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Roger N. Meyer "...of a different mind "
Puzzle Pieces Image

SELF HELP
Observations on AS Adults Feeling Bored and Stuck
Roger N. Meyer
Copyright © 2004 All Rights Reserved

 

     The following essay was written in response to the AS husband of an articulate spouse who shared her concerns about how he solved problems. Here is what he said.

     For 22 years I've traveled Detroit around and around and found out I am AS and very bright. However, I am at the cross roads of my life, and trying to find out what to do. I worked for 10 years, and I am bored. If you know of any possibilities let me know. If you know of training, higher ed for aspies, let me know

 

     You raise questions that are of interest to all of us.

     I rarely like to toot my own horn about my workbook on AS and employment.  For a person interested in determining the exact effect that their own version of AS has had upon their work history, I'd recommend their using the workbook as a fact-finding guide for themselves before they make any decisions about what their next step towards further education or different work is to be.  Basically, I take the approach that if you don't know where you've been and how you've gotten to this point, you're not likely to use an efficient process in getting to a different place in the future.

     First, I offer a personal note on the book itself.  Next, I'll address the process of solving certain personal problems that center around decision-making.  I can't think of any Asperger Syndrome adult I know who doesn't have problems making decisions.  Finally, I'll address some specific issues involved with seeking career guidance.

     When I first wrote my workbook and passed it around as a manuscript, I was invariably criticized by NS reviewers about the book's length and especially its excruciating detail.  They couldn't imagine spending the kind of time "on themselves" as I envisioned.  Well, that's exactly why it works for folks on the autistic spectrum.  Aside from their own specialized interests, they themselves are their most "interesting" subjects.

     So, Aspie that I am, I ask concrete questions.  Lots of them.  If all you have are vague, open-ended general questions that many folks on the spectrum simply "don't get," you are likely to get a "huh?" response from the AS reader.  Non-spectrum readers are likely to spout endless bromides as answers to questions they perceive as excessively detailed.  General answers don't work for us.  Specific ones do.

     The book doesn't encourage either general answers or bromides from the persons who actually do the workbook assignments.  It works because I begin with the premise that Aspies under pressure to make decisions for themselves are most interested in themselves first and not others.  In fact, it isn't only the "belly-button gazing" phenomenon that's at work for anyone who is considering change.  It's something more.

     We are experts about ourselves.  We also ruminate, cogitate and spend countless hours reviewing our past and present predicaments.  We drive others crazy with our public and private deliberations about our every thought and move.

     How very predictable.  How very autistic of us.

     Who but "we" are experts in the impact that our own particular flavor of AS has had on our lives?  Our expertise about ourselves bears on our work, our relationships, our ability to manage independent living concerns such as housing, managing our finances, planning for our futures, directing our own "cases" if we're involved with government or private agencies, and in getting what we need out of counseling.  The difference between us and everyone else is that although we may be experts on ourselves, we aren't very good at understanding how we affect others.

     Some of us have terrible problems with time management.  How I manage my time affects others.  If my life weren't so busy at the moment, I'd let everything slide, or otherwise devote ridiculous amounts of time to true mindless and unproductive "work."  There's work, and then there's what others call make-work.  Make-work has all kinds of moral disapproval attached to it.  Some of that disapproval is well deserved, especially if a person viewed by others as a time-waster is a true malingerer, a person reluctant to dig into real work, a person who spends lots of time doing things that aren't economically productive.

     But there's a third kind of work, and that's the work on which we expend enormous amounts of energy.  Much of this work is truly invisible to others, but its effects are very visible.  For us, this "middle stage kind of work" is what we consider necessary to get us ready for what others call "real work."  Much of this "middle stage kind of work" involves the mental and physical process of psyching ourselves up to do things we find challenging, awkward, unnatural, but necessary.  We spend much more time in this middle stage than most folks do.  We spend lots of time reviewing our mental data banks of past experiences, comparing what we know about the past to what we think, but aren't sure about, for the future.  We are trying to logically figure out how to move out of this stage into the next phase of making a decision or doing a task.

     Many of us are quite inefficient in our problem-solving skills when it comes to working out problems with other persons.  We're great with objects and things; we're less than great with people.

     For many of us, our logic is convoluted and anything but clear to others, even though we think it is.  Many folks who observe us spinning our wheels about decisions they take little or no time to make form judgments about us.  We know they form judgments about us because they tell us that they either can't understand why we've done something, or, more frequently, why we haven't done something in the same manner they do it.

     You know what?

     For the most part, our inefficient decision-making process, seen by others "from the outside" doesn't make sense to them.  They have any number of responses to this "non-sense," many of which we don't like.  What they don't understand is that it takes us a lot longer to get our acts together, and they just can't stand our pace or understand how slowly we appear to inch along.  They also get impatient with us as we explain how we go through the steps of making our decisions.  Most people don't care how others make decisions, just as long as the outcome is either right or predictable.  Where we get into trouble is when our decisions are neither correct or what is expected by others.

     We get upset and flustered when others show their disappointment or their disapproval.  What we don't "get" is why they are so critical of us.

     You know what?  It's our job, not only theirs, to find out why things don't work out.

     If all we had as input about ourselves would be the judgmental hectoring of others, whether they're on spectrum or not, we would be just as uncomfortable as anyone subject to that kind of niggling, prodding, and cluck-clucking from our personal critics.

     We often don't know who is offering helpful ideas and positive criticism and who is just adding to our misery by passing their own personal reactions and concerns onto us.  That's because we don't have a very good idea of who is a good helper, and who, on the other hand, might do us some serious harm.

     So we end up either refusing all help or coming on to people as though only they have all the answers to our questions and our needs.  In a word, this is all-or-nothing thinking.

     It doesn't make any difference to others whether our way of thinking makes sense to us.  What matters is that it doesn't make sense to them.  Here we are, adults, whose thinking in this regard comes across as either ego-centric (not merely self-centered) or childish.

     Because we aren't sure about whether or how we should make decisions, the best thing to do in many instances is to be aware of the effect our own self-critical voice.  When we do work that is meaningful to us, our self-criticism quiets down.  If our "work" for the moment is defined as self-assessment regarding our past employment, one way to start the work is to focus not on what we want now, but what we've wanted and done in the past.  My workbook proposes a large number of questions that helps us focus on our "employment past."  Very concrete questions about working conditions and tasks help us gather useful information about our past in a way we haven't done before.  That same information is helpful to others helping us with our present career or employment problems.  If we consult with others to determine "what went right" as well as "what went wrong," we have an obligation to be objective about what we experienced.

     Often, our view of things in our past is distorted.  If others were there at the same time we were, it behooves us to check out their perception of commonly shared experiences with ours.  If we fail to do that, we lumber on with our own unconfirmed impressions.  Often, our perception of the past may be ours, but objectively, it may be flat-out wrong.

     The problem with sticking to uncorrected perceptions is that they influence our future decisions.  Because many of us are suspicious of change, we tend to rely much more upon our past experience than we should, especially when we are facing new situations that have many new elements to them.  As we take on new tasks, we could end up repeating past mistakes.

     Often, we are immobilized, stuck, and unable to make decisions about things with many unknown elements to them.  When we demand to "know" what can't be known -- often because the only way things can become known is when we are in the midst of them, or when we actually are in charge of making things become known by actively participating in them -- we are being unreasonable.

     Unreasonable but autistic.  Being autistic doesn't make us right.

     The world isn't going to wait for us.  Things don't work out like that.  The sooner we recognize this fact, as adults, the sooner we can decide to take charge of the future by accurately understanding our past.

     On thing we can't do with our past is change it.  But we can understand it.  We can learn from it.  And the only way to learn anything is to take calculated risks.  You've heard the cliché, "No pain, no gain."  It's true.  If you don't take a risk, if you don't extend yourself into the unknown, you aren't going to learn.  You can start to extend yourself into your future by understanding your past.  I don't mean doting over it, ruminating over it.  And I especially don't mean indulging yourself in feeling sorry for yourself over it.

     Note first that I say that the future is yours. It isn't anyone else's.  It isn't their future.  Others may be affected by your decisions about your future, but that's a separate and separable issue.

     I believe in taking things simply, one step at a time.  One reason lots of us have trouble taking charge of our own future is because we include everyone else and everything else into it right from the start.  We get bogged down with details and what-ifs.  We get so caught up in a blizzard that we can't clearly see the one thing we can have control over right now.

     That's ourselves, and our issues.

     "I-wish-I-could-a-done-that- when-I-had-a-chance" kind of musings are self-defeating and make us feel yucky right from the start.  They keep us stuck.  They keep us from taking chances now.

     In my employment workbook I get down to the nitty-gritty and the concrete early and quickly.  The first section of the workbook focuses on factoids, on specific bits of information regarding one's past employment that are answered, for the most part, from factual data.  I do that for several reasons.  First, many persons with AS access concrete information with little difficulty.  I place time and place limits on the questions, forcing the respondent to focus on minute details.  Second, the kinds of information sought is of a "fill in the blanks" type familiar to career counselors.  It allows individuals to compare their actual experience and interests with what known jobs "demand."

     The process doesn't stop there.  Deciding on one's future work and what changes need to be made for and by the individual and the job is not a "plug and play" function.

     The third reason the workbook focuses on concrete information is to help the individual create an actual picture of his or her past.  After many disappointing work experiences, many AS individuals form distorted, black-and-white pictures of themselves.  By taking the reader l through several representative periods in their lives, I had, as one objective, the reader's capacity to perceive his/her own personal change and development over time.

     Many of us think of ourselves as flies stuck in amber.  We aren't.  A better metaphor might be that we have a snapshot of ourselves before us, and that's all we see.

     For the moment.

     And we also know that snapshots are just that:  they are images of ourselves caught at a particular moment in time.  That time isn't forever.  Sometimes it seems like "forever," but it isn't.

     Stuck people are often depressed people.  Their self-perception narrows.  Instead of dancing on a football field, they often feel as though they are walking a tightrope.  Depression represses memories of better times.  The more stress a depressed person experiences, the more their thinking and acting regresses to primitive and simplistic expressions, many of them dark, reeking of hopelessness.

     If you think of yourself only as one kind of person with limited capacities or with a great but narrow skill-set, you may need both a cognitive re-jiggering of the way you think of yourself as well someone or something helping you remember that in different settings you have acted differently and called on different talents, interests, and abilities.  And you can do that again.

     I acknowledge that as people get older, being and doing something different gets more difficult.  Many of us are "late diagnosed" as adults.  Being late diagnosed has its own challenges, but it certainly doesn't mean that personal change beyond the time we're diagnosed is impossible.  Most late-diagnosed individuals go through a series of predictable steps following their diagnosis, one of which may involve a feeling of despair and desperation.  That feeling lasts for differing periods of time, and some folks grapple not only with despair but also fear of "what next?" after the despair passes.  For some individuals, fear becomes a barrier to the prospect of change.  For others, the more they face their fear and deal with it, the more likely it is that when they are ready, they can make rather dramatic changes in their life.

     Scary, huh?

     But wait a minute.  Notice that I've emphasized the issue of self-direction in studying your past, and as much reasonable self-control of your present and future as you can manage.  What is reasonable isn't only up to you to decide.  It's up to others as well.

     Notice that I don't think much of the Aspie tendency to "want it all."  I understand it, but I don't honor it or think it's even morally right.

     AS Kids can think that way.  Adults can't.  If they do as much of the time as kids do, invariably, they get themselves into serious trouble.

     So, guess what?  You'll never get it all.  And this is an especially important fact about being an adult.  Unless you are a hermit, totally disconnected from other people, the fact of your adulthood means that there are others in your life, others your decisions will affect.  You can't do anything about that, either.  This fact comes as a part of the "adult kit."

     Hence, I suggest that folks interested in the issue of work, employment, making a living, "making do," really do take the time and invest it in studying themselves positively.  Such self-study does not involve their standing in front of the "Mirror Mirror on the Wall" of Alice in Wonderland.  The mirror they use should provide them with honest, stark answers to their questions, not just things they "want" to hear.

     I hope my workbook does that, because it allows the AS person as much time as they wish to wax ruminative while at the same time realizing that backward reflection is only part of the process.  We have to know where we've been before we really know who and where we are at the moment.  However, if we were to spend all of our time with the past -- and many folks with AS do just that -- there isn't much personal progress to be made.

     As I've written elsewhere, there aren't such things as "ideal jobs for Aspies."  That's because, despite the label, we come in all flavors and varieties.  Whatever suits an individual is arrived at through a deliberative process, and rarely through accident or just falling into the right set of circumstances at the right time.  Recently, some well-intentioned authors have worked out lists or taxonomies, "ideal" jobs and professions they believe suit AS individuals.  While I may agree that lots of AS folks seem to fall into the kind of means of making their living found on those lists, I am no fan of lists.

     I'm critical of lists for one simple reason:  some folks take such listings literally.  They see them as closed formularies rather than just one set of candy bins in a huge candy store.  Blindered thinking may be as true for career counselors as it is for the person they are helping.  I am personally of the philosophy that the older one is, the more scars one has on his/her behind, the greater rather than the lesser risk one is entitled to take.  I say that for three reasons.  You can certainly think of others.

     First, if we hadn't learned from some of our mistakes, we wouldn't have made it into adulthood.  Few of us were so pampered and protected or risk aversive as children and young adults as never to face difficult choices.

     Second, age has its privileges.  One of them is based upon the theory that we've had experiences that others haven't had, and the more experiences we've had, especially if some of them have glean able outcomes, we are entitled to "cherry pick."  This doesn't mean we can afford to be Pollyanna's.  But it does mean that for all the bad stuff that's happened to us, we are entitled to some good stuff.  Taking a substantial risk getting there may be worth it.  Actually, I'd say that for people of any age, but I feel it to be especially important for AS folks as they get older.

     Third, a lot of us Aspies are real good at "waiting."  We figure that if we don't move, we won't "be seen" and then others can't come after us for any mistakes we may make.

     Problem is, no one else may be watching.  Better yet, no one else really cares.

     As adults we're expected to take care of a lot of things just like anyone else.  Some of us do OK, and some of us do just awfully.  Some of us think of ourselves as vessels adrift on a river.  Some of us have great days and low days, and others of us kind of bump along on the bottom, much like a fishing lure that's somehow worked loose off of a fisherman's line and isn't really "connected to anything."

     That's the way many of us feel.

     Some of the feeling is related to our being autistic and a false belief that we can't change because we're autistic.

     Oops!  This sounds like the invitation to a pity-party.

     Part of feeling disconnected is related to the fact that we aren't very good at connecting with others, but that is something we can change.  We are inefficient initiators.  We often do go after things that really interest us, but we can't set those wheels in motion if what is out there isn't so immediately attractive or something that immediately "floats our boat."

     Think of the drifting boat and think of the loose fishing lure.  Think of them as being on a river or in the river.  Rivers are good images because they are flowing rather than stagnant.  Just like "life out there."  It's moving along whether or not you want it to.

     A boat has some means of being steered and it's meant to go from place to place.  The function of a fishing lure is not only to attract attention, but also to do a good enough job to hook the fish.  Both items have a person in charge of where they go and what they do.

    The boat and the fishing lure take their essential meanings from the human actor in charge.

     Yup.  We have to find some way of getting off our duffs, stop the dreaming and the "wish I coulds," because you know what?  As an adult you are expected to be in charge of your life.

     Many of us continue to think that by just complaining loudly enough, or moaning softly but with just the right tone, "someone" will care.

     Guess who, for the most part, that "someone is?"  Yes!  You guessed right.  It's either Mommy or Daddy or that favorite uncle, or that teacher who always seemed to be there for you.

     In the past.

     Once we became adults, though, Mommy and Daddy aren't there in the same way.  Even if they are, you can bet your last nickel they resent being depended upon in such a way because such a dependency, expressed or not, is seen for exactly what it is:  learned helplessness and what Ross Perot used to call "That Giant Sucking Sound."  No one wants to be around a whiner and a complainer, even if that other person doesn't issue a single squeak.  They "know" that the next word or action from the moaner is likely to be just as immature and self-indulgent as they last time they interacted with them, and this prospect doesn't lead them into thinking positively of the next time they have to come in contact with the person who is, in many senses, an emotional "bottom feeder."

     So yes, we can make ourselves toxic to others, but more importantly, we aren't doing ourselves any good by thinking that others are going to solve the problems of life for us.

     Wives "raising their AS husbands as just another AS child in the family" don't like their husband's child-like expectations of "fix me, Mom."  They rarely sign on to a marriage contract with the expectation that they are going to be a career counselor, job coach, and general fixer of adult boo-boos for their spouse.  If we're on spectrum, we're often unhappy with ourselves for being that way.  Our unhappiness at being autistic is nothing we have a right to expect our partners to "fix."  Why?  Because as adults and as marital partners, this simply isn't their job.

     So, if what I've said so far sounds like a string of bromides, yes, it is that.  But it's also a description, in very general terms, of what keeps many of us stuck.  What gets us unstuck is goal-directed inquiry and real work on ourselves that will have an outcome, a practical, concrete, observable-to-others outcome that then presents us and others with real "news" and not the "same old same old."

     The shock of providing that, even to ourselves, is enough to make many of us hover ever so closer in the corner, hugging ourselves around the chest, shrinking down like we did when we were kids, hoping others wouldn't observe our pain.  Well, some do, but a majority of folks don't have a clue about what's going on with us.

     The real part of this scenario is that it isn't "their job" to figure us out.  It's our job.

     And we can do it.  We don't often know how, and our efforts are clumsy at first, but the only thing that gets us "off the dime" is to start to take small risks, move in ways that are uncomfortable but not self-defeating in their outcome as judged by others.  Why others?  Because we are lousy judges of the progress, if any, that we make.  Some of us are so delusional that we think that thinking about change or thinking about doing something is progress.  Some of us even write about thinking of changing, deluding ourselves into the notion that the act of writing is progress.  It may be.  A little bit, but in the long run, writing may be our substitute for action.  It wouldn't be the first time we slip into fantasy as adults, and it's not likely to be the last.

     That's our autism.  That's our Aspie logic:  Mistaking thinking for doing.  And when we expect others then to divine what's going on in our head, HEH!  Big fat zero, or more likely, a turn-away that should be expected.  Funny how some of us constantly are surprised when what we do or what we don't do gains that consistent a response from others?  They keep on coming up with observations like, "But you're not doing anything!"  Why?  Because it's our notions of "how things are and how they should be" that are screwed up," not the other person's.

     How do we get beyond this type of fanciful self-delusion?

     First, following the state of private disclosure and discussion with your own belly button, talk publicly about what you've learned about yourself.  Get it out into the open.  You live in a world of other people, even if you're not in an intimate relationship or friendship with others.  If you don't at least acknowledge this fact, that's it!  People simply will not take you seriously.  If they haven't taken you seriously up to this point, it's most likely because you've thought they know things about you that you haven't in fact, told them.  Even if you have, you haven't been believed.  (We can talk about other people's beliefs about you some other time.)

     The first trick, then, is to find the words that connect with other people, and start using them.

     Second, stop at each stage of "public talk" and open yourself to feedback from others.  Invite it, but do so using words that really convey to others that you mean what you say and that you aren't just going through some kind of a public verbal exercise with no meaning for them.  Learn to use words that have the same shared meaning for others.

     Third, seek feedback of others you trust -- whether counselors or friends or mates.  If you are not open to feed back, you are not open to relating to others.  Simple as that.  They aren't "there for you."  You aren't "there for them."  You are "both there for one another."  That's the trick of relating.  But it's up to you to make that first move.  If you are just there with your bare face hanging out, half of relating is knowing how to accept initiation from others, even if you don't start talking first.

     This is a learnable skill.  It is hard to learn for many of us, but it is learnable.

     Waiting for it to all happen?  That's kid stuff, and regardless of how undeveloped or warped our sense of self is, that's our demon to wrestle with, with the possible help of others.  Problem is that most of us put out this thing that's pheromone-like that says all at the same time, "Help me!  No!  Wait!  Get Away...I can do it myself!"

     That, my boy, is the emotional behavior of a two-year-old.  Eventually, two year olds not on the autistic spectrum learn that this kind of game isn't getting them anywhere and they do figure that out for themselves.

     Us?  We need help learning how to ask for help properly.  We don't pick this stuff up automatically.

     So, the first step is to be honest about where we are on this ladder of emotional maturity.  If how we come across is endlessly needy, lacking identifiable boundaries, imputing intentions and attitudes to others that we don't have any clue about checking out before we act on what we think is going on, if we jump about impulsively expecting others not only to understand us, but to tolerate us and at the same time read our thoughts...

     Hey!

     This kind of stuff is going to get us nowhere fast.  It may even blow away those relationships and people poised to help.  Not because they don't want to, but because we aren't clear enough about what we want, and, worst of all, we are so distrusting of our own judgment and conditioned to distrust others that we don't even give ourselves a chance to experience even a small amount of vulnerability and openness.

     One step at a time.

     Risks?  You bet.  Life-threatening?  Not on your life or anyone else's.  It feels like it, but it feels that way because many of us are so safe in our little worlds that getting out on that balance beam, even if it's the height of a railroad track ( about six inches) scares the beJeezus out of us.  In the parlance of others, this is called catastrophic thinking.  It immobilizes people.  It can be overcome.

     Fine.  The more you whine and moan about being afraid, the less attractive you are to being helped, even by those trained to do it.  The reason why others tire or fade away is that you'll often accept help only on your terms -- a generally good idea -- but you don't tell others what those terms are.  You keep them locked up inside waiting for others to guess what they are.  And even if, in a game of twenty-questions, they guess right...?

     Yep.  You got that right.  You lie!  You say, "Nope, not that."  The lie floats out of your mouth as a reflex action, from the very depths of that reptilian, survival-level brain that drives primitive emotions.  There you are, sitting in that chair or that couch, and you find yourself saying something one part of your brain knows is senseless but you say it anyway.

     This happens.  It happens with a lot of us.  But guess what?  Each of us is in charge of this process, even though it may not seem like it at the time.  The only way you can overcome this type of game is for you to decide that it's time to accept questions from others and agree to a type of stop-and-process approach that helps you examine how you handle those questions.  There's more than just looking at just the questions.  What is at stake is how you handle yourself, looking at that one part of you that knows better looks on while the other part of you "does something anyway."

     If you aren't willing to take the risk of looking at how you deal with people, all you're doing is playing out another card from a very old, childish game.  If you are seeing a professional counselor and you know, going in, that you play this type of game with people, you should realize as well that many professionals take your money for way too long, maybe in the hope that you'll crack.  Others just take it because they believe that you aren't going to move unless they do something else, but they don't know what that something else is because they are waiting from cues from you that you don't know have in your "vocabulary" to give them.  So, taking your money, causing you to waste their time -- Hey!  After all, they're getting paid to spend their time with you -- that's the way it is with some professionals.

     But not all of them.

     At that point, all you have is a waiting game.  You are wasting your money and your time.  Unless you like to waste your money, you have some serious thinking to do about just how you can start to trust others to work with you.

     I've been there, done that.  Many times.

     No more!

     This is where we begin to develop the muscles in our own legs.  If we can't get up on our own behinders and fight our internal demons by first recognizing them, and then state our willingness to let others in on knowing what we know, we're not going anywhere.  We'll remain stuck.  If, on the other hand, we take the risk, name the words, the memories, the associations...we've taken the steps to regain control over our own runaway thinking.  If the professional counseling us "still doesn't get it," maybe they can be shamed into understanding that by doing nothing or failing to deal with our defective thinking up front, they've done us no favor at all.  Some professionals may wake up.  Others won't.  But at least, by that point, we know at least one characteristic to look for when we interview our next counselor.  Another thing we will have gained is information we can pass on to others AS adults with the same kind of faulty thinking.  Their own fix may be different than the one we've come to, but how they overcome their own runaway thinking is less important than their realization that such thinking itself is a major impediment to their wish to change.

     Now that I'm off soapbox number one, I'll step over to soap-box number two.  The Employment Thing.

     For the balance of this article, I'm going to write just about what I know.  Even though I do individual advocacy, I'm a tireless proponent of system change.  It's nice to be a geek, a rule freak, and in someone's face, righteously, some of the time.  I don't look for controversy, but the work I do often puts me in the center of several systems at once working on behalf of a client -- or myself -- where the systems have contradictory rules or rules that run at cross purposes with one another.

     There are some kinds of work that may be more attractive to us because of their environment or the greater sense of independence we enjoy in those jobs.  Others of us love the rule-bound bound regularity of certain kinds of jobs.  Some of us work both sides of the fence.  We love working independently but we also like rules.

     I love working independently because after many failed efforts at working in team settings, I've concluded I'm not a team player.  Others I worked with concluded that long before I did.  If I have one regret, it's that I didn't come to that conclusion earlier. 

     Ah, but no matter.  Once I got my diagnosis at the age of 55, I figured I had put in my time working the clock and for other people.  Actually, I had little choice left but to find something entirely different to do with my time.  My long career as a cabinetmaker had come to an end for many reasons not under my control.  The industry had changed, the equipment and work standards had changed and I hadn't.  It didn't seem worthwhile for me, as an old dog, to try to learn new tricks in the same circus.  I didn't like the music.  I didn't like the acts, and I was getting physically tired.  Strenuous physical work does that, you know.

     So, I switched tents and I switched arenas.  I became a circus of one.

     I couldn't find a calliope that honked out tunes I liked, so I wrote my own music, found my own instrument, and began my work as a disability advocate and consultant.  Instead of operating under a tent, I discovered that I could do very well under an umbrella.  When I started, I realized that there were a few rules that self-employed folks had to follow, but they were minimal.

     Don't get me wrong.  I work just as hard as any person in another's employ.  Actually, to succeed in self-employment, you often have to work much harder.  No problem.  Sometimes being your own boss has its benefits.  The only thing I don't do very well is give myself vacations, but more about that some other time.

     I love rules because knowing them gives me a chance to see just how far they can be stretched, what purpose they serve, and whether they bear any relationship to an outcome or the mission of an organization or the business at hand.  If they don't serve their intended purpose, I'm up right against someone's face, and stare 'em down until they either admit the rules are impeding progress -- usually for someone else, and often for themselves, hence giving them a self-interested reason to seek rule-change -- or use exceptions to those rules and managerial discretion to by-pass formal rigid requirements and to "do the right thing."  Asking a person in charge to take such a risk puts such folks in a precarious position, but what I do in advance of proposing that they exercise their discretion is determine whether, ultimately, that level of risk taking by another person will lead to system rewards for them.  It often does, you know.  On the other hand, if I encounter a Timid Tommie as an administrator or as a service provider, I will move to have the case or the work at hand removed from them, and turned over to someone else who "can" be flexible, or otherwise get the case, the client, or myself "outa there" because the whole scene is toxic and debilitating.

     The reason why I just spent your time talking about myself is that as an autistic person, I acknowledge, straight out, that I am "full of myself."  But I don't take things much further than that.  I can't afford to…not in my line of work.  If I were such an I-centered ego-maniac, I'd soon run out of clients.  In my business, that's not good.  It's not good because I rely on word of mouth, my "street reputation" to get me customers.  Very inexpensive, but also very risky.  I can't afford to blow too many of the wrong people away.  As a matter of style, I can't afford to blow anyone away.  That's because you can never tell when you'll run across that person again, maybe doing the same work, maybe doing something completely different.  So, I try to keep cool as much as I can.

     My choice of work works for me.  I don't expect it to work for anyone else.  I actually ended up creating much of my career out of a realization that not many people can do what I do.  In fact, no one does exactly what I do, so there's little competition.  I had to go through a three-year apprenticeship to figure that out, but it was a training regimen of my own design.  I must also admit that professionals paid "by the system" to counsel me about my own choice of career got it all wrong.  Not partially wrong.  All wrong.

     I don't lord my accomplishments over them, waving them in their face.  There's no reason to do that.  But the one thing I'm proud of is that they respect me for what I've ended up doing.  They know it.  I know it.  That's all that counts.

     So much for the rewards of finding out what one is good at and doing it.

     Why have I just spent some time talking about my work?  Your work -- your personal work as well as the work you ask a career guidance professional to help you with -- is likely to be quite different.

     All I propose for others is a process somewhat similar to what I went through myself.  I had to write my book -- it was something that just "had to be."  In the writing of it, I worked through its processes and did the work I've suggested that others do.  That seems to have worked for me.

     The process is "about" getting help.  It's unrealistic for you to expect to come up with all of the answers without others, somehow, being in your picture.

     First and foremost, you must come to some sense of peace with a new explanation for what's been bugging you for all of your life.  Some, but not all of this is explainable by your diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome.  Knowing that you are AS won't cease the bugging, but just having the label and understanding how AS it expresses itself in your "personal edition" you can provide you with enough of a kick-start to assess what you want to do with the rest of your adult life.

     For some folks, employment or work status won't change.  However, by understanding the effect of Asperger Syndrome on your work and your relationships, you can decide what changes, if any, you'd like to make in yourself and what changes you can ask others to make.

     For some folks, change may be easy.  For others, because of the different ways each of us thinks and works, change will be difficult.  It's fine, even necessary, to ask others to help you through these steps, but only if you're willing to exercise a degree of self-discipline and agree to heed the traffic-signals of others helping you stay on track.  You can make an agreement with yourself and others to recover from your inevitable distractions and side-trips without beating yourself up too badly about having become distracted.  You can come to some private as well as shared understanding about your "head noises" and still inch your way through the process of self-discovery.  During the process of self-discovery, especially if you're relying on the assistance of others, you should expect to pick up healthy and accurate self-monitoring skills.

     For persons in charge of their journey of self-discovery, I use the metaphor of a riverboat pilot.  I grew up in the Midwest and learned to swim in rivers as well as lakes.  I watched riverboats on the Mississippi and learned to canoe in narrow streams as well as areas where the river opened up into a vast lake.  During wind and rainstorms, I experienced lakes and rivers taking on a completely different character.  The last thing you need during a crisis on a boat is panic.  Safety drills and pre-arranged caution and communication signals are developed to address emergencies before they happen.  There isn't time during a crisis to first think of how best to communicate and get everyone operating at peak efficiency.  Developing good lines of communication on a boat is critical to navigation safety and getting the boat to its destination.

     If you sense this is going to be a tough trip, the professionals you see -- your crew -- should know that as well.  Before you start a tough job, the one thing you should know about yourself is how to recognize your own signs of trouble.  Before you engage in serious work with anyone, start your personal work by understanding your own personal distress signals.  Others may be aware of some of them, but not all of them.  Don't leave others' understanding your major mood shifts to chance.  Don't leave people guessing about what's going on with you.  It may be their job to ask you how things are going.  It's your job to be straight with them.

     Many of us have atrocious communication skills when we are under stress.  Explaining our own communication challenges to others requires that, to some extent, we've made an effort to understand them ourselves.  Many professionals are not well trained to work with individuals with communication skills deficits.  One of the first tasks you may have as you start to work with a professional is to prepare that person to hold onto their hat and be patient with your best efforts to communicate with them.  As I've suggested above, playing hide and seek doesn't work.  It's a kid's game engaged in by adults with tragic consequences.  Consistently coming across to others with your worst behaviors when you are least able to function as a result of personal stress is one way of assuring a poor working relationship with a professional.  If you are under so much stress that you can't work effectively with someone, it's better to share that fact with him or her and take a breather until you've had a chance to reduce some of the stress in your life.

     You have nothing to lose when you take a time out.  It's better that you take the time out rather than being asked or directed by someone you're working with to check out for awhile.  They won't know when you are ready to resume work.  Only you will know that.

     Effective work with other people requires that we learn something about the rules of reciprocal conversation as well as responsive behavior, rules as basic as those used by two-year-old children.  Notice I did not say "responsible."  Responsive behavior is that behavior that as a minimum acknowledges the presence of another person.  In our case, responsive behavior involves teaching another person about the way we respond when we are with other people, and especially how we respond when we are under stress.

     A good boat pilot knows the river and also knows the crew.  Riverboat crews are helpers and lookouts.  Good pilots are expected to keep a sensitive grip on the steering wheel and the throttle.  A good boat pilot knows "the feel of the wheel" as well as the sounds of the engine.  If you grip too hard you loose the feel of the river.  If you fail to heed the signs of trouble in your engine room, you are likely to end up in a bad place.  If you poop out, your helpers may be faced with trying to bank your boat safely to shore.  At that point, they can't be worried about the boat's ultimate destination.  They are thinking of your safety and their own.  Once things are repaired, it's time to resume the journey.

     When you seek the assistance of others -- when you ask for help -- the first rule is to know and understand your first rules.  Your first rules are the rules you use to navigate the world when you are under stress.  Your first task is to acknowledge that you have these rules, and that you act according to them.  Second, it's fair for you to see where, in an order of developmental sophistication, those rules "lie."  If you don't do this, rest assured that others already have done so, and they will act towards you based upon their perception of how you operate.  If they've misunderstood your rules -- your operating system -- It's your job to fine-tune their perception of how you operate.  As you work with them, assuming there is reciprocity in your relationship, both of you will be re-forming your perception of how the other person operates.  If you are unwilling to do that, to inform the other person about the basics of how you operate, you aren't yet ready for work with them.  In order to advance beyond where you are, you must be willing to understand and share basic information about how you operate.

     Coming back to the last point raised in your question at the beginning of this article, the training you may seek isn't at a "higher ed" level.  It's with the basics.

     That's been my point all along.  Get as many advanced degrees as you want and you are still likely to tank in the real-life world, even if it is the academic one.  The trick for most of us is to master the basics.  Think sandbox, then slide, then swing, then tire swing, then the monkey bars, and on up.

     That's where many of us, metaphorically, have to start.  Unless we were extremely fortunate as children, many of us feel that were never given enough of a push to fill the pail, or make the sandcastle, or go down the slide without Mommy-Daddy holding us.  If we sat in the swing kicking our little feet, not understanding how to make the swing "go" according to our bidding, well maybe somebody should have showed us!  Maybe as of that moment, many of us feel as though we gave up, that we stopped trying at that point, and nothing's gone well for us ever since.

     Poppycock!

     Lordie, Lordie.  Some of us are still back on the playground.  Think of that swing that mystified us.  Then, imagine making it past the bilateral balance and coordination demands of that first ladder or set of steps to the top of the slide.  Visualize those monkey bars…and then remember gym in grade school or high school.

     Despite our advanced age, some of us are still stuck "way back when."

     See what I mean?  Some of us have lots of work to do on ourselves before we're ready to tackle what lies before us.

 

Copyright Issues

 

This article is copyright, all rights reserved by the author, Roger N. Meyer.  It may be reproduced in single copy once for personal use, and in no more than ten copies total for educational purposes.  Fair Use is authorized for all purposes and under conditions established by US Statute and the International Copyright Convention, to which the United States is a signatory nation.  No person shall publish, distribute, copy, or by other means make this material available to others for purposes of personal gain or professional self-aggrandizement.  Individuals wishing permission to exercise other than fair use or limited distribution as outlined above must contact the author, in writing, and receive explicit written permission from the author prior to engaging in further use of this material.

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