Michelle's Blog

Sandy Hook Elementary: A Spectrum Perspective

Note from Michelle:

A friend and penpal of mine, who has Asperger's Syndrome himself, discussed with me his outrage that AS was mentioned as part of the profile of the murderer, Adam Lanza. He felt there was no connection between Adam's social learning issues and the tragedy that ensued. I asked him to elaborate on his thinking and he responded by writing a heartwarming essay about how he also has AS but how he has instead devoted his life to focusing on his strengths and learning from his social challenges to help him contribute to and feel included in his community. His essay follows:

 

As a 45-year-old with Asperger's Syndrome, when I read about the murders of children in Newton, through my sadness, I cringed when I learned of the speculation that the killer, Adam Lanza, may have had AS. Initially, I denied any correlation. I thought, Whether he had Asperger's or not is unrelated to his murderous acts! How dare the press imply unrelated speculation is causal. They may as well have said that he had brown hair, too.

Then I read through his biography and although I have not ever fired a gun or ever resorted to violence in my adult life, parts of his biography sounded sadly familiar. Like Lanza, as a child and young adult, I was an awkward, lonely, computer geek. Since then I have used my computer skills to earn money—but I get ahead of myself.

High school was one of the loneliest periods of my life. I remember just before my 18th birthday, I reminded other students and teachers of my upcoming birthday. When the day arrived, not a single person in the high school wished me a happy birthday or even acknowledged it.

As a high school student, Adam Lanza used a desktop computer's casing to carry around his books. During college, I kept losing things, like books and pens, so I tied everything to grommets on my backpack. Of course it instantly became a tangled mess and I looked like a spider trapped in my own web, but did not actually realize that this would appear odd to others at the time—it just seemed practical. There was a lot else about me that was odd. This didn't endear me to potential romantic partners and made it difficult to make friends.

Often during high school and college, I felt anger at a system that seemed unfair and at people who didn't heed the system's rules but somehow got away with it, or even did well socially. I had to work much harder than my classmates on my personal relationships and yet had few friends. If I stopped putting energy into initiating activities with friends, my social life immediately stopped and did not begin again until I began initiating activities.

Romantic relationships were especially difficult for me. At the age of 18, I started going on dates. I had some first dates but it wasn't until the age of 29 that I had a relationship that lasted for more than 6 days. During those 11 years, women sometimes politely rejected me. Often, though, they would schedule a date and stand me up or cancel. (This was before the ubiquity of cellphones. Meetings were scheduled in precise locations days before a date.)

In retrospect, although I firmly believe people are obligated to honor their commitments, perhaps I've gained some insight into why so many of the dates did not materialize. At unstructured events, I would see a woman I thought was attractive, walk up to her, talk to her awkwardly for a few seconds and invite her out for coffee. There was no gradual engagement. I couldn't read the women's body language or facial expressions and didn't even realize that those details were relevant. Compounding my lack of ability to read facial expressions, most of the time during this period, my face was like a Rorschach test. I was largely inexpressive (except verbally) and I rarely made eye contact. My approach was so abrupt, a friend once told me that women agreed to go out with me because they were shocked and it was the path of least resistance, and then they would stand me up or cancel. If I had been able to read body language during this period, I would have been able to discern that these women were telling me that they had no romantic interest in me.

At structured events, such as debates and book clubs in which I participated or led, I would sometimes schedule dates that materialized. During these first dates, my behavior was not at its best. I waved my arms around when I wanted a waitperson's attention in a restaurant. At some point, I learned that women expected eye contact, so I would stare into their eyes unblinking for long periods. I later learned from a book about job interviews that people made eye contact and then looked away. After years of observation and practice, I've finally become fairly good at appropriate eye contact.

At the age of 29, I had my first romantic relationship. It lasted for three months. Our connection was largely intellectual. She was a PhD student studying molecular biology. (I have often found it easiest to connect with scientists.) Since then my relationships have gradually grown longer. My last relationship, which started when I was 40, lasted for 3.5 years. I'm still close to the woman and her family.

I was not diagnosed with AS until I was 35. Except in rare circumstances, I do not disclose that I have AS until I have dated a woman for at least 3 months. When I told the woman I ultimately dated for 3.5 years that I had AS, she asked if it was OK if she told her parents. I consented. Her father immediately sent me articles about the heritability of AS. I read the articles and began corresponding with the authors to get clarification on some of the details. Evidently this gave her parents a good impression of me. Soon we were sending articles back and forth. We approached it together as a dialog. At points we included other members of my family who have knowledge of AS, and Michelle helped, too.

Keeping jobs has been the other major struggle in my life. I have been fired from more than ten jobs. The longest I've held a job is a little more than two years. In my field, I have a Master's degree from a highly respected program. My knowledge, productivity, creativity and work ethic have often been praised. Sometimes, I've been told by a supervisor who is firing me that I clearly know more about the field than his or her other supervisees, but I don't quite get along with other colleagues or with customers. One boss even told me that I knew more about my field than anyone she had ever met.

One of the big problems I faced as an employee was either being too quiet or too verbose. For years I pendulumed between these two. I'd talk while people shuffled papers, yawned and finally stared at their watches. I'd talk until told to leave. Often, the people I would talk to were busy. At other times, I would avoid all small talk and then seem impersonal and detached.

Part of my work involved solving technical problems and I was oblivious to people's emotional states that accompanied these problems. When people's computers are not working or a network is down and people are unable to do their work, they feel stressed. Intellectually I understood this but it wasn't my job to deal with their stress. My job was to solve their technical problems. Over the decades, I have learned to say little phrases like, "that sounds very frustrating" and "I know you're in a hurry, so I'm going to solve this problem as quickly as I can or just swap out your machine with a working one for now." It amazes me that phrases like this completely change an experience for the people I am helping. They help, especially when I am giving them bad news, like, "I'm very sorry to say that it is going to take some time to solve the problem we now face." Even something as simple as shifting the pronoun from "the problem you now face" to "the problem we now face" helps.

These days, when I'm teaching adults and I learn something about someone's learning style, instead of rigidly declaring that they need to learn in the same way as others, I will work as hard as I can to accommodate the person. Recently I had to teach two people to learn how to use a system I had developed. I learned that one of them didn't learn well if someone was standing over her shoulder watching her. In the past, I would have just said, "too bad," but instead for an hour I mulled over the problem and then asked a friend. The friend suggested that I reserve an entire computer lab and teach as if I was teaching many students. I did this and it worked well. (When I did this, part of my mind said that this was an absurd accommodation but it certainly impressed our boss, and the computer lab would have been empty if we hadn't been using it then.) For me this has been a major shift, to think about people's emotions first and to take care of those as best I can while remaining professional as opposed to just worrying about solving the technical problems. Michelle was the first person who mentioned this idea to me. What I know now is that if someone is too emotionally distressed, they will not learn and regardless of the elegance of the solution to a technical problem, the person will not usually recall the experience positively if the emotional connection isn't there.

Currently I am employed at a job that has almost lasted two years and I think it will last much longer than two years.

During my life, I have watched people who work less hard and know less about the field keep jobs while I've been fired. (At one point, I hadn't taken a sick day from a job for more than two years and by the measurable metrics had the best performance on record ever, but I was still fired.) I have seen charming cads successfully romance women I was interested in, and have even comforted those women when they were dumped, only to have the women tell me that they like me but not in a romantic way, though they would value my friendship.

At points I've felt bitter and angry. What I have come to realize though is that anger is a type of energy. The anger can be left to fester and destroy, as it did in Adam Lanza. Alternately, it can be channeled into constructive action. When I lose a job I think about what went wrong for a few hours, sometimes ask for feedback, and then I start putting out resumes again, often the same day that I lose the job. If I go on a date and the woman says that she's not interested, I reflect on it on my way home from the date and then write to more women. Of course, I continue to reflect but I do so as I'm seeking other experiences or jobs.

Many of my classmates from college are now MDs or engineers or lawyers or professors. Most are married and a few have gotten divorced. When I hear a classmate from college got a promotion, such as a classmate whom I was the intellectual equal of and perhaps the classmate was less disciplined than I, I happily congratulate the former classmate. If I learn one of them is engaged, I am glad for them and happily attend the wedding. A few of my classmates haven't fared as well as I and I wish them well. Some of them are bitter and some have given up. Of the people I know though, I have been fired from more jobs and rejected by more potential romantic partners than anyone I know.

Still I'm rarely bitter. The key to this, I believe, is knowledge that I have enough and as the Tao de Ching says, "to know when you have enough is to be rich" (Robert Henricks translation). So, I am rich. I live in my favorite city in the world, in one of my favorite neighborhoods, in a studio apartment that's big enough for me, my accomplishments and knowledge are respected at work and these days women give me positive attention. My job pays enough for me to live comfortably. My trajectory could have been the same as Adam Lanza's, minus the violence. When I lost a few jobs and got rejected a few dozen times, I could have become bitter and dejected. At times, I've felt that way. But I continually force myself to get up. There is a Chinese proverb, "Success is a thousand times fall, a thousand and one times get up."

This practice of always forcing myself to get up again after falling and knowing that I have enough have made the main differences in my trajectory and Adam Lanza's. The good news is that this behavior of just getting up again and this attitude are within my control in a random, noisy, very large universe—and that is enough.

 ©2013 - Social Thinking Publishing - Michelle Garcia Winner  www.socialthinking.com