Stoicism as a Means to Cope with Autism
Ten years ago I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which describes a range of conditions classified as neurodevelopmental disorders. These disorders are characterized by social deficits and communication difficulties, stereotyped or repetitive behaviours and interests, sensory issues, and in some cases, cognitive delays.
Throughout my life I’ve had problems in social interaction and adapting to systems, at school and on the labour market. My dream to graduate in history at university was shattered as I couldn’t fully adapt to the academic system. This led to a severe depression about ten years ago. Looking back on things, most of my life has been dominated by fear. Whereas most youngsters gradually develop a sense of self-confidence and self-esteem, my progress was hindered by traumas and debilitating fears.
I rediscovered Stoicism by coincidence at a very difficult moment of my life. After being discharged from a psychiatric hospital I googled ‘cognitive therapy’. On a practitioners website Epictetus was mentioned alongside Buddha as the originator of cognitive therapy. This immediately struck a chord with me, as I had read briefly about Stoicism in Jostein Gaarders ‘Sophie’s world’ during puberty and heard in a philosophy class the professor tell admiringly about someone who reacted stoically in a car accident. From then on I became increasingly interested in this philosophy.
In the early days my knowledge of Stoicism was very limited: I was basically repressing emotions and got tangled up in my thinking a lot of the time. Later on I read the several books and blog posts that provided me with serious knowledge to put the philosophy into practice. There are various interpretations of Stoicism, but the way I see it’s an antropotechnic system to deal with the human condition and thrive in challenging circumstances.
Four virtues are put forward to strive toward goodness: courage, justice, self-control and wisdom. I find this a powerful antidote to the postmodern culture of ‘success’, limitless pleasure seeking and increasing nihilism. It is also refreshing to see other people in terms of brotherhood rather than predominantly as potential competitors or enemies.
Seneca is definitely my favourite Stoic philosopher. He wrote a lot about self-knowledge, setting goals and making progress. He wrote this passage in Moral Essays:
“Your greatest difficulty is in yourself. You are your own biggest obstacle. You don’t know what you want. You’re better at approving the right course than at following it. You see where the true happiness lies, but you don’t have the courage to attain it.”
The problem with some people in the spectrum is knowing what is good for oneself. Some people with autism reportedly struggle with finding a sense of purpose for most of their lives. Therefore it is comforting as well as inspiring to read Seneca’s advice: “As long as you live, keep learning how to live.”
According to Tom Morris, author of ‘The Stoic Art of Living’, Seneca also affirms the importance of zeal, or passionate commitment, to making ongoing progress in meeting our challenges and in living in our lives. He goes even so far as to say that, “the greater part of progress is the desire to progress.” Without a positive desire to animate us, goal setting, confidence building, and any efforts of planning can end up being no more than empty, futile exercises. A distinction can be made between the Greek passions (agitations of the soul contrary to reason and to nature) and passion (enthusiasm). Seneca insists that:
“The good stimulates the mind, and in a way, moulds and embraces what is essential to the body.”
Something essential to learn in life is the importance of social relations. The people in our lives can make our existence better and cooperation is essential to survive. Seneca writes:
“Our relations with one another are like a stone arch, which would collapse if the stones did not support each other, and which is held up in this very way.”
I used to mistake obscure knowledge for wisdom – which is sometimes the case with people who are in the spectrum. Epictetus advice on the importance of listening as well as talking could we be featured in ‘The power of introverts’:
“Nature has given to each of us one tongue, but two ears, so that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.”
I frequently use Stoic techniques: distinguishing between what is in my power and what is not, mindfulness, negative visualisation, the reserve clause, evening meditation and oikeiosis. Oikeiois is still a big challenge: you have to useful to yourself before all else in order to be useful to others in a sustainable way.
To be honest: I’ve still got a long way to go in order to progress to the Stoic ideal. Finding a new job is difficult but necessary to get my own place. Loving disinterestedly is sometimes an issue, as is self-control. Cultivating goodness also means pushing my boundaries and creating new routines. Seneca encourages me to have basic confidence: “I don’t know whether I’ll make progress or not, but I should prefer to lack success than to lack faith.”
The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.