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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

TouchPoint Night at the Arch

I am heading out the door for a presentation and don't have too much time, but I wanted to share a social story I helped to make. The link is http://www.nps.gov/jeff/planyourvisit/on-the-spectrum.htm.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

What I Want

A while back, not so long ago, someone asked me, "Aaron, what to do you want out of life?" At the time I didn't know how to answer it as that has to be one of the most profound questions anyone can be asked. It has taken a while, but I think I have my answer.

The event that inspired my answer happened yesterday. It had been one week since the Opening Night Terror at bowling. Due to traveling and being flat out exhausted I forgot about those events up until a van ride a couple days ago, but once I remembered I had fear. The fear was deep and it wasn't a fear of bodily harm but rather it was a fear of my mind and how I would feel being back at the bowling alley. I couldn't tell what the next visit to the bowling alley would look like or how awkward it might be. Would there be an apology? Apologies are the most awkward event I know of and on top of that I believe them to be irrelevant, but thankfully my dad made sure that this would not happen.

So, how does yesterday play out into my answer of what I want? Almost a decade ago, when I worked at the videogame store, I had to quit my job a couple months after a run-in with loss prevention. I didn't do anything wrong, but the interview itself and each time I walked into the room where the interview happened brought back strong memories as if it were happening anew each time. I was afraid this would happen at the bowling as well, but I fought it. To be honest, I wanted to quit bowling last week and never throw at those wooden pins even again. I was done, or at least I wanted to be. However, I looked back on the events at the store a decade ago and it was the same sort of feeling I had.

In my life I am always looking for the next thing to write about. This year has given me no shortage of topics to write about, but in it all I have never backed down. As the clock ticked away yesterday my anxiety grew and I still had in on my mind to quit. But if I quit, how could I continue to give presentations and tell parents to never give up? How could I tell those on the spectrum to keep fighting and keep trying? With those questions swirling about, I decided I had no choice but to continue to bowl. It may be awkward for a while, but I had to fight through it.

So again, how does that all fit in with what I want? This is simple as what I want is what I've got. What I have right now is the unique opportunity to use my experiences in life and share them with the world to explain the challenges, and gifts, of being on the spectrum.

It is difficult at times, as was proven last week. I can't deny that at times it takes everything I can muster to get through the day, but that's okay. Those around me know this through what I have written. Because of that, life is much more tolerable now than it was before I started to write and this is exactly what I want. I've said early on during my blogging career that, "Understanding is the foundation for hope" and it certainly is. By my words and experiences I want others to have that understanding.

I don't think too many people can say they've got exactly what they've want. I can, but it still is an ongoing challenge. There are times I want to give up, to throw in the proverbial towel, and to hide away from the world, but then what would become of my work? If I would have given up at bowling I'd be a hypocrite each time I implored someone to not give up. Granted, there may be situations where the best course of action is to retreat for a while as if something can't be won it is senseless to keep trying to win the battle, but I knew I could survive bowling; it would be uncomfortable, but tolerable.

Yesterday was a personal victory for me and it showed me that what I want is what I've got. Of course, as is human nature, what I've got I want more of. More readers, more people at my presentations, but this isn't out of a greed for more, but rather I know the more people that read what I've got to say and the more people that see me at a presentation the higher the chance of impact. The more people that are not just aware of autism, but perhaps have a glimmer of understanding, the better our world will become.

Monday, August 29, 2011

A Slight Change of Plans

As much as we plan in life we can never plan for everything. This is unfortunate because for me, and others on the autism spectrum, we need predictability and we need to know what is going to happen next. This past weekend my need to know was pushed to its limit.

I was in Connecticut for a special event of the USAC .25 midget series. Going into it I knew the weather was iffy with Hurricane Irene wanting to spoil the fun. The computer models seemed to change by the minute and as practice started Friday night it looked like we would be able to get the whole show in on Saturday before the outer rain showers moved in.

Last week I did mention that Ryan would pick me up from Boston and he did come along to Thompson to help out at the race any way he could. As we got to the track and introductions were made it was a bizarre feeling having two different worlds meet.

Saturday came and I was getting nervous. The weather models now had Irene had a faster pace and on top of that I realized as the reports of airport closures spread I worried if I would be able to get out of Boston on Monday. A delay wouldn’t have bothered me, normally, but this week is different. On Wednesday I have a major presentation and missing it, quite simply, was out of the question! With that being known I didn’t know what to do. Do I rent a car and fly out of Albany? If so are there flights?

Whilst I was swirling about in a chaotic panic I was told that the USAC staff would be renting a van and driving back after the races on Saturday. This wouldn’t get me home, but being in Indy would be a lot closer than being in Boston.

Once qualifying began I still didn’t have my mind made up. All I knew was that I had to be home by Wednesday and if all the airports closed I could be stuck there until the year 2017 (this estimate may be off by a couple weeks… okay, years) and this couldn’t happen. I’ve used that line many times in this already, but it was going through my mind non-stop, “Not an option! Not an option! Not an option!”

Here was the problem; I like plans and plans aren’t meant to change and yet to be safe and keep my presentation I would have to change my plans. The plans included going to F1 Boston and candlepin bowling (whatever that is) with Ryan on Sunday. These were the plans, but they were fading away.

After about a quarter of the cars qualified it started to sprinkle. The track got wet and after 30 minutes it was dry and just as we got a car back on it Irene decided she wanted to spit at us again. The radar showed that we would be playing that game all day long so with that being so we decided that it was futile to continue.

The sequence of events thereafter went quickly as if the USAC travel van was going to get home it had to beat the heavy rains of Irene. With that being so James rushed off to Boston to return one rental car and get a rental van. That is about a 90 minute trek and as I looked at the radar, and the doomsday predictions on all the news-sites, I decided that my pans would have to change and I would take the van back to Indy.

I made this decision with no knowledge of how I would get from Indy to Saint Louis. At this juncture it still would be $150 to change my flight. I looked and saw that Greyhound bus service would only be $40 from Indy to Saint Louis; granted I’d have to leave at 3AM, but missing Wednesday was not an option.

While James was heading towards Boston the rest of the USAC staff, Ryan, and myself had a memorable time at a pub in some town in Massachusetts. This was a great time and while it may have been just another day for the others, it was something special to me.

James got there with the van and we quickly loaded up the van and seven of us crammed in. I said goodbye to Ryan who returned home to Tyngsboro and the rest of us, as the photo proves, were crammed in like sardines. The sardine effect only last four hours as one member of the crew got out at some town, somewhere, and got another ride.

The stress of how I’d get to Saint Louis was raging on, yet there was a sense of adventure within me. This was unplanned and spontaneous and I was going through towns, and states for that matter, that I had no idea I’d be going through. I never thought I’d be in Buffalo, New York, but there I was.

Somewhere after Buffalo my dad got me on a flight out of Indy on Sunday so that drama was over. The only thing now was to watch the world go by as hour after clicked by on the 16 hour van ride.

My emotions were erratic and extreme in this ride as the events of the past week caught up with me. I also have not slept much in the past week-and-a-half (averaging 4 hours a night) and this wasn’t helping the situation. What were these emotions? I got really angry with myself for the shortcomings I have and the remembrances of all the times I am socially awkward and the events from the bowling alley last week were thought of again. In fact, I had forgotten about it until I saw a bowling alley off an exit. I once again fell into the trap of, “Why can’t I just be normal?” then, as fate would have it, I saw billboard from an autism agency in whatever town we were passing through that said, “1 in 110 kids will have autism. Do you know the signs?”

“The signs?” I said aloud, just loud enough that I was the only one who knew I said anything. I did ask it in a form of a question as once again, as usual, I remembered that the challenges I have faced are due to autism. I can’t hate myself all I want, but it wasn’t that I failed, it was that there truly is a challenge I face that normal people do not; after thinking that I went back to smiling and enjoying the adventure.

As much as I was enjoying the adventure, I began hating it as we passed through Columbus, Ohio as I was getting to the point of being so tired I was feeling queasy. The others slept, but I can’t sleep in a moving vehicle so I was stuck being awake watching the nighttime world pass by.

At 4:00AM we arrived in Indianapolis. We had to make a stop at the airport where all the vehicles were parked and after being taken to my sister’s house by Rick and Denise I walked in at 5:00AM.

Sleep came quickly and I was looking forward to sleeping all the way to 4PM as it was planned that Rick would pick me up at 5 to take me to the airport. As Ryan said, via a text message even before I left Saint Louis, “This trip is destined for failure” that saying kept true as at 10:30 Ginger, my sister’s cat, was in need of some serious attention and to get it she started doing the cat wake-up call with some slaps of her paw to my face. As tired as I was I was powerless to this kitty wake-up call.

I did nothing Sunday afternoon except watch the clock tick away and anxiously await getting home. 5PM came and I was on my way to the airport and then I boarded my plane and headed to Detroit where my connecting flight was.

I’ve been to the Detroit airport a couple times when returning from international flights. As I deplaned it was just as I remembered back from my first trip to Kenya in 2005. Back then the trip to this airport was one of being thankful to be alive. With my associative memory system it was as if I was back in 2005 and I could feel the joy and sense of safety being here.

Walking to my gate I took my time and savored the atmosphere. This is an international airport and is unlike any other airport I have been in this year. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I know it and have been here before, but I felt alive.

While walking to my gate I got to the mid-point of the A terminal and I recognized that this is where I was back in 2005 and I remembered that there was a Fox Sports Sky Box Bar and Grill in the mid-point so I walked down to make sure it was still there. I like sameness in my world and I also remember, from 2005, that there was this wall paper on the wall of Fox’s NASCAR announcers Mike Joy, Larry McRenyolds, and Darrell Waltrip with remote control racing car controllers in their hands and a NASCAR track below. As I saw that the place was still there I really hoped that wallpaper was still there? Why? I don’t know, but how on Earth would I remember a detail like that from 6.5 years ago? If it wasn’t there I’m sure I’d have a emotional response, but it was still there and I smiled and continued on my way.

Continuing on I walked slower as I looked up at the various sky clubs for travelers that have many more miles and trips than I do. I heard many different languages and as I slowly reached gate A31 I couldn’t believe the events of the past 36 hours. Who would have thought that I’d be here of all places? It wasn’t in the plans, and wasn’t even in the “what if…” questions I think of, and yet here I was in the place that I was right after Kenya 2005 and it was in Kenya that I first allowed myself to think that maybe my writings do indeed have merit.

What a trip it was. In most situations I wouldn’t be as willing to adjust my plans, but in this instance, had I been inflexible, I might still be in Boston instead of being back home. I feared and feared missing that presentation, but because of going out on a limb, and a 16 hour van ride, those fears are no more.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Travel Woes Yet Again and A Banana Split Disaster

Coming into yesterday I was nervous, very nervous. You see, the memories from my last trip via airplane didn't turn out so well. With that being said my nerves were at full alert as I reached every traveler's nightmare... TSA security.

I know other people on the spectrum have this, not all, but there are enough that have this and this is that once something bad happens we have a tendency to remember and fear it, and over-fear it the next time. This was one of those times and I was sure my flags were going to draw attention and I knew I was going to drop my laptop again and this time destroy it.

The fears were there and I knew it was the going to be the end of the world. As usual though my fears were much greater than what reality threw at me and this time the trek though security was painless for once.

The journey got interesting once I arrived in Memphis. The layover was an hour, and once the hour was over it was time to board. My zone was called and just as I was about to have my phone scanned (my boarding pass was on my phone. How cool is that?) the pilot came up and told the counter lady that due to weather in Boston there was going to be a three hour delay.

The rumors then swirled and at one point in time I heard that the flight had been cancelled. After several minutes the overhead monitor said that it would be about a seventy minute wait.

During the delay I started playing Catan for my phone and then, with 30 minutes left, I went to the ice cream store that was just a few steps away. It had been a while since I had a banana split, March 31th when I was in Lebanon, Missouri, so I decided to order that. The store was only being worked by one lady and it took her a while to make it, but when it was done it looked amazing; a banana (naturally), ice cream, nuts, and whip cream.

While she was finishing up with it I looked out at my gate to see if the boarding process had begun, it had not, so I turned back to see that she was holding my banana split towards me and she said something. What I heard was, "An announcement?" and I stared at her in confusion. I instantly went into hearing mode to hear the PA to see if there was an update on my flight. She said the same thing again and I stared at her blankly. The third time I heard what she really was saying, "Your banana split, sir."

I felt awkward from this and left the store while I heard her and the customer behind me laugh. To make matters worse I forgot a spoon so I had to turn around and re-enter the store and get one. After getting the spoon I walked to the gate across from mine and I had to figure out how to sit down. I had my flag bag over my left shoulder and my computer bag over my right. I decided to set down the flag bag first just at the same time as an announcement was being made.

What happened next I am not fully sure, but somehow I ended up toppling over the split onto the ground where my flag bag had just been set down. A half a banana, whip cream, and nuts went flying in all directions. It was a certified mess and I was in shock. Why? For one I just lost out on a $6 purchase, and secondly my flag bag now had all sorts of ice cream on it. With no napkins in sight I made the walk of shame to the bathroom to try and clean up a mess.

I fully believe I was in a minor overload and that caused me to drop the split. It started in the store and because my mind was analyzing the encounter with the clerk and the other customer I truly should have not rushed to sit down, much less try to sit while an announcement was being made.

The remnants of my split remained on the floor all the way until I boarded my flight; I would have cleaned up, but truly I did not have the tools or napkins to take on such a mess.

The flight from Memphis to Boston will always be remembered for the most dedicated flight attendant I have ever seen. Perhaps this isn't a good thing, but every rule was followed to the T. On takeoff each person that had ANY electronic device not in a bag was scolded. My laptop bag was 98% under the seat in front of me, but this wasn't good enough. He said, "Sir, all bags must be fully under the seat in front during takeoff and landing. See this line? (he pointed towards the mark of where the seat in front of me ending) This is the point that your bag must be past on takeoff and landing."

Truly the whole flight was like that with every rule that was violated he promptly fixed. Maybe he was in the military at some point in time, but in any event he ran that plane like every minor infraction could have catastrophic consequences.

This flight attendant also created a panic within me as we neared Boston when he said, "Folks, I've just got word from the flight deck that the turbulence we are about to encounter will be severe. Because of this we will no longer be coming through the cabin." I've never heard this and was sure I was about to die. The turbulence mentioned was a few mild bumps and was nothing out of the ordinary so once again my fears we unfounded.

So today I am going to be flagging practice at the Little "T" and in Thompson, Connecticut. I still have my eyes towards Irene and keep going back and forth from thinking there will be no delays, to being stranded here at Ryan's house until September.

There is a chance I may blog during the weeked should something merit it, or if I want to talk hurricanes.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Date With Irene

It's going to an interesting weekend as my bags are now packed. I will be heading to this weekend's special event of the USAC .25 series. That's not the interesting part; the interesting part is where this race is.

Yes, this race this weekend is in Thompson, Connecticut and I am flying into Boston. My friend Ryan, whom I have been to the Indy 500 for the past two years and have raced with him online since 2004, will be picking me up, but here's the tricky part for me; my flight leaves Monday morning. That will be the approximate time hurricane Irene will be churning away in that area.

I'm no expert of aviation travel, but I believe airports close during hurricanes. Even if it hits on Sunday, there still will be delays the following day. So, a extended stay in New England you say? Hardly! On Wednesday I have a huge four hour presentation at a county conference that I CAN'T MISS! Not being there is not an option. Yet, I can't miss this race either as the airfare has been paid and I committed to it.

So, if there hasn't been enough drama this past month now we get to throw hurricanes into the mix. We may have a mix of planes, trains, and rented automobiles to get home should the airport system be in disarray, but one way or the other I will make it home from this date with Irene on time and make it to my presentation. I will say this though, if it's windy and hurricanish at Ryan's house we may just have my first on-location video blog as I go all Jim Cantore from the storm. The forecast? The eye of the storm is forecasted to go over his house inland. Should be interesting, but that's later, today I travel and hopefully it goes better than my last trip!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Self-Hatred Transformed Into Passion

I'll begin today by talking about yesterday and Monday. First, the blog you read yesterday was actually written at 11PM Monday evening. My original plan was to go from bowling to Osage Beach, but I felt like I needed to write the events of that evening right away. Writing is my way of coping and by writing that I slowly began to come back to normal.

After writing that I left home and made the midnight drive to Osage Beach. The drive itself was a rather tense one as Missouri Route 42 from Rolla up to middle of nowhere Missouri is a roller coaster in the day time, but at night it is downright scary! I kept saying, "Oh dear... DEER!" as I was sure I was going to encounter one with my windshield. Also, cats, raccoons, turtles, and many more animals were seen.

Thankfully I made it without incident and without falling asleep behind the wheel and once I got to the hotel I realized I'd be presenting in the same area as I did when I spoke at the Missouri Police Juvenile Officers Association conference last year.

I laid down for bed after a long and tense day extremely tired but as soon as my head hit the pillow I was wide awake. Sleep would not come until 3AM and my wake up call at 6:58 was way too soon.

Getting up was the one thing I didn't want to do, but it had to be done. There was a presentation at hand for the Real Voices Real Choices conference.

Once I was out of my hotel room I wondered what everything meant. I mean, two horrific experience happened to me within four days of each other so why am I here? Who am I to say what my experiences are?

As I walked towards my car to park closer to the place where I was speaking so I didn't have to carry my books for an obscene distance I truly was hating on myself. "Why can't I just be like everyone else?" I said aloud in my car.

It wasn't a long drive, but it was an angry one. Once again, even though I wrote it on Monday, I forgot who I was. When I forget that I am on the spectrum that is when the true self-hatred hits. When I blame myself and tell myself I should be able to be, "normal" on a whim that is when I get depressed. Why? Because I can't be what I am expecting; normal is something I am not.

I thought back to the conversation I had with James on Friday night when I said that, "This shouldn't happen to me!" And he simply asked, "Why not?" The events at the bowling alley Monday night were of the same course of events. I hated myself, no, HATED (needed to make that point stronger) myself because of what happened to me. I was confused as to why my body reacted the way it did. I kept thinking I had a choice in my reaction, but it wasn't until I started getting my books out of the car, and seeing my own book cover, that I realized it wasn't a choice at all.

At many presentations I am told that either a son or daughter are in complete denial about being on the spectrum, but yet their self image about their issues is very low. I understand this as when we ignore what we have we and we try to be what we perceive the world expects us to be we will usually fall short. Acceptance of autism is vital I now believe. This isn't to say that when one accepts that they should never strive to be something more, but at the same time to expect to not have issues like I experienced this past week is a trip down a one-way road towards frustration.

Eventually I made it into my presentation room and I was having trouble staying awake. I had only 12 hours of sleep for the past three nights, traveled 800 miles, flagged two days of racing, and had one of the worst nights of my life and yet here I was about to give a presentation to about 100 people.

While the room was empty (I was early) I sat down in self-reflection. I stared up at the screen with my opening slide that was on it and once again it all made sense. Truly understanding is the foundation for hope because even me, well, even I forget that I am on the spectrum. Why I say understanding is the foundation for hope is that there are times, especially after a traumatic experience, that I may forget what I have. When this happens it is the understanding of those around me that are critical to minimizing the length of the ordeal.

I used strong words in that last paragraph about me, and for myself I just get upset, but for others on the spectrum their reactions may be much more severe than my own and it is there that understanding with those around them that are CRITICAL. As I began to contemplate this people started filing in for my presentation and I began to get nervous because I only had 45 minutes instead of my typical 75-90 to speak, but it had to be done.

With all that had happened I got up when it was time and despite being more tired than I had been in a long time, I started my presentation as usual with, "Hello, I am Aaron Likens and I am the Community Education Specialist for TouchPoint Autism Services..." and as I said it I stressed the word "Education" because from my experiences regardless of how sad or angry they make me my passion, and job title is to educate, and yesterday was one of my finest hours.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Opening Night Terror

And I thought the Mongolian grill story from yesterday was as bad as it gets! Last night was the start of the bowling season and I wanted to bowl before heading on the three hour drive to Osage Beach as I have an 8AM presentation there. Oddly enough this decision to bowl created an event I will NEVER forget.

This is my 13th season of bowling and for many years it was my only social outlet. My night didn't start off to well in the first game with a score of only 150 (my season high average was 212). It was at the conclusion of the first game that this story picks up as I was getting hungry so I went to the snack machine to get some Chex Mix. I put my money in, hit the number, and as it was trying to dispense it the bag got stuck.

Now how on Earth does a stuck bag create terror? It's been somewhat of a joke the past decade as every time I go to this machine I manage to get it stuck. Most times I go to the counter, but many of those times I get scolded for breaking it and have been told on numerous occasions to, "give it a gentle shake."

By giving it a gentle shake I forgo any personal interaction, so last night I decided to do this. By no means am I violently shaking it as I am just trying to create a vibration effect to scoot it out. This was not working so I looked over to the front counter and the lane attendant got the snack machine key and headed over my way.

He started to open it and I was about to make a joke that my season was not off to a good start in regards to bowling and snack machines when another employee came over, pointed in my face, and said, "What are you, stupid? Can't you read the sign? It says 'do not shake' you wear glasses right?" and he stormed off.

Shock? Despair? Hatred? Confusion? What was I feeling? I don't think my vocabulary has the right words to describe the intense rage of confusing thoughts and emotions I was feeling. I have never been pointed at and yelled at for anything much less for something I have been told to do in the past. I had no idea what had occurred except that I wanted to disappear.

The other employees that saw this looked dumbfounded at me and I started to walk back to my lane as the crushing avalanche of rage came full force. I hated him, myself, and everything. I hate to sound so negative, but at that moment I was through with everything. I didn't care. My mind could not make sense of the world I was in.

I walked down to my lane and as I was about to sit down I threw my bag of Chex Mix on the table with all my might and my teammate asked, "Did I miss something? Are you mad?" And I responded with just one word and that was the person who yelled at me.

That name I spoke would be the last thing I would say at the bowling alley. I tried to talk, but nothing was there. There was no ability to speak and when I did the only thing I wanted to do was to cry like I have never cried before. I was in emotional survival mode. It was an odd feeling as I rocked back and forth and kept putting my left hand near my mouth and sometimes both arms across my ears. Every movement I had may have looked random, but it was the only thing I had to comfort me in this world that had caused so much pain.

Just because I was a wreck didn't mean I quit bowling. If I am paying for something I am going to do it. Even though I was hyper-ventilating and my face was numb and I was sweating I went up to bowl and I got a strike in the first frame. The second frame too was a beautiful strike and it was at this point in time I sent a text to my dad concerning the three hour drive I would have.

Third frame came and another strike was struck. A member of the other team tried to talk to me, but I shook him off, literally, and he asked me if I was, "okay" and my team captain who is fully aware of my autism and fully aware of what was going on did a gentle hand motion I think implying that yes I was, but lay off because no I wasn't.

I honestly don't know how I was bowling so well. The anger within me towards the world and myself was immense and consuming. I also was fully aware of how awkward it must have been for all those around me as my eyes were teary, my body had odd jerky motions, and there were probably at least 1,000 other things that were different about me. Yet I bowled on.

4th frame was a strike as was the 5th and then my dad showed up at the bowling alley as he was concerned as I was not answering his calls. I had texted him saying that I couldn't talk and I guess any concerned parent would swoop in on such a text. He asked, "What happened" and just as I was going to explain it orally I failed. I tried again, got frustrated, and promptly turned around and headed to my seat where my phone was sitting and I texted it to him.

This medium of writing was my only method to explain what was going through me. The concept of talking about this was crashing my system. Through text, and actually handwriting, I said that this was the worst experience of my life.

I've been yelled at by irate drivers many times when I was a race director, but that's part of the experience of being race director. That event last night was random and without cause. Random breeches of our lives like this scare me because if it happens once it can happen again.

My striking streak slowed down and as fate would have it the bowling alley broke, well, 10 lanes broke in a sequence of events that no one there can ever remember. We were delayed and that gave me more time to think and as my dad was debating on what to do I took a pen he was holding and wrote, "Is this bullying? Is this what kids in school endure?" Even though I told myself I had given up on everything I was still trying to come up with a way to use this experience for the betterment of the world. My dad gently shook his head yes and I went back to shaking and trying to maintain my emotions.

The 2nd game was finally over and my score was a 220. Not a perfect game, but respectable considering the circumstances.

My dad had confronted the employees and left after the 2nd game. I still was in no state to talk because I didn't know what to say. After not talking for three hours what does one say? I still was in a state of shock and still had anger towards the world, but it was subsiding. I had to make a drive home to pick up more books and then I made my way towards Osage Beach at 11PM.

I always try and find the positive from this and from this singular event I can't say that there is one. Perhaps you could find one by saying that I didn't leave the alley and I continued to bowl, but I'm just that hard headed when I am spending money to do something. However, where I find the positive, as with yesterday's post, is that this furthers my understanding of myself. There are things I can tolerate and then there are things like the event last night that I simply can't endure. Many people would have issues with being yelled at and pointed at, but for me it was like blowing up a dam and a massive flood came across the landscape. Now here's the thing, when I asked, "is this bullying?" I never had social disasters at school. I now think if I had to go through that daily I would not have survived. What does this mean? This means the need is even greater than I can imagine.

I'll be honest and say if I haven't experienced something it is hard for me to feel empathy. That's one aspects of the spectrum and because of this bullying is something I was aware of, but never truly felt. Now that I have felt it, or at least a form of it, I can't believe the effects of it. At the Mongolian BBQ place on Friday I couldn't speak for a brief moment, but this was hours. I was so hurt so deeply on so many levels I didn't talk for hours. This HAD NEVER HAPPENED TO ME. It scared me.

Moving forward, I want my message to be heard even more. Is there a cure for autism? No, but by preventing events like last night people on the spectrum are going to be able to be so much more. If I had to contend with that daily I WOULD NOT FUNCTION!

April, of course, is autism awareness month, but now I know even more so that this awareness is a thing that can't have a season. It is full-time and even I, I think, can become complacent with it. I mean, I give a presentation here, I give a presentation there, and then another one without realizing the true need. If there is a positive from this and Friday's events it is that it has kickstarted a deeper passion within me. On the right hand column of this blog I say that my life is dedicated towards autism awareness, and it is, but now it seems even more personal. To experience what I felt last night was something I want NO PERSON TO GO THROUGH. The only way I feel this can happen is through understanding and awareness. The impact society has on a person with autism is amplified. Yelling at person A may make them mad, but yelling at me in a situation like last night creates an event like a comet hitting a planet; it's catastrophic.

Last night I felt alone, isolated from the world. I was within the confines of a crowded bowling alley, but I was alone within myself. I am coming out of that now, and have a presentation today, and believe me when I say the terror I felt on lane 19 last night is going to fuel me. I know I keep getting better at presenting, but there's still room for growth and that terror I felt is going to be used. My voice is going to get louder, my passion for this has exploded in growth, and my empathy towards those that have been bullied is understood. I may have gone too long on this post, but this is something that NEEDS TO HAPPEN. The stakes are too high and the impact on people is too great. We can make a difference even if it's one person at a time. Autism awareness starts with us. Let's change this world for the better. We must.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Perfect Storm: OVERLOAD

Friday night is one I am going to remember forever. Not for a short time, not for a while, but for the rest of my life.

The day started off great as practice for the USAC .25 series was ran and it was without a doubt the smoothest day of the year. That was great, but after the day's events the group decided on a place to eat and I didn't know what to expect. It was explained to me, but all I knew was that if a place has Mongolian in the name something is slightly askew. I was right.

Everything I knew about restaurants was wrong as I entered. It was noisy, and the menus were more for show than actually used. If you haven't been to a place like this what it is, to put simply, is you got over to these three bars and pick out your meats, veggies, and sauces and put them in the same bowl then go to the grill where they, well, grill it. What may sound simple was overload for me.

First, I have a real dislike of seeing raw meat. I don't know why, but it just makes me want to shake. Secondly, I believe food is never supposed to touch. Thirdly, I hate sauces. On top of all this the people that work the grill are loud. VERY LOUD! And they also have a VERY LOUD bell they ring at times that I couldn't determine why they were ringing it.

I had trouble deciding what to do so I eventually decided on just one bowl full of meat. I was being consumed by the loudness of the place and making decisions was quickly becoming a task I was not capable of. One person saw my food choice and told me that, "You can't do that, it will be to dry. You need to try some sauces."

After hearing that I went to the sauce bar and stared in awe of all the choices. Truly, there were more sauces on that bar than I had ever seen in my entire life. As I stared like a lost kitty in a tree an employee came and explained to me the logic in the display of the sauces. I was handed a little spoon so I could try the sauces and while she was talking I didn't process one word she said. The grillers were still yammering away and the music was blasting.

She told me to try some teriyaki sauce so she poured some out on my little white spoon and without thinking I tried it and it was a shock to my system. To say I didn't like it is to say one simply doesn't like a broken foot. No, it was more than simply not liking; it was a complete and utter violation of everything I thought about taste! Needless to say I didn't choose that sauce, and as she went away I stared in befuddlement as to what to do next. Do I break and try a sauce? Do I do some veggies? Oh, and why can't I get some quiet to think?

I began to walk in an erratic pattern and my mind started "thinking harder" which is always a recipe for a blog post. My thoughts were racing and I quite literally did not know what to do next. This was all new to me and I went from a lost kitty in a tree to a lost puppy on a busy interstate. I knew what was going on within me and yet I couldn't do anything about it. I was in the truest states of overload and I wanted anything, ANYTHING but to be me at that point in time. If I could have vanished I would have.

James, the USAC .25 series director, saw me and came over and asked if I needed any help. I tried to answer, but words weren't working. I tried to speak but nothing was there. In all my life I have never had this happen. It was awful, horrifying, and sad. There was so much I wanted to say, and yet not a single word came out of my mouth for almost 15 seconds. I tried, and tried, and eventually I said, "I...I... I don't know what to do."

My pile of meat in my bowl was taken to the grill where the cooks had a good time laughing about my selection. "Son, where's your veggies?" was the first question and I was not in a state to respond to it. Then, the cook saw me and my bland expression while I stared off into space and he said, "Dude, what's wrong with you?" Such a tragic question that was.

Eventually, after several more bell ringings and questions my way that went unanswered, I made it to the table with my food and I ate. It wasn't dry at all and I ate it, but within me was a storm of self-hatred that I haven't experienced in a long time. I felt as if I let everyone in the group down because I look forward to these dinners and I have been coming out of my shell over the course of the season, but here I regressed all the way back into my former anti-social self.

I ate quickly and retreated into my chess.com app on my iPhone. This was my defense; I had to get my mind off the events that had happened. What I try to do when I go out into the world is to not have my autism be visibaly noticed, but I failed in a big way and I was hating myself for it.

After a while James asked why I was so down and I said, "Because this shouldn't happen!" And he responded, "Why shouldn't it?" and with that answer I remembered that I am, in fact, on the autism spectrum. That sounds like an odd statement, but it's true. I don't go around in my head saying, "I'm on the spectrum... I'm on the spectrum..." It's only when there is an event that happens that I am reminded. Sometimes the reminders are small, and sometimes the reminders are on a gigantic scale like this one was.

As the night wound down I began to swing from hating myself to thinking about how good of a story this will be for my blog. The hatred went away as I began to think, and I told James this, that I am lucky in that I could explain what occurred. I could explain that it wasn't anything anyone did but simply that I was overloaded. It was a new place, and a loud one at that, and it was too much. Yes, I could explain what happened but there are those that stay in a state like I was in, with that being the state of not being able to speak to explain what is going on and why something is bothering them. It happened to me and as I write this a tear is coming to my eye as I think about the prison I felt I was in.

My mission in life is to spread awareness and understanding and I always try to put a positive spin on my stories and challenges. I'm not sure how to do that on this as this truly was one of the worst experiences of my life. Maybe the positive is this; once again my passion for my job has been increased. For a brief moment I lost my voice and some people, in the past, have thanked me for being that voice for those that can't speak. I thought to myself that, "There isn't anything more tragic than wanting to say something, and needing to say something, but being unable to." and I experienced that. However, as I said, my passion for this has increased. Thanks to my work with my blog those around me didn't think I was the oddest thing in the world and I don't think they now think anything less of me and that is what I was afraid of. When an event like this happens I am always concerned about how I will be perceived. This shows that awareness and understanding are critically vital to the well being of those on the spectrum. The need to know is great because imagine if they had no idea about the challenges a person on the spectrum face! What was a gigantic issue could turn into a cataclysmic event, but that didn't happen. Instead, space was given and over time conversation was slowly introduced. Yes, without a doubt, what was a perfect storm that induced a severe overload has know kindled the perfect storm within me to continue my journey in describing my life on the spectrum.

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Art of Hanging Banners

One of the things that is done before the USAC .25 series races at a track is setup. One of the things that needs to be done is the hanging of banners around the track and I have learned, without a doubt, I am one of the worst banner hangers in the world!

Several races ago in Hagerstown each banner I hung was off centered, crooked, and one was even backwards. It's odd as I am very coordinated with the movement of my flags when I am flagging, and also coordinated when I used to race. However, when it comes to the fine motor skills of hanging banners I am about as useful as one spare tire when a person has four flat tires.

To put simply I am not good. In life I have realized that I can either do something really well, or I do something really bad. Rarely is there a middle ground and when it comes to using my hands to put something up and on top of all that judging with my eyes if something is even and, well, it usually doesn't end well.

Here's the wonderful thing about the situation I'm in though, those around me know this! While at first I was angry with myself at my inability to be as proficient or capable as everyone else, I now have accepted that I simply am not good at it. This doesn't mean that I retreat from the task all together as I am now the zip-tie cutter extraordinaire, but when it comes to the actual hanging I am a better asset to watch and give moral support than I am in actually helping.

I have never been good with eye-to-hand coordination and I actually got an "F" in 1s grade art. An "F!" I remember struggling and struggling with the concept of folding the art projects on the lines. Perhaps I simply didn't like the directions and wanted to do it my way, but more likely I simply didn't have the skills to do the project the way it was intended.

Going back a paragraph, I mentioned that everyone around me knows my lack of skill. Thanks to my blog, and the fact that my blog seems to be popular among the USAC staff, my skills and challenges are known so I don't have to fully explain what is going on. Having to explain such things can be highly difficult to the point of being impossible because how does one state that something is difficult?

There was an event at the last race during the banner hanging portion of the weekend and I was in my zip tie cutting/moral support mode and there were two banners that were slightly askew. James, the series director, told me to "cut the ends because we need to start over." The thing about that sentence is I just processed the 2nd half of the sentence in that we needed to start over. To start over that meant I needed to take the whole thing down so out came the cutters and after getting most of the zip ties off James came back and said, "No, Aaron, just the ends." My heart sank as doing anything wrong is something I try to avoid at all costs, and sometimes other people in society get super angry at minor things and I am always afraid of this happening, but in this misunderstanding came understanding. This is why I say, "understanding is the foundation for hope." There wasn't anger in his voice, no hint of disappointment at all, and in the end we laughed about the misunderstanding.

For this race the banners have been hung and while I still am trying to understand the art of hanging them, today there will be no mistaken my duties as the on-track activities begin and I take my position in the flagstand. There will be no doubt in my actions, no hesitation in what I need to do, and just as awkward as I am when trying to hang banners I am just as confident as I am in the flagstand. Again, as I said, I can either do something really good or really bad and today I am going to do something that I am really good and I can't wait to get to the track.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Return of Red Bull Cola

Have you ever enjoyed a product only to find out that it has gone off the market? This has happened to me many times and if you've seen my presentation you will remember just how angry I was that The Olive Garden took away my manicotti I ordered since I was five years old.

More recently I have been fearful of a product that I have not been able to find. Many times last year, as proved by this list of blogs, I talked about it. It sort of was a rite of passage as I drove through Kingdom City that I would get Red Bull Cola at the Petro Station there on I-70. This happened many times, but then on one trip it was gone.

I thought nothing of it, perhaps Petro changed their order, or maybe they were just out. Then, over the course of the past eight months or so, I have not been able to find it ANYWHERE. I checked the internet and others seemed to be as confused as I was as too where the Red Bull Cola had gone. I checked Ebay, not that I would feel comfortable buying a food product on there, but some people were asking $10 a can. TEN DOLLARS! And that did not include shipping.

Anytime something is hard to find, or even worse... discontinued, the prices go up. In fact, when my book was sold out on Amazon earlier this year some people were selling used copies for as much as $250!

So my fears were set that I would never have a Red Bull Cola. This saddened me as it is more than a drink to me. Somewhere in my blog I talked about the associative memory associated with the drink, but it's been a while so I will say it again. I first tasted it at the 2009 Indy 500 as a Red Bull Mini drove buy handing out free samples. At first I despised the drink. I thought it was awful, nasty, and too zingy for my taste.

I didn't try it again until I was handed it at the 2009 SKUSA SuperNats in Las Vegas. I was thirsty and that's what I had so I drank it and this time the taste was amazing. Perhaps the taste was aided by the fact that I was the chief starter of the largest go-kart race in North America, and perhaps the world, but from that point in time I leaped at any chance to drink Red Bull Cola.

The next memory I had associated with the drink was just 3 months after the 09 SuperNats when I went along with Ron Ekstrand, CEO of TouchPoint, and other key figures of TouchPoint to the Kansas City area and we stopped at that Petro station along the way and that was the first time I got Red Bull Cola at that gas station.

That trip to the K.C. was a big thrill for me as I was still part time at that point in time, but I felt as if I was part of something and had something to contribute. Now what does that have anything to do with Red Bull Cola? This is where my associative memory system comes into play.

Each time I taste Red Bull Cola I can not only see those two events I mentioned, but it is truly like re-feeling the emotions of it. I do have a videographic memory, but by having this aid, it is like re-experiencing it all over again.

So with all that said, yesterday my sister informed me (I am in Indy about to head to Kalamazoo for a USAC .25 race along with a full size midget race that will see me as the flagman) that she had my Christmas present. I thought it was a bit early for it so I thought she was being sarcastic. She went upstairs and returned with a can of Red Bull Cola! It was as if she had brought an extinct animal out of, well, extinction. This was impossible! I accepted the fact that I'd never have another one, but here it was.

Not only was there one, but I believe she said there were eight. Now this is where I became inquisitive as, "Where did you get these?" I asked. She informed me that she got them at Big Lots for the amazing price of 50 cents per can. 50 cents! They were normally $1.49-$2.09 depending on factors I could never figure out.

I'm not patient and I think my sister is holding the other seven cans for Christmas so after a meeting I attended in the morning, and then a canoe trip that I took with my sister and nephew (that could have been a blog post by itself. The end score of the trip was Sugar Creek 1, Aaron 0 as the river managed to turn us over and I slammed my shoulder on a log that was under the water. Yes, even a lazy afternoon float down the river can turn into an adventure in my life.) we stopped at a Big Lots and there they were. More Red Bull cola than I had ever seen at any point in my life so I decided to stock up.

Was 10 enough? Nope. 20? Not hardly. 30? Nope, 30 is such an awkward number (I have no evidence to prove this, I just wanted to say it) so I went with 40. 40 cans and I would have gotten more, but the other cans were somewhat deformed.

I have been drinking a can as I have written this and I know that there's more left. However, the cans I got yesterday, and the cans I will get in the short term, might be it. According to some internet pages the product has indeed been discontinued. This has sort of delayed the inevitable, but I'm okay with that as while I have drinking this I have been reliving the SuperNats in all its glory and also the car ride to Kansas City in a time that I didn't know what I'd be doing with my life yet knowing I was on the brink of something. It's not very often in life that we get a second chance, but I feel as if I do have a second chance with this as I thought Red Bull Cola was gone forever. This may seem like an irrelevant topic, but to experience the power of the "associative memory system" in all its power is amazing. Now pardon me, I have a can to finish and I know, at least for a while, it won't be the last.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Extreme High and Extreme Low of August 16th

Wow, yesterday was a day with such a severe swing. Of course it began with the circus of me trying to make that video blog. Oh, if you could have seen me staring at my monitor with my hand poised to press record only to stop, think, and repeat the process. And then I would start, and then hate it, so I went right back to square one.

Once that circus was over I drove to the Crisis Intervention Team Training Committee meeting which I am a part of and as I sat down I was given the recap of the evaluation and I noticed something odd. The recap is the ratings of each presenter in the CIT 40 hour training. I always am the 2nd or 3rd highest rated and have accepted the fact that I will never be on top because the guy that is always first is a 30+ year SWAT tactical expert and is an amazing presenter. This time though, on this sheet, on the expertise side of the column was my name, on top! ON TOP! 1st place. He got me on the presentation side and I got 2nd, but for once I was first.

I am somewhat competitive with my scores and I don't really compete per se with the others, but rather with my own score. The system is 1 bad to 5 good and my average was a 4.88! Needless to say I was elated for a while. Then reality happened.

For lunch I made the customary trip to Taco Bell. I haven't written about a trip there in a while as nothing worth writing has happened, but yesterday one such event did happen.

As I walked in I noticed that it was busier than I am accustomed to it being. In the waiting line the density of people, or rather the personal space one had was much less than normal. When I am in lines such as this, or confined areas, being around people creates an anxiety that is tough to explain; I try to breathe less and I try to make myself smaller in the space I am in. I know there is an expression on my face; I try to hide it but the level of discomfort is so great.

Once I got to the counter I was already frazzled, and then I was asked the most fearsome question I know, "Hello, how are you today?" In my presentations I talk about my struggles with this and it was one of my first blog posts. Once again I had trouble coming up with an answer to this question as I was wanting to be anywhere but there. If there was a hole in the ground outside I might have just left there and crawled into that hole and hid for 12 hours because I was at my limit and after 10 seconds I finally said, to answer the question, "I'm here." Typically I ask this in the form of a question, but yesterday the only polite way to answer that question was to explain it as factually as possible.

I ordered and I noticed that the price was different and as I looked at the receipt the amount of volcano tacos was off by one so I had to speak up which was highly difficult. I did it, and then I walked to the waiting area and, well, waited.

Once again the confines were tight and no matter where I stepped I was in the way. It was awful and every step I made I walked in the path of where someone else was going. Then two people walked by and one person said, "Hello, Aaron" and I swore I had never seen that person before. I'm sure they work at TouchPoint, but I couldn't place who they were. Perhaps if I wasn't in the state I was in all would have been fine, but I was in that state and this "hello" just added to the confusion I was enduring.

What was going on? I don't think I have ever had such a reaction in public; it felt as if I were falling in the literal sense as there was an extreme physical reaction going on within me. Perhaps panic would be the only word to use that would fit what was going on within me.

Time was dragging on and there were so many orders in front of me. I wanted to leave right then and there and forget the food, but then that would be $4.86 wasted and then I'd still be hungry. I had to stay despite every thing within me telling me otherwise.

When my numbers were called I grabbed the food, truly grabbed in a rude way, and proceeded to storm out of the Taco Bell shaking shaking my head at in disgust. I couldn't believe the way I felt. This is something I never experienced before, well, maybe I have mildly, but the close quarters in that Taco Bell yesterday, and the prolonged exposure to that environment created a true fear and panic within me.

So that was my yesterday. It started off with such an amazing event, but as I said reality set in. Of course, I don't want this to depress you! However, I feel it is vital for those not on the spectrum to understand the nature of what happens within. The physical experience of this event is something that I am shaking just thinking about as it was that bad. Why did it happen yesterday? I'm not all that sure, but as I always say I'm glad it did as it allows me to translate the events and paint the picture of the challenges that we face. Sometimes the challenges are small, and other times they can be a deep chasm that evokes a true physical response. Through understanding of these events I hope those around us have a better understanding of what we face and through that, yes, through that understanding I hope better choices and decisions can be made and to know that we aren't trying to be evasive, defiant, or disobedient, but rather there are times when our world is too much, and yesterday I experienced that.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Video Blog: My First Job Interview



I mention in this just how hard making a video blog is, or rather starting one. So, how hard is it? I made a somewhat humourous video last year of how hard it is and that is below. The video is me answering the question, "How hard is starting a video blog?" The answer is as follows:

Monday, August 15, 2011

Driving the Weekend Away

Not since my Bejewled Weekend back several months ago have I been so enthralled in an activity. Truly it was the only thing I thought of during the weekend and every time I did something else I thought of going back to what I was doing. So, what was I doing? I've talked about iRacing in the past with this post as well as this one.

If you are new to my blog you might want to check out my glossary as I explain here that iRacing went from a Kansas to a hyper-Kansas. With my interests that are a Kansas I can step out of it, but when something goes into hyper-Kansas it is very difficult to break away from that activity.

Truly, I raced more on iRacing in this weekend that I think I did for any entire week that I have been a member. I did three F1 races @ 50ish minutes easy, two 110 lap modified races, six 25 minute GT races, many street stock races, and whole lot of practice.

While I still don't know why something goes from a Kansas to a hyper-Kansas I do know what it feels like. During a hyper-Kansas event it all but hurts to be doing something other than the hyper-Kansas activity. It's as if every cell in my body is magnetized and is attracted to that activity. Yesterday I was so enthralled with iRacing that lunch was just a distraction that I didn't have time for.

Looking back on my life I do know there is a vast difference between Kansas and hyper-Kansas. I have stated many times, and in my presentation the exact quote on my PowerPoint is that, "Kansas is that activity or interest a person on the ASD is obsessed with and, as my dad would say 'won't shut up about.'" However, when there is a hyper-Kansas amplify that statement. It becomes more.

When I was younger in school I can remember that when I learned about states and capitols I went into hyper-Kansas mode because I needed to know them. Also, when the game of flashcards came about I did everything I could to learn the multiplication tables to the exclusion of other subjects. When there is a hyper-Kansas other interests or activities that I do like are sometimes ignored.

So how long does a hyper-Kansas last? Usually they aren't a prolonged event; however, as of late my passion for driving has increased and since I am not in a position to drive in real life, what better way to satisfy that desire to drive than to compete against people all around the world on iRacing.

I do want to point out that I don't make a conscious effort to decide what does and what doesn't become a Kansas or a hyper-Kansas. With that being said, do I want the current hyper-Kansas to end? I have a mixed answer on this as it is nice to be able to think about other things and to have other interests, but on the other hand I can honestly say there is no better feeling that to be completely engrossed within the amazingly awesome confines of hyper-Kansas.

Friday, August 12, 2011

The First Time All Over Again

Last evening I took a long bike ride that at least three times longer than any other I have taken in my bike riding career. I pushed my body to the limit and the ride home was not all that fun as I developed not one, not two, but three flat tires, ahem, I mean two as I was just seeing if you were paying attention.

The reason for the ride was to allow myself time of being isolated. It's been a while outside a car ride to or from Indianapolis that I have had time to just think, and I wanted to figure out why I have such a sense of emptiness after presentations. I mean, how come I feel as if I have never presented before? How come I feel as if time is passing me by and I am doing nothing.

During my ride I found a pattern in my life; it isn't simply job tasks that I have this sense of emptiness. With friendships I feel the same way. Next week I will be working the USAC .25 race in Kalamazoo, Michigan and yet I will be nervous as I drive to Indy to ride up with the other USAC staff because it will feel as if I am meeting them anew.

It's hard to explain, but each time I meet people I already know it is like I am meeting them again for the first time. So to this concept plays true in presentations. Now, once the road trip begins, or the presentation begins, I will get comfortable, but still it presents awkward emotions for me.

Several months ago I heard a person tell me, when I was describing the way my memories work, that it sounded like an infant. What he meant by that is when a mother leaves an infant, to the infant, the mother is gone and does not exist. I believe he said, "Out of sight, out of mind." This is exactly how my mind works to this day.

When I'm in the midst of a presentation I know what to do without thought. Now, as I write this though, it is so hard to imagine that I am a presenter.

As I continued my ride I realized a fact about myself and that is I try to hard around others. It is hard for me to become comfortable because, for one, I am always meeting those I know for the first time again. This fact may be compounded because, since it is hard for me to judge anything regarding friendship and it is even more difficult to judge facial expressions.

On my return trip home, as I trudged through the flat tire situation, I thought of just how tiring it is for me because I never know where I stand with others. And when others leave and I see them later, well, it is even more scary because once again I have to establish those bonds.

After two hours I got close to home and realized that this concept of the first time all over again is one reason why I strive for routines. With a routine I know what to expect and if it happened once it will happen again. I must state that a routine, at least for me because remember, "If you've met one person with autism you've only met one person with autism." but in a routine I know what to expect from those around me. Let's say if activity Q was done and everyone had a good time and I felt as if those around me were true friends then that means every time activity Q is done I will have true friends. Because of this activities don't get old for us because it is more than just the activity at hand.

I think this surely will need to be written for my book and in it I hope I describe this better than I have on here today. There is something to this concept though, I know it. I never thought about routines being more than just within me, but I am beginning to think it also has to do with those around me because if we do the same thing each time, well, I will feel as if we've met before and the typical anxiety that goes along with meeting someone new, even if it is the 1,000th time, won't be as harsh.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Living the Mission

Yesterday was an amazing day in terms of the impact I had on people. It started early in the morning as I gave a presentation to police officers going through the Crisis Intervention Team training in St. Charles County. After that I gave my biggest solo presentation to date with nearly 300 people in attendance.

I don't usually get nervous before a presentation, but being in this school's auditorium was a bit daunting and intimidating. I mean, I'm used to small rooms with 10-50 people, not a stadium like environment with seats going to the ceiling.

The 300 people were all paraprofessionals and I am truly thankful that this school district I was got me in to speak to them because they truly are the front line with people that need help in the school setting. Before the presentation I talked to one of the district's administrators and it WAS SO REFRESHING to hear a higher up in a school district acknowledging that THEY NEED TO KNOW more about autism. I've heard so many stories across the state that paints a black picture about educators, but trust me when I say it isn't all districts or all teachers and there are those out there that are dedicated to raising the understanding.

Having that conversation before the presentation helped motivate me. I still was pacing around the lobby with 30 minutes until my presentation, but I guess anyone would in such a setting. It was odd timing as just a few days ago I said, "Oh yeah, I've done so many presentations I never get nervous." This instance brought me back to Earth.

It was finally time for my presentation and as soon as I started I felt right at home and I could feel the electricity in the air. I've noticed that with bigger groups and I even I can tell that I have a more captive audience the larger the numbers. My humor is sharper as I feed of the audience and the audience too is more energetic. Why is that? I have no idea, but some of my jokes had people in tears, while my more somber points also elicited tears more so than normal.

As my presentation wound down and I explained how Plan B happened in my life I felt a rush of emotion and almost lost my composure. It got worse when I mentioned that the work these paraprofessionals are doing now may not immediately show up. I can recount many events in my school career that took many years to show and I compared it to planting a seed that make take a long time to bloom. I'm sure it can be frustrating to work with those on the spectrum and often times I hear lines such as, "But how do I know what I am doing is doing anything at all?" and with my example of my 2nd grade teacher letting me present and back then I wasn't social at all and now I'm a presenter, well, tears were flowing. And it was then I realized that I am truly living my mission.

I think I have mentioned this many times with that being living the mission, but each presentation to me is much like my first one. I forget my impact and often have no idea if my points in my presentation will get across. Perhaps it is a small tragedy, but unless I am in the midst of a presentation I feel no pride in my ability to speak and often question if it is any good at all. And then again maybe this is what keeps me level headed and keeps the presentation from getting stale so to speak because each time I take nothing for granted and must prove myself.

Being home last night I reflected on some of the comments I heard such as, "Aaron, that was the best presentation we've ever had." and, "Now, and only now after hearing you speak I now feel like I can do my job the way it is intended because I never knew what my kids with Asperger's were feeling." I thought of those comments and felt as if I should have some emotional response, or some sense of pride, but there was nothing. That may seem sad, and I did have a gaping hole of emptiness within me, but again I feel as if it is this that I get my power to do what I do.

It's hard for me to measure if a presentation was good or bad, but I am elated that I got the chance to speak to such a large crowd and make a potential impact. I hope more and more school districts make the effort to educate educators about the autism spectrum because our numbers are growing and the school years are vital for a lifetime of success for someone on the spectrum. People with Asperger Syndrome can do amazing things in their lives, but first they have to survive the school years. With that being so I hope I get many more times to live my mission. I may not take pride or realize the true impact I am having now, but in the midst of a presentation I have no doubt my words are being heard.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Post 401: The Mission is Clear

I spent yesterday glued to my inbox and glued to TouchPoint's Facebook page anxiously awaiting the next comment on the "Autism Is... Project". With each comment came a sense of awe and a sense of pride. I had spent 399 posts describing my world and my thoughts, but of everything I have done on here nothing has given me more motivation that yesterday.

There was a hint of irony yesterday in that in my afternoon presentation I gave someone asked something along the lines of, "How do you get the courage to leave the house?" Several years ago I didn't. Several years ago I would become so angry with myself in situations that saw me want to say something but I said nothing at all that I would find every excuse not to put myself in any social situations. The way this is achieved was to stay at home.

But where do I get the courage? Even today there are times when I want to talk but am unable. Of everything I endure this is the most annoying and saddening. Contrary to what you might think looking at me from the outside I do want to talk and I do want to be a part of that social world, but sometimes it is just to difficult. That being so I answered the question yesterday by saying, "If I want to continue my mission I must put myself out there. It isn't always easy, but there's a world that needs to be aware and understand autism."

In yesterday's comments I found hope, courage, and motivation. For those that commented I am sure life has its ups and downs, but autism is recognized. Think of those that don't know, or don't understand. If you are new to the spectrum, please read those comments and I hope you can see the hope in those words.

As I said, of everything I have done I think yesterday's post was my most special. When I blog I don't know how many, if any, people will read my words. You all came through with such amazing and profound words. I am going to put the "Autism Is..." entry on the side wall of my blog so it is always easily found so for all time people can add just what they think autism is.

So moving forward my passion towards my mission became ever stronger as think of all those people out there that deal with the spectrum but don't know what it is. Those who commented yesterday understand what it is. As I have said since the near beginning of this blog, "understanding is the foundation for hope." If you expect me to simply break out of my shell and start talking to people I have never met, well, I won't be the chatterbox at the table unless the conversation gets to my area of interest, or as I call it, "Kansas." The mission is clear though, to raise as much understanding as possible. It's not so much to be aware of it, but what is it? What does it feel like? Why do we do the things we do? This is why understanding is truly the foundation for hope and I am thankful that I have a forum and a stage to do that.

Life may not be the easiest for us, but for myself I wouldn't change a thing. Yes, I still get frustrated with myself when I want to talk to a person but walk by without saying a word, but that's me. If I were different then I'd be different and I have grown to like me the way I am. I do always look at ways to improve who I am, but I understand the elements in play in my life. From understanding I have been able to grow. I hope the words I have written before, the ones here now, and the words I have yet to write all help anyone and everyone grasp the spectrum just a little bit more. Yes, the mission is clear and thank you for being along for the journey.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Eventful Weekend and A Horse In the Fog

OH MY! This is going to be a weekend to remember and one I won't soon forget. Of course it started off last week on Thursday with that planking photo I showed, but from that point on it just go more and more memorable.

Friday was an unexpectedly long day as I knew I was flagging the .25 Little Hoosier 100, but at the end of that day's event James asked me, "Would you mind flagging the midget triple header at Plymouth Speedway?" Would I mind? The smile on my face was answer enough and I was bouncing off the proverbial walls for the next few hours anxiously awaiting what, to me, is heaven on Earth.

We got to Plymouth Speedway and I set my flag bag beside the pickup truck we were in and a few minutes later a near disaster occurred when my bag was partially ran over by another pickup truck. My heart sank and for anyone that knows me they know that my flags are my most prized possession. With tense nerves I opened the bag fearing to see torn flags and shattered sticks, but amazingly the only sign that the bag had been ran over was the dirt marks on the bag that matched the tread of the tires of the pickup truck.

As evening came the event began and all the nerves of fearing screwing up vanished. The car count was good with one division having something around 20 cars and the start of that feature, with 20 cars zooming by as I threw the green, was nothing short of pure awesomeness! I had a thought then, in that flagstand, that it should be against the law to enjoy something as much as I enjoy being at the race track as chief starter. With each checkered flag that flew though I knew it was one step closer to the event being done.

Eventually the event was over and I think that the ride back to the hotel was one of the longest rides of my life; not because the mileage was all that long (it wasn't) and not because some PowerAde was spilled (it was) but because it had been a 14 hour day flagging. To pay attention for that long takes a toll on the mind and I was a bit short fused, but we made it back just in time to get 5 hours of sleep.

Sunday morning I felt awful. It was nothing that eight more hours of sleep could fix, but that wasn't happening as the Little Hoosier 100 in Newton Park had to be ran.

Despite every cell in my body yearning for sleep I found energy. I don't know from where, but I was my usual energetic self. The day went on and still I was as enthusiastic with all my movements as usual. Thankfully I got one quick break and another person filled in and that was a good time to watch, but I went right back to flagging thereafter.

Now I've said this many time about flagging, but I wish you, if you don't know personally, could see the difference in me flagging and being out in public. I keep repeating this because it is so powerful for me. Most of the time I over analyze every aspect of life and will not act or say anything even if I want to; however, when flagging, nothing is over analyzed and action is done with precision and without thought.

I feel as if the real me is seen at the race tracks, and perhaps and presentations I do too. It is in these realms that I am not held back. I'll admit writing this, and the last paragraph has brought tears to my eyes because it is just so powerful. I've always known that I loved racing; I loved when I raced and I love what I do now, but it is more than just loving it as it is where I am free from the usual over processing my mind does and typical social awkwardness occurs.

Race after race clicked by on Saturday and later in the day I had a close call as one of the quarter midgets tried to visit me where I was standing at speed. It was a close call and those that saw it thought I was going to be hit for sure, but I wasn't phased and kept going.

An odd thing also happened over the course of the A mains as two of the winners, on their victory laps, dropped the checkered flag. This has happened before, but each time the winners did it the flag got wrapped up in their rear tire and axle. The place I get my flags, Dynamic Dezigns, are amazing durable, and I've never lost a flag on a race weekend before, but not even those flags could survive the punishment that the cars provided them as they were punctured and torn. Could they have still been used? Maybe, but I like my flags in perfect shape so for each of those kids that dropped the flag it was actually a bonus for them as I gave them the flag. For one reason or another I carry four checkered flags with me, which is a good thing, but I was told that one of the winners thought that the flag I gave them was, "The best trophy they ever received." I just hope the rumor of destroying my flag means you get to keep it doesn't start as that could get expensive.

Sadly, the event finally was over and this is the most somber of times for me as that enthusiastic person with the flags who is full of life and energy returns to the reserved, shy, and highly anxious person I normally am. This also occurs at the end of presentations as well. 

On the ride back to Indy with J.P. and Kyle I was debating on driving all the way back to Saint Louis. I was all for it and drank two Red Bulls at 8PM in anticipation of the driving marathon. 30 minutes later I decided not to drive back and I ended up staying at Kyle's. Before that, however, on the ride back to Indy we had some great conversations and I realized just how long it took for me to open up to the USAC staff in terms of socializing. What does that mean? As shy and reserved as I am, as mentioned in the last paragraph, I am no where near as bad as I was last year.

Last season I drove myself to all events regardless if I could catch a ride out of Indy and once at the track I flagged and then left the track. When offered to go out to dinner afterwards I declined. I wanted nothing to do with chatting and kept to myself. It was even harder last year at the end of the events because the difference was even more stark. This season though, after Round 1 in Phoenix, I began to open up. It took a while and this is what I have mentioned many times in my writings, is that I won't instantly open up. The amount of time it takes to feel comfortable around others is much higher than it seems it takes other people. Most people seem not to take the time to get to know a person that requires a longer time to feel comfortable, but the USAC staff I work with has taken the time and for that I am grateful beyond words.

Sunday morning I left Kyle's house and made my way towards I-70. The weather was horrible as the fog was dense. Visibility simply wasn't. Despite this I drove on fearing the worst but hoping for the best. I also at this time refused to get my GPS out as I believed I remembered the way back from the last time I stayed at Kyle's. After knowing I missed the Putnamville turn I got it out and sure enough I had missed my turn.

Several minutes after finding out where I was I came around a gentle right hand turn. The fog was even denser at this point in time and then I saw an outline of an image. I have seen this outline many times in my memories and it is something I will never forget. Without thought I swerved into the other lane and I looked to my right and there it was, a gigantic horse pulling a cart with a family in it.

It was Sunday morning and chances are our that Amish family was off to church and I came very close to slamming into their horse. That horse had to be two times larger than the horse I hit, which is how I knew the outline of the image. I don't know if I could have lived with myself had I hit that horse, or cart with the family in it, and I also thanked God that there were no cars in the other lane coming at me because I swerved without thought, not that one could see if there were cars or not in that dense of fog.

A minute later I had to stop my car as the fear rolling through my body was extreme. The flashbacks to the time I hit the horse came back, and I was afraid to drive once again. I got caught up on the fact that life is short and had I hit that horse square on it could have been cut tragically short for me, or the family. Then I thought back to the quarter midget that nearly struck me and life became a scary place. "Why ever leave the house?" I said aloud, "WHY? WHY? WHY!"

If you have read my book, or followed my blog for a while, you will know that close calls seem to follow me around. As of late they haven't bothered me, but the outline of that horse took me back to a time when I didn't work at TouchPoint and didn't have a mission in life. I always wondered why without coming up with an answer. Back then I did want to hide as how many close calls can happen if one never leaves the house?

These thoughts were racing faster than the races I flagged Friday night at Plymouth Speedway. Slowly though I came out of it as I began to think about the growth I experience being out of the house. If I wasn't willing to leave I surely would not have that realm of being able to have the energy and style I have when I flag. I also wouldn't know any of the USAC staff and wouldn't have ever opened up and have those times I socialize. Then, as the fear started exiting my body, I remembered my job and mission at TouchPoint. I have to be out, I have to travel, I have to leave the house because if I stayed at home where it is safe how exciting would my blog be? How could I present?

Extreme fear is an odd thing as in the heat of it one can forget who they truly are and parked on the side of the road I felt as if I regressed many years, but I worked through it and with a grit of the teeth I ventured onward back home. I wish my story ended there, but the weekend of oddities continued on once I got home.

Around 11:30 yesterday morning I went to Lion's Choice to pick up lunch. This is common as it is, without a doubt, my favorite place to eat. On the way home, as I was traveling on Chippewa where the road curves, a vehicle pulled out in front of me as if I were not headed there way. I know now my breaks on my car are in full working condition because I stomped on them and stopped just before striking this vehicle in the driver's door. What type of vehicle was this? Ironically enough it was a Ford Bronco. Yes, the world has a sense of humor and the fear started briefly, but as the driver backed up, without offering any sign of apologizing I might add, I drove off with a smile on my face. Some may say I need a change of luck but I disagree. You may see bad luck, but I actually had amazing luck in that I'm still in one piece and my car doesn't need an insurance claim.

Tomorrow is my 400th post and I'm have something special in mind. I am looking for LOTS of comments and LOTS of shares of it on Facebook and Twitter so please help me celebrate my 400th post tomorrow!