In American culture, there is an insidious neurotypical norm that says we must always do more. We must push harder to be more productive NOW for the sake of success and more future productivity. It’s a never-ending cycle that ties our productivity to our worth and is easily summed up with the word: hustle culture.
While I don’t believe this neurotypical norm is healthy for most individuals, it is especially unhealthy for autistic individuals.
An Autistic Mind is Hyper-Aware
Due to the frequent firing of neural pathways that fire in conjunction with many other neural pathways, the autistic mind is in a state of hyper-awareness. It is constantly scanning the environment and taking in details. It also triggers the body to be in a state of hyper-vigilance, leading to an activated nervous system. While this has its advantages, if the scales are tipped too far, a highly activated nervous system can lead to autistic overwhelm, sensory discrimination troubles, anxiety, somatic symptoms (digestive pain, etc.), and more.
As autistic individuals, we have to be aware of our nervous systems and tend to them. Our lives are most joyful and comfortable when we stay within a calm range.
Hustle culture feeds an activated nervous system. It increases the alert level by telling the brain, “You’re not doing enough. You need to do more.” This is largely because hustle culture is fueled by a scarcity mindset - one that tells us you’re not doing enough or being enough. An autistic mind can easily explode into a constellation of thoughts of what “more” they could be doing. It can easily reach a level of too many ideas, too much pressure, and too much stress when taxed with hustle culture.
Autistics Need Space for Divergent Thinking
I suspect that hustle goals are popular with neurotypicals because it motivates them to achieve and do more. In contrast, autistics are extremely self-motivated and driven by what fascinates them. They do not need “goals” to motivate them. They excel when their work is tied to something they are passionate about. Divergent thinking allows them to be exceptionally creative and productive, such as developing new systems and generating new perspectives and theories. In general, the more space an autistic person has for this creative thinking, the better.
Hustle goals can narrow vision and constrict an autistic person. Hustle culture is reinforced with systems such as SMART goals. While I understand the purpose they serve for neurotypical people, they say you need to be accomplishing THIS thing in THIS way in THIS time frame. It leaves little room for divergent thinking or the benefits of a wandering mind. It constricts the very thing that helps autistic individuals to excel.
Autistics Need to Create their Own Systems
This is not a manifesto to obliterate goals for autistic individuals. That would be falling into black or white thinking: the idea that we either have to have extreme goals or no goals at all. Instead, autistic individuals need permission to find what works for them.
Many late-identified autistic adults spent their entire childhoods trying to adapt to neurotypical norms. They were taught to ignore their feelings and needs to fit in with everyone else. As most late-identified autistics can attest, it leads to deep levels of depression and anxiety. The more we can honor and tend to our feelings and needs, the more we come alive and reclaim a sense of joy in our lives.
It can be difficult to separate from the operating systems we were forced into. It is a process that takes time as we identify what doesn’t serve us and learn to separate from it. Hustle culture can keep us tied to old operating systems. It defines our value by productivity and insists we do whatever it takes to get there, even if that includes ignoring our feelings and needs. It places goals before our own well-being.
As autistic individuals, we need to create our own systems that honor our feelings and needs. Within these structures, we can thrive and often naturally exceed society’s productivity goals. For example, when I removed extraneous goals from my life, I became prolific in my writing.
I do not suggest we create our own systems so that we can reach this prolific level (for that would be just a covert form of hustle culture), but that instead we honor what feels good for us.
Thank you for reading. If you’d like to read more, sign up for my FUNletter. If you would like to explore your autistic identity with an autistic therapist, you can learn more about my therapy services here.