Life and times of a reluctant actor

Life is Beautiful film still

I was recently challenged on a social media round robin to name my favourite film and say why. There was no hesitation. It had to be Benigni’s Italian language 1997 ‘Life is Beautiful’. A film at the same time so heart-breakingly joyful and devastating that I could only bear to watch it once, but still the memory of that viewing has etched in a way I don’t think will ever leave me. 

There’s a lot I could say about why it’s brilliant, but the scene that had me holding my breath is where the young Jewish child, held captive in the concentration camp with his brilliantly inventive father, is coached to join in with a birthday party that the German children of the camp guards are enjoying.


He’s entirely innocent of the context and believes it a game – a competition to win a Tank ride, if only he follows the rules carefully. In this way the boy enters the grotesquely normal scene of merriment and feeds himself on so many cakes and sandwiches that his stomach hasn’t had in months. We hold our breath along with the father. Knowing that these outlandish risks are necessary for the survival of the person, but that there is peril in every move if he acts wrong. Eventually we breathe in relief, that scene ends and he goes on, undetected. His innocence at once a risk and a protection. 

It moved me when I watched it and it moves me now. Perhaps it’s this; I am both that father and his son. The doer and the watcher, the teacher and the taught. Autistic me inserting myself into everyday gatherings with a scripted set of rules. Masking the mechanics of it, praying not to be revealed an other. Over time I know ive got these lines down pat and I can risk some improvising. Not much you understand, but a few off the cuff actions and replies, here and there, getting a bit braver. Trying it out.

The drink is the undoing. Not in itself – i’m not paralytic ever – but the siren call of ease from attention is strong. Ease from watchfulness and vigilance and throat constricting. Choking then only on crumbs of nicety (I suspect that most cake is made with sweetener).  

Facilitating difference

I took part recently in a friendly group exercise that came at the end of a training day. There were 4 of us in our group, all kindly oriented (no malice here). The trainer played some jolly music and the task we were given was to copy each others’ movements. We’d take it in turns to mirror each others actions and the exercise would make us all release endorphins and bond over our copying. It was of course supposed to be a nice thing to do. Well irony my old friend you mock me once again.

My turn came to lead without rules. But this was all wrong. I’m the mirrorer, not the mirrored. I’m the copier, not the copied.
The attention was too meta. Too breathtaking. I voiced my discomfort. ‘Oh I hate this’ echoed the group. I screwed up my eyes and tried again. ‘I feel like i’m being mocked’ they replied.

From there there was no going back. What had to happen, happened, and the shutdown took over. Brain hijack to re-set. Voice, limb control, sacrificed for a while as the electrics and chemicals raced then settled down. It wasn’t so bad this time though, and I’m not more scarred. (I had shelter in a person who knew, and a room primed not to be afraid of other)

Dreaming free

I often dream that i’m naked as I think many do. Trying to run. Gasping, wide eyed, looking over my shoulder. Aware of my exposure and seeking cover at all cost. Its textbook anxiety stuff i’m sure. I think its also quite a literal reflection on exposure of self. But this week’s episode took a break from horror story backdrops of dimly lit streets and shadowy trees. This time, my dream had me in Tesco of all places, in my birthday suit at the fresh produce section (perhaps id done a big shop earlier that needed mental processing? Who knows. I’m sniggering though at my subconscious’ smut. Melons didn’t feature) I’ll add, dream me still wasn’t comfortable; clothes are always best in the fruit and veg aisle. But I wasn’t running away breathless this time, and the other shoppers were trying hard to be British about it, sideways glances and a couple of raised eyebrows the worst of it. That feels like progress! After a time, dream me grabbed a handily placed dream towel and wrapped it around so that I only looked odd, and not rudely inappropriate.

It’s very exposing is living. But i’m learning to breathe through the fear of being revealed. I’ve survived this time without running. Without hiding. This is ok I think it’s ok. I may yet get thrown out of the party, but still i’ll keep my life. 

Growth Mindset in a Neurodiverse mind

growth mindset

Moving Mountains

There is much talk of the need to have a Growth Mindset in order to learn. Dr Dwecks’ research into fixed and growth mindsets is 30 years old but still as current as ever; We can move metaphorical mountains if only we believe that we can. We need to believe that we are capable of doing a thing as the first step to being able to actively learn to do it. 

The theory goes that we can identify a Fixed Mindset in ourselves when we say that ‘if someone else on my team can do that, then so can I’. Or when we say that we worry that people are judging our abilities. Perhaps it is true that these adopted statements betray our beliefs; that we aren’t willing to test our own potential independent of others, or that we think that there is an acceptable level of ability that we must reach; we are judged for our attainment and not for our effort. 

Beliefs or systemic issues?

Its a good idea for sure, to identify our limiting beliefs, as a starting point to be able to think about what it might be like to put those aside and be free of our own tyranny when we approach learning a new skill. 

But here’s the thing. I’m worried that this kind of cheer-leading coaching conversation (others coaching or talking ourselves up) misses some vital context. What if we know that, in our job, we are indeed being judged by our attainment and not our effort? There is an unapologetic culture of performance related pay in many industries. Similarly, once we’re past school days we’re rarely credited for effort alone (and even then, reward for effort is courageously given by teachers in defiance of the prevailing results bias of educational policy).

Measuring up

Perhaps we take a measure of learning against a person who has achieved the competency we desire – because we can then get an idea of the kind of commitment and focus that might be needed in order to become good. A ball park. Do I have sufficient drive or motivation to apply energy to learning this thing now? Copying is how we learn. Noticing allows us to determine rules of engagement and belonging. That seems not to be a fixed mindset, to me, but a pragmatic one.

I am what they term neuro-diverse, specifically, i’m autistic. I know that my own progress to date was not hindered for lack of a growth mindset. Not for lack of believing that something is possible or that even I might be capable of it, if only I could grasp the crux of it. There’s something else going on here. Neurological differences at the most primitive levels which have implications for our engagement with the world. Autistic people (there are a lot of us, perhaps even 1 in 60. Male and Female) are very often left as strangers in our own land, given singular responsibility for navigating what amount to breathtaking practical and cultural differences, and without a rule book to do it. 

If you coach a fly in the brand of one dimensional growth mindset that says that you need to believe you can do it, then that fly is going to keep on going at that fixed glass pane. Observing, we can see that actual progression is going to demand something different. Its going to take someone else to open the window for the little guy, or shoo him around a different way. He’s going to get one serious headache if he keeps on with that determined forward focus. 

Input needed…

Indeed my own frustrations have been around wanting to achieve. Wanting to grow, knowing it should be possible – that I do not lack intelligence – but finding myself consistently held up by that glass barrier (never yet mind the ceiling!) that I couldn’t see or understand. A communication style difference? A dearth of helpful feedback that might help me to refine strategy or technique – or to judge on that evidence that the issue is the others’ to correct. This difference is not an immediately obvious one to be categorised on a conscious level. But you’d better believe your subconscious has sniffed it out, sooner even than I can open my mouth to speak (there’s studies).

If that neuro-difference isn’t factored in to our coaching conversations then any reflection on a stuck-ness is missing so much information that might allow for growth around a problem where we cannot go through. Perhaps i’m missing the point here. We don’t have to actually move the mountain, its just as valid to step sideways. 

If we ignore the impact of such societal barriers to ‘getting ahead’, then talk of mindset is meaningful in only the top eschelons of priviledge and leadership. Cheerlead me all you can and i’ll thank you for your kind thoughts and wishes. But until someone opens that damn window i’m struggling to fly anywhere.