A lot of people toss the word around without fully grasping what it really means to be accountable. I was recently asked how I manage my time and thusly am so consistent in my training and fitness. The truth is that my time management skills are actually terrible. Anyone that is on the autistic spectrum will tell you that executive dysfunction is a constant challenge for autistic persons. I often plan out my day in advance and leave a bag with the things I need for the following day in a bag hanging on my front door handle because that’s the only way I’ll remember to bring the required items. So how can a man with autism like me be so consistent with healthy practices and other areas of life? In a word it comes down to accountability. In order to understand accountability and how to become accountable in life one must understand a few different concepts, the most relevant one being neural plasticity.
Neural plastic law dictates “the cells that wire together, fire together.” This is true of any one persons brain, neural typical or neural a-typical. I certainly have a more difficult time with certain concepts and practices than some of my neural typical friends but truthfully they have more difficult challenges in their life than I do in other subjects, it’s a matter of perspective.
When I was struggling with P.T.S.D. I had a habit that was very problematic and complicated my recovery. Over my life I had been beaten as a child, attacked throughout my teens and adult life, before beginning a career in a violent field of work. I had been left with a habit to assess every human being that came close to me as a potential threat. That was my reality. My therapist and I discussed it and she gave me an exercise to follow, based on neural plastic theory. Every time I passed someone on the street I would normally imagine that person attacking me. Then I would imagine how I would counter that attack. I was asked instead to imagine that person hugging me. Every time the thought of violent struggle with a stranger entered my head I had to do this. Every time without exception even if I found it difficult to do.
It was extremely taxing at first and very difficult. I often hit mental exhaustion just from being aware of the habit I was trying to break. It took two weeks just to get into the habit properly. Within three weeks it was starting to become a natural process. Within a month I was noticeably more calm, less confrontational, smiling instead of scowling. It was a major turning point for me in my life. I didn’t live in a dangerous reality anymore. I lived in a world where bad things happen. Just not in a world full to the brim with bad people.
I share this because the same practice is how I became so consistent with my health habits, regardless of my being on the autistic spectrum. Some will have more difficulty doing this but it is possible, one just might need more patience than others do.
When one thinks about exercising the average person is alarmingly quick to come up with reasons why they CAN’T exercise. People often assert that they can’t exercise because their kids are too demanding of their attention or because they are too tired at the end of the day. A lot of people say they can’t exercise because they are behind at work or have deadlines to meet. As a trainer of martial artists I have heard every reason under the sun. Here’s the thing though. Every time a person says they can’t, because of how the human brain works within neural plastic law, that person gets better at rejection. The more you say you can’t the better you are at finding reasons not to try. The faster you will say no. The easier it will be to identify patterns of reasoning behind WHY you can’t. You actually improve your ability to be negative and to avoid action EVERY time you are negative and avoid action. The battle for motivation to be healthy, and be accountable for your health habits, starts long before you even think about what gym you want to join. It starts in how you think, literally.
Just like my own struggle to change my reality in which every person was a potential threat anyone trying to improve their health has to start by changing their thinking, BEFORE they try changing their habits. Every time you think about exercise or healthy eating and that old habit of “I can’t because” pops into your head you have to stop that thought process dead in its tracks and replace it with “I can.” Every time you think you can’t stop yourself and force yourself to say I can because. I can train today during the kid’s favourite show, while they are distracted. I can train today during my lunch break. I can train today because it will make me sharper and improve my productivity at work.
Over time this change in thinking will get easier. Don’t aim to start exercise now, aim to start a shift in your thinking now so you can exercise once that shift in thinking takes hold. Once you start to notice a shift in your thinking, a genuine neural plastic shift will occur and you will change your habits. Then start to look for the same habits in the people you surround yourself with. Look for that same method of reason in others. This method of reasoning is the beginning of accountability. Any person that looks for reasons why they CAN is much more likely to be able to identify why THEY could not do something when they fail. If a person lacks accountability, when they fail as we all do, they might say things like “I failed because the weather was poor so I couldn’t train outside today.” They might say, “I didn’t get the job because I got caught in traffic and was late.” Neural plastic law is literal proof that failure begets failure and negativity breeds more negativity.
This shift in thinking, a simple but crucial and incredibly challenging thought exercise, is what leads to accountability and growth. I have a lot of challenges as a man on the autism spectrum but I also have a lot of advantages. Obsessive thinking is one such advantage of life on the spectrum, but only IF I understand and neural plastic law and apply myself within that framework. I learned accountability the same way any person would but I honestly feel it was easier for me because of my own autistic traits re-enforcing my ability to shift my thinking. If someone like me can do it. Anyone can, albeit with more or less difficulty.