Thoughts and illustrations on living on the autism spectrum.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Suspend Disbelief

I have been on the adventure of a lifetime.

In the morning, I’ve risen before the sun, awakening to the stillness, the lapping of the water below, the calls of birds, and the distant tolling of the harbor bell.

In the evening, I’ve sat by the fire, detached from my electronic gadgets and not missing them, instead having conversations, and playing cards.

I've seen water so blue, it stops you in your tracks, unable to avert your eyes.

I’ve been to the top of a mountain where the wind stuns, and the mist hangs in plumes at eye level.

I’ve soared over the water aboard a speedboat, along the coast, the ocean spray against my face, past seals, birds, and sailboats, all cares melted away.

I’ve ventured to a tiny island, completely removed from civilization, exploring with careful steps from rock to rock, an otherworldly place all to myself, knowing I would never return to.

I have seen paradise, I’m quite sure.

All because four months ago, I let my old reality burn.

Ten days ago, I returned from a stay in Northeast Harbor, Maine, with my ten co-workers. This was a staff retreat, at my new job. The one I took after I was laid off. The one I accepted with uncertainty, but with a good gut feeling. The one where I had just begun to settle into a new routine and new culture.

One door closes and another opens, I wrote four months ago. But who in their wildest dreams could have expected this? You just never know, when you take a job, what it might lead to, how it might change your life.

As the Asticou jetted along the water under picture perfect skies on a Monday afternoon, I was awestruck simply to be right here, right now. I marveled at the chain of events that fell into place to make this possible. So unlikely, and yet it was happening. I sat and soaked in the constant whirr and vibration of the boat, the wind and the ocean spray, wearing a stupid silly grin. I just couldn't help it. Because instead of sitting at my office desk in Chadds Ford, PA, I was miles and miles away, seeing this,

and this,

and this.

We took the retreat for team building, and it was undoubtedly a success. There was no curriculum. There was no Power Point. We grew as a team naturally, over the five days, by cooking our meals together, navigating our way in the van, and finding fun things to do. We could be people, not co-workers, and so we got to know each other as people.

I talked at length about Asperger's one night, over appetizers of smoked salmon and crackers, at a restaurant called Red Sky. Peppered with questions, I was happy to answer. I coined a classic phrase, "more time and data points." But one question surprised me:

"How come you don’t ask us questions about our lives? Is it because you’re not interested?"

Oh! I didn't realize. Of course I am interested in you, I explained. I learn about you by listening, observing, and asking when I feel the time is right. Please don't be offended if I don't ask. And on and on, we continued to learn from each other.

I wrote back in May:

It can be hard to find guideposts as that reality shifts and reshapes, but I need only remember to be myself, and be proud of who I am, as a person with Asperger’s. If I can do that, I am sure to emerge stronger from this crisis.

I think I have followed this advice, and I think I have emerged stronger. This week you may have read the story of Justin Canha, who found his place in the workplace. I have found mine as well. Even before we went on this amazing trip.

If you’re on the spectrum and job seeking, my advice to you is to be yourself, and good fortune may yet come your way.

If you’re an employer with an opportunity to hire a neurodiverse workforce, do it. Then give them the opportunity to gel as a team, organically. You don't have to take them to Maine. Just let them be people.

And my old job? My replacement quit after four days. And to my knowledge, only a part-timer has been found to fill the position.

In my bedroom at the cottage in Maine, there was a sign on the dresser. It said, "Suspend disbelief." I left for the trip as a new employee; I returned as part of a team. I came in having traveled very little; I returned with the travel bug, and a promise to myself to travel more. It all seemed unbelievable at times, but I suspended disbelief, and returned with more than I ever thought possible.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

To Be You, or Not To Be You

“Be yourself,” we are often told, when we are worried about fitting in. Ironic advice, when you think about it. Be an individual, to feel comfortable among many?

Being yourself, when you’re an Aspie, can get you in heaps of trouble. A poorly timed meltdown, a missed signal, a split second reaction, can form a lasting impression. “Be yourself,” but not your whole self, lest you offend someone.

Being yourself is sometimes not advisable. There are times we must fit in to survive. We want to fit in at school, or with the company culture. We want to be polite. We want to hang onto valuable relationships.

So we develop different versions of ourselves that we trot out as needed. But being phony takes energy. In squelching authenticity, we fragment. We start to doubt who really is our real self. Is “the real me” so great, if it’s so often censored?

Being yourself, when you’re a person with autism, can mean asking for accommodations or special treatment. This is a struggle. We often think of equal treatment as the ultimate goal of autism awareness, but is that really possible? What we often ask for is to be the exception. We want to be the one who doesn’t have to play dodge ball. We want to be the one who doesn’t have to get up and do a presentation.

Sometimes we can negotiate deals in exchange for being ourselves – do more independent reading that we like, and less outdoor recess that we don’t. Yet in so doing, we further emphasize our difference from the norm, rather than blend in.

There is no easy answer. We learn this from a very early age. Be yourself, or be accepted: we often must choose. And the unanswerable question is: If I cannot be myself, then who can I be?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


misophonia (n): Dislike of sound - especially sounds associated with chomping, slurping, munching, snarfing, slucking, masticating, and other mealtime behaviors - to the point of "instantaneous blood-boiling rage."

When a Chomp or a Slurp Is a Trigger for Outrage