The Advantage Of Autism And Personal Finance
Do you have a pattern oriented mind, or are you more firmly in the camp of social thinkers who instinctively know what to say or do?
In my early twenties, I was diagnosed with autism, on what was formerly known as the Asperger side of the spectrum. After years of feeling like an outsider everywhere, I finally had something to put my wondering mind at ease.
With the diagnosis came a peace of mind to not wonder why, oh why, I never seemed to be fully included in a group, and why I had to ask other people if x was feeling y when watching movies, while other people seemed to know instinctively. By not having to think about the “why?” any more, I was able to free up hours upon hours of mental energy.
Social interactions had to be practised and categorised in mental archives. Unpredictable or angry people make me anxious and afraid.
But along with a brain that we jokingly refer to as “running a different operating system”, came a range of advantages that help in our striving towards independence and happiness.
I will not use the words “high functioning” or “low functioning” to refer to autism in this post. Those were originally diagnostic tools for psychiatrists, and were never meant to leave the therapy room. Outside, they have become derogatory and unkind.
If you want a cute yet illustrative introduction to the many facets of autism, I can wholeheartedly recommend this comic by Rebecca Burgess.
Creatures Of Habit
While most people are creatures of habit on one way or another, I believe the case to be especially so with people on the spectrum. By and large, I prefer to go to bed and get up at the same time. I walk the same way to work every day, and I do the same things first thing once I arrive (fill my water bottle, go to the restroom, check my email).
But beyond daily routines, this also impacts our finances.
At this point, our expenses are pretty firmly entrenched. Although our grocery budget still has room for improvement, it doesn’t fluctuate a whole lot. When we shop, we bring a list, and it is more or less the same items we buy again and again, plus checking the reduced aisle.
I don’t even notice the soda or candy aisle any more, I am so used to just walking past it. Ask me where a particular deli meat is or a specific frozen dinner, and I’d be completely at a loss, but I can point you to the exact shelf and row they keep rolled oats or canned tomatoes in (unless they recently moved them). I know there’s a hairdresser in the same building, but it does not even occur to me to visit them.
If you’re a creature of habit too, embrace it! So many people seem to think that a successful life is filled to the brim with activities and action all the time. I’ve met plenty of people who find my life dull, while I get exhausted just hearing about their weekly routine.
Don’t be ashamed of it, it is a great tool on the path to financial independence!
Fair disclosure: This could also be a disadvantage if you’ve created a lot of expensive habits for yourself, such as donuts or coffee runs to compensate for a stressful job.
Resilience To Peer Pressure And Advertising
I don’t know if it is because of growing up as an outsider, or if there is some mental wiring that is just different, probably a mixture of both, but most other autistic people I’ve met share a blatant disregard for peer pressure and a resilience to advertising.
Sweater too old and unfashionable? Who cares, it’s comfortable.
Other/”cool” people drinking and smoking? So what? I would rather sit here and play my game/watch the clouds/enjoy x y or z. Plus, smoke stings my eyes and nose. No thank you.
I know people can learn this resilience to peer pressure and advertisement over time, but while autistic people might have to learn and train on social skills, we seem to be blessed with an ingrained shrug against people and a society that wants us to do something we do not want to.
Example: Our current (free!) couch has the three qualities we were looking for: It is comfortable, has a neutral colour and folds out to a double guest bed.
I have no idea what year it is from, what colour is in fashion this year, or if the shape is “so passé”. It has the three qualities we were looking for. The only reason I can foresee looking for a new couch is if/when this one breaks, or if we move and it doesn’t physically fit in our new living room.
Of course, this is not perfect, as we might get pressured into doing things we do not necessarily want by the people who are close to us.
But society at large, fashion, random celebrities or the “popular people”? Wholly uninteresting, and a great advantage on the path to frugality!
I know, I know. It might look weird to list this on a post about the advantages of a pattern oriented mind, but bear with me for just a moment.
For those of you who might be unfamiliar, sensory overload is when you get overwhelmed by how many signals your senses are sending your brain to process. Most people can filter out what they don’t need, but a lot of people can’t. Autism and ADHD are two conditions known for struggling with this.
Noise is a big one for me, but it can just as easily be visual, smell or touch. For an extroverted autist, this might be shown as aggression or “throwing a fit” in order to try to get control over their environment again, and to drown out what is overloading them.
To an introverted autist (hello!), I simply shut down. I cannot block out only the thing that is overloading me, so instead, I block out everything and retract into my own head. The more tired I already am, the more sensitive I am to a sensory overload. Over the years, I have learned to keep somewhat of a lid on it if I am out and about, but there is always a price to pay in the shape of extra downtime and exhaustion afterwards.
How on earth can that be an advantage then?
Well, on the surface I suppose it isn’t. But when you live with it, you naturally deviate to calmer, and often frugal alternatives for spending your time with less sensory input.
I can only enjoy a movie in the theatre if I bring ear buds to take the edge off the sound system. Crowded restaurants with bad acoustics are a challenge on the best of days. Forget about bars, dance scenes, almost anything with flashing lights, or the city during a particularly crowded Saturday. If I can’t hear my own thoughts, you can be sure I will suffer sensory overload pretty soon.
Instead, we enjoy movies at home where the volume is adjustable. We cook at home and go for walks in the forest. Our friends are the quiet sort, enjoying board games, cooking and crafting instead of loud shouting on the dance floor or video games with lots of violent blinking and flashing lights.
Once You Get It
You cannot go back.
Of course, all autistic people are different, and it is a very large spectrum to be making broad generalisations about.
But again, for those I have personally met myself, there is the general trend that once you get interested in something, you learn as much as you can about it. And once that happened to me, it was impossible to go back to how I treated personal finance prior to discovering the personal finance blogosphere and financial independence.
Ignorance doesn’t know any better. But wilful ignorance is a choice.
Of course, to a hyper-focused autist, this is not always positive to their finances or immediate family. You could catch an interest in birds or trains or video games or any other range of activities that does not further any sort of “goal”.
This is obviously my own, personal take on the matter. I never try to claim to be speaking for everyone or even some parts of the autistic community. These are only some of the factors I have noticed that helps me in my daily life.
Other people can display one or several of the same traits and still not be autistic. I think this might be especially the case in this blogosphere where optimisation is the name of the game.
Many caregivers of autistic children are told that there is nothing they can do, their child will always be non-verbal or unresponsive. But in my experience, most people can be taught. Even if it takes a long, long time. The problem is if an autistic child is considered “unteachable”, and gets put in a box where no one tries to teach or understand them either. Under those conditions, who wouldn’t stagnate?
I am a big fan of the attitude that anything can be taught, what matters is that you stay teachable. Just ten years ago, you would not believe that I could reach a point where people refuse to believe me if I tell them I am autistic.
Pro-tip: Don’t do that. It has taken me over 20 years of hard work and tens of thousands of hours of observing and emulating human interactions to come to the point where I can pass as “normal” when I need to. I still fail at it from time to time. To gloss over all that effort and learning by not believing in it is dismissive and frustrating.
Ending The Stigma
Do you have, or know someone who has, conditions that are commonly considered a disadvantage? Have you found that there are actually certain advantages to it? Please share! We encourage a diverse and judgement-free space.