Not Normal in a Normal World

Imagine a world where everyone was against you? Many Autistic people do not have to imagine this world. They live it every day. From the first "normal" milestone missed to the formal diagnosis. Parents spend (sometimes) years grieving a child "not normal or expected". Fear, passion and fury, lead well meaning parents into a seemingly endless maze of treatments and therapies all designed to help the situation. They demand the best for their child and go to every effort to secure it despite not understanding what "the best" even is. Their focus is on behavior. So they sign up for behavior therapy. Hours and hours of therapy all to correct what they see as behavior issues. Well meaning therapists drive the behavior message deeper with each correction of any expected behavior, all absent of real cause or support. School begins and these messages are again reinforced. From passive exclusion to outright bullying, over and over again they hear the message loud and clear from those who are considered not autistic and understand the nuanced context of the world in which they live enough to be included. The Autistic person stands alone, outside... He continually ponders how to prevent these seemingly random attacks while simultaneously worrying when the next assault will happen

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If you spend any time at all listening to Autistic people speaking about their life experiences you will hear repeatedly how they feel like Aliens, outsiders or otherwise not really a part of this planet. Many suffer from anxiety, PTSD, depression and low self esteem. Many do not have a place where they feel they belong. Many of them do not know acceptance. I am lucky in that my family accepted me as a child and I found another family as a young adult to again experience acceptance. I am lucky that my travels through the hostile world was short lived.




The Hostile World

While I was completely accepted for being me at home, I was not really one to fit in many places outside of my home. In school, I had some friends but mostly did not mingle very much at all. I never attended a dance or prom or any of that sort of thing. I never really understood the dating thing, the clothing/style thing or any of the stuff that makes one popular. After graduation I did not even know college to be an option so I roamed from job to job, place to place just barely surviving despite working so very, very hard. The pattern was that I would manage an interview successfully enough (with hours and hours of scripting and practice in front of a mirror) to get a job. I would begin this new job and very shortly walk out after having severe anxiety over some sensory thing or communication that did not make sense. Or I would lose the job after some time due to these obtuse misunderstandings or communications that nobody could really explain to me. The net result was my behavior was too "scary" for them to keep around. I was never happy in the work that I was given to do. I worked very, very hard at every job but nothing ever really clicked with me as a person.




Many of my jobs required basic office skills and I never could step into these. In particular typing on a typewriter was never a thing I could master. Since language is not my first way of communicating, the only way for me to form a thought in typed or written words (even today) is with a great number of corrections in both the words and spelling. Since correcting typed messages was so sloppy and cumbersome, I was never able to master that skill and was subsequently fired from a few jobs due to not being able to learn this. Similarlly spoken language was also never a good vehicle for me to represent who I was or what I was thinking. I could not process the intention, context or flow of any conversation fast enough to have meaningful input in real-time conversations as a young person. As a result, people primarily treated me as if I had little intelligence. They assumed that the only sorts of jobs I might be able to do were basic office type work (like filing) or retail store type work such as fronting and facing goods. This work was completely wrong for me for so many reasons not to mention the reason that I did not like to do this work. My mind needed to create, to invent and to be challenged on a very different level but I had no way to show this or say thing.


Enter Technology...

But that all these things changed the day I was introduced to computers and technology. Computers and computer programming was a good fit for me in every way. It was very consistent/precise and logical. It did not do abstractions. If I mis-typed a command it failed. It did not guess at another command or assume I meant something I had not meant. I could easily correct typing errors with the backspace key without ruining my work. Additionally isolating failures was a simple matter of stepping logically through flows. This was the beginning of my real genius coming through. I was immediately hooked and immediately able to see an actual career and others were seeing me as someone capable of more than basic jobs. But still my communication was not good enough to get me into a job where my abilities were challenged appropriately. While my work effort in my entry level job exceeded that of many, I was overlooked for recognition or even chastised for what they saw as behavior issues at the office.

When email was first introduced as the main form of communication in the company I was working, my life completely changed. Not just a little changed but it radically and completely it changed. The office social world changed as well with this technical invention/roll-out. People stopped getting up and talking to each other so much. They did emails instead. I remember everyone making jokes about how ironic it was to use email to talk to the person sitting right next to you. It may have been ironic or even funny but for me it made the world a "friendlier" place. Now I could take the time to process the content and context of communication before responding as I did not have to respond real-time. I could also take the time to think about my own words and how they might be construed. In situations that seemed very emotionally charged, I developed the strategy of taking enough time to write the message, go away for awhile and come back to rewrite or review it. I learned that I could also now ask friends or mentors to read the communication before I sent it. But more importantly for the first time, I was able to take the time to process the technical content of the words and add reasonable responses to these conversations. I finally found a way to express the real me. Within a very short while I was being recognized as a brilliant engineer type and being promoted into engineering groups at the company. It was within these engineering groups that I finally found my people. It was within this world that my deepest growth was allowed to happen. And finally my mind was challenged to invent, to grow and to create a better world. It was in this world that I again felt 100% acceptance and a sense of belonging.


And So it is Today..

Technology is my passion today as it has been since the first day over 23 years ago. My latest adventures in high tech include working on touch devices and I could not be more excited about this. Having a PC convert to a tablet creates even more usages for someone who has trouble with verbal communication. Recently at an airport I was unable to speak in real time and typed out my needs on my tablet. This allowed me to get help that I would not have been able to get before. Having an ultra mobile devices (like a cell phone) with a text to speech tool on my person at all times gives me great peace of mind as I know that I always have a way to communicate with people other than speaking. I have seen many cycles of social change in the world of high tech. Today the main push is for more collaboration. Fortunately I am able to step into that change as today I am much better at real-time communication and processing. But I can still do most of my work via email or even in IM as I will never be as good as my peers at some skills and my need is to spend more time with a computer screen than with people.

Related Links:
http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/04/22/177452578/young-adults-with-autism-can-thrive-in-high-tech-jobs