The virtue of humility can be described as telling the truth about yourself. It is being honest about what you are and what you are not: strengths and weaknesses, abilities and challenges. It is knowing and accepting yourself as you really are, and being able to recognise, appreciate, and enjoy what is better in other people .
Humility relies on recognising that the strengths and abilities I and everyone else have are a gift from God. Therefore, they are a reason to be thankful rather than boastful. Part of gratitude for abilities is using one’s own well for the benefit of others, and allowing other people to use theirs well. This includes accepting help without resentment or embarrassment. Our goodness and ability is only because God is good and able. By extension the strengths of other people make us better, they don’t need to threaten our feeling of worth.
Disability presents challenges for practicing humility. Intellectual/developmental and physical disability can both make it necessary to accept more help than most people need. But recognising limitations, recognising where others are better at something, and allowing them to help, can be very difficult. You have to set aside resentment of your situation, wanting to be self-reliant, feelings of embarrassment and failure, and envy of other’s greater ability.
For several years, I was extremely limited by chronic fatigue syndrome and couldn’t survive on my own. To begin with it was very hard to let people help, even though I couldn’t manage even basic tasks like getting food. I was refusing to recognise what I could not do, or what others could do better than me, and I certainly wasn’t appreciating their greater ability. I was only feeling sorry for myself and alternately feeling frustrated and ashamed that I couldn’t cope alone, and feeling bad that other people had to go out of their way to help me. I did not recognise that my worth is not based on what I can do, but is given by God. And I failed to understand that people want to help because they care and that refusing them isn’t being considerate; it makes them worry, and creates tension that spoils relationships. That period of illness has been a transformative time that I can’t regret because of all the valuable things I’ve learned.
I now recognise that I can’t live totally on my own because of my autism, but it took a very long time to understand and accept this. Apart from the more classic difficulties of autism, I have very poor or limited working memory (the number of things you can hold in mind at once), visual memory, and attention. Pre-diagnosis I didn’t have the information to understand why life was so hard, and why I couldn’t just do the basic things other people did without apparent effort. I could not keep on top of basic day to day tasks and the effort of trying repeatedly made me ill with chronic fatigue. Once I had a diagnosis, I began to understand what was happening but I thought I just needed to try harder, or discover the solution that would allow me to manage. I thought, or at least felt, that needing help to cope with daily chores or getting to bed at a reasonable time made me less of a person. Here I was beginning to recognise what I was not good at, and that others were better at it, but I wasn’t accepting it and I still wasn’t appreciating other people’s greater ability. Until very recently I thought I had to earn my worth through performance and productivity, so I was not acknowledging that all ability is a gift from God.
For some people with autism and specific learning difficulties, there is an additional challenge for knowing and accepting yourself as you really are. People often have what’s called an uneven cognitive profile. That means they are average or very good at some cognitive abilities, but below average or very poor at others. I have some very poor cognitive abilities, such as planning, prioritising, remembering, verbal and non-verbal communication. But I also have some very strong cognitive abilities, such as logical thinking, learning and understanding concepts, and verbal reasoning.
This can be difficult for other people to understand. They tend to see either only ability or only disability. For example if they see high intelligence, they are surprised when I can’t cope with basic daily activities, or are annoyed when communication fails because they think I’m being rude. This is exacerbated by the fact that I only usually see people socially when I’m managing well, they don’t get to see the bad times. But sometimes people do see my communication difficulties and confusion trying to do something ordinary and then they think I am not intelligent and won’t talk to me about interesting things, assuming I wouldn’t understand. This gets frustrating because it means I miss out on the part of social interaction I can do best. People have often thought I’m “dreamy” or “in my own world”, and then are surprised to discover a sense of humour and intelligence after getting to know me better. This has often led to feeling misunderstood, both overestimated and underestimated, often at the same time. Lack of humility meant I used to try extremely hard to keep up with conversation and appear to be managing whenever I was with people. It was exhausting and stressful, and I am gradually unlearning those unhealthy habits.
Another reason it is difficult for me is because I tend to generalise from whatever I’m experiencing at the time. For example, if I’m doing something I’m good at like studying, I overestimate myself and think I can manage anything on my own. Conversely, if I am struggling with daily tasks like getting ready in the morning or trying to organise laundry, I underestimate myself and think I can’t manage anything on my own. This might be due to impaired working memory making it hard to be aware of more than one thing at a time. Thinking I can do anything on my own is lacking humility because it is overestimating myself and crediting myself for my abilities. Thinking I can’t do anything on my own is lacking humility because it is not true, is self-pitying, and it often goes with reluctance to accept help.
As well as differing ability in different areas, my abilities vary over time. For example, some days talking is extremely hard, and other days it is (relatively) easy. And some days I am extremely distractible and can’t pay attention to anything or stay on track at all, and other days I can concentrate quite well for short periods of time. Sometimes it is predictable, e.g. if I’m very tired everything is harder. But sometimes there is no obvious reason for the fluctuation. If I push myself on bad days to do things anyway or try to keep up with other people, I get exhausted and then the next few days will be rough too. Sometimes it’s necessary to do that, but usually it’s only pride and fear of embarrassment that makes me do it.
Accepting limitations without embarrassment or defensiveness means stopping pretending to be other than we are. There’s big visible things like being unable to have paid employment because daily living uses too much effort, and there’s also smaller less visible things like not doing usual prayers because I’m too tired or distracted, or when I can’t hold a conversation successfully. Accepting this is difficult and at times painful, but even the difficulty of learning this lesson has value when offering it all to Jesus. Then I can know I’m still His regardless of what I can and can’t do. My value comes entirely from Him.Practicing humility means recognising weakness and accepting help, and finding ways of using strengths. Above all it means remembering to thank God for all abilities, our own and other peoples, and confidently asking Him for help in weakness because He loves us more than we can imagine.
 Fr Mike Schmitz, (11.01.16). Podcast episode “I am not”. http://bulldogcatholic.org/i-am-not/
 Mission of St Thorlak via Twitter as @PatronOfAutism, (17.08.17). http://mission-of-saint-thorlak.weebly.com/