Sometimes I think every New Yorker cartoonist must be Aspergerian. Even so, I guess their humor must be universally appealing.
Here’s a great vignette of an Aspergerian quandary. We really do benefit from receiving explicit instructions!
8 AM 28 August 2011
Amazingly, I still have power. I don’t expect that to last, and have plenty of snacks, books, and magazines on hand!
Just went out to feed the horses. They were not in their shed, but sheltering under a large spruce. As I approached, 3 deer behind them saw me, and bounded away. They had been eating the apples that the wind had knocked down! Silver liningists! The turkeys were about, but did not come running, as they usually do, when they saw me. Too many worms coming to the surface, I suppose!
We’ve already had 6 to 8 (maybe more) inches of rain, and my seasonal (spring-fed) stream, which had been totally dry just two weeks ago, is now gushing brown water in a volume I’ve never seen before in the 25 years I’ve been here.
The trees are bending more and more to the wind, and I’m sure this is a prelude. So far, not any worse than some of the nasty wind storms we’ve already had this year, but I know much stronger winds are on the way!
1 PM update
We lost power about 9:30 AM, and it was restored only a few minutes ago.
It is raining steadily, and the wind is still blowing, though I would not say I am worried about downed trees at this point.
The NOAA tracking cone still includes the Berkshires, with top steady winds forecast at 60 MPH. Still, the weather.com radar map shows the severe weather to be now located around Albany (about 30 miles west of me), and the rain now extends only down to the DC area.
It looks like it will end here within the next hour or two, and be done with. If so, the peak was early this morning here. I haven’t ventured outside since feeding the horses this morning, but will take a tour soon. In terms of rainfall, this has been the worst storm in my memory, but in terms of wind, we’ve had worse storms in the past few months. Still, it ain’t over till it’s over!
Social Integration in the Workplace
Autistic Individuals Face Special Challenges
and also have Special Abilities
Remarks and Information
Prepared for Job Counselors of the
Massachusetts Rehabilitation Commission (MRC)
July 25, 2011
NB: this is a work in progress, and is not to be quoted.
Your comments and suggestions are welcome and invited.
©2011 Michael Forbes Wilcox
“Forty-two,” said Deep Thought, with infinite majesty and calm.
“The Answer to the Great Question, of Life, the Universe and Everything”
“I checked it very thoroughly,” said the computer, “and that quite definitely is the answer. I think the problem, to be quite honest with you, is that you’ve never actually known what the question is.”
From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams
I don’t know that question
The Great Question, of Life, the Universe and Everything is not something that comes trippingly off my tongue. I do think I know why you are all here today, however.
The great conundrum, as I understand it, facing the MRC is, why is it so easy to find jobs for Aspergerians (that is, people who, like me, have been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome), and so difficult for them to retain those jobs?
As an Aspergerian, my job, in the next few minutes, is to share with you some of the things I have learned over a long lifetime; I have held many jobs, I have lost many jobs. I know some of what works and some of what doesn’t. Maybe, just maybe, I can give you some pointers on advice you can give to your clients.
I have written much for you, as I’ve pondered this conundrum, and you have a copy of something I prepared just for today.
I won’t attempt to read the whole thing to you, because I want to give you the big picture, and leave time for you to ask me questions.
Topics That I Will Cover, If Lightly
Before I’m done, I hope to have time to say a few words about a whole bunch of things.
First, Some Vocabulary and Basic Terminology
Let me hasten to add that my opinions here are my own, and do not necessarily represent the positions of any of the many organizations with which I am affiliated.
First: please! expel the word “unacceptable” from your vocabulary when you speak about the behavior of people with disabilities. Let it join that trash heap that now contains the word “retarded” and the phrase “mental retardation.” Instead of “unacceptable,” let us refer to “expected” and “unexpected” behaviors. You will see examples of what I mean when I later talk, or you read the reference I give you, about social skills in the workplace.
Likewise, strike the word “disorder” from your vocabulary. Disabilities are a normal part of the human condition. Many of us who are autistic believe that we represent a different order, not one that is better or worse. We believe in the concept of neurodiversity, meaning that autistics and non-autistics deserve to be treated as equals. If you haven’t already done so, read Jim Sinclair’s excellent piece, “Don’t Mourn for Us,” written in 1993 and just as relevant today as it was then.
When you speak of me, please do not refer to me as “a person with autism!” I am an autistic person. I know that the people who have advocated for “person first” language have done so to great advantage for many sectors of the disability community. Some self-advocates, however, have rejected specific aspects of an otherwise respectful approach to speaking about people with disabilities.
Blind people, for example, so not want to be called “people with blindness.” The deaf community is even more strident, and insist on being called “deaf” – not “people with deafness.”
Here, too, Jim Sinclair has some elegant words to express why autistics prefer to be called what we are: autistic.
I am right-handed. You would not call me a “person with right-handedness” – being right-handed, like being autistic, is part of who I am. There is nothing wrong with being left-handed (although not long ago, it was thought so; my partner, who is left-handed, grew up attending parochial schools in Springfield, and would be soundly rapped on the knuckles if she tried to write with her left hand in class). Being left-handed is a disability, however. Most tools are designed for use by right-handed people. If you are right-handed, have you ever tried to use left-handed scissors? I have. It isn’t easy.
Similarly, there is nothing wrong with being autistic, but this world was not designed for us. Autism is part of my identity. It is not something I can leave at the door when I enter a room full of non-autistics. It is not something I caught one time because I didn’t wash my hands, and it is not something that is going to go away. Nor would I want it to!
Okay, With All That Aside, Here Are My Words of Wisdom
I have provided you with a handout that contains the following items, and a web link to my blog for a more complete discussion. Also, you have my email address; I welcome any questions you may have that I don’t have time to address or answer today, or that may occur to you later.
I’m autistic, and I’m proud of it! I was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome (AS) late in life, and I’ve come to appreciate how special that makes me. I’ve always known I’m different, but I never comprehended how very different I am. Now that I understand the deficiencies of the neurotypical (NT) mind, I have become much more accepting of the 99% of people in the world who just don’t get it! They can’t help it, they were just born that way!
I say this in jest, because I tire of being told that I have a disorder, and that my way of doing things is somehow wrong.
I’m not disorderly, and there is nothing wrong with the way I do things. It is just different. I think differently, I do things differently. My way of thinking is perfectly cogent and internally consistent, even if it is incomprehensible to 99% of the population. So, stop telling me to change, stop telling me that I need to “fit in” and start accepting me for who I am.
Okay, great speech, but it ain’t gonna work! My natural way of being produces discomfort in most of the people I encounter in life. So, as a survival mechanism, I have needed to learn how to hide my differences, and to play their game. It’s hard work, and I don’t always succeed, but when the alternative is total rejection, there is a huge incentive to be able to fake it.
I’m told that many employment counselors are puzzled by their autistic clients. Someone who is diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome may be clearly qualified academically in their field, and even have an impressive employment history (at least on paper). Yet, they may have difficultly securing employment. And, even more significantly, they may have a history of being unable to retain a job once they have been placed.
I have been asked to address the puzzle of why many Aspergerians appear to be highly qualified for employment, may even have a good-looking resumé, and yet have great difficulty in obtaining new employment, and perhaps even more puzzling, have a history of not lasting very long on a job, so that they are soon back on the hunt for employment. Obviously, helping these people find and retain good jobs would be beneficial for them, for their employers, and for their support network.
Let’s Figure Out What Is the Proper Question!
Superficially, the question is clear: why is it that autistic people have such great difficulty securing and retaining jobs for which they are clearly qualified?
The answer to that question, however, is quite simple. They lack the social skills that are expected in the NT world. Neurotypicals, because of the way their brains are wired, easily acquire the social skills they need in order to “fit in” to NT culture; autistic people often complain that everyone else seems to know the rules, but no one has given us a copy of the rulebook!
Is this because of some deficiency in the neurology of autistics? No, not in my view. When I am in a room full of autistic people, I can relax and behave naturally, since everyone else will understand me, and I will know what is expected. If I am talking and someone interrupts me, I can switch gears and go with the new train of thought without resentment, or I can tell them to stop interrupting me and continue with my own exposition, and no one will think either one of us is being rude.
Once, when I was giving a presentation to a fairly large audience of Aspergerians, a young woman in the back row shouted out, “Get out of my head!” I took that as a great compliment. We do understand each other, the way NTs understand each other. But it’s very difficult to be bilingual. For the most part, NTs don’t try, unless they are therapists or in a relationship with someone who is autistic.
On the other hand, autistics are expected to learn what is expected in the NT world, and, quite frankly, to be successful in it, they need to do just that.
So, rather than ask the easily-answered question of “Why?” let’s move on to a “How?” question, along the lines of “How can autistic people learn social skills and develop strategies for navigating the shoals of a world that is inherently incomprehensible?”
When talking about myself, I use “Aspergerian” and “autistic” pretty much interchangeably, my choice depends on the context or my mood. All Aspergerians are autistic, but not the other way around. There is great value to the Asperger label, in my experience. It tends to be less stigmatizing (although I wish that weren’t true), and it helps conjure up a image that may be helpful to others in forming their expectations.
The other advantage of the Asperger label is that it has helped unite a community and created an opportunity for many people to gain understanding and support. I know the Asperger community has been a huge help to me over the past few years.
Still, we all know that individuals are unique, and there are plenty of people who have not received the AS diagnosis who can benefit from learning about the skills I mention in this discussion, just as there may be Aspergerians who, for unrelated reasons, may not be in a position to enter the workforce.
So, although people with the AS and closely-related diagnoses may represent the majority of autistic people you encounter, the very same skill set discussed here can also benefit anyone who is autistic. All autistics have much more in common with each other than they do with the NT world.
Reasons Autistics have Difficulty with Social Integration in the Workplace
The following list is not meant to be exhaustive, but to give a flavor for the challenges facing autistics as they try to do what is expected of them in the workplace. These items are also not presented in any particular order, since they all interact with each other, and in some cases are just different ways of saying the same thing.
 “Splinter Skills” is a term used to describe people (not necessarity autistics) who appear to have very different skill levels in different aspects of life.
This is closely related to Howard Gardner’s concept of “multiple intelligences” – a theory that he began developing in the 1980s and which came into full bloom in the 1990s, and is considered by many to have been a paradigm-shifting way of thinking about intelligence [q.v. Kuhn, Thomas, S., “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”, Second Edition, Enlarged, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1970 (1962) which itself was a paradigm-shifting piece of work!].
What Gardner pointed out, in essence, is that intelligence cannot be measured on a single scale; we all have talents in multiple areas, and we are not necessarily equally adept at each of these skills.
I have a friend who uses the term “dull normal” when referring to NTs, as in “would you rather be weird or dull normal?” My friend John Robison has talked about his belief that NTs tend to have a similar intelligence level in most areas, whereas autistics seem to have variable intelligence levels, being very good at some things (such as he was at electrical engineering), and very bad at others (such as social skills).
Despite the acceptance of Gardner’s ideas in the academic world, his paradigm shift has not entered many areas of practice. We still use a single scale of intelligence, for example, to define who is eligible for services from DDS.
 Autistics carry the burden of a lifetime of being told “you’re doing it wrong.” This can lead to a fear of social interactions with their potential for rejection, and may inhibit autistics from sharing their thoughts.
All of this may give others the impression that autistic people are shy, uninterested in friendship or social involvement, and prefer to be left alone. This is usually not true; it is just that they don’t know how to initiate the interaction.
 Lack of emotional regulation – “flying off the handle” or panicking.
Monotonic emotional presentation – the inability to emote may give off the (false) impression of being “cold” or uncaring, incapable of empathy.
All of this may be a result of or perhaps lead to withdrawal and depression.
 Literal mindedness: this does not imply the inability to understand metaphor and figures of speech; rather to not being able to “read between the line” and make inferences. We do not know, as NTs seem to, that “B” ALWAYS follows “A” so that telling an NT to “do A” is equivalent to saying “do A and B” – the autistic person will do “A” and stop, leaving the boss to wonder why they are being uncooperative (or stupid).
Solutions: [A] we must be given a specific task list OR told what the objective is, rather than how to achieve it. (Don’t “box us in” if you want us to “think outside the box” – a concept most of us don’t understand anyway!)
[B] We must learn to solicit information when we suspect we are not being given the whole picture.
 Sensory integration/regulation issues – e.g. continuous or loud noise, bright lights, etc. may be totally distracting or even lead to physical reactions and distress.
It is in the interest of employers to provide reasonable accommodation where they are needed, in order to maximize the productivity of each employee. This platitude, however, is often honored in the breach.
In my days in the job market, long before I understood the concept of accommodations, or even knew that I needed them, I found clever ways to create them for myself.
For example, I learned early on that, for me, the rush-hour scene was especially stressful. The crowds, the noise, the delays all distressed me.
My first “real” job came to me while I was living in Springfield in the late 1960s; I got a job as a computer programmer for an insurance company in Bloomfield, Connecticut. At the time, I was attending AIC in Springfield at night, working toward my bachelor’s degree.
I would often arrive home at 10 o’clock or so, attempt to do some homework, have some conversation with my wife, maybe watch some late-night TV to help me unwind, and end up hitting the sack around midnight. All of that made it quite challenging to get on the road in time to be at work by 8 o’clock, given that I lived about a 40-minute drive from my office.
 Not WANTING to be different. Especially true among the younger crowd.
Antidote: knowledge –> understanding –> acceptance
Self-acceptance can’t be imposed, and needs to be preceded by the first two.
Those who are autistic do not intuit how very different they are.
 Perspective-taking. Flows from .
Social Thinking At Work, by Michelle Garcia Winner and Pamela Crooke, 2011, northriverpress.com
Asperger’s on the Job, by Rudy Simone, 2010, Future Horizons, Inc.
Today, I am in mourning for my friend Lori, on this, the third anniversary of her Memorial Service.
Here is a short photo-essay that I did at the time.
I am also mourning the presumed loss of her cat, Taffy, who has been living at my house for the past three years.
I last saw Taffy two weeks ago, doing what she loved to do; roaming my yard, stalking some invisible (and perhaps imaginary) creature through the grass.
Here is the last picture I took of her:
I know there are many instances of cats being absent for long periods of time and then reappearing, but in my heart I feel she is gone forever. I loved her dearly; she was a sweet cat. She was also a reminder to me of the days I would go to visit Lori, and Taffy would jump into my lap and purr.
My only consolation is that I know she had a wonderful three years here at Thyme Hill, exploring my large yard and the adjacent territory. I don’t know how far afield she went, but my hunch is that she never went very far from home. She will be missed.
One reaction among liberals to the Bush years and to Iraq was to retreat from “idealism” toward “realism,” in which the United States would act cautiously and, above all, according to national interest rather than moral imperatives. The debate is rooted in the country’s early history. American, John Quincy Adams argued, “does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to freedom and independence of all,” but the “champion and vindicator only of her own.”
In 1966, Adam’s words were repeated by George Kennan, perhaps the most articulate realist of the twentieth century, in opposing the Vietnam War. To Kennan and his intellectual followers, foreign-policy problems are always more complicated than Americans, in their native idealism, usually allow. The use of force to stop human-rights abuses or to promote democracy, they argue, usually ends poorly.
From the May 2, 2011 issue of The New Yorker, page 44, in an article by Ryan Lizza.
Michael Forbes Wilcox
Alford, Massachusetts 01266
Michael Wilcox was born in 1946, resided in Stockbridge, Massachusetts until age 17, and attended public schools there. He was involved in many community activities, such as Little League, Boy Scouts, and his church youth group. During high school he played (what was then called) center halfback on the school’s championship soccer team.
Wilcox grew up in an era before the concept of “Special Education” and spent nearly six decades of his life unaware of his own autism. He made friends easily; though looking back now, with the knowledge and awareness acquired late in life, those friends tended to be younger or older, or people who were shunned by others (for example, foreign students and those whom we would now recognize as having developmental disabilities). One memorable example of an older friend was Norman Rockwell, for whom he modeled as a boy of 8, and stayed friends with for many years, often dropping in at his studio to watch the artist at work.
Wilcox excelled academically in the Stockbridge school system, though he did not successfully make the transition from high school to college; going through a rough patch for many years after completing high school, before finally settling down, getting married, and attending college at night. He received a BA in Economics at age 26 (free, finally, from the Vietnam-era draft!) and an MA in Economics at age 30.
After a decade-long and very successful career in (surprise!) what was then called “data processing” (now “IT”), Wilcox shifted gears and moved into the investment business, relocating to New York City, where he lived for a dozen years, rising through the ranks of several firms and ending up as a Principal at Morgan Stanley. He was a world-renowned quantitative investment analyst, and traveled the globe to market his research to clients in all of the major financial centers. His picture once appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, featured in an article about successful analysts.
Again, Wilcox made friends easily (if selectively) during his career. He was especially successful as a manager because of his ability to empathize with his employees, whom he fully supported at every turn, transforming them into productive and loyal employees. Many of these employees, looking back through the lens of autism, provided, in return, support in the form of performing many of the executive functions that were beyond his ability to handle, and covered up for some of his special needs and self-created accommodations. Getting along with his superiors was far more difficult, and he was not perceived as a “team player” — a failing which eventually put a cap on his corporate career. Wilcox then started his own consulting business, incorporated in 1992.
Wilcox began to suspect he might be autistic in early 2005, at the age of 58, after reading the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. A few months later, he first learned about Asperger’s syndrome (AS), and began researching AS on the internet and by attending lectures and conferences. After about a year in denial, he self-diagnosed, and a year later, in 2007, he received a clinical diagnosis, at age 61.
Michael Forbes Wilcox: Remarks on the Autism Commission Delivered at the Massachusetts State House for Autism Awareness Day, April 14, 2011
You’ve Got to Have A Dream!
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?
Words to live by, from the song “Happy Talk” in South Pacific.
I am delighted to be here today to represent the Massachusetts Special Commission Relative to Autism. Part of our job is to dream. The rest of it is just hard work. The Commission was created by the Legislature, and the 31 public Commissioners were all appointed by Governor Deval Patrick.
The Commission is charged with reviewing all services offered to autistic individuals living in the Commonwealth that are provided, regulated, or funded by state agencies. The Commission will produce a report to the Governor and the Legislature, in September, which will summarize its findings and make recommendations for improvements. Some of these changes may be possible to implement by Executive Order, others may require legislation.
The Commission is relying on four subcommittees to do research on specific topics. The membership of these subcommittees is drawn from the wider autism community, and reflects the diverse interests of this broad community. In the same way that the Commission is composed, members of the subcommittees represent autistic individuals, parents, family members, educators, legislators, state agencies, clinicians, and other advocates.
The subcommittees are working groups that will meet and work together to produce reports on their respective areas of focus. They will deliver these reports to the Commission for review and possible inclusion in the Commission’s final report.
The four subcommittees are focused on four different age groups, including the period of transition from school to adulthood:
Meetings of both the Commission and the Subcommittees are open to the public, and you are encouraged to attend.
We have an expression in the self-advocacy community; “Nothing about us without us!” I was eager to be a member of this Commission because I wanted to add the perspective, and the voice, of an autistic person. I want to do whatever I can, both on the Commission, and as part of my autism self-advocacy in general, to make life just a little bit easier for those who come after me than it has been for me. This is the same dream that I believe all the members of the Commission and the Subcommittees share: to make this Commonwealth a better place to live, for autistic individuals, and therefore for all of us, and for everyone who lives in our community.
The variety of organizations represented both on the Commission and here in this room today is evidence of how we all recognize that we are all in this together. Autism comes in a variety of flavors. In fact, there are so many forms of autism that it may not be obvious to that proverbial anthropologist from Mars just exactly what it is that we all have in common.
Some of us, like Elizabeth and me, will be able to stand up in a room in the State House and tell you what it’s like to live as a stranger in a strange land. Others of us will never be able to do this.
Yet, the neurology of our condition is such that there is much that joins autistics in common cause. What we share is more important than what makes us different from each other.
We all suffer (and I use that word advisedly) from sensory overload issues. We all face enormous challenges when it comes time for transitions, whether it be in moving from one part of the day to the next, or in moving on to the next phase of our lives. We all share the frustrations of living in an alien world, as we try to achieve our own aspirations, whether those aspirations involve simply getting from one end of the day to the other, or in achieving some cherished life goal.
We all take pride where we can find pride. We all endure suffering when we must. We all struggle as best we can. We all rejoice over our accomplishments, both big and small. We are all unique. There is no way to compare the subjective experience of one person with that of another.
I thank you all for being here today to support me and to support the dream and the work of the Commission. I want nothing more, and nothing less, than to see that future generations of autistic individuals do not have to endure quite as much agony as I did in my time. I had to learn, through trial and error, how to get by in this incomprehensible world. We can, and we MUST do a better job of providing support for autistic people and to those who care for them.
Again, thank you for being here, to share in this dream. Because,
You’ve Got to Have A Dream!
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?