Boredom and Its Antidote: The Importance of Adults

Being autistic is a way of being in the world. Those who are blessed with the special perspective given to us by our autistic neurology are also cursed by the fissure that appears in our interactions with non-autistic (neurotypical) people. It is only natural for all people to assume that others think the same way they do. For neurotypicals, this is the proper assumption 95% or more of the time. For autistics, however, the 95% figure describes the error rate in understanding how another person is thinking and what they mean when they communicate.

Those of us who were children before autism was widely understood or identified had to make our own way in a world that was not made for us and did not understand us. Patterns of behavior that develop in reaction to living in an alien world are recognizable to me. I see them in autistic friends of mine, and in the stories they tell of their past. I do not know for sure that Steve Jobs was autistic, but I find many similarities between the ways he operated as a child and my own life story.

This is the latest in my series of posts inspired by the 2011 book Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson.

The earlier ones were:

  1. Autism is a Silver Car
  2. Dilettantes Need Not Apply
  3. Detached and Separate
Chapter One: Childhood

School:  Here we learn about the kind of student Steve Jobs was, and how he started on the trajectory that would define his later skills and interests. On page 12 of the book, Isaacson quotes Jobs on his early school days, “I was kind of bored for the first few years, so I occupied myself by getting into trouble.”

I can relate very strongly with many of the things described in this chapter, and am also reminded of stories I have heard in conversation with autistic friends. Some of the pranks attributed to Jobs are reminiscent of the ones John Robison describes in Look Me in the Eye.

Isaacson adds, “It also soon became clear that Jobs, by both nature and nurture, was not disposed to accept authority.” Oh, my goodness, how many autistic kids (and adults!) does this describe? Perhaps all of us?

I think there are (at least) two or three reasons for this. One is the outcome of the boredom Steve mentions. It seems that our minds are happiest when being challenged. I’m reminded of a friend, Lew Cuyler, with whom I used to ski. He was a much better skier than I (and I’m better than most, being able to do expert runs with ease), and given that our local area was not the most challenging one we’d ever seen, he used telemarking equipment. “It’s how to make a mountain out of a molehill,” he explained to me.

I think autistics who are bright (which is pretty much the effective definition of Asperger Syndrome) enjoy having their brains fully engaged at all times, even if it means taking a simple task and making it complicated just for fun. Schoolwork is often trivially easy, and if we fail to find a way to make it complicated, our brains look for other things to do. Idle brains are the devil’s workshop, you might say. Thus, doing creative things is fun, and if those things happen to be outside the bounds of permitted behavior, well, that’s just one of those things. Staying busy and engaged is paramount.

A second reason for rebellious behavior is probably not unique to autistic youngsters. Part of growing up and becoming a fully independent person is to test one’s abilities and to discover where are the limits (as set by our culture or our own abilities). What distinguishes autistic behavior in this arena, I’m guessing, is that we tend not to see (or care too much about) the social limitations. In fact, even if we are aware of those limits, we may be tempted to see how much we can get away with. It’s a bit of a game.

In high school, a friend of mine and I schemed about how we might be able to get away from school for a bit during the day. I suggested that I might be able to get Miss Williams to give us a “downtown pass” if I told her that we needed to pick up some supplies for our laboratory experiment. “Really?” he looked incredulous. Our newly-minted teacher had come to New England from the deep south, where she had undoubtedly attended segregated schools. She was smart, caring, and eager to please, and I’m embarrassed (now) to say that I took advantage of that.

Armed with our “pass” my friend and I snuck through the woods (we knew the Principal would never buy that one!), and went over to the Wine Cellar on Elm Street, where we each plunked down a dime for an Orange Nehi soda. “You fellows sit on the steps and drink those,” warned Dave Bodner, the owner, “you didn’t give me the 2¢ deposit, and I don’t want you running off with those!”

We repeated this ramble several times, until one day Miss Williams pulled us aside. “I’ve been talking to the other teachers in the Teachers’ Lounge,” she said. “There’s no such thing as a downtown pass, is there?” She looked very hurt. “No,” I admitted, and I felt horrible. I still do, to this day, when I think about what I did. It also makes me laugh, though, I have to admit!

Another example comes from my year in sixth grade. I was completely bored, and tended to skip class whenever I could arrange a violin lesson or any other excuse to get out of the classroom. I also tended not to do my homework. In addition to what I now understand as being a lack of executive function (the ability to organize and plan), and perhaps other factors related to being autistic, I found the homework to be an extreme waste of time. I instantly understood all the material that was presented in class, and having to write about it or do problems seemed to me to be unhelpful and boring. So, I often wouldn’t do the homework assignment, and then mumble something about forgetting it at home.

At one point, I knew that I had reached the limit of Mr. Brown’s patience, and could not fail to do another assignment. Yet, I also felt I could make a point. So, I wrote the paper that was called for, and then carefully put it about two layers down from the top of my very messy desk. When it came time the next day to turn it in, I said I had done the work but had forgotten it at home. As expected, Mr. Brown blew up. “Come with me, young man,” he said, and led me to the Principal’s office, where he asked if I could use the phone to call home.

Yes, of course, said the secretary, and let me into a private office, pointed to the phone, and closed the door. I picked up the phone and gave the operator my home number (246-J). My mother answered. “I forgot my homework,” I explained, “and Mr. Brown wants to know if you can find it.” “Okay,” said my mother, “where is it?” “I don’t know,” I lied, “I think it’s in my room.” Why the drama of lying to my mother? Because I knew full well that Mr. Brown was listening in on the other phone.

She came back to the phone. “Is it a two-page report on the Stockbridge Indians?” she asked? “Yes.” “Well it took me a couple of minutes, but I found it under some other things on your desk.” Trap sprung. As I exited the office, Mr. Brown greeted me with, “Did she find it?” He already knew the answer, and looked a bit annoyed when I said yes. “If she found it on your desk” oops “… or wherever she found it, how come you didn’t bring it to school?” I shrugged. Let him figure it out.

I could go on with countless other ways I got into trouble for thumbing my nose at authority, but you get the idea. I seldom got into serious trouble, because I was a polite boy who excelled as a student, among other reasons. But it was a game I liked to play, and I took it seriously.

Yet another reason for being rebellious is that being naughty may make us feel more like the other kids. I was often the “teacher’s pet” because I was such a model student. I felt sorry for my four younger siblings, who, in our small town, came upon teachers who in prior years had me in their class. I was told there seemed to be a mantra, “Why can’t you be like your brother?”

How alienating for me to be singled out! I already felt different and apart from my classmates, and this was but one more wedge. In response, I think part of my acting out was the hope of gaining the acceptance I felt was lacking.

David Finch, in his new book, The Journal of Best Practices (Scribner 2012), talks (on page 11, for example) about being a clown for that reason: “I get high from making people laugh, from performing. Goofing around with my buddies is still tremendously hard work…” but is a way of “fitting in.” Tim Page, in his memoir Parallel Play (Doubleday 2009), describes his efforts to “fit in” and figure out the social scene as a youngster. In his Chapter Six (pp. 93 ff.) he tells of sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll in the college town where he grew up.

When I was young, I was often the “class clown” because of my sharp, quick wit, and also perhaps because I was clueless as to whether I was offending anyone. If I got a laugh, that made me feel accepted. Some of that laughter undoubtedly was at, not with, me. Still, being laughed at felt better than being ignored. A few years ago, I conducted a workshop on humor at an AANE conference, and got lots of positive feedback. It also generated some commentary from Aspergerians in the audience about how they had trouble understanding jokes. In my experience, this represents a fairly small minority of the autistic population, but I have only anecdotal evidence. I also wonder if the proportion is any different from in the general population. Research for another time…

Back to Steve Jobs. By the time he was in third grade, he “was already starting to show the admixture of sensitivity and insensitivity, bristliness and detachment, that would mark him for the rest of his life.” I can identify strongly with this personality description, and I suspect many (if not most) other autistic people can as well.

In my life, there were many adults who had a huge influence on me, who took the time to care and to guide and support me. This, I know, is a common experience, not at all confined to autistic kids. Still, for someone who is autistic and therefore somewhat clueless relative to other kids, this kind of attention can make the difference between having direction and drifting. For Jobs, the first such adult seems to have been his fourth grade teacher, Imogene Hill, known as “Teddy” [page 13]. She became, Jobs said, “one of the saints of my life” and “I learned more from her than any other teacher, and if it hadn’t been for her I’m sure I would have gone to jail.” As a result of tests ordered by Mrs. Hill, Steve skipped fifth grade. “The transition was wrenching. He was a socially awkward loner who found himself with kids a year older.” In this new setting, “Jobs was often bullied…”

Autistic kids, because of their gentleness, social awkwardness, and the fact that they live inside their heads, are easy targets for bullies, and generally have no idea how to protect themselves.

The narrative then [page 15] moves on to cover Steve’s exposure to religion and a visit to his father’s family farm in Wisconsin. “Reflecting years later on his spiritual feelings, he said that religion was at its best when it emphasized spiritual experiences rather than received dogma.” I grew up in that tradition, in a very Unitarian-oriented Congregational Church. We were encouraged to take our own lessons from the scriptures, and to judge the ethical teachings of Jesus on their merits, not dependent on them having a divine origin. It sounds like Jobs had come to the same conclusion, when he was 13 years old.

One summer … [Steve] saw a calf being born, and he was amazed when the tiny animal struggled up within minutes and began to walk. “It was not something she had learned, but it was instead hardwired into her.

Already he was thinking in software/hardware terms!

He had few friends his own age [in 9th grade] but he got to know some seniors…

Now, that is pretty close to a diagnostic criterion for autism: not being able to make friends among one’s age peers. To add a clinching example of this tendency, the author talks about one of the legendary teachers in Silicon Valley at the time, John McCollum:

McCollum believed in military discipline and respect for authority. Jobs didn’t. … McCollum later said, “He was usually off in a corner doing something on his own and really didn’t want to have much of anything to do with either me or the rest of the class.”

Next: Chapter Two Odd Couple: The Two Steves

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