An Autistic’s How-Not-To Guide to Employment: A Love Story (Part 3)

I never said anything that would belie my growing romantic feelings for Mildred to her or anyone else, and the most brazen transgression I committed was in kissing her on the forehead.  This platonic (so I hoped to convey) gesture served to conclude my nightly routine of tucking Mildred in bed, a totally unnecessary procedure I invented just to spend a few extra minutes with her.  She never complained.  I would make sure everything she needed was in reach, ask if she wanted anything right then, and give her a kiss goodnight.  It was all very innocent.

One night I had done all this and was about to leave when she whispered, “Are you afraid to give me a real kiss?”

I swooned.

I looked at her, hoping for confirmation in her expression, trying to conceal the dancing in my eyes, searching for words that were unwilling to be found.  Her eyes, always so warm and full of life, now looked at me longingly, expectantly, as though we were dancing and she was waiting for me to take the lead.

Except I didn’t know the steps.

I was frightened, trembling, tentative.  Then suddenly, somehow, we were connected.  The world around us faded and sounds became distant echoes.  We kissed.  It lasted an eternity and was over in an instant.

My inner novelist has made all this sound like a passage from some trashy romance novel, but the truth is that it was a confusing experience for me, and I imagine, Mildred.  So much about that kiss was just so wrong.  I had violated the caregiver/patient relationship.  I had breached ethical boundaries that could have gotten me fired, or worse.  I had kissed a woman distant to me not just by years, but by generations.  And in allowing myself to enjoy that kiss I had crossed a line that I could never uncross.

Not that I cared.  The immediate, tangible result of that kiss was that for the first time in a very long time, I was happy.

Then reality hit.  Hard.

To be continued…

High School Crush: Continuation of ‘A Love Story’

I had a devastating crush on my tenth-grade English teacher.  Many of you will think, So? because you’re picturing some recent college grad, perhaps like the attractive young scholar in the video for Van Halen’s “Hot for Teacher.”  Those who attended school with me will remember the teacher in question as Mrs. Matsko, a much more seasoned educator of at least sixty.  She was short and curvy, with brown eyes and a dark complexion fractured by laugh lines and crow’s feet.  Her hair, once black, was fading from fall to winter foliage, and she spoke with a raspy voice that seemed forever cheerful.  I was in love.

I didn’t learn much in sophomore English because I was too busy perfecting the art of covert adoration.  At home, instead of reading The Great Gatsby, I drafted epic love stories in which Mrs. Matsko and I were the protagonists, doomed in a world that could never understand our love.

I prayed that I would have her again for junior and senior English, and that she might then develop a sudden yen for teaching in college, but alas, it was never meant to be.  I finished the tenth grade and, after a summer of reticent mourning, moved on to other equally tragic crushes.

That was what I was expecting with the lovely septuagenarian, Mildred- a harmless, if odd infatuation.  I had no reason to believe she would pick up on the attraction, as I had become adept at concealing my distant devotions, much less that it would be mutual.

Then she kissed me.

To be continued…

An Autistic’s How-Not-To Guide to Employment: A Love Story

I met my first real girlfriend in the fall of 1994.  I had just turned twenty, and she was the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen to that point.  Her hair was a wavy auburn, and her steel grey eyes looked like a cold December morning but felt like the warmth of a hearth.  Her lips were as soft as the southern drawl that poured from them, often in a whisper that nearly drove me mad with desire.

I had seen her quite a few times in passing before we ever spoke- too shy- but when we finally did I found myself suddenly and overwhelmingly addicted to the sound of her voice.  If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know that she did most of the talking, which was fine by me.  I will confess that I didn’t hear a lot of what she was saying because I was so rapt by her voice.  It was like being caressed all over by warm, soft linen.  It was the sound heaven makes.

We met at work, and based on the title of this blog you can guess how everything turned out.  You’d be wrong, but you can certainly guess.

As I was saying, I was twenty when I met Mildred.  She was seventy-two and a resident in the nursing home where I’d just gone to work.

To be continued…

Baby Steps

I’ve been trying this new approach where I mimic standard neurotypical behavior.  I was inspired by a book I recently read, The Journal of Best Practices, by David Finch.  So far, the results have been encouraging.

For example, I have added, “Good afternoon. How are you doing?” to my verbal repertoire.  It replaces the phrase, “Good morning,” which till recently was my all-purpose greeting; I felt it conveyed a sense of whimsy, especially since it was rarely morning when I used the phrase.  The other benefit of the original phrase is that omitting the follow-up question effectively implied that I required no more than a reciprocal greeting in return.  However, I’ve learned with the new expanded greeting that people seem to appreciate being asked how they are doing, even if they generally only respond with good or fine.  Which is fine with me, because if they ever actually tell me how they are doing I may find myself in a conversation I am not prepared to have!

Another thing I did recently was apologize.  We Aspies tend to have meltdowns over things that don’t really warrant a strong reaction. Or any reaction.  My trigger is when my wife asks me to take the dog out to do her business.  The meltdown consists of me clenching my fists, furrowing my brow, breathing loudly, and glaring.  It’s immature, irrational, oh-so-passive-aggressive, and, I’m certain, looks ridiculous, but for the sake of clarification it happens for two reasons.  First, Carol is interrupting the show I’m watching, the book I’m reading, or the train of thought I happen to be having; an interruption is akin to an abrupt change, and people with autism struggle hard with change.  Second, an evil voice deep inside tells me that Carol believes I am not competent enough to take the dog out without being told.  I’ve been perceived as incompetent by so many bosses in my past that I just assume that’s how people see me.

My solution with the dog has been to take her out automatically every few hours (It’s almost as though my wife has been training me all along. Hmm…).  Yesterday I was caught up in my writing and forgot about the dog.  Carol, of course, reminded me, and, of course I reminded her just how juvenile I can be if I set my mind to it.  Normally I begin feeling guilty about half an hour after a meltdown.  I then make up for my behavior via some grand gesture, as opposed to talking about it, because talking about it requires talking. Talking is not my strong suit.  Nonetheless, yesterday, after psyching myself up I walked up to her and said, “I apologize.”  I waited, expecting the worst.  A deep emotional discussion.  Some melodramatic catharsis.  Tears.  Something beyond my capacity to process.

Carol said, “Oh, that’s okay.”

The Monster in My Head

In 1984 my mother and her boyfriend, Doug, took me to see the movie, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, a more dramatic version of the familiar tale.  I was just nine then, so I don’t remember much of the film.  One scene, though, is permanently seared into my memory.  Near the beginning of the movie, baby Tarzan and his anthropologist parents are in their jungle treehouse observing chimpanzees when the apes suddenly attack the humans en masse.  Tarzan, of course, is spared, but the parents are both killed.  What I remember most is the scene after the attack, with the camera looking down at the bodies lying on the treehouse floor.  The camera focuses on the infant Tarzan, but all I could see were the dead mother and father.

In that moment, in that darkened theater as I sat between my own mother and Doug, I saw death for the first time.  Not the dead bodies, not the orphaned child, and not the raging band of chimps: Death.  The faceless, formless, invisible monster who robs the living of the ability to think, feel, and sense the world.  Who obliterates the past, future, and present.  An unmerciful beast too fast, too strong, and too persistent to escape.  I knew it was chasing me too, and no matter how fast or far I fled, nor how fiercely I fought, there would come a time beyond which I would no longer exist.

Knowing this, however, did nothing to abate my present urge to escape the invisible cage I now felt closing around me.  I looked helplessly around me.  Mama and Doug were absorbed by the onscreen proceedings as were, it seemed, everyone else in the theater.  I was surrounded yet completely alone.  I wondered what they would all think if I did what I really wanted to in that instant, which was to jump out of my seat, bolt from the theater, and run– anywhere.  They’d think I was crazy.  So I sat there, still as a stone, as death, except for the trembling I couldn’t control.  My heart pounded against the wall of my nine-year-old chest.  I felt dizzy and light-headed.  The sweat from my underarms saturated my shirt and began streaming down my sides.  I felt like I couldn’t breathe.  No air.

Then, suddenly, it was over.  Death remained, and so did my newfound knowledge of it, but the panic was gone.  Like a tornado, it had swept through the landscape of my young mind touching down just long enough to rip apart my childhood innocence before sweeping away again.  I melted into my seat, drained but relieved.

Or maybe it wasn’t like a tornado at all.  Tornadoes dissipate, and the damage they cause can be repaired.  I’m forty-two now, still broken, and still tormented daily by the monster I met so many years ago while I was watching a Tarzan movie.  Only now he’s much closer.

An Autistic’s how-not-to Guide to Employment (Part Two)

When I began work at Golden Living Center in Wellsville, Missouri, it seemed like a dream come true: My first supervisory job.  A chance to prove my mettle in a position of authority.  My chance to stand out as an individual, and boy did I ever stand out!

I brought most of what happened there on myself, but that’s kind of the point.  Being autistic (and not knowing it) led me to make decisions and behave in ways that turned my dream job into a nightmare.  It didn’t help that I was the first ever evening shift supervisor at that facility.  We autistics need clear, specific directions and a concrete goal to work toward, but my position was so new a job description hadn’t even been written for it yet.  I was lost and confused in the absence of specific routines and tasks to complete; I wandered about the nursing home a great deal and organized all the storage closets.

We autistics also don’t do well with unexpected changes, so suddenly finding out that I had to work some weekends on the day shift, even though I had been hired for the evening shift, did not leave me with positive feelings about management, and the immature way I reacted ensured mutual resentment.  Mutual resentment, sadly, has been a running theme throughout my professional life, and I have left many a bridge in flames.

Finally, like many with autism, I struggle in interpersonal interactions with people I don’t know, and that, unfortunately, was a major part of my job since I was responsible for all the night-time admissions.  This meant in depth interviews and head-to-toe assessments of total strangers often with onlooking family members who had the gall to expect me to know what I was doing.  It was excruciating and required a lot of antiperspirant.

Then, there are all the other miscellaneous aspects of nursing that I struggled with on my best days- sympathizing and empathizing with grieving families, dealing with staffing problems, and just being able to do a dozen things at once.

Mix all these things together, and you get anxiety, depression, and the dread that sits in your stomach every minute you’re not at work because you know you eventually must go back.  After about a month of this, my blood pressure began a steady ascent which culminated one evening in a scary dizzy spell that resulted from a reading of 212/125.  I was sent home to rest, and two days later I returned to work for an assigned weekend day shift.  As soon as I walked onto the unit I began to feel dizzy, and I quickly learned the reason: 214/136.  The cause was clear, and so was the solution:  I had to quit, and not the next week or even the next day, but immediately.

That wasn’t my first bad nursing experience, nor would it be the last, as you may read in future posts.  What I didn’t know then was that, as an autistic, I had been born with certain inherent strengths and weaknesses.  I can work to strengthen my strengths and weaken my weaknesses, but they will always be a part of me, and certain careers, like nursing, seem to magnify and exploit all the weaknesses.

An Autistic’s How-Not-To Guide to Employment

Studies show that people with7 autism face two main problems when it comes to employment:

  1. Finding a job.
  2. Keeping a job.

You may call me Exhibit A.  I am forty-two years old, which means that I have technically been an adult for twenty-four years.  In that time, I have held forty different jobs.  That’s nearly two jobs a year, and it gets worse when you consider that I miraculously kept one of those jobs for seven years (I had an extremely generous boss).  Factoring that in, I’ve held thirty-nine jobs over seventeen years!

Anyway, I thought it would be fun to revisit some of the more entertaining ways I’ve lost jobs, starting with Campbell’s Nursing Home.  I was working as a nursing assistant at the time, and in many ways, I was quite good at my job.  In other ways, as we shall see, I was very much lacking.

In January, 1997, I joined the Army Reserve, and spent the next four months in training.  Upon returning to work, I immediately made myself the mortal enemy of human resources by insisting that I was owed an extra weekend off each month for training.  There was, of course, an easy and logical explanation for why I didn’t get the weekend, but being autistic isn’t exactly conducive to communication.

Before all that, I had been the darling of management because I worked seventy hours a week, and my residents loved me.  Afterward our relationship became one of mutual seething resentment, and any reason would have been reason enough to fire me.  I gave them a good one.

At the time my favorite resident was Mr. Garvin.  Soon after I’d begun working at Campbell’s two years earlier, my coworkers started remarking how similar Mr. Garvin and I looked; I could have been his grandson.  It wasn’t long before Mr. Garvin decided that not only was I the best nursing assistant in the building, but that when I was on duty, no one else was to touch him.  I was to be his exclusive nurse.  I never discouraged him because I liked the attention, and it never occurred to me that anyone might see that as inappropriate.

A few months into my ongoing feud with HR, Mr. Garvin became ill, and over the course of a week he got progressively worse.  As far as I know, the nurses never did anything in response, despite my frequent reports.  I will note that one symptom of autism is an extreme focus on details, and it is likely that I was seeing changes not yet apparent to anyone else.  Regardless, I was off the weekend, and when I returned to work the following Monday Mr. Garvin was dead.

My emotional connections to people come in two flavors: pathologically extreme, or little-to-none.  Mr. Garvin fell into the second category, so I had no idea how I was supposed to react to his death.  Anger seemed appropriate given the circumstances, but I had never learned how to properly act angry.  On television, right before moment when all is forgiven and a valuable lesson is learned, there is often a meltdown of some sort.  I decided to go with that.  When I saw my unit nurse I laid into her, accusing all the nurses of being horrible, uncaring jerks.  I don’t remember much else of my tirade, which was audible to way too many bystanders, but at some point, I threatened to kill everyone in the building if another resident died.

The next morning, I had no idea why I was being called to the conference room.  I realized something had gone terribly wrong when I found myself sitting across the table from the entire managerial staff, but I didn’t deny it when they asked me about the death threat.  In my mind, I had acted appropriately based on the available data, and I thought it was ludicrous that anyone would think I would ever kill them.  Management, however, adopted the opposing viewpoint, fired me, and had me escorted off the premises by security (a scene that has played out an alarming number of times in my life).

All this happened many years before I “discovered” my autism, and I like to think that I would handle things much differently now.

Hobbies and Special Interests

While the DSM V doesn’t use the term special interest, it is explicitly defined as a symptom:

“Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g, strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interest).”

The most often cited examples of special interests are collections, such as coins, stamps, or comic books, although it could be just about anything since people with autism tend to have different standards of interesting than neurotypicals.  This makes special interests seem a lot like regular hobbies, and there are similarities between the two.  However, as I am about to eloquently demonstrate, there are also some striking differences.

I once had an impressive collection that included Coca-Cola memorabilia as well as old bottles and cans of all sorts.  It wasn’t museum quality, but I was proud of it.  And I was always on the lookout for new pieces.  There were a couple of antique stores in town that I would visit every week or two to see if any new pieces came in, and whenever I would go for a walk through the woods- which was often- I’d pick up any can or bottle I came across just in case they looked old (you’d be surprised how many old soda and beer bottles lie untouched in the middle of the forest for decades).  But that was it; I didn’t constantly obsess over finding new items, and I never spent hours admiring my collection.  It was just a hobby.

The first special interest I remember having began when my mother brought home a Rand McNally Road Atlas as part of the gear for her new career as a truck driver.  I was never interested in the maps themselves, but in the back of the atlas was a section that immediately captivated me: the populations of every city in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.  It wasn’t just the numbers that caught my attention, but rather what they meant.  Each one was a new world that I could see in my mind, full of streets and buildings and shopping districts and parks and bright lights.  I was around ten then, so my standard for a city was basically my hometown of Greenwood, S.C. (Population in 1980- 21,613.  This number is permanently etched in my memory), which meant that I was enamored with any number larger than that.

I spent hours and days at a time poring over those numbers, learning the largest cities in each state (and province), always comparing other states to South Carolina.  I was especially interested in cities that I had never heard of, but had populations over 100,000 (Chula Vista!).  I eventually found other sources of population data (bearing in mind that this was many years before Google), like my 1963 World Book Encyclopedias (Greenwood in 1960- 16,644) and the World Almanac.  In ninth grade, I took World Geography, which opened the door to a whole planet of population figures!  Our textbook didn’t have any actual numbers, but it did have maps in which different symbols indicated cities of different sizes.  So that is what the world became for me then: a landscape dotted with squares, circles, and triangles.

I’m forty-two now, and still obsessed with populations.  Google, of course, has fed my special interest/obsession/addiction, but I still look to my other sources when I get the chance.  Just the other day I was at the library doing some research for my novel when I saw the 2015 World Almanac sitting coyly on the shelf.  I spent the next fifteen minutes standing there reading 2013 population estimates (Of course, official census figures are only collected on the zero years).

I suppose as far as special interests go, reading population stats is pretty tame, and in truth other special interests have gotten me into far more trouble (Stay tuned!).  Still, you can see that my weird lifelong interest in populations has extended far beyond mere hobby.

Masking My Autism

A few minutes in my company is all most people need to see that I’m more than a little different, but that doesn’t mean I don’t try to appear normal.  Here are four ways I attempt to mask my autistic symptoms:

  1. Scripting- In other words, mapping out what I am going to say prior to an interaction. This doesn’t work very well for casual conversation, because even after 42 years I am unable to accurately predict how people will respond to what I say.  In more structured situations, like the workplace, restaurants, etc., scripting is a life saver.  I do not mean to say that it works perfectly; if a customer asks me an unexpected question, even if I know the right answer I will usually give the wrong one.  Still, scripting allows me to easily accomplish what used to be extremely traumatic tasks for me, such as ordering at an unfamiliar restaurant or making a doctor’s appointment.
  2. Look outward- Whenever I’m in my own little world, happy though I may be, I end up doing little things that the casual onlooker may interpret as “strange.” For example, I may stare at this onlooker if I find one of his or her facial features interesting.  I usually don’t notice this till I’ve made them uncomfortable enough to ask me if I need something.  Another thing is when I am walking, if I look down I start noticing things like lines and patterns on the floor or cracks in the sidewalk.  When that happens, I begin adjusting individual footsteps to avoid certain spots.  So, whenever I am around other people I try to pay attention to my whole surroundings rather than fixating on any specific thing.
  3. Stand out- I am not as good at “looking outward” as I would like to be, and there are some aspects of my autism that are just impossible to hide. One way I’ve learned to compensate is by giving people something else to notice, usually in the form of some behavior that is either endearing, humorous, or impressive.  I did this a lot in school.  When I realized that I could never fit in the normal way, I became the guy who wore shorts and t-shirts year-round, even in the snow (which I would have done anyway; I hate long pants).  I became the kid who could sleep through all his classes and still make high grades, even though it meant staying up all night at home memorizing my books.  I still never really fit in, but at least everyone had something to look at besides the weird loner who never spoke to anyone.
  4. Write- This isn’t often an option, but when it is I take advantage of it. Writing gives me the time I need to convert my thoughts into words.  It allows me to put my ideas into a logical order before expressing them, and I can pace back and forth while I think as much as I need to without being stared at.  Of course, these are advantages for everyone, though most neurotypicals do well enough speaking.  What really helps me in written correspondence is I don’t have to try to interpret anyone’s eyes, facial expressions, or gestures.  People with autism are notoriously inept at reading nonverbal communication, but with writing, all the communication is right there in plain English.

Five Neat Things About Being an Aspie.

This post is inspired by a post I recently read on Anonymously Autistic‘s blog.  Believe it or not, there are some fringe benefits to being autistic!  For example…

  1. It gives people the impression that I’m a lot smarter than I really am. Neurotypicals seem to devote a lot of their mental powers to social interaction and interpersonal relationships.  Since my brain was clearly not designed for either of these activities, it is free to absorb a lot of random knowledge as well as search for patterns in numbers.
  2. I am really good at my job. Two important components of being a letter carrier are sorting and focusing on small details, and I happen to excel in both these areas.
  3. I am often unaware when people are making fun of me. Example: One of my legs is a little longer than the other, and for a long time it caused me to “waddle” when I walked.  So all throughout high school, my nickname was “The Duck.”  Since I can’t read facial expressions or other nonverbal cues, I never could tell if the nickname was an insult or a term of endearment.  It was probably both depending on who was saying it, but without knowing for sure, I’m free to assume that I was fairly popular in high school!
  4. I am rarely lonely. I don’t consider myself a hermit, and I don’t shun all human contact, but I also don’t need to interact with others to be happy.  Most of the time there is plenty enough going on in my head to keep me occupied.
  5. In fact, all I really need are a comfortable pair of headphones so I can listen to music (which I have), nice weather to walk in, and a small ball to toss back-and-forth to myself (my favorite stimming activity). And of course cable television on Monday and Tuesdays nights; I am addicted to WWE wrestling.