What to expect when nobody expects anything – low expectations and Autism

OK, this does have a purpose other than just bragging but this is what I do with my life at the moment:

  • I work full time for th Australian Public service,
  • I have written three published books and contributed to four more
  • I have a weekly online radio program
  • I have spoken at literally hundreds of events, including TEDx Canberra and on this coming Saturday I shall be taking to the stage wit Professor Temple Grandin and artist Tim Sharp
  • I am on the Board of an Autism organisation
  •  I write articles for all sorts of publications and websites, including The Mighty and Naturally Autistic
  • I facilitate a women’s group
  • I have a Masters degree
  • I have a popular Facebook page where my individual posts frequently reach 30,000 people or more
  • I own my own home – the wonderful Whimsy Manor
  • I probably do other things to  but have forgotten them due to being so busy!

I am quite accomplished to put it mildly, but the amazing thing is not that I achieved all these things but more that I believed myself capable to do so.

I have Asperger syndrome and atypical schizophrenia. If those diagnostic labels  were all you knew about me, I wonder what you would think me capable of? Many people might think I would be unable to work, let alone all the other things. In fact this was the case in my past. I was unable to work or participate in society in any meaningful way. I spent some years where everyone had low expectations of me.

I didn’t get either of my diagnoses until I was 20. I didn’t go to school with a diagnosis and in many ways this was horrible and damaging. I had no assistance and was easy prey for every bully and bigot in the school. However I escaped one thing which plagues a lot of people on the spectrum – the curse of the low expectation.

Low expectations come from every quarter in society for many children and adults on the Autism spectrum as well as those with other diagnoses. Children learn more about their limitations than their strengths a lot of the time. The tragic part of this is that it is rarely committed in malice. Rather it often happens from a place of care. Parents may shield their child from all adversity and trouble and in turn end up with an adult who has little pride in what they can do and is anxious about doing anything difficult.

I do not usually place the blame with low expectations and their consequences at the feet of parents though. I think the parents are often responding to pervasive views in society which are almost unnoticed due to their prevalence. I hear it all the time. A friend told me about a kid at her child’s school who recently got an autism diagnosis and people knowing that ‘there is something wrong with him.’ Why do we equate difference and diversity with ‘wrong’? Then there was the caring if rather misguided volunteer at an Autism conference asking me ‘do you live with your mummy?’ (I am 41 and live in a house I am paying off which I bought seven years ago and am 16 years ahead with the mortgage. My ‘mummy’ can come and stay of she likes.) The people who tell me ‘surely you’re not on the Autism spectrum. You could pass for ‘normal’ and ‘your Autism can’t be very severe for you to do all the things you do’.

Thankfully I never take on any limiting or doubtful comments about my capacity and neither should kids on the spectrum and their parents. Here are some quick thoughts about low expectations, with no particular order (I would usually do an order but I just got back from Board meeting and I am about to give the biggest talk in my career in five days’ time so you will understand if I am a little less effective then usual at communicating my message).

  • Being given low expectations of their capability from a young age can set someone up for a life of not reaching the potential they might oterhwise
  • Low expectations are not just related to people on the spectrum. Many other diversity groups suffer from this too. Have you ever spoken to someone in a call centre who has a foreign accent and assumed they would be less competent than a native English speaker? Have you ever seen a woman in a non-traditional role and assumed she would be less competent in her job (or a man in a traditionally female role for that matter)? We need to challenge our doubts and prejudices and help people build their confidence regardless of what their particular identity is
  • Low expectations actually end up being imprinted on someone’s self-perception so they actually do often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. This can last an entire lifetime
  • If you are subjected to low expectations try to see them as a challenge to prove the person who has doubted you wrong
  • There is nothing to say that a person with diagnostic labels can’t achieve anything they put their mind to – if I did others certainly can.
  • A lot of low expectations come from people’s perception of ‘normal’. If they see someone stimming or flapping or meet someone who uses non-speech communication they tend to assume the person will be less competent. I have been known to stim and flap and I think most people would think that I am a high achiever. It is more about teaching people that the narrow definition of ‘normal’ doesn’t really say much about what people can achieve with their life
  • If you have low expectations of yourself you might find working to overcome them means you have a more fulfilled and enjoyable  life. Start by working on your self-talk and challenging every time you put yourself down. Also surround yourself with people who value and respect you, if you can. Find an role model you identify with.
  • Low expectations are completely unhelpful. By challenging them – either as the ‘giver’ or the ‘receiver’  – you are doing a very good thing.


2 thoughts on “What to expect when nobody expects anything – low expectations and Autism

  1. Awesome testimony. Have you read Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold? Also very accomplished person with diagnosis of schizophrenia. If i may ask, who was instrumental in helping u get ur diagnoses, and how did they come about? Is the story in your books?


  2. Thanks Jeanette, I actually had this conversation with my in-laws at the beginning of the year when they told me they had ‘no expectations’ of my gorgeous 5 year old…my response was, ”well you should – everyone needs expectations. He’s a 5 year old, treat him like one.” Thank you for writing about the curse of low expectations, I think it is an incredibly important point to make


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