Asperger Syndrome, Autism, ...and Me
... a work-in-progress ...
Read through the text as usual, scrolling up and down as needed. Or 'click' on the underlined titles in the Table of Contents just below and jump directly to relevant sections of text. Clicking on any of the "[TOC]" glyphs in the left margin returns you to this Table of Contents; while clicking on a "[top]" glyph returns you to the top of this page. This symbol in the left margin signals a note related to autism.
Why I've Written This
I present my story in the belief that it may be of value to others: parents concerned for their children, the children themselves, and mental-health professionals. Especially the latter, so many of whom seem still not to have "gotten it right". Accordingly I've structured this web-page, and my autobiographical story, to emphasize its educational aspects.
As you read, visualize an Aspergian child, loved and protected, allowed to grow into adulthood in as nearly natural a way as possible. This never was a person with a disability!
That I was "different" from other kids bothered me enough, even from a very young age, to spend decades searching for reasons why. So I'm not new to concepts of behavioral, cognitive or neurological differences from "the norm", nor the likelihood they might apply to me somehow.
What's new for me, after seven decades and only since early 2005: Some concepts DO apply to me! And, finally, now I have answers to life-long questions, marvelous insights, and an inner peace I've never known before!
Making only scant allowance for my 70+ years, I meet the DSM-IV criteria for Asperger Syndrome and have been so evaluated professionally. I am autistic. This will come as a big surprise, a shock even, to those who've known me during my working years. As my younger son put it, after I'd informed all my kids in 2005:
"Dad, I don't believe you. You're as normal as I am!"
Notwithstanding, indeed I am Aspergian - a person on the autism-spectrum. And not a child freshly diagnosed, I am an adult Aspergian. I'm a married-with-children (and grand-children) and rather highly successful autistic adult.
To most, like my son, certainly I appear "normal". But, well, ...not quite; maybe hypernormal would be closer to it. Thereby hangs a tale (about my cognitive style, and autistic cognition generally) which I've related on another page: "Autism" » "Myself" » "My Cognitive Style", above left.
My son made the same wrong-headed distinction between "normal" and autistic still so often made today. I don't like it. We are "different", yes. We are not "abnormal". So in this text I'll use the less-divisive terms coming into common use:
"Neuro-typical" (NT) means "normal" (as conceived by insensitive NTs);
I don't like the term "aspie", widely used to indicate Asperger persons. It's both condescending and patronizing; neither cute nor especially indicative of loving concern. Instead I'll use "Aspergian", ...a bit more dignified.
"Non-spectrum" (NS) means not on the autism-spectrum (not autistic);
"AS" means Asperger Syndrome or an autistic person. I trust context to make my meaning clear.
Since at least my third birthday I've known without doubt I was different from other people.
For one thing, other people seemed prone to misunderstand my interactions with them. So often I misunderstood their questions and directions. So often they called my responses "inappropriate" (and told me so in no uncertain terms). In consequence I was called a "difficult" child, which hugely bothered my mother. It disturbed me so much (not even in school yet!) that I spent a lot of time trying to understand what was wrong. Fortunately, by the time I was six or seven, but still without really understanding, I'd found a few ways to cope. Brain power does help! Some of the time anyway; but by no means all.
For another, despite rather desperately wanting to get along and have friends, most of the time it didn't work out. In the beginning that didn't bother me so much. By nature I was very much a "loner", and got along well enough by sort of "living in my head", a familiar place in which I was both comfortable and safe.
For yet another I was way smarter than other kids, to the point of provoking comment by adults (even in my presence).
Finally, it seemed actually I had a different way of thinking from others. It was very much like "seeing" in my mind things that others couldn't. They never "saw" in the same way I did. For more on that, look in "Autism" » "Myself" » "My Cognitive Style", above left.
Before Age Three...
I remember only a little from before age three. Very foggy images predominate of a large house in Los Angeles, California, where my mother and father moved from Missouri. Sadly, details are lacking and there's nobody still alive to provide them.
However one entire scene from that time glares out of the murk - a "picture" crystal clear to this day. My mother is visiting a friend, me in tow; their house is very big and very fancy with nice furniture and big rugs everywhere - a rich man's home. A well-dressed woman is hustling me out the front door, the while "shushing" me to be very very quiet. My father(?) and a big policeman vigorously pound on the back door (light green paint; half-length glass window; white chintz curtain), shouting very loudly and then forcing entry! My last glimpse backward is my mother (a small, slender woman only a little over 5-feet tall) actually fighting them in a doorway, and bodily blocking their way!
The obvious "marital difficulties" eventuated both in a messy divorce and a lawsuit over my custody which actually reached both the California State and US Supreme Courts! The former enjoined my father from coming anywhere near me. The latter declined comment on the California ruling, effectively approving it.
An old photo in my family album shows a 3-year old boy picnicking on a seaside sand-dune in Southern California. The reverse, in my mother's graceful hand, says simply: "Billy Noland, age 3". That's my christened name. I'm that child. ...that AS child.
|Billy, age 3
Precocious, highly verbal, I taught myself to read by watching my mother as she read bedtime stories to me. She'd point to pictures, and sometimes words, clearly sounding the words she pointed to. From my vantage point, more or less facing her, of course the pages were upside-down. So that's the way my mother caught me one day, behind a sofa, reading aloud from one of her magazines -- upside-down. I still was doing that at age four when I entered kindergarten a year early.
I was always misunderstanding others and misunderstood by them. My frustrations over that so often boiled over into raw anger, into sometimes violent "temper tantrums". One day while being hidden (from my father) on a friend's ranch, an older boy teased me beyond my tolerance. I picked up the biggest rock I could handle, and flung it at him. It smashed into his temple, which bled ominously (as even minor head wounds will), sending him to the emergency room. Thereafter I was persona non grata at the ranch: "...kid just can't behave himself!" My mother's friendship with his parents never recovered, and my label as merely "difficult" morphed into "that kid just can't control his temper." The reputation would dog me for many years.
My single-parent working-mom needed a place to park me for those parts of the day when she worked. Kindergarten offered such a respite. Somehow she (or her powerful friends?) finagled the authorities; at only four years of age I entered an Oxnard parochial school a year earlier than usual.
This turned out poorly. Not because of my age, ability to pay attention, do what was asked, or anything like that. Kindergarten was my first real experience of "the Big Bad World" out there. I was so frightened by it, I threw a tantrum at the school door; and my mother took me home. On the second try, a day or so later, I managed to stay calm only a short time before I threw another tantrum (I can't recall the reason) and had to be sent home. Eventually matters improved; but difficulties continued. The most serious may have been the "Raggedy-Ann Incident".
I had a very nice picture book given to me as a bribe - the more peaceably to get me into kindergarten. Almost "coffee-table" quality actually, and part of a set including both rag-dolls - Ragged-Ann and Raggedy-Andy. At some point when I was more comfortable in the class-room, I participated in a "show-and-tell" session by bringing the book to school. I already was inseparable from the Raggedy-Ann doll, bringing it to school every day. But the book was important - I could read it! - and everyone had dolls (usually "just" teddy bears).
After my self-important presentation, the teacher wanted to keep the book safely at her desk, where she placed it along with others. When it was time to go home I retrieved it and scampered to my mother - book in arms. A teacher saw me (some teacher? the teacher?), accused me of stealing a school book, and took it away from me. ...Sending me into full amok mode - blind, black-faced rage.
This is my earliest memory of what today would be called an autistic "meltdown".
In the end, it turned out the book in fact wasn't mine! The school had owned a similar book, the very one I picked up. Though my mother verified to the school I'd indeed brought my own copy, my book never was found. Arriving home book-less I was desolate and inconsolable for a very long time.
But since the set (dolls plus book) now was broken, none of the parts were of any value to me. I lost interest in them completely and forevermore. My mother managed to shift my focus to a new teddy-bear, which I loved to death. In the fullness of time, it disintegrated (somewhere around the fourth grade), which teddy-bears are wont to do.
An interesting "behavior" is illustrated: Some AS children (and adults) can and do invest themselves completely in possessions or activities; and later (for unknowable? reasons) may totally and permanently lose all interest in them.
The next year or so isn't clear in my mind at all; highly unusual for me. In some fashion my mother managed to: 1) re-marry, 2) close her chiropractic office, 3) move to nearby Ventura (joining her lawyer husband), and 4) place me in St. Catherine's Academy - a very small but elite Catholic private school. NB: In retrospect I've always wondered how she paid for the school (her new husband didn't). And later for my even more elite (and expensive) high-school. Those powerful friends again?
My next clear memories are of attending First Grade there. It wasn't a happy time. Being forever teased (yes, and bullied) by classmates would plague me (the consequences would plague others) all through the lower grades, though with ever-diminishing frequency. My latent tendency to real violence abated some. It's never left me though. To this day (2007) I feel its presence; I know it's there.
We didn't have a lot of money, so I didn't have a wealth of toys like other kids. I had to make-do with make-believe and found objects, rarely satisfying. My great passion was reading. My greatest satisfaction came from library books, where I enjoyed the world vicariously and completely "in my head." I read everything in sight, voraciously, developing a massive vocabulary on the way. I became more than a bit of know-it-all. An adult, in my presence, once called me a "real 'Little Professor'." It wasn't meant kindly either; but I wasn't smart enough to know it.
For me, there's a singular eeriness about that memory. Hans Asperger used that very phrase, describing the (autistic) children he studied. But he wrote in the early 1940s, in German; his papers weren't translated to English until the 1990s. How would anyone around me have known? Nonetheless, ...prescient.
Often I was caught reading stories when I should have been studying. When the stories were taken away, I'd lapse into day-dreaming, seeming to stare in an unfocused way out the window. My grades didn't suffer though; my "smarts" saved me. My academic grades always were average or better. Not so in other areas: Deportment for example more often ranged between "needs improvement" and "unacceptable". The archetypical "plays well with others" fared no better. I was sent home frequently; often in tears - not understanding what I'd done wrong.
My memory was excellent; and recall very rapid and accurate. On the strength of that I was given star roles in class skits and school plays. Not that they cared, but my memory wasn't what the teachers thought: Truly eidetic, I visualized everything, and in my mind simply read off the written scripts! This led to a certain "woodenness" of delivery, and likely pretty bad acting as well. But my lines were flawless.
Predominantly visual memory, "visual-spatial thinking" is a hallmark of very many autistic people. And of so-called "gifted" people as well. I've written more about "picture-thinking" on another page.
Others often remarked on my habit of not meeting others' eyes when they spoke to me, or I to them. My mother was desperate to train me out of the habit, reminding me that only "crooks, thieves and other dishonest people had 'shifty eyes'" It got me into trouble too, lots of times.
Once during school recess I was in a small group which caught the eye of the nun proctoring the yard. She called me over and berated me roundly for a transgression which in fact I wasn't part of. Ever the sassy smart-aleck I argued with her repeatedly: "But I didn't do it!" - which was true. Tiring of this, she challenged me: "Look me in the eye! Look me in the eye and say that!"
I couldn't. I just couldn't! Which proved to her satisfaction that I was lying. In fact, ...I was not!
It's over that issue, gaze-avoidance in modern parlance, and also reciprocal communication, that I first began really to worry about my way of being and thinking. So I couldn't "look her in the eye" - okay. But why?? And why couldn't I understand her very well, ...nor she understand me?? That issue, those issues, would plague me the rest of my life. And "Why? became my single over-arching question about almost everything.
Strong gaze-avoidance is common among autistics. Difficulty with reciprocal communication is a major criterion for autism/Asperger's in the DSM-IV.
Throughout those years I kept hearing "My, he's bright", ...stuff like that. But I did have one very big problem: My rote memorization was terrible. If I couldn't "picture" it, I couldn't remember it. In arithmetic for example I just couldn't remember my "times-tables". I got right answers to problems, but slowly.
Then I began to hear: "You have a fine mind, Billy -- now use it!" ...The implication being "...or else!"
Well, I couldn't remember X-times-Y (and still can't). But early on I'd spotted a kind of recursive relationship, numbers to results, and began to use that paradigm to compute what everyone else memorized. I generalized the method to encompass division - as long as the numbers weren't too large. In "my" head it's only marginally slower than others' rote recall. I still do it today.
Dr. Simon Baron-Cohen (Cambridge, England) recently described the "systematizing" mind as one characteristic of AS people. Indeed many successful AS are in the more technical occupations.
Approaching the end of Fourth Grade it was apparent to all that I was rather more than the school could (or wanted to) handle. My poor mother! What to do? She took me with her to investigate St. Catherine's Military Academy (Anaheim, California) hoping to place me there. I was devastated by what I saw; and wanted no part of that or anything like it! My very emotional "showdown" with her saw me attending public Fifth Grade in the relatively small Lincoln School only one block from my home.
I won that round. But the gauntlet had been thrown and I knew better than to pick it up. Somehow I managed "to mind my Ps & Qs" at Lincoln, and learned how to cope. The principal reason was Mr. Keller, our teacher for math, science and similar classes. I'd never had schoolwork presented like he could; it was fun! I'd have done anything to keep in his good graces; I guess I did.
Much earlier my mother had given me a subscription to Boy's Life, the magazine for Boy Scouts, and I liked it a lot. So I was favorably primed when Mr. Keller suggested I join the Cub Scout Pack which met in that very school. With considerable fear, I did join; ...to find my customary fear of the Unknown oddly missing: This was good stuff!
Continuing to this day (2007), and true to my AS nature, it was always easier for me to handle Big Changes when they were introduced in small steps: A magazine subscription, ...a fun class, ...a teacher's suggestion, ...Cub Scouts, .... Stepwise preambles always have been important to (most of) the successful transitions in my life.
By the time the Pack dissolved (something awry in the sponsoring organization), I had learned a full-fledged Boy Scout Troop met at the First Christian Church right next door to my home!
BSA Troop 103, And Afterward
I was only eleven (and a half!). With the tacit connivance of the Scoutmaster, my mother and I fudged my age a bit - so to join the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) Troop 103 a little earlier than usual. This was a real turning point in my life.
The Scoutmaster (C.J. "Cap" Stevens) was a woods-savvy math teacher at the local Senior High School and Junior College; the Asst. Scoutmaster was an Army veteran working toward a veterinary medicine degree. Two junior Troop leaders were admirable young adults who were very good with kids and seemed able to do almost anything.
These four were as close to Male Role-models (good ones anyway) as I'd ever had to that point.
During those years I simply soaked up everything those four men had to offer. As much of their skills and knowledge as possible, I virtually inhaled and made my own. In some kind of intuitive way, I recognized their worth as Good Men, and tried hard to emulate their behavior. A very wise move, the effects of which helped me along in life for many years after. A fast learner, and by now a quick study as well, I studied for merit badges and was awarded them; I rose rapidly from Tenderfoot rank to the top - Eagle Scout!.
I stayed in that Troop until well into High-school, when - a little like the Army - it was Up or Out. Several of us were of that age, and there was no "Up" way to go. Presaging my activity in Mountain Rescue decades later, I founded the "Pine Tree Patrol" for all of us. Quite outside the BSA fold we soldiered on with meetings and outdoor activities of our own! We all had driver licenses by then; getting into the mountains to hunt, fish or camp wasn't a problem. But the structure and goals of a Troop, to say nothing of an adult leader, was something we all missed.
Accordingly, with the help of "Cap" Stevens and other BSA officials, I approached the local American Legion Post, asking them to sponsor an Explorer Post. This somewhat new initiative by the BSA was designed to hold Scouts who'd "aged out" of their Troops, as we had. To my immense surprise, after my very first (heart-in-throat) presentation to a large group - none of whom I knew - our proposal was accepted! The Legion Post provided both an adult leader and a meeting place. We were up and running! Well, for awhile. Long enough for us to take several long trips, and for me to become a Ranger Scout (the Explorer equivalent of Eagle Scout). Sadly, undisclosed "administrative problems" caused the A.L. to withdraw its support. By then though, I was on my way to college.
My presentation to the American Legion was another Big Change for me, but of a very different sort. This was nothing like a grade-school pageant before friendly parents! Pulling it off - successfully negotiating with adults - gave me a swelling sense of self-confidence I actually could feel. For the first time I had a sense of personal control; a sense I really could "make things happen"!
Villanova Preparatory School is a small, elite residential Catholic private school, accepting boys only (back then), near the pretty-sleepy little town of Ojai, California.
In the school's very regulated academic setting, with small classes and an emphasis on excellence, I did very much better than in grammar-school; ...blossomed in fact. My grades at first were only poor to average. Then as I gained confidence and a degree of comfort in that markedly different setting, they improved steadily. In the end, I did very well indeed.
The pattern of improvement over time would hold throughout my life. Like a dance-step, slow, slow, quick-quick, I needed time to adjust, to absorb. My grades would be moderate at best. Then suddenly an almost magical "click" would happen in my mind. Learning and absorption accelerated, and my grades would jump to among the best in my class. Even sometimes, the best.
At first I was a resident boarder. This was pretty stressful: So used to having my bedroom door ajar at night, at home (I could see light in the rest of the house), I had to have it that way here too. Against The Rules! Lights Out and Doors Closed At Night! I began to have trouble sleeping at all.
Then one day I collapsed at Morning Chapel, making quite a stir. Chronic sleep deprivation? Or first whisperings of the obscure cardiac condition which, under extreme stress, precipitated my stroke 50 years later? Either way, I was hustled off to a cardiologist in Los Angeles. He pronounced me sound, though with a slow heartbeat "essential bradycardia" and "athlete's heart" (enlarged but probably normal).
Regardless, from that day onward I was a "day-hop" (commuter student); first by inter-city bus, and later in my mother's 1942 Ford. To defray expenses, I was obliged to pick-up and drop-off the very few other day-hops, charging them a small fee.
Nearly four years of collecting, and keeping track of, those weekly fees was my introduction to the business world. Not a big introduction, but a start. It didn't hurt my self-esteem either.
In my Junior year, finally I couldn't take any more teasing (bullying?) by a bigger boy. He didn't like my (probably arrogant smarty-pants) attitude, and got pushy about it. Almost predictably, I "lost it". In a red-faced rage I very deliberately broke his arm by jumping on it - another "meltdown". I was saved from severe disciplinarian action, possibly expulsion, only by witnesses who vouchsafed my story of provocation.
That same year the Class took IQ tests, though maybe none of us knew that's what they were. I didn't. Long story short: I flunked! This so astonished the school authorities, after a month or so I was given another one - privately. The result was equally astonishing.
I knew nothing of this until end-of-term. Near the end of that summer, actually, which coincidentally was when the Headmaster was being transferred back to Villanova College. I had a number of small paid tasks at the school, on summer weekends. One day the Headmaster called me into his office, with some furtiveness announcing he wanted (privately!) to tell me "some things you will need to know".
These "some things" turned out to be the story of the two IQ tests: What my scores were, what was being reported officially, and how that number was obtained by averaging. He cautioned that telling me was very much "Against the rules ... but one day you'll need to know these things." A prescient observation, as it turned out nearly 60 years later!
In high-school, when other boys were trying their wings with sports and girls -
and having a lot of fun doing it - I was a near-total social misfit. I just didn't know how, and sometimes didn't even know what! I'd taken dancing lessons, on my mother's very strong insistence. And there were the obligatory exchange dances (with the all-girl high-school of St.Catherine's - my grade-school alma mater). But I didn't meet people, especially girls, at all easily. Usually I asked a girl I'd known well from grade-school - comfortable and no surprises. Occasionally I stole a tentative kiss; even assayed "heavy petting" a time ar two (and almost got away with it. That was IT. Generally speaking, my high-school social life was a bust. Today, I'd have been called a nerd, or maybe geek.
Of course ineffective "social communication" is the sine qua non hallmark of autism and especially Asperger's.
In due course, without further event, I graduated at the head of my class. I was Valedictorian, and received Gold Medals in both Scholarship and Mathematics, as well as the Science Trophy. Added bonus: I was awarded a four-year scholarship to Villanova University. I declined. Reasons: The University of California was more prestigious; it was less expensive even without a scholarship; and da-dee-dah-dee-dah... In fact, I was scared stiff being that far from home, for so long. Sic transit gloria high-school laurels!
|Bill, 17, HS grad
Resistance to change is held to be a hallmark of autism (inter alia), and a constant in my life. Here it cost me a college scholarship. ...Though arguably it saved me worse consequences.
A bit of a reach maybe, elevating summer jobs to the status of Workplace. But they were my first exposure to what all workplaces require: Keeping to a schedule set by others, being properly responsive to the requests of others, and doing mandated jobs quickly and well.
One of my two usual ones was at the Ventura County General Hospital (VCGH), where I was a vacation-relief Orderly. This took me into every department and ward of the hospital. I liked best Geriatrics (fascinating!) and Surgery, where I learned to "prep" patients and prepare surgical packs, inter alia. In addition I was the "muscle" in a largely female staff. Need heavy lifting? Call Bill! All this came in very handy later - in the Army.
The other was at Three Falls Boy Scout Camp, near Pine Mountain and Mt. Pinos, many miles west of Gorman, along the present US Interstate-5. My first season as Junior Staff Camp Naturalist was disastrous. I knew the material (and then some!) but had no idea how to set up a "program", or how to conduct classes, or lead tours, or... After a week I was sent home, ignominiously.
But a very wise adult friend advised I ask the Camp's executive what was it I'd done wrong, and how could I improve? With answers in hand, the same friend advised I re-apply for a different job, same camp, the following year. I did, asking to be the Junior Staff Camp Yeoman (glorified secretary cum quartermaster), and was accepted!
True to form, subconsciously I'd learned from my first (bad) experience enough to "see" how to make the second work. And it did work. Worked very well indeed. I had a glorious time, and was asked back for the following year! Marvelous esteem-booster; but other things were in store.
There it was again, over a longer time span - my almost inevitable slow, slow, quick-quick way of learning. Very much at sea, but with plenty of time to reflect, ...to absorb; then the sudden "click" into near-full comprehension. In succeeding years I learned to rely on getting that mental "click" eventually, no matter what learning difficulties preceded it.
College I & Flunking Out
Instead of Villanova College (now University), I entered the University of California at Berkeley (UCB), living my first two years there on-campus at the academically elite Bowles Hall. This was a mistake. My very superior education from Villanova Prep allowed me to coast along in classes, getting average or better grades usually, for two years without really studying. But it didn't give me the discipline to avoid the inevitable college parties and general frivolity. My grades began to slide near the end of my sophomore year. To salvage the situation, during my Junior year (and for the remainder of the time before I was drafted), I left Bowles Hall and shared small apartments in Berkeley, off-campus but only a few blocks away. Without unmanageable distractions, my grades stabilized.
Having passed up the scholarship at Villanova College, money was pretty tight. I took a variety of part-time jobs squeezed between classes, or more often after them: Orderly (Cowell Hospital), cytology technician (Museum of Vertebrate Zoology), ambulance driver/steward (Bay Cities Ambulance), ...and many more. Every summer, all summer, I worked full regular shifts at VCGH - usually as vacation relief for regular staff. So pretty often I was obliged to work graveyard shifts, which pretty severely strained my tolerance for change. But the very late and very early hours were quiet; the work was easy. Minimal staff, no visitors, and (usually) sleeping patients. I adapted.
Learning to adapt, learning how to adapt, was an enormous asset in my later life. In my opinion it's one of the most useful skills any young AS can have - worth every second spent acquiring it!
One of my problems with study discipline was the University of California Hiking Club (UCHC) - more fondly just "The Hiking Club". Yet while it didn't help my academic side any at all, it was another major turning point in my life.
Founded only a semester earlier by a few outdoors-y but a-social guys who wanted to meet women and get married, this was a regular hot-bed of loners and other sometimes peculiar people. I was right at home instantly, made a few friends very quickly, ...and my, ah, "social development" soared.
Within the club a sub-group very much enjoyed ethnic folk-dancing. Weekly dances were held to recorded music in a very rustic old (but large) log cabin. One evening my roommates of the time, tiring of me declining to join them in their fun, simply shanghaied me and carried me bodily to the cabin. I sat awhile, found many people were as new to things as I, and eventually very tentatively joined a small group being taught simple Israeli dances. Long story short, I fell in love with folk-dancing that very night! Fun, fun, fun! Over more-or-less time I became quite expert (hambo and the like, especially), and even a teacher. I learned some ballroom dancing, and became pretty good at the turning dances (Viennese Waltz in particular). For me dancing really broke the ice with girls. I learned who I might ask out (and be accepted), how to behave on a (successful) date, and all the good things that might eventually happen when two people can "hit it off".
Then too the UCHC Rock-climbing section attracted me. I'd done a little self-taught climbing in the Sespe Gorge area of Ventura County (decades later to become a well-known site). I'd done a little climbing with the Sierra Club in southern California. Now here was a group of expert climbers, most also Sierra Club climbers, and I could join in. Yosemite's walls and spires beckoned, and I went. Every chance I got. And eventually became expert, and a little bit well-known. A few first ascents are recorded in guide-books still in print.
|Bill, 20, Yosemite
Many authorities aver AS involves youthful clumsiness. When very young I was clumsy in sports; couldn't catch or throw a baseball at all well, and couldn't pass a football. Certainly couldn't dance. That all changed! It took only time (a lot), opportunity, and a gentle incentive.
Well, I didn't actually flunk - as in invited to go away. But with all that physical and social growth (good stuff!), one might have predicted serious difficulty in classes. And it came. Though my grades were quite good in the very few courses I enjoyed, Cs and Ds, sometimes worse, were the norm in the rest. Most of those were pure rote learning (Biochem 101 for example); and you already know my rote skills were abysmal. [NB: nearly 60 years later, they still are.] On average, plainly I was flunking out. And I was bored. The point of it all sort of escaped me.
But not to worry! Just before semester's end I received my Selective Service
("draft") notice to report for immediate induction. The Korean war was in full swing, and suddenly the tide was turning against us. Draft Boards across the country were dipping deeply indeed into the available manpower; my student deferment basically simply was voided. Half of me was a little frightened; half of me looked forward to something new and different. A big change for the kid who was afraid to go away to college! Nonetheless, there it was. "The nation needed me", so I went.
US Army; Germany
I was drafted out of college right after the Communist Chinese Army poured across the Yalu River in Korea. American forces literally were driven back, and back, ...and back. Losses were high. Draftees were allowed to make three choices of service. Ever rational, and noting the grim military situation, I assumed - knew - I'd be sent to Korea to get shot at no matter what service I was in. So wanting both the training and a weapon to protect myself, I chose Infantry, Infantry, and Infantry. With their storied perversity, the Army placed me in the Artillery.
Sixteen weeks later, continuing the perversity, I was sent to Germany (not Korea), and placed into the Medical Services Corp (MSC, not Artillery). That was because of my Pre-Med college studies, and several summers working as an orderly in the county hospital at home.
|Pfc. Bill, 22, MSC
Though only a Private then, and on detached duty status, I was put "In Charge" of a small clinical laboratory. Besides myself, there was a competent (and handsome) 30-ish female German technologist, and another Private (more junior than I)
Here (and in the Army generally) I first learned the social communication skills so necessary in dealing with people of higher rank, both military and civilian. This was a much more "real" job than I'd ever had before. In that small laboratory, learning how to use effectively the small amount of authority given me was to be invaluable years later, in much larger civilian organizations.
What better milieu than the Army in which to accustom a young AS to living among and working with adults? What better training ground? It was a HIGHLY structured social environment with CLEAR rules of behavior! There were DEFINITE tasks to do, and CLEAR procedures to follow!
All "medics" had permanent Class-A Passes to go off-post and into the city when off-duty. I spoke some German, and took full advantage of my pass to visit shops, join local clubs, take in museums and historical places, and travel around the country-side. I even dated a few of the local girls. That was both easy and hard. Easy, because service in the WWII German military more than decimated the German male population; I had little competition. Hard, because their parents so often took a very dim view of any American military dating their daughters.
My best friend from college (later to be my brother-in-law) was stationed in Vienna. I had a small used car, and we planned to get together in Munich for our annual 30-day leaves. We'd tour Switzerland and Austria - anticipating mountaineering and rock-climbing. On the appointed day, to give myself extra driving time, I decided to bend the rules. My pass was good for midnight onward; I left after work at 5:00pm. Who would know about the extra seven hours? Who would care?
Passing the 100Km mark on way to Munich I was struck head-on by a huge cargo truck which had veered into my lane. The car was near destroyed; I got out without a scratch. The truck was only slightly damaged; nobody else was hurt. After hours and hours of investigation and paperwork, clearly I was not at fault; both the German polizei and American MPs let me return "home". That is, my barracks... Even in an (expensive) taxi at autobahn speeds, I didn't get to my barracks until well after reveille. My unexpected presence was noted. And of course the MPs had reported the incident to my CO. ...Who really raked me over the coals, and restricted me to barracks for several weeks. End of planned trip.
But the start of a useful life-long habit. Up to then I'd somehow managed not to learn a truism: Sometimes the consequences of what we do are both time-extended and BIG. Far bigger than the bit of thinking ahead that might avoid them. After the accident I learned to use my funny way of seeing the world to visualize - to "see" - all the consequences of everything I did. Every single combination and permutation, all the connections no matter how small. To this day, I do that with almost everything - not just rules.
In my opinion this is a primary skill developed by many, maybe all, "visual-spatial" thinkers. ...The so-called "picture thinkers", like Temple Grandin and others. Very many autists in fact are "visual-spatial" thinkers; very few NTs seem to be. See also my thoughts in "Autism" » "Speculation" » "AS Cognition?", above left.
The ordinary reader (NT?) might argue that's a hell-of-a-way to conduct one's life - so burdensome. But I find it easy, as though it were an innate skill. In the years since, that facility (very quickly and accurately assessing possibilities; planning ahead) has been the foundation my successes. Apart from professional expertise, it's the greatest value I've brought into my several professional employments.
Long story short: After my weeks of restriction, I was again free to go on leave. A barracks buddy graciously loaned me his 2-seat motorcycle with luggage-rack. I met my good friend as agreed earlier. We did tour Switzerland and Austria. We did some mountaineering and rock-climbing, and experienced a few delicious adventures. All's well that ends well... [The full tale will be told elsewhere.]
My time in Germany was quite pleasant for the most part; often really fun. I'd learned a lot about people, and enjoyed the learning. I was awaiting the end of my tour-of-duty, ready to return home - my real home. Then my long-dormant bete noire loomed again - and I learned another lesson.
An almost trivial barracks-room argument became too heated. One of the participants, a friend and unwittingly perhaps, began "pushing my buttons". Then he pushed me. I over-reacted, pushed him. He pushed back, ...hard.
I snapped! Almost before I knew it, I was in a towering blind rage. With strength I'd never known and with no thought but to do damage - I began to slam his head repeatedly into a concrete post. I'd have killed him, had not others pulled me away and held me down until I, ...what? ...recovered?
Belaboring the obvious, I suppose: Another AS "meltdown".
Another long story short: As happens sometimes in tightly-knit small groups of men, all those present kept the incident quiet. My friend's damaged head was treated "privately". All of us after all were medics, with appropriate skills. Most importantly for me, nobody outside that room, especially not officers, ever knew anything had happened.
The lesson? Never, ever again, let that latent rage surface; ever! At this writing in 2006, I've never since back-slid.
In the practice of that, I've acquired an ability to be steel in simply shutting-off my most extreme impulses. ...Totally walling-off dangerous areas. Like the rage it controls (inter alia), over the ensuing decades I've found the ability is powerful, durable, and reliable. A product of (my) mind over what matters (to me)?
In due course, without further problems, I shipped out for home and received an Honorable Discharge. And surprisingly, a Good Conduct Medal. Go figure.
Of course I stayed with my mother. And took up my usual summer job as an orderly at VCGH. Slipping into civilian life was as easy as changing into comfortable clothes and picking up again with old friends. As though nothing had happened. But something had. I was far more fully aware of the world in which I lived, the people who shared it with me, and - most particularly - the responsibilities I owed to it and to them. I'd become more of a man.
Being now "more mature", through special pleading I was re-admitted to UC Berkeley. My best friend Don had been discharged too and also was returning to College. Together we located an apartment to share with a few of our UCHC friends. No longer interested in my Pre-Med curriculum, I switched to Genetics. That was in a wholly different College (within the University), so it had a different set of Academic Rules - including requirements for graduation. Those very nearly were my undoing.
The biggest hurdle: I was required to take a course not offered on the UC Berkeley campus! Worse, it was offered only on the UC Davis campus, nearly an hour's drive distant, ...one-way. This was unfathomable! Departmental rules indicated all requirements for Genetics degrees could be satisfied "in residence" on the Berkeley campus. The Department Chair was adamant; the course requirement trumped the residency issue. I had to take the Davis course, or forget the Genetics degree! ...What to do?
A friendly professor alerted me to a newly empowered and largely unknown functionary - the University Ombudsman - an academic supposed to resolve just such problems. It wasn't easy, presenting my case against the strong opposition of the Department Chair. The Ombudsman was of lower academic rank, and his powers had yet to be tested. To his credit and my surprise (and with my undying thanks), he stood up to the Chair. The course requirement was overturned; the residency rule sustained! A substitute course was found acceptable. Well, ...not quite. This little dustup was to set the tone, very unfortunately, for all my future relations with the Chair.
These were very hectic times for me. I got my degree eventually (story below). Much more importantly for me at the time, I got something else too [broad grin]...
While living with Don and our friends, I met Don's sister (LG), a charming and very good-looking girl five years younger than I. A whirlwind courtship ensued, of which Don approved(!) -- but very significantly my mother did not. Notwithstanding, while still in Berkeley we dated frequently. We became very close (wink-wink, nudge-nudge). Just before summer I proposed to LG ("on bended knee" yet - really!), and she accepted. We planned a modest wedding in Berkeley at summer's end.
That summer she worked in Los Angeles, and I in Ventura. I bought her an engagement ring - a tiny 1/4-carat diamond solitaire. On weekends I'd drive to see her, staying over in her shared apartment. Our style of "dinner and a movie" dating mostly was small dinners with friends, followed by folk-dancing with a local group.
Toward the end of summer, one weekend we drove to Berkeley and contracted for a small apartment - lease to begin at summer's end.
Again (or still) Don approved; as did all our friends and even LG's mother. But...
Marriage I, & Kids
...But my mother "went ballistic", threatening to do everything in her power to derail our marriage. Near the end of summer matters took an ominous turn. Knowing her pretty well, I took the threats seriously. Accordingly LG and I eloped to her home town over 300 miles distant. We were married there in a very private Catholic ceremony attended only by her mother and a few friends.
That very evening of our wedding we drove the whole way back to Berkeley, installing ourselves late at night in the tiny, tiny studio-apartment we'd leased earlier. Tiny? The only bed was a so-called Murphy Bed hidden in the living room wall. Swung out and dropped down, there was just enough "living" room left to access a small bathroom, across a narrow hallway from a smaller kitchenette. NOT fancy quarters; but for now they were our home!
I set out to find a job (see below). Within a few months we knew LG was pregnant. Not entirely unexpected, as on our wedding night we'd not taken any precautions. And I was so proud!
Nonetheless, now we had problems - space. Anticipating our child, I managed to break our lease (even got all our deposits back), and found a nice 1-bedroom apartment.
Those unfamiliar with Asperger Syndrome (I won't call it a disorder) might ask: Can any real AS do all that? Actually pull it off Successfully?
Of course - Yes! Perseveration and intense focus, coupled with mental ability, are powerful tools when employed in pursuit of well-defined goals. Vernon Smith (AS, and 2002 Nobelist) has said as much regarding his achievements. You will see those tools at work, often, throughout my story.
Soon I had to take multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet. There never was enough money; never enough sleep. My grades began to drop, and drop. It was clear I'd flunk-out of college a second time. To salvage my pride I left school ("You can't fire me; I quit") for what almost certainly must be a permanent full-time career. If I could make one. But for sure, no more school for me...
I found employment at Shell Development Corp. in nearby Emeryville, as a petrochemical technician. I'd have to learn very, very fast to keep the job, ...and I did. The varied tasks turned out very appealing to me, and suited my temperament perfectly.
The locked laboratory required a Federal high-security clearance for entry; there was almost no "drop-in" traffic to distract me. The tasks were highly technical, demanding close attention to small details in setting up and operating complex test apparatus. The two professionals under whom I worked were at once intelligent and given to clear explanations of what each experiment was designed to show. It was clear they needed me to fully understand what I was doing. Which I did, easily; and they came to treat me as an equal. I'd never before been treated that way in any job. As the sole technician, and both bosses gone a lot of the time, eventually I was given a high degree of autonomy. I revelled in it; and I grew!
Army-inspired confidence helped. In my quirky way I knew I'd succeed in the job. ...Knew I'd get ahead in life and amply provide for my family.
The actual tasks were "classified". Though it's been a long time, I have some reason to believe the work never was de-classified. Therefore, perhaps from an excess of caution, I'll not give details here; at least not yet. It was very interesting, and taught me a lot of real chemistry and physics that I was able actually to apply even many years later.
It's well-known now that AS tend to gravitate toward highly technical jobs, often doing very well in them.
Our First-born, ...Pride! ...and trouble
In the fullness of time (something less than nine months) our son Paul was born. When the news reached me in the locked lab, literally I was walking on air! I was proud for me, and proud for my wife. "Proud" is a totally inadequate word to describe how I felt! Inadequate to describe my behavior, silly grin, occasional giggles and all. Maybe wisely, my boss gave me the rest of the day off, to see my wife and son.
Which I did, breaking the speed limit to do it. I didn't know it then - how could I? - but the seeds of our divorce were planted that very day.
Reaching the hospital took a little time, during which I'd regained my usual steady composure. I praised her; told her how much I admired her and our son. I described to her how absolutely ecstatic she'd made me. My wife was expecting something different, I guess; some visible emotional sign(?) of my inner excitement.
Never good at eye-contact or "letting go" (my giggles in the lab are NOT typical) I didn't measure up, I guess. A day later, visiting her again, a nurse confided my wife had cried and cried and cried after I left the day before. "But that's just post-partum emotion. Not unusual...", she said. So I was careful to be very upbeat and chatty, like the day before - only better. Years later, nearing divorce, LG described me (those days in the maternity ward) as only a distant, unfeeling caricature of the husband she needed and her children deserved.
Oh my, oh my! Again, if I'd known then (about AS) what I know now...
Shell paid relatively well, and I was promoted rapidly. My pretty good salary soon provided enough savings that, along with my remaining GI-Bill entitlement, I felt I could return to school. That would be my last chance, though; I had to make it work this time.
A singular opportunity for shift work came my way: I could return to school and retain a job with Shell. Or so I thought. The local union had other ideas. Though they couldn't produce a member who wanted the job, they wouldn't let the Company give it to me (I was non-union). That stand-off could have been solved easily, had I chosen to join the union. But that meant steep yearly dues, and a way-large "initiation fee". If I returned to school, I'd not have able to afford the union. In the end I decided to stay with the job I had for awhile longer, and wait for the inexpensive University housing I'd applied for earlier.
College III & B.Sc.
Eventually the call came: An apartment was available in the UC-owned University Village. With my heart in my throat, I gambled and resigned from Shell. We moved to The Village and stayed several years. Our second child and only daughter (Elizabeth) was born during our stay, and we were lucky enough to swap apartments for something a bit larger.
While there, my wife's brother Don died (12 June 1959) in a tragic
rock-climbing accident, in Yosemite. Partly as a result of this, and thinking of the family I had to support, I gave up high-difficulty rock-climbing as a sport. However I did form the Berkeley Mountain Rescue Group (BMRG) in 1959, to make expert mountaineering skills easily available to government agencies, and participated in it for many years.
Here too, in 1960 at the age of 28, I graduated at last with a BS degree in Genetics.
Given my growing family, we needed still larger living quarters. With almost 100% financing (extensive borrowing from and co-signing by relatives and friends) I/we bought a small house. But my wife, caring for two very small children, wasn't working. My income from part-time jobs (as many as three at once) just wasn't enough. Again I had to quit school a take a real job. Again I believed this would have to be a permanent career position.
UC and LBL's Donner Laboratory (biomedical and biophysical research) was my/our salvation. In many more ways than just financial! All told, I spent 14 years there; rising from Lab-Technologist I to Lab-Technologist V, and later to the professional rank of Biophysicist.
My very first task was to "fill in the blanks" in data from an experiment in immune system suppression. My predecessor had done a few analyses already of blood and bone-marrow smears. Some data already had been plotted, and indicated failure of the experiemnts. Without telling me much more than that, I was set to examining the unanalyzed microscope slides and provide the remaining data, "fill in the blanks", prior to publication. "Not challenging, but someone has to do it."
|Bill, 36, Donner Lab
When I gave my boss the first batch of my analyses, he exploded in anger: "I thought you said you knew how to do this!" "LOOK", he said, "...all your points are near zero; all his are where they ought to be!"
I was devastated; ...hardly knew what to say! But I stood my ground, and told him that was what I saw. Adding that if he didn't believe it, he should go look himself. Which he did. Followed shortly by his boss, scurrying to look too. Soon a gaggle of staff were animatedly discussing what they saw. It was very clear my predecessor had cheated, merely writing down expected numbers without actually doing the work.
Shortly, and for the very first time, the importance of what I'd seen was made clear. The particular method of immune system suppression actually had worked, and worked far better than any previous method ever had! I was given the task of re-doing all the analyses - from the beginning. Long story short: They all bore out my findings. The suppression method worked!
What was to have been a relatively short task, with no guarantee of continued employment, turned into a major project to treat leukemia and to transplant organs which lasted quite a few years. Through the next 14 years there I was promoted rapidly to top positions, along the way gaining significant personal autonomy and many publications.
|Bill, 41, Donner Lab
Those years also afforded me an opportunity to work for a graduate degree, at a more modest pace than would otherwise have been demanded. For that I would enroll in the Employee-Student Reduced Fee Program (ESRFP), a "perk" extended to full-time University employees. It afforded low tuition fees, but also a cap on course load. That was the lever I needed to re-enroll in the Genetics Department.
Graduate School & M.Sc.
But first I had to be accepted into UC's Graduate Division. Not such an easy job, convincing them, given my pretty poor academic track record. But I made application, hoping against hope and fearful of rejection. Miraculously an "angel" appeared in the person of Professor ED, a powerful presence in the genetics of the day. He went to bat for me, and I was "IN"! Finally enrolled in the ESRFP, I began taking graduate courses --- one course per term, the maximum allowed.
There's no question in my mind: The more leisurely pace of study was a key factor in my subsequent successes, both academic and career. Without it, emotional and psychological stressors might have done me in. Time has always been my friend; lack of Time my enemy.
Angels have their darker counterparts. My nemesis was Prof. IL, in whose undergraduate courses I'd not done all that well. In his role as Departmental Chair he opined I'd not be of much worth to the Department. So to minimize both my and the Department's agony, henceforth I was to "get nothing lower than 'A' grades" -- or I was out on my ear. I was stunned.
But finally I was in my element. The ESRFP mandated only a single course per term, which allowed me to study more or less at my own rate. Most of the graduate courses were approved as independent study, which allowed me to use the research work I was doing for pay.
With both time and financial pressure off me for the most part, now it was almost too easy. I did receive the required straight "A"s. In due course I wrote a Master's Thesis (using independent research I was doing already at Donner Lab). It was titled "The Karyotype of the Dog (Canis familiaris) Obtained from Cultures of Peripheral Blood"., and received my MS degree in 1965. I was 33.
Finally again, Life Was Good!
Then it occurred to me: Hey! I didn't have to stop here! Actually I might continue with my education!! So I entered the department's Doctoral program, and continued with straight "A"s. Was that odious requirement still in force? I didn't know, and took no chances.
But success in my professional life masked trouble at home. Tension, arguments, ...more, had been building throughout our marriage. Probably it's a typical story: Stressed at work, I needed "My Time" at home - usually focused on some pet project. That afforded less Time For Us. And "us" now included three children. LG's reactions to my absorptions increasingly were, ah, ...pointed. My counter-reactions were more and more testy, ...and pointed. The classic(?) vicious cycle had begun.
My sex-life had all but vaporized. Not hers, it turned out. Our arguments over that generated the rancor that finally ended it all. On a trip to her mother's home, for Christmas, I again asked (yes, yes: unwisely) what had been "going on". My answer to her incomrehensible(!) response was to there and then drive home. All 300 miles; leaving her and the kids behind. Somehow I thought the gravity of our situation thereby would become clear to her. Later, that very night, I telephoned her - hoping to make amends. No dice. The gravity had sunk in all right; but nothing like the way I'd hoped.
Perhaps a week later I returned from work to an empty house! ...Very empty. Nothing was left but a hi-fi console I'd built, a 7-foot couch (didn't fit in the moving van?), and one small pot (but no utensils). My wife, my kids, my car, even my bed, were gone. Along with ten years of marriage, everything was gone.
My life was gone! And with no warning; at least none I understood or could have foreseen. I was the wronged one, ...wasn't I?
Not understood? Unforeseen? I was so very naive still, at age 33!
If only I'd known before then what I know now, my life might have taken a very different path. An Internet friend (also AS) described how he unwittingly caused many of the decades-long problems in his marriage [lightly paraphrased]:
"I had gotten REALLY good at maneuvering through the three areas of my life: Work, clubs, and miscellaneous social gatherings. So much so, that I thought I was more prepared than most to be a great husband. I had NO idea that the rules of social interaction had NOTHING to do with being intimate. Therefore, I was ZERO prepared to be a husband (or father) of any kind, much less "great". In fact, being so good at the "social game" made me less prepared, since I didn't know that I didn't know. It made me a bit on the arrogant side, thinking that I couldn't be the problem since "everyone else" liked me so much."
A bit later he added, ruefully:
"It's taken me almost a quarter of a century to learn what a lot of husbands learn in a few years. "
I went into a really serious funk -- Major Depression actually -- and was near to suicidal. My boss took me into his home, cared for me, and tolerated my work absences. During those 2-3 weeks or so, and the subsequent weeks of selling my home and getting an apartment, I lost over 30 pounds.
But nothing lasts forever, not even Real Bad Things.
Fortunately still employed (Thank You, Boss!), still at UC and LBL's Donner Laboratory, I moved into a small but nice (Bookcases! Fireplace!) 1-bedroom apartment within easy walking distance of the UC campus. Recovered enough to miss having a sex-life, I began dating all the single women I knew.
I began also the sometimes deadly rituals of the Divorced Father - weekend visits with my kids - for years. Leavened of course by the much more satisfactory few weeks in the summer. But still...
Rarely could I afford taking off the entire weekend, more often it was just one day. That was up before dawn, drive 300 miles to the mountain town where they lived, spend 8-10 hours with them, and drive 300 miles back. Easily a totally exhausting day without the awkwardness inherent in the situation. Needing least a little sleep of course, to get 8-10 hours with my kids, often I drove 100mph whenever I could. The angels were on my side during that year or so - I never saw a Highway Patrol car. More importantly, they never saw me.
After awhile they moved to Chico; closer to my home, but still a long drive and most often in heavier traffic than before. So I drove much more sedately. Nonetheless I was nearly involved in several serious accidents. One involved seven cars and a flaming wreck which killed several people. I avoided being the eighth car by driving off the road, into a rice paddy. Fortunately, it wasn't flooded - too late in the season.
Here as in so many other incidents before and since, my habit of constantly visualizing my surround and integrating it into existing mental images kept me alive. I "saw" the accident coming, and "saw" the way to save my life.
Graduate School & Ph.D.
Still enrolled in the Genetics Department's Doctoral program, and continuing with straight "A"s, in due course I completed all requirements for a PhD but the thesis and was admitted to the "Oral Examination". Mostly pretty easy, there were only a few moderately difficult questions and one to which I just had to plead ignorance. But I thought I'd done alright.
To my horror, I found I'd flunked one part of my "orals", based on a single "unacceptable" to a single trick question. Posed by ...Prof. IL! The question to which I'd replied "I don't know". And that was, ...that. I was out. Fini!
There's another good example of DSM-IV's Asperger criterion A.4.: "Lack of social or emotional reciprocity". Being insufficiently "empathic", I was unable to "read" IL's intent.
Fortunately though it was apparent to the rest of the Orals Committee what had happened, ...and why. Naively unaware of IL's motive, I'd walked right into a trap. IL's questionable tactic triggered a highly unusual action. The Committee reversed its formal decision, allowing me to retake just that one part of the exam - minus the trick. I passed easily.
Again I used my work at Donner Lab as thesis material. My formal thesis was accepted by the full committee in first draft. It was titled "Cytogenetics and Fanconi's Anemia: Experimental and Other Studies of a Family". At age 41, I was awarded the PhD degree in 1973.
During my post-divorce dating spree, my betimes baby-sitter and I hit it off. Smarting from the debacle of my just ended marriage, I was determined to do it right this time. As much as anything, I tried to "read" her better than I'd ever before read anyone. To some extent I succeeded. We had glorious times together. She was as inclined toward the outdoors as was I; together we enjoyed long hikes, camping trips, backpacking, ...all that. We both enjoyed folk-dancing and the kind of people that went it. We were marvelously in love. We married in February 1967.
|Kay; with Bill, 43
I still at Donner Lab, and she still employed at the UC Library, we rented a nice 2-bedroom home in El Cerrito (space to house my kids on their summer visits). It had two lawns and a creek running behind the house, and a capacious under-house workshop! In that, with newly purchased bench tools, I built maple tables, teak book-shelves, a mahogany china-cabinet and other items. NB: those still were in use through 1991 - when they were lost to fire.
Soon though, looking to the future and using all our savings plus loans from almost everybody, we bought a tiny house in the East Bay hills. Shortly after, riding a very favorable housing market, we "traded up" to a much larger home nearby, now again with space for my children -- should I be so lucky as to have them with me permanently.
More and more that seemed unlikely. The oldest were marrying; ...even providing me with grandchildren! So the larger house still seemed like a prudent hedge against running out of space when my children (and their children) came a'visiting.
|Bill, 48; 1st grandchild Cory
While living there, in our dream house sort-of, I finally achieved a PhD (still working full-time). And also still within the ESRFP; until then the program's only student to have done so. Parts of my work for that can be found under "Professional", above left. My Dissertation Abstract will be found there as well.
But a storm was on the horizon of our lives. Events in Washington, D.C., and hence also the Lab in Berkeley, were about to put all staff positions in jeopardy.
The conduct of Big Science was changing. Politicians at the very highest levels of the Atomic Energy Commission and other Federal agencies considered Donner Lab's Director very much too "old-school", and they wanted him out. As he wouldn't leave gracefully (wanting to protect his staff), eventually he was forced out via deep budget cuts year after year. Leading of course to staff lay-offs. My work was well-regarded by AEC reviewers. I was degree-level staff already, and had 14-year seniority. Notwithstanding, my freshly-minted PhD put me in the freshly-hired category. That wiped out my seniority. So when the deep budget cuts reached my level, I was laid-off from my job. Director John Lawrence too, sort-of. He did alright actually, being "bumped-up" to a seat on the University's Board of Regents.
Though I applied "everywhere", still I was out of work for 18 months. The very sharp drop in our family income was a shock. It was absolutely devastating to my psyche, and very hard on my wife, who had become our sole support. The strains on our marriage were severe, if nearly invisible.
To make myself useful somehow, keep out of my wife's hair, and save my sanity and self-esteem - I threw myself into Mountain Rescue work. As it happened, there was a lot to do during that year or so.
|Bill, 41, on SAR ops
During those and preceding years, local Property Taxes were escalating steeply, sometimes near doubling each year. Without my income, we were in serious danger of losing our home. [It was only later that the California State Proposition 13 (tax roll-backs) really saved our home for us.]
But then, like miraculous manna from heaven, finally ...my dream job.
Workplace IV & Honors
University of California Medical Center
Dr. Charles Epstein, a pediatric geneticist at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco (UCSF) called! He had been advised of my "availability" by the UC Personnel Office, where my CV and other credentials had been on file for eighteen months. He wondered if I'd be interested in visiting him and his colleagues to discuss my fit to his needs. They had a small cytogenetics lab which they wanted to modernize and improve, and could I help out?
Fortunately I didn't just blurt out my answer. With a careful, professionally reserved air, I told him I'd be happy to meet with him, and did he have a preferred date and time? We arranged to meet a week or so hence. Waiting, I nearly died from suspense. But there was a lot to do: This had to be absolutely perfect; I had to nail that position - no ifs, ands, or buts.
My wife took on the task of "Dressing The Doll" - me - to meet all eventualities. A fashion professional analyzed my build, face, eyes, color tones generally, and provided fabric swatches in a wide range of textures and colors which went well together. Off we went, shopping, and came back with the ultimate in perfect personal sartorial elegance. With just the correct degree of understatement, mind you, leading the world to see: This is the man you want!
Like many AS, I wasn't much of a clothes-horse. To the contrary, though never scruffy, my clothes might better be described as, ah, "casual". Also in common with many AS males, I came to depend on my NT wife's talents for whatever sartorial elegance I achieved.
For my part. in my very characteristic way, I investigated my future employers, corporately and personally. I analyzed my own strengths and deficiencies in excruciating detail, from the viewpoint of my future employers. From all this I prepared scenarios likely to occur - in rich variations and much depth - and planned my responses.
That's the near-typical approach to problems of the successful AS. Almost too thorough, ...too systematic.
In the end I'd never been so well turned-out in my life (nor since). Long and thoughtful consideration of the debacle at my Ph.D. oral exam had informed my plans for handling the interview. All my (our!) preparations paid off. At meeting time, I was every bit the successful professional scientist I had to be. I "aced" the interview and was offered the position of lab Director. Of course I accepted, and embarked on the job a few weeks later.
How nicely that rolled off the tongue: Director of the Cytogenetics Lab at the University of California San Francisco Medical Center. In the very deepest sense this was my first professional career position: I had a staff responsible to me (who in principal I could hire and fire); a budget largely under my specification and control; and full responsibility for and control of all the lab operation's technical and scientific details. All that, and Adjunct Associate Professor academic rank too!.
That's one hellava jump for the "difficult kid" of so long ago. Or for the new grad student whose Department Head said wouldn't do well - who should "give up now" on a scientific career. ...Also a hellava responsibility. Now I had to deliver!
I was charged with three very specific tasks:
Raise the Lab's testing throughput (from 100+ cases/year to 300 or so);
The first was easy enough. Merely having a "real professional" in charge, always present or nearby, did wonders. Simple materiel and task management did the rest. There's more to that story, ...for which see just a little below.
Introduce state-of-the-art analytical methods; and
...Oh, by the way, could you computerize the whole thing?
The second was harder. Changing "the way it's been done" by already skilled technologists took both time and "people skills".
Wait a minute! People skills? By an Aspergian?
It happens. The learning-curve I'd faced at Donner Lab was steep enough, and sometimes difficult. But I did learn. After fourteen years of (relatively low pressure) practice I had the social tools I needed. All I had to do was use them in this (new for me) pressure cooker environment. (Heh!)
From my late teens it's been my nature never to ask others to do what I wouldn't do myself. I applied this rule in all relationships with my staff, recognizing them for the skilled semi-professionals that they were. This quickly evolved into mutual respect and trust. From then on it was easy. Where they had problems, I helped them. Most importantly, and far better, where I had problems, they helped me! In this way I "learned the ropes", socially and politically, faster and more effectively than ever I could have done alone.
We reached the orginal goal of 300 cases per year, and more. Along the way, the latest methods became our lab's "standard of practice". In due course my bosses with me and some others met - to "see how it's going" and make plans for the future. They were pleased I'd achieved my first two goals. Basking in their praise, I emboldened myself: "With a little investment in equipment, and no increase in staff, the lab's output could be raised to, oh, 1000 cases per year. Dead silence around the table. Hoo-boy! ...But then, slowly, a few quiet questions. By the end of the meeting I'd been given the go-ahead!
First though, a new laboratory had to be built, somehow carved out of very limited space in already cramped campus buildings. That was a challenge! Long story short: In the end we did build a new lab -- in the campus parking garage! But it was state-of-the-art, to my specifications, with room for expansion and incorporating the latest and best equipment. To the extent possible, many lab tasks were automated. A side-benefit: what had been a "lab" scattered over three rooms separated by eight floors in two different buildings finally now was a single entity.
Oh yes, sorry... The "more to that story" I mentioned above? By the end of my stay at UCSF we were processing over 1200 cases per year, the highest case-per-technologist in the world! A 400% increase with (by then) a staff increase of only 30%.
Could you computerize the whole thing?
For a year or so I'd been haunting the Computer Center (CC), testing out ideas for computerizing some of the lab's operation. UCSF had just purchased RAMIS (a mainframe database & query program), and several CC staff were very "up" an the newish microprocessor computers. With help from Doug Mosher (a CC systems programmer) I set out to master both. Within a year I'd managed to employ RAMIS as a "back-end" to a system of "front-end" microprocessor computers (SOL-20, Processor Technology). Records, reports, and data analysis could be done both locally and using mainframe power - depending on need. This was the beginning of my near obsessive love-affair with computers and computer-programming.
The growth of medical genetics as a field was accelerating rapidly. The increasing success of genetic counseling and particularly prental diagnosis almost demanded that standards be set for practitioners. A new American Board of Medical Genetics (ABMG) was organized to promulgate standards, and provide qualification tests based on those standards. Not yet 50, shortly before I left UCSF, I sat for the test and passed it. This gave me the right to call myself a Board-certified Clinical Cytogeneticist, and place the honorific "ABMG" after my name.
Pretty good for that cryptic AS and "difficult kid" of so long ago!
For the times, eventually my laboratory became the world's largest in terms of test volume; but remained among the smaller in terms of staff. Highly efficient, and demonstrably accurate and fast, the lab achieved the very highest level of respect in the cytogenetics community. Its efficiency made it highly profitable too; soon it was a formidable engine providing significant financial support to the Department.
Before long there was a parade of scientists, physicians and technical personnel visiting the lab to learn how it was done. I was invited to give seminars all over the country.
Related to the success of my lab, I was asked to be one of several "name" advisors to the infant Association of Cytogenetic Technologists (ACT; now AGT). By invitation-only, the "names" and 10-12 techs met in a secluded location down the coast from San Francisco. Purpose: devise standards for judging technical competancy in the new field of Clinical Cytogenetics. The two-day meeting followed one of "est" founder Werner Erhardt's precepts, we were asked to "stay in the meeting and don't come out" until you've achieved the goal. The "Statements of Competancy" promulgated there were used subsequently in labs throughout the world, and formed the basis for later formal certification.
My appointment to the State of California's cytogenetics standards committee followed. This produced standards by which all the State's genetics laboratories were judged, and through which they were regulated.
I was not yet 50, at the top of my form, and AS (though I didn't know it). Still "pretending to be normal" , and still getting away with it. Perseveration, focus, and mental capacity served me well! Chameleon-like, I adapted to my surround, ...successfully.
A number of students, graduate and post-doc, were attracted to the lab. All were benefitted, usually incorporating what they learned into some aspect of their careers. One from UCB was formally attached as a "Master's" student. She used her work there for a Master's Thesis, earning both her degree and a first professional publication.
But all was not well; there were rumblings of discontent. Success and profitability always seems to bring out the venal in people. Maneuvering for dominance always seems to follow. In an after-hours "chance" meeting with me, Dr. DC (post-doctoral student in the department) registered his upset there wasn't opportunity for "real research" in the cytogenetics lab. Meaning, apparently, his research. I explained to him that wasn't the lab's task - it was clinically oriented and had been so from the beginning. Further, the available staff - already working at maximum capacity - was inadequate to take on any additional load. He seemed to understand the staff vs. load limits, and seemed to agree that was a "problem".
Apparently the matter wasn't going to rest there. I heard from others who'd been asked their opinions of the lab's "utilization". Not "reading" Dr. DC well at all, and knowing something not-very-obvious was in the wind, I prepared as best I could for the doctoral-level staff meeting that certainly would be coming. The proposals bruited in that meeting unnerved me some, starting with opening the lab for pure research and ending with using it as a lever in grant proposals. I reminded my bosses of what they already knew: the lab just wasn't expandable without more staff - and there was no space for more.
Dr. DC posited that "surely, anything was possible" with "good leadership". I reminded him of our late-night conversation, and his apparent understanding and agreement about staffing. He looked me in the eye and said he'd had no such understanding; he'd not agreed there was any problem at all. It was clear to me by then: Dr. DC had sand-bagged me. To this day I still don't know why. Clearly I'd have to develop personal options, and quickly.
A newly opened private lab in New Mexico was advertising for a Director; I called them. With my established reputation, they were happy to arrange a meeting. In due course I was interviewed and they offered me the position. The contract provided a lower salary than I needed, but included both profit-sharing and a stake in the company (stock and options). However, it entailed moving to New Mexico and leaving my wife behind at least for awhile. We needed her own professional income, and she just wasn't as "portable" as was I. The situation was, ah, ... problematic for us both!
Workplace V & Honors
Children's Hospital - Oakland
At the same time Dr. Sanford Sherman at Children's Hospital in Oakland (CHO) heard I might be "available", and he offered me a position tailor-made for my talents and over-all background. He knew of my prior experience with the cytogenetics of neoplasia, primarily hematologic ones including various leukemias. CHO of course was heavily invested in treating childhood leukemias. He wanted me, personally, to conduct those analyses. "Piece of cake!", I thought. Little did I know...
In the end I opted for CHO. My salary wouldn't change, I needn't commute more than a few blocks, and my wife could retain her own professional position at UCB. It was with a big sigh of relief that I opted for CHO, with the title of "Special Cytogeneticist". A few years later, following retirement of the current Director, I succeeded her as Lab Director.
|Bill, 59, CHO
But first I had to do the work. Oh woe! The most common leukemia treated at CHO was Acute Lymphocytic Leukemia, notoriously difficult to analyze. It was far from easy for me to "get up to speed". I spent many, many overtime hours just keeping ahead of the flood - before I felt both comfortable and (more important) truly competant. I couldn't in good conscience claim the pay either. But training other staff in those techniques was part of my charge; several became very good at it indeed.
Fortunately, ...as before long I assumed the Directorship with its very different duties. Among other things, I had to move the lab into larger and much nicer quarters. Our growing work load meant hiring and training new staff. Later I was involved in starting a molecular genetics laboratory, later still to become a separate-but-equal entity with its own Director. These were exciting years; immensely satisfying to me.
Also immensely stressful! Unlike at UCSF, CHO administration seemed often at odds with working medical staff. Their goals seemed, well, ...different. "Turf wars" were the norm; significant tensions were a constant.
Development in the field of medical genetics continued apace. The American Medical Association (AMA) took formal notice, and created the American College of Medical Genetics (ACMG) under its auspices. Senior persons in the field, with proven merit, were invited to join and provide advice and guidance to the field as a whole. Just 61, I was invited to join as a Founding Fellow, with the right both to identify myself as such, and add the honorific FACMG after my name.
Yet again, not bad for the once-upon-a time "difficult kid" and still undiagnosed Aspergian.
Our growth and success was mirrored elsewhere, and we began to have real competition. Clinical genetics was a money-maker, and entrepreneurs quickly established large multi-state commercial laboratories. Often staffed with minimally-trained (and lower paid) personnel, they could offer lower prices than the so-called "academic" labs - like us. Soon they succeeded in siphoning off increasing numbers of our clients. We could compete on quality easily; we couldn't compete on price. Instead of being a big "profit-center" to CHO, we'd become a financial drag. CHO administration pressured our department to "shape up, or ship out". - planning themselves to use the commercial labs. Ultimately they forced our department head into retirement (his deputy already had left) - and our future into limbo. I was the sole remaining professional; in effect the "Department Head". With no other warrant, I had to conduct staff evaluations, prepare budgets, sign time cards, ...and generally run the place. I had excellent help, as the Senior Counselor handled other staff and clinical matters. But the handwriting was on the wall; our Department was in full failure-mode.
Salvation arrived unexpectedly with a late-night call to me at home, from a colleague across the Bay. "Would we be interested in doing contract work for California-Pacific Hospital in San Francisco?" They'd received sub-standard service from a commercial lab, trusted our quality, and wanted to make a deal. It was a bold proposal (CHO didn't do that kind of thing).
But it would save the 2-dozen-odd jobs in our (CHO) Medical Genetics Department. Aware of the personal risk to my job, almost too quickly I said: "Sure; ...we can do that" (2000 cases/year, atop our own load!). After the deal was done I handed the CHO administration a fait accompli. Given the significant profits involved, they had little choice but to support my actions. They signed the contract.
Weird situation: For all practical purposes, I was the (non-MD!) Chair of a
Clinical Division! Co-Chair perhaps... That couldn't last, and it didn't.
With our new lease on life, I helped hire a new (MD) Department Head. He was competant, and skilled in medical politics. But after two years our arrangement with Cal-Pacific fell apart. It wasn't our quality of work - they loved it. They wanted to cut the already way-low fee even further; we just couldn't afford it. But my earlier action, and the lab's exemplary performance, had saved the Department. ...And the jobs of all the staff. Eventually I helped interview and hire the permanent Departmental Chair.
For several years I'd planned on retiring at age 64. A year ahead of time I "gave notice" to my Department and the Hospital, and delightedly began to look forward to a leisurely recovery from "burn-out". It was not to be.
What seemed like a half-hearted search dragged on with no successor in sight. Finally, near my year's end, they engaged a New Zealander with excellent credentials. The Department gave me a retirement party, and ...Uh-oh! My already-hired replacement needed to delay his arrival! I was asked to stay on as Lab Director "for a little while". Well I owed my co-workers that much, after what we'd been through. So OK, ...a little while. That was my undoing. What with working longer than I expected, and with the home scene worsening, my stress level went through the roof. Predictably, I had a stroke.
Stroke! & Recovery
Not a big stroke, really; A lot luckier than most, I suffered no significant paralysis beyond three fingers of one hand.. As of 2007, that's still only very slowly resolving. Even so I can and do engage in any physical activity that my age permits. But I did lose speech for awhile, lost language itself actually. Losing language, whole and entire, is a very strange thing. And very scary! I didn't forget language -- there was simply nothing there! I could think perfectly well, and make noises and point. But my ability to communicate verbally with others was gone.
In a mercifully short period, language did come back. Curiously, German - my once fluent second language - came back first! And I did still have to re-learn associations between words and their meanings. That took a lot longer, and to this day (2007) I'm still a bit aphasic.
In retrospect, I believe my communication skills were, and my situation was, at that time very much like what non-speaking autists experience. That is, being capable of thinking even at quite high levels, but having no way to "talk" - to communicate. The advent of computers and the freedom they afford to those who cannot speak finally changed all that.
Believe me! During recovery, and ever since, I did and have done a lot of serious thinking about cognitive issues. I ruminated a lot on my cognition -- my very visual way of thinking. At the time, I'd not yet come across Temple Grandin's provocative descriptions of her life, and her "thinking in pictures".
My views on cognition generally, visual thinking in particular, and some more-specialized detail are to be found several places under "Autism", above left.
Some ways this section might be titled "Workplace VI". My recovery was as nearly complete as it would get for years yet to come. I felt pretty good and could engage in almost any activities I chose. So (wouldn't you know?) I got a call from the Genetics Department of San Jose Kaiser Hospital. Would I consider helping them out awhile? They'd lost all three of their Lab Directors at once, and were desperate. California regulations concerning professional staffing are pretty tough. I was the only "at liberty" credentialed director-level person they knew. "Please? Pretty please?" These were people I knew; I couldn't in good conscience say no. And anyway, it would be a month or two at best. I agreed.
But nothing ever is simple, is it? The better part of a year later, I still was "filling in". Now this employment as an "independent contractor" hugely reinforced my feelings of self-worth, considerably diminished by having suffered a stroke. But enough was enough. I gave them a few more weeks, then gave them my "notice", and finally left. We parted friends, as it were; but I felt this wouldn't be the last demand for my skills (and credentials)
So -- finally I decided on full retirement, formally withdrawing my services from that professional community. Finally, some time to "live in my head" awhile, ...gain psychic refreshment and spiritual renewal.
Oops! my marriage "really" began to go downhill.
Retirement can be a tough time for a lot of men. For the women who suddenly have a man around the house, constantly underfoot, sometimes too quiet (or too verbal), and always needy - it can be maddening. For both, long-repressed aggravations suddenly are magnified. For both, the usual respites (He's/I'm off to work, thank God) no longer are available. Tempers grow short; conversation grows thin. Misunderstandings are magnified; quarrels intensify.
Immediately post-stroke I was at home all the time; I was constantly underfoot. This was a very bad time for us both. My personal satisfactions in life had been dissipating for years; now I had none. Our marriage was shot. It was abundantly clear that my wife no longer subscribed to any part of my beliefs. My world-view which in our early years together I had believed she shared. Nothing was right anymore; and I confess to having serious suicidal thoughts more than once. Yet, even as we were in a death-spiral, I still always believed she'd "come around", ...eventually. Wouldn't reasonable people? Wasn't my wife reasonable?
Many AS seem to have a touch of something akin to narcissism in their makeup. "I'm perfect; I chose my wife. Therefore she must be perfect too." The conflict between AS projections (onto the wife), and marital reality may be devastating: I'm perfect; so she must be perfect. But she's not perfect; so I must be wrong. But I can't be wrong - I'm perfect. Paradox! Up close and personal, ...and toxic!
She didn't "come around". For all the usual reasons, I couldn't try for satisfaction elsewhere. Anyway (believe it or not), I loved her still; it wouldn't have been right. While still employed, and like many men in that situation, I'd retreated into my work [success there, at least]. But years, decades, of my bottled-up anger were further corroding an all-but failed marriage. I seethed at home, quietly for the most part, and my - our - home life went to hell. We were on the brink of divorce more than once.
The unfortunately-named autistic "meltdowns" have their benefits: Big-Time Stress Relief, an option I'd foresworn decades earlier.
Those decades of extraordinary tension, with me trying to make sense of our two disparate lives, silently were taking their toll. More than anything else, unrelieved stress precipitated my stroke. That is my doctors' diagnosis - not mine.
In a sense, extreme tension and unhappiness almost killed me. OK, OK; a relatively mild stroke -- but still...
On the one hand, my wife was the principal root of my tension (or so I believed; ...how wrong that was). On the other, I knew she was "there for me" when I desperately needed her during and after my stroke. I couldn't reconcile the former with the latter; I couldn't make sense of my wife. Though dependent on her in so many ways (see Laid Off!), I didn't trust our relationship. I needed to make sense of her, me, our lives together, and our future - should there be one. I needed to re-invent myself and my life.
So... I did a whole LOT of soul-searching while I recuperated from the effects of stroke. To my dismay - horror - I found I'd become a stranger in the safe-house of my mind; I couldn't hide there anymore! There was so much I had to sort out, so much to undo; maybe, ... so much to learn.
Travel As Therapy
Doing it right meant getting away for awhile, away from people and other distractions. Really away! I travelled alone for several months in a small camper van, heading vaguely "North" into Canada, thence via the Yukon into Alaska. Completely without a set itinerary (no one knew where I was, or where I was going to be), it was a journey into self-discovery.
In more ways than one: Getting back out of Alaska during an unexpected early winter was, um, "iffy". From the perspective of relating what Aspergians can do, or are willing to do, the story may be instructive. When (or if) One day I'll relate that very real adventure on another page. Check "Personal" » "Galleries »" ; (above left) to see if "North! '97" is finished.
As to probing the soul, well, it worked surprising well. Self-discovery needs be an ongoing work in progress, though. At this re-writing (February 2009 update) I'm still doing it. Slow learner, I. Or maybe it's an omen for what's left of my personal future.
Among other things, in a near-desperate attempt to turn things around, we
embarked on a "small ship" cruise in the Galapagos Islands. That certainly
was a make-or-break gamble. But we didn't break. There's something about an ocean
cruise, despite the enforced commingling, that soothes the mind.
But even more importantly I met
WT, a somewhat quirky and very bright 10-year old. At cruise-end his chaperone told us WT was AS: "Did he bother you any?" Well, No. And the label didn't ring any bells either....
A year or so later, in an unrelated matter, I had to study a bit on Asperger Syndrome. Bingo! Epiphany! Now the bells rang!
Telling my wife of this discovery, she replied: "Yes, ...I know. I looked it up too, months ago." It was then, and much more soberly, I realized (as Walt Kelly's Pogo said): "We have met the enemy, and he is US!" ...Meaning ME.
After extensive (perseverative! focussed!) research which left me with no doubt at all, I hied myself off to a Clinical Psychologist of my acquaintance who claimed to be well-versed in Asperger's Syndrome. I told him I was very interested in my cognitive style (autism-spectrum, I thought); and I asked that he please "Confirm or Deny" Asperger Syndrome, or supply an alternate opinion. "I need illuminating conversation, please - not 'therapy'. I want an 'evaluation' - an 'official' diagnosis - but I neither need nor want it in writing".
That last reflected a certain insecurity; my belief that - even in retirement - a formal paper-trail traceable to a psychologist might somehow adversely affect my life. I'd read too many horror stories to be other than very cautious. Of course I didn't need the services (financial and otherwise) for which "having the paper" is so all-important to so many.
Diagnosis & Answers
In due course (months and many $$ later) my earlier conviction was confirmed: In his opinion I was a person with Asperger's Syndrome - an Aspergian. But with an interesting twist which confused the psychologist no end. Various tests both either confirm or deny AS (can't have it both ways...), and tests of mental ability put me far into the "gifted" range. Co-morbidity? Does that, can that, even apply here?
From inauspicious beginnings, through marriage and kids, and very inauspicious failures, then finally to well-paid positions among the elite in a very technical field -- how did I manage it? Could my problems have been avoided? What were the good things about (unsuspected) AS that helped me?
All the early signs of AS were there, and many people saw them. But there were no professionals to see them. So long ago, the towns and schools were too small. Anyway, what today we call "autism" or "Asperger's" (or even "autism-spectrum") wasn't even a concept until a decade or so after I was born. Having read this far, you will have seen many of the signs already.
I've provided a compendium of Asperger criteria: See "Autism" » "Diagnosis" » "Cr1teria", above left.
Some AS traits have enormous survival value. Among those which contributed to my own survival and growth in a confusing world:
From earliest childhood I was possessed of unusual "smarts". I used these very effectively to compensate for, or even hide my underdeveloped side.
Eventually I developed the "chameleon-like" skill of blending into my social environment. "Pretending To Be Normal" was a way of life. It didn't work very well early on, but by high-school had become very effective.
I could and did use my perseveration and hyper-focus as tools. I always tried for excellence in whatever I did (and avoided activities likely to thwart me). Often I succeeded, and in that way became needed, ...even admired. OK, ...grudgingly so. But it was enough; more often getting me out of trouble than into it.
Innate beneficial traits, by themselves, rarely are completely adequate for anyone. AS in particular often benefit from some "outside help":
My special talents, and problems, were recognized early by my single-parent working mom. And often enough also by my teachers.
Consequently, and concomitantly, I was protected by most of them. This seems to be an exception; AS children in more modern times being nothing like so lucky.
A corollary to this was my placement in small schools generally, otherwise mostly with small classes. And of course in small towns. All these contributed to the protected, and protective, environments I enjoyed. ...But which AS kids today often do not.
Very importantly in my view, I was subjected to absolutely NO intervention in the current sense of that word (ABA and the like).
If only I could have known all these things decades before now!! I might have stabilized my first marriage and provided my children with a two-parent family during their early years.
That's water under the bridge. What I know now, and how I apply it, is what's important. Today I'm happy(!!) with my sainted wife of forty-odd years, who could have left decades ago but didn't. Our life together has improved immensely following my diagnosis and epiphany - my re-birth really.
Mutual trust has returned. Planning for the future has returned. Pleasure has returned. Humor (nearly evaporated) has returned. My wife laughs again, even jokes around now. Even I can laugh and joke. Well, I've always been "kinda serious", from earliest childhood; but I've lightened up hugely. My youngest son so often says: "Life is good!" For my wife and me, ...finally, again.
Paraphrasing my AS Internet friend: "However it's taken me nearly half a century to learn what a lot of husbands learn in a few years." I hope and believe I'm still learning.
Brave words: "moving on"! But of course, ...not so easily done as said. The misunderstandings, fights, sulks - all the weighty detritus of 30-odd miserable years - does not disappear overnight. Nor even in a few weeks or months. It's all there in each of our memories, and must be dealt with; probably for the rest of our lives.
Our reinvigorated mutual trust helps define our path. Humor smooths it! So far, nearly two years into the process, I'd say we're doing pretty well. Nervously glancing over my shoulder, I see my wife nodding agreement -- Whew!
I'd been planning to add a big bunch of "pearls" here - specific difficulties and how my wife and I addressed them. And I may do that yet; if so probably under "Autism" » "Myself" » "Question? Answers", above left.
But the classic story along these lines is the Walker's An Asperger Marriage .
I see no point in trying to better their description, as my wife and I might ourselves have written it! The similarities in their story far outweigh the differences from ours. I recommend it. As with us, the hopeful note on which they end seems to continue today (I've had the pleasure of conversing with Gisela on Internet forums).
We prevail; we grow; we improve. Hell of a lot better than the alternatives!!.
Life Goes On
The story just ended in fact isn't ended yet. My family (maternal side at least) is long-lived; almost everbody lives well into their nineties. Seems likely I'll do the same, and here's where I get to play catch-up - to extend my story.
To be continued...
Diagnosing The Adult Aspergian
There's a perceptible reticence among mental-health professionals, when they're approached for a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome in adults. One significant problem for them is that many Aspergians can and do compensate for whatever difficulties they may experience. We may use our often above average brainpower to develop coping strategies. The older (and more experienced) we are, the better at it we become.
| Bill, 72, retired San Francisco
The strategies can be so effective that very close associates, even spouses and children, think of us (the adult AS) as only mildly eccentric. As very close friends told my wife awhile ago: "We always thought that was just Bill !" For me, "pretending to be normal"  has worked very well indeed.
Another confounding issue can be concomitant (co-morbid??) "giftedness". That possibility, a dual diagnosis (if that's even an appropriate concept in this case), can lead evaluators far astray. It caused my own 'shrink' a lot of second thoughts.
Finally, advanced age itself serves as a formidable shield, disguising all manner of behaviors which in the young would provoke questions, ...at least. Instead, we all know that senior citizens aren't much like the rest of us, ...don't we? Then too, what can it possibly matter, for those in their 60s and beyond?
That last has a simple but important answer - genetics. For many, being on the autism-spectrum is the result of genetics. It's my firm belief that everyone in a family must know what are the genetic cards they've been dealt, ...and what might be the consequences for their children. I say more about that on my autism genetics page: "Autism" » "Diagnosis" » "Genetics", above left.
Some further reading:
- Willey, Liane Holliday (1999): Pretending to be Normal (Living with Asperger's Syndrome), Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London & Philadelphia. 173pp. ISBN 1-85302-749-9 [»]
- Slater-Walker, Gisela and Christopher (2002): An Asperger Marriage, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, London and Philadelphia, 159pp. ISBN 1-84310-017-7 [»]