You don’t often see Grant Writer listed among the best jobs for Aspies. As a successful grant writer myself, I’m here to tell you why Asperger’s helps me excel, and why it might be the career for you.
I didn’t plan on becoming a grant writer. Most of us probably didn’t. One day, someone asked me if I could write a grant. So I took a look at one, and I did. Sounds too simple to be true, right? Last week, we looked at some of the key advantages of Asperger’s in the workplace. As I look back now, many of those traits have been directly responsible for my success:
Seeing patterns: Whenever possible, I will use an old grant as a model when starting a new one. Even if it’s an unrelated topic. I’m looking for paragraphs or whole sections I can repurpose, keeping the structure, but changing the details. I find it easier than reinventing the wheel.
Focus: Perhaps the most challenging part of a grant is taking on an unfamiliar topic, especially at the very beginning. It can often be difficult, as an Aspie, to shift focus from one subject to another, and sometimes I lag behind my co-workers in picking up on a new topic. However, I make up this ground quickly. My familiarity comes from gradual and repeated exposure to the topic, more likely alone at my computer screen than in a team brainstorming session, and from asking questions as needed. I fill in my knowledge gaps one at a time: What is the need? Why will our idea work? How are we measuring success?
Logic: Everyone hates to do logic models. A logic model is the one page table that lists in columns your community need, inputs, outputs, and outcomes, short and long term. Basically it summarizes your plan in excruciating detail, connecting the dots for the reader. I used to hate to do logic models too. But I’ve changed my mind, because I realized something: If my logic model makes sense, the entire narrative will fall into place, simply by filling in the details. So now, it’s one of the first things I do when I write.
Outsider perspective: Aspies are used to viewing things as an outsider. When I write, I’m often taking direction from people more experienced in the field. I must understand the subject matter for myself, so I can write knowledgably about it. Therefore, I'm careful to articulate concepts so they make sense to me, eliminating industry jargon when possible. The advantage of this is that the grant reviewer has likely never heard of our company or our idea before. Yes, grant reviewers are human beings, too! They need a clear explanation so they can make a decision to fund or not. So in writing for my own understanding, I’m writing for the reviewer as well.
Puzzle solving: Sometimes grants have a strict page limit. Even 30 pages, which sounds like a lot, is not. So it becomes a puzzle, because I can't simply cram in as much information as possible; I must make it fit within the parameters given. I’ve learned many tricks to do this, such as trimming down a data table from a full page to a half, or fitting in more paragraphs by adjusting my spacing, while still complying with the 12 point font and 1-inch margins. I think of it as giving more bang for your buck, by putting the same amount of information in the smallest possible space.
Unconventional thinking: I imagine I work very differently from NT grant writers. I like to have my structure in place first, even with the wrong information, before I go to work on the content. For instance, if I have 42 pages and a 30 page limit, nothing else matters to me until I can trim it down, before I add anything new. Then, through repeated editing, I’ll read through and see what’s missing, and fill it in, then repeat until nothing is missing. I may take a different path to get there, but it’s the final product that matters.
Attention to detail: By the time a proposal is done, I know every inch of it. If someone comes along at the last minute and says, change the title of this position, or change this goal from 75% to 80%, I know exactly where the updates need to be made. Usually, it's more than one place.
I never took a class on grant writing. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a training. Even so, I’ve brought in about $16 million for my company in a little under ten years. I’ve helped open new buildings, and make it possible for people to stay healthy, find homes, and keep custody of their children. Grant writing is often tedious and thankless work, but it makes many good things possible. It takes the right person to do it well. And just maybe, it takes an Aspie.
Ten days ago, I lost my job to a layoff. At the moment, I will be out of work June 30. In an instant, my world turned confusing, and uncertain. Each day is a roller coaster of emotion. It will be quite awhile before things feel “normal” again.
We all can be knocked on our backs by a crisis. If you are neurotypical, you have your support network to catch you. But if you have autism, as we’ve seen, your support network is often lacking. Not only are you not well-connected to people, you don’t “read” them well even in a clear state of mind. And thus, the same crisis hits you that much harder.
I’ve been told by many, “I’m here if you need to talk.” “I'm here if you need anything.” And that is a wonderful thing, until I realized I haven’t the slightest idea what to do with those offers.
I have found encouragement and support come to me from the least expected people. And, I have found a casual brush-off from others who I expected to be supportive.
I have been an actor, suddenly on a constant audition, every move carefully choreographed. I have practiced giving measured and neutral responses when necessary, compiling a mental checklist of how much information to provide to whom.
I have been a ghost, among others going about their normal routine, talking of cruises, or allergies, or playfully teasing at one another’s expense.
They tell me, it’ll work out. They tell me, one door closes and another opens. That’s all well and good, but they don’t know how the waiting feels. They imagine, but they don’t know, how different the world looks, inside a crisis.
I sat around a conference table with a bishop who blessed our meeting in Jesus’ name. The bishop greeted me warmly, and asked how I was, and I lied and said I was well. And though I don’t believe in his God, I found myself wondering what words of wisdom he might have for me.
I've been noticing things I never noticed before. I stopped at a tollbooth, and the toll taker wished me a nice day. I heard the kindness in her voice, and it gave me strength, like finding a penny on the ground.
I walked past an industrial scrap yard in the city, beside a chain link fence, and on the other side, a dog appeared and followed alongside me. He didn’t bark, he simply looked at me, wide-eyed and mangy, mirroring my steps until I passed the boundary. I think he would have followed me home if not for the fence.
I sat alone at a picnic table, eating my lunch on a sunny mid-afternoon, while maintenance workers rode past on golf carts, and senior citizens stretched and checked their maps. I watched a young woman approach an empty swing set and get on, though she was clearly not a kid anymore. She swung for a good long time, all by herself, without a trace of self-consciousness. I thought how good it would feel to do the same. But not today. There was work to be done.
I’ve had the new P.J. Harvey CD on repeat all week, “Let England Shake,” and in my head, the song, “Written on the Forehead,” about the people in a war-torn city watching destruction all around them. Some, in a last act of free will, throw their possessions in a celebratory bonfire: “Let it burn, let it burn, let it burn, burn, burn...” Others try to swim to safety: “Through tons of sewage, fate written on their foreheads.” Neither group can escape the ravages of war.
Likewise, none of us can escape change. We can try to swim against the current, but we’ll likely fail. Or, we can let our old world burn, and seize control of our destiny rather than accept some predetermined fate.
I’m choosing to do the latter, now that war has come to my doorstep. I'm letting the old reality burn, so the new can take its place. 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 am in my basement, and I am practicing darts. I am twelve years old. I do not care about mastering the skill. I have no intention of competing. It’s not the bulls-eye that interests me.
I am training. Training to hit number five, over and over. I must be precise. Deadly. An assassin. Like him.
Twenty students we number, in Mr. P’s homeroom. Twenty slices on the dartboard. Perfect. Perfect for Mr. P, ever the jokester, to inject some friendly competition into the morning routine.
But not all here are friends. There is a predator among us. Across the room, B smiles a jack-o-lantern grin, and licks his lips. Into this innocent contest, he has sunk in his fangs, and injected venom.
Each morning, one dart throw appoints one of us teacher’s helper: The chosen one collects the lunch orders. They take the attendance sheet upstairs. And the next morning, they lead the Pledge. Then, they throw, choosing the next helper.
B knows I dread leading the Pledge. We all know it. My loudest voice seems barely a murmur to their ears; their slightest snicker seems a roar to mine. B has made me his target for a year already, but never, until now, in the literal sense. However unwittingly, Mr. P has gift-wrapped and delivered me to my adversary.
It is child’s play to match number to name, for anyone who cares to. Ten is mine. And B is no roulette player. Ten is where he aims. He throws. He connects. He smiles in mock surprise.
B gives me what I want the least. Attention. A solitude-seeker, I placed myself in his crosshairs. He strikes, without laying a finger, but with warfare of the mind. He fires in the shadows, under breath, out of sight, ever present to remind me I am different. Here, where the rules are so many, we do battle in a lawless land.
But I have long since surrendered. Retaliation has proved futile. Fists and words alike backfired, my frustration only became his fuel. Still he baits me to react. I retreat into passivity, a mask for concealed rage. He has implanted in me a demon seed of self-doubt.
Now, the game is darts. And it occurs to me… Yes, two can play. The thought has crossed my mind. But in my defeatist mindset, I hesitate. Should I? Isn’t it in vain? I’ve never landed a blow against him. But for once, I find myself with a weapon in my hand.
And so I am practicing, into the evening. Sixteen. Three. Eleven. No, I must keep trying. Nine. Twenty. Twelve. Getting closer. I will not give up. And finally… Five... Five... Five. I have done it. But can I hit my mark when it counts?
The next morning, I fulfill my duty.
“I pledge allegiance, to the flag…”
My words freefall through empty air. Seconds stretch into an eternity. Until at last, a chorus fills in behind me, a parachute ripcord.
“…of the United States of America…” And then, it is done.
I approach the dartboard and draw. I take my position. I aim. And I throw.
And from across the room, an incredulous sneer.
I show no emotion. I cannot. But inside I am brimming with joy. One arrow pierces powerlessness. And for one day, the prey has battled the predator, and won.