As a computer security guy, I’m financially successful, work for a world-class company, co-authored a book in my field of expertise and have had a stable career. I’ve been married for 30 years. To the same woman, I might add. Raised two great kids who make me proud every day. A few short years ago, I discovered I did all this with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.
I always felt funny about career day when my kids were in school and I think I only gave one or two presentations. When I was tutoring students to pass their High School Equivalency exams I consistently declined to speak or enter the formal mentor program. As an autist I have been asked several times now to talk to Asperger’s teens about life strategies and becoming independent. After the most recent invitation, I had to stop and ask myself why the hesitation. My conclusion? I pretty much suck as a role model.
I felt I had to write this post in the spirit of full disclosure since I intend to keep writing on the topics of autism, Asperger’s and compassion-based cultural change. On the one hand, I’d be thrilled if, through my writing and vision, I was able to make a positive impact on the world. On the other hand, that requires some degree of leadership and trust of others. How can I possibly ask anyone to trust me or follow my lead if they think I am someone who I am not? If all I ever write about is the strategies I used to overcome some particular challenge, that’s a pretty one-dimensional portrait. So if I’m going to reveal the other side, I need to do so early in order that readers not feel cheated if they discover it later on.
So, why do I sometimes feel like a fake? Why might I not be a good role model? Let’s start with the career aspect since it is the key to living independently. Someone might be able to go their whole life without a partner or kids, but to live independently requires an income. In my case, my entire career is a series of accidents in which I stepped into something extremely stinky which turned out to be good in the end. Here’s my career in a nutshell:
- I was happy and fairly prosperous as a freelance photographer but when my wife became pregnant with our first child, she insisted I take a job with a regular paycheck and benefits. I switched to an entry-level corporate job in the mailroom of an insurance company at a massive reduction in pay. We struggled for years to make up the pay differential, but the pay was regular and we had health insurance.
- When I applied for a position in the Computer Operations center of that same company, the manager asked if I had any training or degree. “No, but I taught myself how to program in assembler,” I replied and showed him a program listing. They gave me a shot.
- Later applying for a programming job at the local School Board, they asked if I had any training or a degree. “No, but I’ve been an operator for 18 months.” They gave me a shot.
- This eventually led to a job programming at a bank. After a couple years I got a call. “Jim was supposed to go to this IBM training but he’s sick. Take his place.” A few weeks after that, “Jim was supposed to go to the conference on that new software but since you took the training…”
Although it is true I’m now at IBM and recognized as an expert in security for this software, I’ve had almost 20 years of practice. Take anyone reasonably good with computer systems and let them specialize in a particular thing for 20 years and chances are an expert pops out the other side. At some point I’ll write about the strategies I used to develop professionally, but will it be replicable? What kind of life plan starts with “First, stumble into a career, then practice for 20 years”?
Surely then, a 30-year marriage must count for something, right? After all, that’s not too common these days even among people who do not have the stressors of financial hardship, health issues or lack of education, and we had all of those. Is there anything there someone might replicate? I don’t know. If I thought I could sell the secret, I’d put it in a book. Problem is, it’d be a pamphlet at best. Maybe a couple pages if I fluffed it out. Ready? Here it is:
Love isn’t something you feel. It is something you do. Love is a verb.
Many people early in a relationship want to hear “the three words.” Screw that. We live by the four words: how can I help?
That’s it. Thirty years of marriage, and counting, in a nutshell. Instead of (or perhaps in addition to) saying “I love you” we demonstrate that in our actions. When one of us is mad at the other, the partner draws closer instead of retreating or returning in kind. The more she lashes out, the more I respond with compassion and want to ease her pain, and she does the same for me. But at the same time, we each insist on being treated with dignity and respect during the stormy periods. If I’m upset with something at work, she damned sure doesn’t let me take it out on her. Nor do I let her displace her anger from something else onto me.
To sum up, we confront each other early so disagreements don’t build up and when the issue isn’t between us we don’t allow ourselves to be emotional punching bags, but we do provide mutual support. In times of peace or conflict, we both do all we can to make our partner happy, successful and to feel loved.
There’s no autism lesson in here because I had no diagnosis for most of those years. My wife and I love each other for who we are, not despite who we are. If there’s a lesson there for inclusivity or neurodiversity, it is accidental on my part and I claim no special wisdom or insight. It works for us but I have nothing to teach other than basic human dignity, compassion and respect and those should not be a secret. However, I do intend to write more on this topic and you are welcome to observe and take whatever lessons or insights you wish to draw from that. Maybe you can figure out what it is we do different that I cannot recognize as a participant.
But what about my kids? Surely an Aspie raising successful kids took some special strategy, right? Here again, I’d say my kids turned out good more despite my best intentions rather than because of them. By the time I had children, I had a long list of mistakes my parents made that I was determined not to repeat. I naively thought this would give me a leg up on my parents in this department. Naturally my kids would be better off because they were starting with much more evolved parents than I had.
Not so much. I made all new mistakes in the very areas where I thought my parents had failed, and my autism led me to all new categories of mistakes that my parents never committed. Both of my kids were adults by the time I found out about my Asperger’s and we all had the experience of our life flashing before our eyes in this new context and thinking “ooooooh, that explains so much!” But of course that only explains a certain aspect of perspective and relational interaction. It doesn’t lead one to a strategy for Aspies raising kids.
In fact, when I said my kids turned out good more despite my best intentions rather than because of them, I meant that in the most literal sense. All the actions that led to our most vehement disagreements and the the most fearful moments my wife and I had as parents were those actions we most firmly believed were important for saving our kids from certain disaster. It was in those moments in fact that we most feared we had failed our children. Yet somehow despite these episodes of extreme self-doubt, our children learned the lessons we were hoping to teach them about integrity, trust, compassion and love.
The only explanation I have is that perhaps it isn’t avoiding calamity that teaches these skills. Perhaps it is in the midst of the storm, or the height of the crisis that we most effectively teach through example the qualities we wish to pass on to our children. It may be that the episodes in which we most despaired of failure were the moments when we unwittingly passed on the values we wished to instill in our kids. If it is true that there must be conflict to teach conflict resolution skills and anger management, then our kids will be among the best prepared for their own relationships. Maybe that was our gift. I have no idea. But when all was said and done, our kids are happy, loving, compassionate, loyal, honest and all the other things we wished for them to be.
Role model? When I think of role models, I think of people who can explain how they approach something and teach it to me. Can an autistic person learn coping and career skills from someone who didn’t know he was autistic and didn’t consciously develop strategies? I don’t know. Someone will have to tell me if and when it happens. Will the marriage counseling or parenting self-help section of the bookstore dry up now that I’ve revealed my secret that love is a verb? I doubt it. There must be more to it than that and, again, anyone with better insight is free to clue me in at your convenience.
So when I’m asked to speak or offer opinions on things outside my professional expertise, I tend to think of myself as unqualified. My underlying suspicion is that I’m successful by chance rather than by design, and how do I reconcile that with mentorship? This notion of “hey, you’re an Aspie and you’re successful so you should talk to my kid” seems weird to me on its face, and even more so when the person asking barely knows me.
Knowing that, you may wonder “why the blog?” and this is where I’m supposed to write that I believe I have something valuable to say. Maybe, maybe not. If that is true, then it is just a by-product. The reason I started the blog was to help myself. Things that are not rooted in autism I blog over at The Odd is Silent, everything else shows up here. Pretty much all of it is written because sometimes I’m compelled to write or to engage with the community over certain topics. The writing helps me sort out my ideas and forces me to consider other perspectives. Writing in public forces me to care more about quality than I might in a private journal. Writing comments and allowing them on my blog engages the community in a dialog that constantly challenges me.
So now you know. My only qualification to lead is simply having made it this far. Adding autism to the mix doesn’t make me more of a role model or somehow qualified any more than, say, succeeding as a leftie. Do you write President Obama and say “oh, please come speak to our class of left-handed kids”? Is it his handedness, or the fact that he is, you know, the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES that makes him special? I’m not a “successful autistic guy,” I’m just a guy who tried to live each day better than the last and kept at it a long time.
Fortunately, you don’t have to be qualified to have an opinion and I’ve got an overabundance of those. Some of them actually balanced and insightful so I’ll keep trying to capture those in print. And yes, I actually will talk with (not to) your autistic kid or go present at career day. Not because I think I’m qualified to do these things better than someone else, but because your autistic kid is probably pretty cool and someone I’d like to know, and because I’m passionate about what I do and like to teach it. As long as you don’t pre-suppose that I’ve got it all figured out, even to the point of an ability to teach it, we’ll get along just fine.
I pretty much suck as a role model. I like to think I’m a pretty good friend.