The Dangers of “See that wasn’t so hard!”

Written by Lacey Cottingham

The Autistic and ADHD Experience

This article is written purely in the context of a brain diagnosed as autistic, as ADHD, or both combined. To understand my point, we first have to have a shared understanding of what it means to have a different brain than the neuromajority. You may resonate with these experiences, but this is not meant to diagnose anyone.

The “average” autistic is balancing several things at once where most neuroaverage individualss simply are not. You’re aware of the number of people around you, the temperature of the room, the noise level, your socks, the minor facial movements of the person you’re listening to, their reactions and micro-reactions. You’re aware of your face and all it’s micro-movements. If someone a few feet away changes vocal tones, you do a brief assessment of them. Part of it is due to your neurotype, but part of it is learned safety behaviors. (Think about how most military veterans or retired police never put their back to a door.) If any one of those things goes “wrong” there can be real consequences to emotional or even physical safety. I believe Shaun at did an amazing break down of how this leads to energy problems, and I will link that below.

For ADHD it’s a similar situation, but from a different angle. Even though ADHD is labeled as a “deficit” in attention, it’s become increasingly popular to conceptualize it as an over-attention to multiple things at once. I had one person describe it as being aware of the conversation in front of you, a conversation from yesterday, and how to sort the laundry when you get home. These same people can be excellent at planning a task, because there is dopamine in it, but there is no dopamine in executing the task. This is often experienced as enjoying the set up, but feeling nothing but relenting dread in completing the task, then simple relief at the task being done. The neuroaverage brain usually feels accomplishment or pride in completing a task, but bare minimum they can push through boring things. With ADHD, you physically can not unless there’s a bigger threat. We’re now realizing the method of bigger threat is leading to burnout. I and a host of other mental health educators advocate for adding non-threatening stimuli to the environment, or taking away unintentionally draining stimuli to assist. See my other blog post below if you want to learn more.

 Why to avoid “See That Wasn’t So Hard”

These differences of awareness and processing mean that what’s “so easy” for a neuroaverage individual simply isn’t for someone with ADHD or who is Autistic. That means the definition of “hard” is going to be different. Which means the definition of easy will be different. Countless of well meaning parents, coaches, mentors, and teachers in America every day use the phrase “See that wasn’t so hard was it?”.

The message they are trying to send is “Look, now that you got all the steps together, you see the fear you had wasn’t real. You were able to do it the whole time. Now you’ll know it’s not that scary  next time and you can do it without help.”

I believe a neuroaverage child hears, “You didn’t know before, and so you were scared of the unknown. Now that we did the thing, you know, and you won’t be scared in the future.”

The Autistic and/or ADHD individual internalizes the message of “See? All that fear and stalling to protect yourself wasn’t needed. You judged wrong, and you were getting in your own way.”

The emotional tone is set to “Your definition of hard can’t be trusted”.

And so the next time the child/mentee/student/team-member says they are stuck, the adult/leader reminds them they were wrong before, and to “Just do what I told you to do last time”. They send the signal of “Your assessment of reality can’t be trusted.”. That can turn into something even more insidious, where someone begins to believe that if they surpassed a problem then the problem never actually existed… it was “all in your mind”.

If you surpass an obstacle, does that mean the obstacle didn’t actually exist? No, the obstacle was very real. The pain and frustration was very real. Just because someone gets through it doesn’t mean they were faking it being hard. Once the problem is solved, it doesn’t mean you let yourself be stuck for so long. It just meant you didn’t have the strength, tools, or energy to push through the problem until that relief filled moment when you achieved the goal.

Are my examples a bit over-blown or too alarmist? One could say that, but if enough people are being effected by this, at what point is it ethically obligatory to change soceity to accommodate? If we tried a generation or three of personal responsibility for how we interpret others, I say it’s time for society to have a group responsibility for kindness.

A Quick Note About Variable Impairment

As an aside, it’s completely possible that the second time the child/mentee comes to you, there’s a different problem getting in the way. This is due to the idea of Autistic and ADHD individuals as being “variably impaired”. But historically this has been perceived as “making up excuses to get out of the work”. In practical terms, the ability to complete a task can be dependent on location, who is (or is not) there, how much sleep they got last night, and both when and what they last ate.

Fix it.

I can hear the internet screaming “So what do you want me to say instead?”.

Here are some options:

If talking to a child:

  • “Good job! You figured out what worked! Let’s write that down so you know how to do it next time!”
  • “Great job (buddy/name), walk me through how you did that.”

If talking to an adult (as their boss):

  • “I’m glad to see you found something that worked. You need sticky notes to put that on your desk?”
  • “I wonder if you could do something artsy with your desktop background with the instructions.”
  • “That was really creative, can you tell me how you did that? That way I can help the next employee.”

If talking to an adult (as their loved one):

  • “You must be so relieved to have that done. Let me know if you need me to remind you what you did for the next time.”
  • “Oh awesome, want to (game/walk/silly dance) to celebrate?” *
  • “Congrats! How hard was that?” (Tone is everything with this one!)

The Risk of Change

My proposal can lead to an over-praising. I’ve heard some people in my social circle say they feel bad when people praise them for how “strong” they must be for continuing. And yes, that can be inherently ableist. (If you’re confused, think of what the alternative is. Is that really an alternative?) But when there are so few definitive rights and wrongs, I perceive it as less harmful to over praise strength than it is to tell people to get over it faster. But I recognize I may be holding privilege that I’ve not been over-praised.

You deserved to be celebrated for your strength, not asked “see, that wasn’t so bad was it?” once you got through it.

If you resonate with this article, my office is open to you.