Thursday, March 3, 2016


I recently finished a book co-authored by Dr. Grandin and Sean Barron about the Unwritten Rules of Social Relationships (straightforward title, naturally.) It was very revealing and helpful for me. One point that Dr. Grandin makes is how many autistics think associatively rather than linearly. In other words, one word or picture can trigger thoughts on many other seemingly unrelated words and pictures. Growing up I always enjoyed the Association Game. You start with one word and see how you can connect it to another word in as few jumps as possible. My aptitude with this game and association in general is perhaps why I have a relatively easy time in tests and other memory recall situations. One word or phrase can cause my mind to bring up the exact place in my notes where the answer is located. Outside of school this also is very useful in the workplace. When I was a sales manager for the computer recycler, I would be the main contact between the clients and the company. As such I had to have the ability to build and maintain rapport. To do so, I would make mental notes of personal information the clients mentioned in our initial contact. I'd occasionally write it down on a spreadsheet later, but normally this was unnecessary. The majority of the time, as soon as I knew who I was contacting, that obscure fact would come to my mind and I'd find some way to insert it in the conversation. The clients loved the fact that I remembered while my boss loved it because it built loyalty.

Another point to which I relate is rigid thinking. Over the years I have learned how to be more flexible and adaptive. However, in a bid to retain some control, I do continue with a few quirks. One such quirk is my work meal: apple for first break, pb & j sandwich with a few carrots for lunch, and an orange for second break. There may be slight variations, but I have eaten something similar to this for over two year at call centers. In Seattle as I pedicabbed, I did not take the fruit to work. Rather, I would have a pattern of a six pack (or more) of bagels or English muffins. While the fruit and pb & j may satisfy nutritional needs, the only thing those bagels did was carbo-load me for the full day of biking. Now, I recognize this is a prime example of autistic rigid thinking, but I know it is more socially acceptable than losing it over a simple calendar change. This is something I have dealt with, being able to be more flexible with little notice. Thus, I find coping through a set daily meal is okay, even if coworkers do occasionally ask if I like variety. (For the record, I love variety, in culinary, literary, and other terms. I just have my preferences.) This rigidity, similar to my associative thinking, can have it's benefits in and out of the workplace. For work, I can consistently and repeatedly perform tasks such as explaining the same equipment restart process without being bothered by it.

Then comes emotional coping. If you've seen Inside Out, the struggle the emotions had in deciding proper response has not ceased for me even into adulthood. I used to think I was a terrible person for struggling to control my anger or to deal with sadness over uncontrollable situations. I do not remember much from childhood directly, but sometime in elementary school (3rd grade, I believe), I found myself contemplating the future. Somehow I got it in my head that nobody would love me and I wouldn't get married or have a job. As I lay in bed trying to sleep, I broke down crying. I think it took my parents a good 10-15 minutes to calm me down. A few years ago as I discovered my autism, I learned this failure to understand emotions is common. However, far from using it as an excuse to stay stagnant, I have been trying to improve. By all means I know there are certainly days or even weeks where I backslide. For the most part, though, there is definite progress. Previously, I could watch a heart-wrenching movie such as Les Miserables with hardly a rise of heart rate. Now, I break down from a mixture of joy and sadness while watching George celebrate with his friends and family in “It's a Wonderful Life.” Yes, I break down because I am overwhelmed with the emotion. However, the key is I can now identify the specific emotions at play.

Finally, there is perseveration. Occasionally, I can get stuck on an idea and I refuse to let it go. The idiom I have learned to associate with perseveration is a bulldog with a pork chop. I think this may be a Missouri saying because I haven't heard it elsewhere, but the meaning is self-explanatory. Once the bulldog gets the meat, he will not be letting go. Similarly, myself and other autistics can hyper-focus on certain ideas or tasks. When discussing with a disinterested person a perseveration can almost be torture. However, I have learned how to modify this for work situations as well. As sales manager, I was the individual responsible for bringing income in for the fledgling branch. I recognized this and learned how to strike a perfect balance between persistent and “I am going to annoy you until you give me a yes or no.” One school had expressed interest in our services, but kept delaying when we could serve them. Finally, after six months or so of calling and emailing reminders every other week, we made our appointment. Considering the size of the load, the time was well spent “pestering” the contact as it helped the environment, the client, the business, and my wallet. As I have mentioned previously, these and other symptoms of autism have the potential to have negative impact on work and personal lives. However, I think Dr. Grandin summarizes this well:

Dr. Leo Kanner, the person who first described autism in 1943, stated that the people who adapt best to the world realize themselves that they have to make some behavioral changes in order to fit in. That was true for me and I'd venture a guess it's true for any of my spectrum peers who are living independent, successful, happy lives. That doesn't mean we no longer struggle, that we no longer face daily challenges, that we no longer continue to learn and become “more skilled” at this role we play. What it means is that we have accepted that we, ourselves, are responsible for learning how to survive in today's world. Our lives are what we make them-hell or heaven-and some of us have to work pretty damn hard to achieve even a mediocre existence.

Through books such as this one and the support of Casey and others I am moving forward for the benefit of my workplace and myself.


Christie said...

It is to your credit that you want to turn perceived weaknesses into strengths. Good for you! "And if men come unto me I will show unto them their weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble; and my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me; for if they humble themselves before me, and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them." Ether 12:27 (from the BOM)

Anonymous said...

Karl, I am very impressed with your elegance with the written word and particularly your extreme insight. Thank you for posting this. Love, Baba