Autism & Perfectionism

What makes someone a perfectionist, and how can you help?

A pencil eraser removing a written mistake on a piece of paper.

What is perfectionism?

A perfectionist is someone who finds it stressful when errors exist, and so strives to prevent or correct them. It seems to be a common autistic trait, and one that can be both useful and potentially problematic.

Having high standards for yourself is an admirable and desirable work ethic, and striving for excellence can have a very big impact on academic achievement. In fact, some of the most important scientific discoveries and works of art were achieved through an inability to stop until it was exactly right!

On the flip side, perfectionists are often afraid to try in case they make a mistake and can be obsessed about fixing errors. They might tear or crumple the page trying to erase evidence of a spelling error or colouring outside of the lines, for example. If an art project doesn’t quite work out or a Lego model is put together incorrectly, it’s completely ruined. If there’s so much as the tiniest imperfection in food it gets thrown away.

The fear of making mistakes can also cause anxiety, and lead to frustration, depression, embarrassment, social isolation and meltdowns.

So it’s clear that being a perfectionist can have both positive and negative impacts on a person’s life.

Why is it common in autism?

Identifying the stopping point

Every task has a threshold that defines how far we have to push ourselves towards achieving success. It’s called ‘good enough’, and it’s a line somewhere short of perfection that allows us to know when we can stop and move onto something else.

This line is usually a vague concept, one that can be hard to understand if you’re an inflexible thinker who finds it difficult to see shades in between correct and incorrect, good enough and perfect, so success then becomes an all-or-nothing kind of deal.

Noticing detail

People who are skilled at picking up on details are better at noticing mistakes, no matter how small they might be. It can be hard for them to step back and see the overall success in spite of the errors.

Anxiety about change

Every mistake is a change from what was planned and expected – even if you start out assuming that you’re going to fail, it’s unlikely that you’d be able to foresee exactly when and how you’re going to mess up.

Mistakes aren’t usually predictable, so the sudden appearance of something off-schedule is extremely stressful for someone who prefers sameness. Striving for perfection is a way of taking some control over that randomness.

Social comprehension

People often laugh at mistakes, and for kids who are struggling to understand the way that other people communicate it’s really easy to feel like the laughter is directed at them. That feels awful and it’s something that everyone tries to avoid.

This kind of social misunderstanding also makes it hard to anticipate the social consequences of making a mistake. Did anyone notice? Are people mad at me? Do they like me less? This just adds to the anxiety about making a mistake.

Not to mention that it’s very easy to break social rules when you’re not even aware they exist, or if you’ve misinterpreted them. So for some people it can feel like they’re always making mistakes.

Hyperfocus

People who are super-focused on the task in front of them are less likely to notice that other people around them are also making mistakes. This also makes it easy to miss where that reasonable stopping point is, what everyone else considers to be ‘good enough’. So striving for perfection makes sense when you think that everyone else is doing it too.

Communication difficulties

Making a mistake usually means you need to get help. But for someone who has trouble knowing who, when and how to ask for help it can be very stressful to be put in a situation when they might need it. It can make them reluctant to admit when they’ve made a mistake, or even stop them from trying at all – because if they don’t try then they can’t fail, and if they don’t fail then they don’t need help.

Perseveration

For people who struggle with disengaging attention, it can be really hard to stop thinking about a mistake. Focusing on failures and replaying them over and over also feeds anxiety about making mistakes, which in turn increases the need for perfection.

Literal thinking

Misinterpreting the figurative meaning creates lots of opportunities for accidentally making mistakes, often without the person really understanding why. It can also lead to confusion or anxiety about the potential consequences of errors, which in turn increases the fear of making them.

Executive functions

Disruptions to executive cognitive skills like planning and organization can make it difficult for the person to figure out when or where mistakes are being made, and the steps they need to take to fix it or stop errors from happening.

Hypersensitivities

Voices that seem loud can feel harsh and criticizing, especially for autistic people who also have trouble understanding the nuances of verbal communication. This can make any kind of correction, no matter how small or subtle, feel like a huge threat to be avoided at all costs.

What can you do to help?

Reframe thinking about mistakes

Show the person that it’s not only okay to make mistakes, it’s an expected part of learning. Try listing the steps they need to take to learn a new skill to reassure them that they’re not expected to be perfect immediately. Keep visual records of their progress, so they can see how they’ve improved.

Reduce the stress

Be patient with their anxiety about making a mistake, and the need to correct them. Using pencil or a computer to write with makes errors easier to fix. Give space to vent frustration away from the work that they’re doing so it doesn’t get destroyed.

Talk about consequences

Show that mistakes can be survivable. Work through the possible outcomes of not being perfect with ‘What if’ scenarios. What if you don’t get 100% on the test? What if you colour outside the square? Sometimes it’s the fear of not knowing the consequences that drive the need for perfection.

Introduce some grey

Success doesn’t always mean perfection. Define what the threshold for ‘good enough’ looks like so perfectionists can better recognize their own success and where a reasonable stopping point should be. Working to a deadline might also help them to identify a clear end to the task, giving an external signal when to stop.

Break the cycle

Obsessively thinking about mistakes can lead to more anxiety, which in turn can lead to more mistakes. Help them to work through any perceived failures, then redirect to a task with a high chance of success.

Make success easier

Provide plenty of opportunities to experience success. Alternate difficult tasks with ones they find easier, and always make sure supports are available if needed. If their standards for success are too high, help them set more realistic goals to avoid constantly feeling like a failure.

Lots of encouragement, gentle criticism

For someone who avoids activities where they’re likely to make a mistake, gently encourage them to try new things to build their confidence. Praise their attempts, and tread carefully with suggestions and criticism.

Teach them how to prioritize

Not all tasks are of equal importance or consequence, but it’s often hard for perfectionists to see that. Help them to figure out how to identify the things which need to be perfect or that are worth working hard on.

Set a positive example

Reassure the person that everyone makes mistakes, even you! Point out when you mess something up, and take it in your stride ready to try again.

Last updated 25 Nov, 2017 by Bec Oakley

Bec Oakley is an autistic writer and proud parent, with an intense passion for 80s text adventures, Twizzlers and making the world a better place for autistic people and their families.