I have a mantra that I often repeat when I am teaching students how to box or wrestle. That saying is very simple,

“Failure IS success.”

It may sound cliché to some but the truth of it runs deeper than most people realize, especially for people living on the autism spectrum like myself. I started saying “failure is success” years ago after learning about one of my obsessive interests, the nature of human development and neural cognition. I really got focused on understand HOW a human being learns, the literal physiological process.

Like most people on the autism spectrum I find that I am more invested and better understand any task set before me if I am given an explanation or reason for why I must accomplish said task. It isn’t enough for me to be told to “Do X.” I respond much better to “do X because Y.”

At the time I started into my obsession understanding learning as a process I was having difficulty communicating with my wife. I had blundered unto a serious conversation with her while I was stimming and I failed to look at my wife directly in the eyes during the conversation. It made her feel like I wasn’t invested, like I didn’t care.

“Why is eye contact so important ALL the time?” I complained after the fact.

 “It just is!” she would say in response.

Later that week I was taking a first aid refresher course and the instructor had me and my classmates play out an emergency scenario as part of the course. When I told my classmate to contact police as part of the rehearsed instructions, the instructor asked me to make eye contact with the bystander I was addressing.

“Why would I need to look them in the eye? I am busy helping someone having a heart attack aren’t I? Shouldn’t I keep my focus on my patient?” I said with obvious frustration.

“That’s a good point Sean but normative people sometimes get all screwed up when they are in distress. When people are in emergencies, arguments or conflicts it triggers deep evolved responses like fight or flight and they loose focus and don’t hear things like they normally would. So eye contact is one way to insure they hear what is said when it is crucial to communicate.”

“Eureka!”

I read voraciously on neural cognition over the following weeks, and the effects of trauma on human beings. I learned a ton and in the end came to realize what became my mantra, failure IS success. I applied my mantra to everything, especially my marriage.     

So what does it mean when I say failure is success?

If you look up one doctor Taub and his work on stroke rehabilitation you will learn that Dr. Taub was instrumental in discovering that the brain is capable of changing it’s structure and adapting and improving not just in childhood, as was previously thought, but throughout adult life as well. What Dr. Taub learned later came to be known as neural plasticity and in essence it means that the more you attempt any one thing you are learning or practicing, the better you will get at what you are attempting and practicing, without exception but also within reason.

As a man with autism I find eye contact uncomfortable sometimes but with practice, intent and other motivating factors I can improve, even if I won’t ever be as natural at eye contact as neural-typical persons are. Sometimes the motivating factor is psychological stress. When I go to Jiu jitsu practice or the boxing club and I spar with training partners at full speed it is often the threat of harm, causing psychological stress, that drives neural plasticity in me and leads to my improvement.

I try to connect a punch and miss. A failure by some standards maybe, however my next punch has a better chance at connecting, every time I fail.

So I fail and I fail and I fail until I start to succeed. The greater the difficulty the more likely I will fail but also the greater the gain in my understanding and improvement toward my goal. Any boxer will tell you that it takes years to learn how to punch properly. That amounts to a lot of failure. However every failure ends in some measure of improvement, some measure of success, if one is willing to continue to fail until one sees ones success.

The same is also true of negative reinforcement. This is a serious mental health challenge for anyone facing difficulties brought on by mental health conditions. When I was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after years of violence in my career and childhood I didn’t have any help from doctors. I was told that there are no doctors employed in public health that are actually qualified to treat P.T.S.D. in Ontario. I had to seek therapy from private practices.

When one is battling P.T.S.D. one of the most debilitating challenges is the unexpected and seemingly uncontrollable flashbacks, nightmares and hallucinations. However a deeper problem is that the brain cells that wire together, fire together, because of neural plasticity. So every time I had a flashback my brain was learning how to get better AT HAVING FLASHBACKS.

Every time I had a flashback my brain became more efficient at this debilitating process. It became easier to slip into flashbacks and they were longer and more vivid with each event.

Psychotherapists know this and this knowledge has led to changes in therapy methods with trauma survivors. Doctors no longer engage in “cognitive behavioural therapy” because the repeated exposure to past trauma only improves the likelihood of reliving past trauma again. Hard as it was to do, the largest part of my battle with P.T.S.D. was learning how to avoid problem behaviours like flashbacks, because problem behaviours like flashbacks only make me better at flashbacks.

I am recovered from P.T.S.D., at least as recovered as can be expected. No one is ever fully recovered from that kind of trauma but one can be free from the worst of it if one tries. I learned to apply what I know about neural plasticity to everything, including my autistic challenges. I practiced looking at my wife, in the eye, when we spoke on serious issues, because she needs to feel cared for in HER way as much as I need to feel cared for in MY way. Eye contact got easier with each attempt and failure. I am not as natural with it as neural-typical persons but I am a lot better than I used to be.

Every time you try something and fail, you learn. EVERY time. Every time you give up, you get better at giving up. EVERY time.

Sometimes we have to give up. Sometimes we have to walk away. We all get overwhelmed. However as a man with autism I have learned to use the trademark autistic honesty I offer, on myself. I know when I am simply frustrated and I know when the costs outweigh the efforts. I may hate to admit it but I know the truth when I really mull it over, so I keep trying. I keep trying to be a good husband because I love my wife and she will always be worth the effort and some failure. I fail at least once a day, or should I say I succeed once a day?

I just try again, that’s living with autism.

Failure is success.