Wednesday, May 28, 2008

The Problems of Completeness and Perfection in School-Aged Aspies

I've already discussed perfection in a previous post. This post is intended to provide a bit more background.
We already know that aspies can be obsessed with patterns. In many cases, particularly school work, patterns only make sense when something is perfect and/or complete. It therefore follows that aspies often have major hang-ups about perfection and completeness at school and at work.

This obsession with impossible levels of perfection and completion can cause a lot of stress, particularly in young aspies at school and particularly where other factors, such as learning difficulties, writing problems or other forms of work-impairment are present.

For example; An aspie with poor writing skills may find that he is constantly crossing out and redoing entire paragraphs of work because it doesn't meet his or her standards. Often they will tear out a page in their exercise books rather than leave imperfect work on the page.

This isn't limited to writing and can happen during mathematics, science experiments and craft activities. In fact, the perfection issue can pervade all aspects of the aspies life from school, to sport and even solitary play.

Parents need to watch their children closely for signs of perfectionism.

In some careers, such as programming where code only works when it is correct, perfectionism is a bonus. Usually though, perfectionism is not good. In the workplace, perfection can lead to employer cricism for slowness and in school perfectionism is particularly harmful.

In cases where school children have other difficulties, perfectionism can cause students to become stressed, lose confidence in themselves and take considerably longer to complete set tasks.

Completeness is also a form of perfection. Aspie students may become very irritated if they are required to stop working on projects before they are complete.

I have a particularly vivid memory/irritation surrounding a poster I did in Kindergarten. We did a poster with the word Halloween stuck on it. I managed to cut out the last N but was not permitted to stick it on because time had run out. I kept the N for months and constantly pleaded with my teacher to let me put the N on. Instead, the poster was hung up with all the others - and with the irritating misspelling. I still feel irritated about it now, and I'm 38.

My point is simple; not allowing aspies to complete work can lead to stress, fixations and anguish. There are two ways in which work may not be completed;

  1. You don't allow them enough time - in which case, they should be permitted to take extra time, or perhaps take work home to complete.

  2. Issues of perfection prevent them from completing the work. In this case, the teachers and parents need to give the child a little "push" to move on to the next stage of the work. (eg: "That first paragraph is fine, now start on the next paragraph").


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the new post. I'm starting to get addicted to your blog..

Could perfectionism also lead to a procrastination issue? I have this problem that I can hardly even start to work on a project when I have a feeling that I won't be able to make it perfect.
This feeling comes from the project's specifications (which are not exact) and also from the environment (a very restricted system). Yes, I work in IT as a programmer.

When I finally manage to get myself to work, I'm running out of time, making my work even less perfect.

How can an IT guy overcome this perfectionism?

Gavin Bollard said...

"Could perfectionism also lead to a procrastination issue?"

oh yes... definately.

I often wont start things unless I feel I can do them pefectly. Similarly, I often wont take things to meetings to get voted on unless I think I'll get 100% of the votes.

This affects my IT life in a really bad way because I often want to fix problems at the source. For example, I won't fix problem Y in database X because there are problems with the whole system which need to be addressed. I feel that I need to fix everything at once.

The only thing that works for me in these cases is to make small fixes which address several problems in a modular way (and leave hooks for other fixes). That way, I feel like I've not finished and it doesn't have to be 100%.

Jamie said...

Gavin, I've been fascinated by your blog. I'm a writer and have been doing a sort of character study on a TV character who is said to have Asperger's. I'm currently trying to write a "pretend" episode about him, and if it's not too much trouble, I'd love to get your perspective over email to make sure I'm being accurate and fair. I'm also on Blogger. Would you be willing?

Much thanks,

SQT said...

My son has gotten a tentative diagnosis for Asperger's and through that I've begun to realize that I have it too! Talk about mind boggling. I got a couple of books on the subject and I told my husband that I feel like someone opened up my head and looked inside.

I totally get the procrastination thing. I get into this cycle all the time. I'm a stay at home mom and I feel very inadequate. I have a hard time just getting the housework done because I can feel overwhelmed and like I don't do it well enough.

I also shy from doing new things if I think I won't be good at it. It's as if I need to be perfect from the get-go, or why bother.

And don't even get me started on my social skills, or lack thereof.

Who knew there was a name for my brand of social awkwardness?

xlicea said...

I'm so happy to find things like this on the internet. I recently discovered that I have Asperger's... via finding out about shutdowns. It has answered so many of life's little questions for me and continues to do so.
I can't wait until MORE of the general public is aware of all of this. It will help so many people in so many ways.

Erin said...

It would be important for these children that have the perfectionism to have accommodations written into the IEP to address the issues and to make all teachers aware and sensitive to the issue. Thanks for this post.


VisualVox said...

Thanks for this great info and insight! Addressing perfectionism and completion of projects is really important, IMHO -- and it's gotten me into a lot of trouble over the years with my work. I'm an adult woman (43 yrs old) who works in IT, and although perfectionism with writing code is important, there's the issue of documentation and other sorts of work that involve people.

I've had a lot of difficulties over the years with finishing my piece(s) of the collective puzzle, and I've been "dinged" for it repeatedly. It hasn't helped my career, but knowing about it (now, after years and years of unexplained troubles) does help.

If your Aspie kid has problems with perfection and completion, it's really in their best interests if you address it sooner than later and help them get their heads around finishing what they start. If you don't, or you don't take it that seriously, they could suffer the consequences later. That's not good. I speak from personal experience. My own parents could never get me to finish important things. They didn't think to ask why that might be and they didn't address the issue constructively, as did(n't) I, so it was a recipe for long-term distress for myself and lots of people who depended on me for things.

My current strategy for addressing this (now that I have more info about myself) is to try to remember that other people don't notice things that I do, and that if some piece of my documentation is "incomplete" in my eyes, it might not be to others. And anyway, sometimes others look for the opportunity to assist. Or, they may get enraged that I'm not holding up my end of the bargain. It's just not good, if I don't finish what I say I'll deliver!

But in spite of all my strategies, sometimes there's just no easy way to finesse procrastination, other than just doing it and being disciplined, no matter what.

I could go on and on about this -- and I may do it in my own blog post, but for now, consider this a big two-thumbs-up that you've written about this vital subject!

Good work!

Jenn said...

I think i'll be bookmarking your blog now.
I have a 7 yr old with Aspergers and you've just described him so well.
I love him dearly, and anything I can do to understand him better - I will do.
Thank-you for sharing your unique insights.

Audra said...

Yep, I'm officially hooked on your blog, and more convinced than ever that I've got Aspergers.

My parents used to call me "lazy" if I didn't do my chores all the time, but I tell ya, to this day I have a problem starting things that I know aren't going to be up to snuff when I'm finished. Like I look at doing dishes and cleaning things as a never-ending cycle, and something that is never really going to be "perfect."

And at work, oh don't get me started! Just yesterday my boss gave me a task that I wasn't able to finish, and it's still bothering me. It's something that would take several days to complete, and she gave it to me right before a 4-day hiatus. Talk about nerve-wracking! I keep wondering who's going to do it, if I'll have to do it when I get back, if it'll get done right, etc, whereas most people would just toss it aside and gladly leave it for the next person.

I am so grateful for your blog. It is helping me understand why I do things the way I do. I'm wondering too if my brother has Aspergers because he has a LOT in common with it.

Anonymous said...


I'm trying to deal with my 9yr old's asperger-related perfectionism with her school work. Any advice on getting her to understand that making mistakes is part of learning? She has a math disability so mistakes are part of math. Any help would be greatly appreciated.



Gavin Bollard said...


There's not really a whole lot that you can do. You could get your daughter to close off outward signs of frustrations but you might find that the frustration continues internally. That would obviously be worse since bottling things up causes other problems.

I guess that the only thing you can do is be there for her. She's going to continue to make mistakes and she's going to punish herself for them. You need that to stay open and visible.

When you make a mistake, call her over and show her. Help her to see how you cope with mistakes particularly when you feel angry about it.

She'll learn by experience... eventually.

Andreas said...

Ahhh, I am having so many flashbacks reading this!
This why I procrastinate! People have called me: lazy, unfocused, obstinate, and so many other things. I cannot stand to start something that I think will not come out just just right; perfect. The more important the task, the longer I will procrastinate. Sometimes I have even not done the task altogether! Then I'm in a whirlwind of guilt...

I've learned (well try to) focus on the fact "that other people don't notice things that I do, and that if some piece of my [work] is "incomplete" in my eyes, it might not be to others."
It is so hard, though!
The only other option is strict discipline. Make a schedule, and follow it blindly, as if it were a rule (since we do use them), and treat it as if it is out of my hands. It is terribly uncomfortable, but it can get the job done.

Haha, just thinking about this has me agitated!

I had a job as a medical lab technician. They wanted quantity over quality. My manager thought I was incompetent, because I worked so slowly (methodically, actually). I could not stand to release products with minor flaws. They didn't even notice them, until I specifically pointed them out. I hated that job! I prefer a job that requires expertise.

Haha, I also sometimes feel the need to be perfect from the get-go. I sometimes have to talk myself through whilst learning a new skill, reminding myself that mistakes will happen, before I can learn it.
Seeing someone else write it makes me feel less crazy : )
Thank you!

When she is older, the discipline idea should help some. As for now, I only feel comfortable making mistakes, when I see other people making them. Not just a few, but quite a few. If you point out that it is OK to make mistakes, citing other people's mistakes, it could put her at ease. We ASD people tend to think logically, so if she sees that that make sense, it should help some.

Libby Krzyzkowski said...

Can the perfectionism be expected of others too and not just themselves? I suspect my husband has this and he is a big perfectionist and also expects me to be perfect at everything too.

Gavin Bollard said...

Hi Libby,

People certainly can expect perfection from others, from their partners and their employees.

Unfortunately, if I expected that from my partner I'd go crazy very quickly. I'd also be very hard to live with.

It's best that we accept the limit of perfectionism as being ourselves.