolding or punishment averted!

“learned helplessness” is something we get from being constantly overwhelmed, when we feel absolutely powerless to stop whatever negative thing is happening to us and when we simply give up trying.

Thinking back on your childhood, youth and life before discovering your autism, can you discover a pattern of hopelessness, helplessness, or overwhelm that set your mind to believing that you will never succeed at whatever you tried, that you became so overwhelmed that you stopped trying?

I can think of many instances in my own life where this was so. I had a very strong negative attitude to myself first, and to all parts of life.

I found out about learned helplessness in counseling which I got at age 30, I needed to have somebody explain to me that I had alternatives to the fixed patterns and beliefs of my early life.

I was able to learn through being taught, that I could choose to respond to others in any situation in many ways, rather than the rigid learned responses I had been conditioned to in all my earlier life experiences.

I needed to learn that I do indeed have multiple choices in almost every situation and every part of my life.

If you suspect you might be one of those who learned to give up, please reach out and ask for help. It is never to late to learn new ways of thinking, to see and learn new ways of doing life.

I was so lucky to get counseling at age 30 to learn new life skills that made my life so much better. Even though I did not get my autism diagnosis until I was 68, in therapy I got every day life skills and tools I could use to make life better.

I repeatedly tell people that therapy saved my life and my sanity. If you are living your life in misery and emotional pain, please reach out to find a therapist to work with.

Learn that you have choices to make and take the emotionally very scary chance to live a better life when you let go of your learned helplessness burden and learn to fly!