Elizabeth is struggling with the right level of self-esteem. I want her to feel good about herself. I want her to feel capable and pretty and fabulous. And I also want her to know her place in things, but not feel stuck. I want her to appreciate that she’s not the best at everything and that is ok, but she can always work at doing better. I do not want her to be, as so much of our culture is today, narcisstic and ego-centric. I want her to be able to appreciate the strengths of others without feeling threatened. I want her to know, as a friendof mine says, “There is enough success for everyone.”
But she’s having a rough time of it. She’s “bragging” too much- as her friend Emily tells her in an irritated tone. And she is.
See my boots? Aren’t they lovely? Don’t they match my outfit beayooootifully? Isn’t it cute? Aren’t they the greatest boots EVER? SEE?! I love my boots… I got an 100 on the test, Mommy! Mommy, I got a 100! I’m so good at math! I love math! See, Mommy?! I got a 100! Emily, I got a 100!
Down here in the South, self-degradation is an art form. “Oh, this ol’ thang?” is a required response for admiration of the dress you just spent a small fortune on. It’s also required that you turn the tables and admire someone else’s clothes, hair, achievements for them, since it wouldn’t do for them to point out to you how wonderful they are. They, in turn, will then admire you and compliment you so that you can then “Oh, this isn’t anything” right back. Down here, the game is such that everyone mutually admires each other, and the more you “aw shucks“, the more fabulous it is. We just have other people do the appreciating for us. It’s a very complicated game that involves subtle cues of when one is to compliment and when one is to stop and how to draw attention to yourself without, you know, bragging. It is certainly not a game for people with autism- even high-functioning autism.
For whenever Elizabeth finds something fabulous about herself, she will tell you. Over and over again. She will fixate on it. She will share her joy beyond the point of Southern sensibilities. She can sense that people are pulling away from her and she knows- she just KNOWS- that if she continues to share the excitement with them, they will finally SEE it and share it with her. She has not learned the subtle trick of drawing attention to something and then letting the other person run with the Appreciation Ball. If she feels good about herself, well then, by golly, she’s going to tell you.
It’s no acccident that her favorite character is “London” on Disney- the self-centered “rich girl” on “Suite Life”. She laughs hilariously at London’s antics. But she’s jealous of London’s easy lifestyle, her ability to get what she wants when she wants it, and so Elizabeth has started imitating London’s tone, words and general attitude- particularly at times when she’s feeling anxious.
And Fourth Grade is an anxiety-producing time. I can see her trying to figure out how to fit in, what to say and what to do. I can see her thinking through the behaviors of her peers trying to figure out the code. And since boots and fashion and grades are the secret to her friends’ success, well then, she is just going to point out to them how well she’s got it figured out.
I have tired to explain the “rules” to her- but I recognize their inherent contradictions… no one likes a showoff , but at the same time be aware of your own strengths; to wait for others to appreciate, but not to depend on other’s opinions for your own value. Do women- any women- ever really learn this balancing act? I try to explain it as best as I can; she looks at me like I’m speaking Greek, and I just have to say “It just is.”
“Be your own audience” is the only way I know to say it. “There’s enough success for everyone“, I remind her.
And… there’s always the possibility of cultural difference as well. We are planning a trip to see her grandmother in Boston and her friend Tracy said recently, “Ohhhh, that’s right. You’re from Boston“, as though that explained many things. I had to laugh a bit, knowing that some of it is autism and some of it might just be plain Yankee forthrightness- a cultural difference that had led to communication issues at times between me and James. There’s a reason the song “I Feel Pretty, Oh So Pretty” is set in New York City…