Compensatory Strategies in Autism

Duncan’s story

Duncan Honeybourne gives his personal insights alongside an article by Dr Lucy Anne Livingston, a lecturer at Cardiff University

My life has been an essay in coping strategies, and it is only in retrospect that I realise quite how vitally and all-pervasively. I have a fulfilling career, but only thanks to a vast amount of support and perhaps a pinch of luck. Without my compensation mechanisms I’d have been able neither to carve out this life for myself, nor to survive it day-to-day. And as I grow older, I realise just how heavy a toll they exact. These strategies get me through life, but exhaustion and frequent burnout is the price. With them, I can almost pass for neurotypical, but then I find I’ve got in too deep and I crash in a scrambled heap.

Since childhood I have had to be constantly rescued from precipices of behavioural disaster, skewed perception, emotional anarchy, sensory turmoil and social despair. My parents three times moved house to accommodate my needs and give their bizarrely wild and unpredictable offspring a chance. Eventually my diagnosis of autism made sense of the chaos and contradictions, but the everyday challenges endure.

An important strategy is eye contact. “Look at people when they’re talking to you”, my mother would encourage. Today everyone thinks I do it very convincingly, but when I’m tired I struggle to maintain it. It’s a conscious, learned skill, and lots of energy goes on “doing” the eye contact at the expense of fully digesting what the person is saying.

I like people and I love life. I learned to watch and analyse others, creating my own persona in order to swim rather than sink. I observed social successes and noted precisely how they were achieved. I scripted and rehearsed conversations, and copied behaviours became my own as I painstakingly matched them to the situations I met. But I was clueless inside, calculating my reactions without nuanced understanding. Often I have appeared to be socially confident and adept when I’m a crashing mess of confusion, so the support, explanation and reassurance I’ve desperately needed are the last thing anyone around would think to give me. Sometimes I pull it off, but sometimes I don’t, and inner bleakness and unworthiness result. Whenever I said something that worked in a conversation, and I felt I’d said something that contributed a flowing energy to the dialogue and didn’t stick out, I felt an inner swelling of pride and success.

Another important strategy is “layering”. I’m invariably gripped by obsessive anxieties which have to be constantly “thought through”. So I “layer” my thoughts and attention, packing the intrusive thoughts onto a lower level of processing in order that I can proceed with the events of the moment.

The careful management of my schedule is another strategy, and I’d highlight two typical instances. Firstly, I struggle to keep the bigger picture in mind and I become obsessively absorbed with one topic. Counteracting this is vital to maintaining equilibrium and good mental health. Secondly, my compensatory strategies exact a heavy toll on my energy, so it’s essential that I plan ahead, spreading out my work pattern with frequent breaks to recharge. My desire to test and flex my social muscles has often led me to over-socialise, but social situations are exhausting and can be baffling, so I have to ration them.

Compensatory mechanisms form the glue that holds my fractured being together in the face of the world. I couldn’t manage without them, but sometimes their camouflage is as much my foe as my indispensable lifeline.


First published in SEN magazine, May-June 2020