Posts Tagged ‘Social Awkwardness’

Those of you who’ve followed me for a while know that I am on the autism spectrum, and that I’ve had opportunities to speak about it a couple of times, including a widely-circulated video which I posted back in March. I was able to get my job partially because of my autism, and a lot of the work I do involves working with, accommodating, and advocating for people with disabilities in the workplace, including but certainly not limited to autism. I don’t go around everywhere broadcasting my diagnosis, but it does come up on occasion.

One of those recent occasions was for my organization’s newsletter. I was asked to write a short essay, about a page long, about having a disability, about the program that helped me get a job in my organization, and what that’s been like. That article was published recently, along with a couple of other testimonials, and it’s been getting around. A lot of people have been coming up to me and thanking me for being so open with my story.

Today, I got an email from someone in my organization who had read the article, and had contacted me asking for advice. His adult nephew had been diagnosed with autism a couple of years ago, well past the point where intervention can be at its most effective. And in the  years since his diagnosis, his life has not gotten easier. I won’t go into details, but it was heartbreaking to read the man’s email and to hear about his nephew’s suffering.

At the end of the email, he asked what could be done for his nephew, and if maybe the program that helped me get my job could help his nephew.

What do you say to something like that? What sort of comfort can you give when there’s already so much pain?

I don’t know if I ever meant to be an advocate for people with disabilities. But over time, that role has kind of been molded around me. A good part of this has been because of my job. As I said, I have to advocate for people with disabilities in the workplace. To that end, I’ve learned how to market to people who are able-bodied why they should hire more people with disabilities. I can tell them that people with disabilities have a much lower turnover rate than the general population, 8% compared to 45%, that getting them accommodations rarely gets anywhere near the $500 mark, and then back all that up by talking about my own satisfaction with my position, and how the only accommodation I’ve needed for my ASD was permission to listen to my iPod or audiobooks while doing certain tasks. I’ve also been asked to do essays, like I did for the newsletter, and the video I recorded back in March. And sometimes it just comes up, like when explaining how I got my internship in Germany (yeah, my ASD played a part in that), or using it to illustrate a point in conversation, or a hundred different scenarios.

One way or another, it seems like I was meant to be an advocate, especially at this point in my life, when I’m doing so well at work, living on my own, and even as a writer.

But as a giver of advice? I’m not sure I expected that. And I get why it’s happening. Autism is a scary diagnosis for anyone to get, as well as for the loved ones of those diagnosed. It’s a disorder that varies widely from person to person, it can never be cured, the cause is still unknown,* the number of people being diagnosed with it has grown exponentially with improved diagnostic tools. Depending on what traits are present or what other disorders are present with autism can also affect everything from therapy to school choices to possibilities in adulthood. And when the diagnosis is made in adulthood, as happened with the young man whose uncle emailed me, it can be a sort of terrifying that no horror story can tap into. With all that in mind, hearing from someone who not only has the same diagnosis, but is successful in the real world, can be a soothing balm for the mind and soul.

I just wish I had all the answers. Or that I was more confident in the answers I have to give.

But if I’m going to give any sort of advice, it’s that we shouldn’t deny or try to hide our diagnoses. We shouldn’t try to be “normal,” because normal doesn’t exist, especially not for us. We process the world so differently than everyone else, but that doesn’t mean we have to be ashamed or afraid. I’m able to succeed and do the things I do every day because I process differently. So embrace your different. It may be called a disability, but it can be an asset too. Some of the greatest innovators and creators the world has ever known have been on the spectrum. And once we learn to work with the issues we have, we can learn to become those great innovators and creators.

And don’t be afraid to look for or ask for help. Even if you’re diagnosed later in life, there’s still plenty of resources for you. Many states, including my beloved Ohio, have programs that offer help and direction for people with disabilities and families, whether they be children or well into adulthood. Many schools have or are adding programs to ensure the disabled can take full advantage of their educations. More and more employers are recognizing the importance of hiring people with disabilities, and what they can contribute. We’re not being left alone like a ship in a storm. There is help.

Living my life strong, no matter what my diagnosis is.

And it’s important to be open about your diagnosis, especially with your friends, family, coworkers and teachers. Keeping it a secret has never helped anyone get by. It’s better to be open, so that those around us are better equipped to work with us, and join us on our journey as we work our way through life. I know it’s scary, and you don’t want to be any different than anyone else. But remember, there’s no normal. We’re all different, and many of us wear it on our sleeves. Might as well display this different too, if only to make life a little easier.

I hope you find this helpful. I hope the man who emailed me today found my advice helpful. And if you or someone you know has autism, I hope that no matter what, you or your loved one is able to hold their head up high and know this: you are great the way you are.

*And if you’re about to comment saying some bull about vaccines, let me tell you a story, since anti-vaxxers seem to value testimony more rather than scientific consensus: my mother has told me a few times that I was different from the day I was born, well before I received my first vaccine. I was nothing like the baby books predicted I’d be, and it wasn’t until my younger sister was born that she saw any of that stuff. I trust her word, so that means vaccines had nothing to do with the way I am. And if you still insist that vaccines had something to do with the way I am, you may be calling my mother a liar, and them’s fighting words.

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I am Sheldon Cooper.

I’m great in my field, or perhaps I’m narcissistic enough to think that I’m great. I can talk on and on about writing and horror until I realize it’s too late, I’ve made the person or persons I’m talking to feel uncomfortable. Sometimes I don’t even realize it. But then I find myself talking about how much I hate the Friday the 13th remake and I forget I’m supposed to be having a conversation.

I have odd habits that make no sense to others. I laugh at jokes only I find funny. Sometimes they don’t even leave my head and I’m in hysterics. I talk to myself, I trace shapes in the air with my mind. I hold imaginary conversations with my characters and with other people’s characters. Whatever leads to an idea, right?

Social situations can confuse me. I’ll say something that seems totally innocent in my head, and not realize most people will find a second, possibly offensive or disgusting meaning to it. If I’m lucky, I’ll realize within the next couple of hours this faux pas and never repeat it. Occasionally I never notice though, and I worry about those times, because I’m not sure when or where or why they happened. I only know that they probably have.

If someone says I shouldn’t do or say something, I will ask why if the answer isn’t immediately obvious to me (which is usually sixty percent of the time). If you only say “Just because” or “It’s bad”, I won’t believe you or listen to you. If asked why, I will reply “Once some nasty peers of mine asked me if I was gay before I knew what that meant and they wouldn’t tell me. I said yes just to see what would happen and was the laughingstock for the rest of the day.” So you either tell me what’s so wrong and you walk me through it to make the point, or I’ll just assume that it’s not so big a deal because you don’t want to spell it out.*

Sometimes I’m resistant to changes or new things that seem great but I just don’t feel comfortable with yet. I was horribly opposed to social media like Facebook for years because I just didn’t want to have to try it, an to a certain extent it just wasn’t necessary. I’m only now considering a smartphone. A sudden change in schedule can also annoy me to no end every once in a while. And if I can’t watch my shows? Oh, it’s going to bug me. And don’t make me try that thing I have preconceived notions of. I’m sure I’m going to hate it until I try it and I form new opinions.

I like fun, but sometimes I’m happiest in front of the TV with a drink and a show, writing during the commercial breaks or slow parts of the show. If there’s a cat on my lap, even better. I don’t date much, if at all. I sometimes feel that the whole dating/mating/courting process is such a waste of energy and an unnecessary cause of stress. And why go out? The indoors of the world are so friendly, comfortable and familiar.

Oh, and I’m very pale. Can’t forget that.

But I do have my differences from Dr. Cooper. I write fiction and tell stories. I like touching and hugs and I like to be social, though sometimes I prefer it on my own terms. And my roommate and I don’t banter about in such a way that audiences would laugh if they heard us. Plus I definitely believe in God and ghosts, so that’s another important difference.

But yeah, very much like Sheldon Cooper. It’s not always a bad thing–some people say my eccentricities are part of my charm–but it does have its pitfalls. Still, I wouldn’t change me for the world**, because then I wouldn’t be able to do what I love and do the things I’m able to do. It just would be too different.

*I remember when I was eleven or twelve I learned from a camp friend there was an N-word. Being that age and in an environment where swearing was as plentiful as breathing, I wanted to know what it was, but no one would tell me and they wouldn’t tell me why they wouldn’t tell me, which upset me to no end. I didn’t find out until a year later and read Stephen King’s IT why that word was so bad. So way to go, camp kids, you let a horror writer explain to a kid why he shouldn’t use the N-word. And if that doesn’t take the cake, years later some of those same campers would use the N-word casually, calling each other that when we were the whitest Jewish kids you’d ever seen. By that time I was the one trying to keep them from saying it, but up until the end of summer they never stopped, even when a black man nearly heard them say it. I tell you, talk about ironic reversals!

**Unless of course it’s for the suave spy/bad boy personality that’s at ease in almost any situation and draws people together for a common cause, usually defeating some awful evil. I might go for that.