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The Need to Be Perfect

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Autism: The Way I See It

The Need to Be Perfect

by Temple Grandin

Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2010

Some individuals on the autism spectrum who are good at drawing or other skills will often destroy excellent work because it is not absolutely perfect.  Sean Barron, a well-known individual on the spectrum described how he destroyed a beautiful airplane he had made – one that had taken many, many hours to create – because it had one small flaw.  In his mind, if the plane was not perfect, it held no value. Other individuals will delete good art work from their computer because they think it is inferior. Some children will tear up pages of homework because of one small spelling correction or because too much erasing makes the page look messy.

Other individuals on the autism spectrum conceal their ability. One mother discovered that her nonverbal son, who cannot read, was typing words such as “depression” into Google.  This is very different than a child or adult who types a memorized cartoon character name into YouTube so he can watch videos. Memorizing a cartoon character name requires no reading skills, but typing words such as “depression” or “Iraq” may indicate an individual has some hidden reading skills.  I told his mother to download the computer’s cache memory to look at her son’s search history to determine if he was possibly reading about either “Iraq” or “depression.”  Neither of these words were part of the boy’s school work, however he was exposed to them by other people around him. By looking at his search history the mother could determine if her son might be concealing his reading ability.

Even Experts Are Not Perfect

People with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome tend towards black and white thinking.  They see themselves and the world around them in polar opposites, and this tendency feeds their need to be perfect. Even the tiniest mistakes and mishaps can feel like monumental failures to them, creating high levels of anxiety when their efforts or the events around them do not measure up to this all-or-nothing scale.

I have talked to many parents who have told me their child is good at drawing or some other skill but keeps destroying their work because it has some minor imperfection.  It is important for parents to teach a child, in concrete ways, that 1) skills exist on a continuum and 2) there are different levels of quality required for different levels of work. To start, explain to the child that even the greatest experts in a field may have imperfections in their work.  For example, being a photographer for National Geographic requires a person to be the very best.  A photographer for Time or Newsweek has to be good but not as good as a photographer for National Geographic. In other words, there are different levels of quality for photography work.  They could be listed like this:

1.         Expert photographer – Works at National Geographic

2.         Very good photographer – Works at New York Times, Newsweek, or Wall Street Journal

3.         Good photographer – Works doing local weddings, portraits, or local commercial photography

4.         Good amateur – Takes nice scenic vacation pictures

5.         Snapshot taker – takes snapshots of average quality

6.         Terrible photographer – Takes totally bad pictures: cut off heads, overexposed, blurred, or with other immediately obvious mistakes.

As the quality category of the photos decline, the pictures will contain more and more mistakes.  It is equally important that an individual see concrete examples of the best AND the worst to develop perspective.  If you look hard enough it is even possible to find mistakes in photos in National Geographic magazines; not all their photos are absolutely perfect.  A person can have a good career in photography if his pictures are in categories 1, 2, and 3.

Giving individuals concrete, visual representations of the different levels of photography can help them better understand the continuum of skills. A mentor or teacher can reinforce these ideas, showing the individual many examples of photos for each category and even helping the individual sort photos into the different categories. The individual can then strive for National Geographic or Time Magazine quality instead of perfection.  When the student looks at one of his own photos, he can be reinforced to ask himself, “is this good enough for categories 1, 2, or 3?” instead of getting angry and destroying his work because it is not perfect.

When I was getting started, I had the opposite problem. I sometimes did sloppy work on tasks that did not interest me. In my twenties, I did a very sloppy job making copies of sales brochures.  A good way to instruct me would be to show me an example of a quality copy job and contrast that with an example of a poor copy job, while explaining what makes one good and the other bad.  For instance, crooked copies are not acceptable.  Copies missing any pages are not acceptable. The quality of work can be measured along a range from excellent (though not totally perfect) to terrible.  These categories are similar to thermometer scales used with individuals with autism/AS to teach different levels of emotions.

A quality scale can be used in many different applications, from writing to computer programming.  For writing, the categories could range from major literary works to local newspaper writing to poor school papers.  Make sure students see specific examples of each category.


Temple Grandin is an internationally respected specialist in designing livestock handling systems. She is the most noted high-functioning person with autism in the world today.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2010. All Rights Reserved.

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