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Friday, June 27, 2014

Mile After Mile of Normal

Yesterday I rode in the USAC vehicle headed to the Pocono, PA area and the drive was over 10 hours long. That may seem like a long while, but for myself it's a day filled with a feeling of normalcy.

I had a chapter in Finding Kansas about travel and how much I loved it for the fact that, when in a vehicle, things are different. For one, socializing with random people doesn't happen. Secondly, everyone is a captive audience over a prolonged distance which makes the understanding of timing easier to understand. Timing is one of the biggest things I've struggled with but if I feel comfortable with those around me and I understand their usual speech patterns it makes it easier for me.

And this is the thing; I've traveled great distances with the same people now over and over and each time it gets easier and easier for me. One person told me, "Aaron, I never would have suspected you had Asperger's." This comment always leaves me with an odd feeling as I must be doing something right but I feel I am just me.

Another thing that makes this easier is the fact that we are all race fans which gives common ground to talk about. It is so important to have a common ground as, for me, I feel it gives a wider margin of error. Margin of error? Yeah, I'm in a fortunate spot right now because when I'm at the race track I have plenty of people that know about racing and don't mind hearing me go on, and on, and on about the topic. At presentations it's the same thing about the autism spectrum; the audience, teachers, or whomever I am speaking to doesn't mind hearing me go on, and on, and on.

This all is why travel has been so important in my life going back to when I was little. The annual drive to either Panama City, Florida or Gordon, Nebraska from Indianapolis was 1,000 miles and to most kids this is a daunting time but the drive was my favorite part of the trip. I don't know how I would have handled the technology we have today in terms of DVD players and the like as the ride itself is where I learned about the world and started learning the are of conversations. I always was inquisitive as to how the world works, whether it was the logic of road signs and the colors, mile markers, and any of the millions of things a young child can see when traveling across the country.

Today things are different; the questions aren't asked, but the time traveled is just as important. The title of this post is, "mile after mile or normal" which to be honest I don't know if there such thing as "normal" but that's the feeling I have when traveling. In a car on the interstate everyone is the same, everyone is strangers; just a traveler amongst travelers trying to reach his or her destination wherever that may be. I find this concept so beautiful because, after my diagnosis, I felt at a major disadvantage and became overly aware of my social shortcomings but in a car on the interstate? All were equal!

This weekend will be another USAC .25 race and when the all the races are over and the final checkered flag is flown it will be time to pack up and head back to Indianapolis and then onward to home in Saint Louis and once again, on this journey it will be mile after mile of normal, no, mile after mile of growing.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Friends: Are you Happy?

It's been almost two years since I ran this blog and I want to run it again to see what the opinion is now; are online friends real friends? As social media and the like increase will more people accept that online friends are real, or is this just fantasy? The post below is originally from 2012 hence why the time references are there, but the core concept remains the same...

One of the most frequently asked questions I get at presentations is this, "But, are you not lonely staying home on the weekends? Are you happy being alone?" Each person who asks this always seems concerned on whether or not their child is happy or feels isolated. Most of the times when I give my answer to them they understand a bit more so today I'll tell you what I tell them.

First, let me say I had a perfect weekend. I didn't leave the house and spent the weekend engrossed in either playing games, watching racing on television, or racing on iRacing. While I was technically "alone" for most of these events I wasn't as I spent most of the time talking to people over Xbox Live. I'd say over half the time when parents ask me if I'm happy and I explain that I have friends from all over they say, "Well, yeah, my son has that too, but is that enough? Are you happy?"

Am I happy? Friday afternoon I was at a red light and beside me was a car full of people around the age of 20 bobbing their heads to music and appearing to have a grand o' time. At that point in time my heart sank as I have never had anything like that. There I was, in my car, and I felt alone and isolated from the world. Later that evening however Rob and Travis came onto the Xbox and we had a great night of playing hockey on NHL 13.

So, does this make me happy? To me, it does. I may not be a head bobber at a red light with a group of people, but my social outlet is over the internet. Saturday and Sunday were spent much like Friday night and actually Sunday night might have been one of my favorite nights in a recent while as the quality of racing Travis and I had was second to none on iRacing as the photo shows as Travis pushed me to the win.

I always seem to get a mystified look when I explain this new age way of socializing because for most parents friends were a person that usually came over to visit. The internet has opened the doors for the ways we can socialize and for me it is easier to establish a friendship over the Xbox. Why? First, it's easier to find people that have the same interests. That means if, as in my case racing, one likes racing and they're playing a racing game chances are most people in that community of gamers knows about cars and racing. This creates a common ground. Secondly, and I won't elaborate on this post, the physical presence of a person has been taken out of the equation so there is no eye contact and no worrying about trying to analyze the facial expressions.

Now I do have to say this; yes, I am perfectly content/happy with this social life I have. For others though this environment can become too safe of a place. The research and opinions always seem to be different on if socializing this way is a good thing in the long run (I think it is, in moderation) and then how much is too much? For some it seems impossible to describe how talking to someone not in the same room is enjoyable at all and this is one of the hurdles some parents face; the way they had friends, in their mind, is the only way to have friends. I've heard so many times, "friends on the internet aren't friends at all." Clearly the definition of friendship is changing and for many of us on the autism spectrum our "friends" aren't on the same street as us, or perhaps state, or for me in the same country as I am. Does this lessen the fact that our conversations have meaning? Does this lessen the fact that, just because we don't go to a concert or a movie, a friendship is there? I cringe each time I hear, "online friends aren't real friends" because they are real. It's these relationships that kept me going all those dark years I had as it was my only social outlet. For others in the boat I was in it's their only one as well and I've heard parents say, "Well, we're thinking of taking it away because those people aren't real and my child just needs to get out there and make real friends." I will agree that there should be a mix, but at the same time if conversing with friends online is one's only social outlet then is it right to take this away? I will say this past weekend was amazing and if asked if I was happy then without question I would have to say, "most certainly!"

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

A Nightmare

The events which led to where I am now started five years ago this month as I went through TouchPoint Autism Services (now Easter Seals Midwest) parent training program as a consultant. If it weren't for this I don't know if I'd ever have been given the stage or forum to present to people on what it's like being on the autism spectrum and that there is hope. I was thinking about this when I went to bed last night which is probably what developed this awful nightmare I had.

For many nightmares are spawned from the things they fear most; a bad storm, snakes, spiders, the Bogeyman, or any of an endless amount of things that could induce a bad dream. I've had many bad dreams but the one I had last night was the most frustrating dream I think I ever had.

My nightmare began with giving a presentation. This may sound odd, but I do dream about giving presentations, and the presentation I was giving in this dream was like any other but then, in the middle, the entire audience stopped listening. No matter how hard I could not stop the fact that the audience no longer cared.

From that presentation I went to a police presentation and had the same thing. Because of the lack of caring my presentation was shortened to just one minute and from there I went to a school and got the same treatment. No matter where I went or who I spoke to autism was something the world just didn't care about.

This dream was one of the worst dreams I've ever had. For me, it was so vivid, so real, and it played out a world that I fear. I mean, what if the world eventually goes this way? I think we are making huge strides towards awareness and understanding but what if the momentum shifts and there's just this callous feeling towards it?

I woke up in tears (that's how bad it was) and had to go through the process of understanding that it was only a dream. My dreams are usually so realistic that waking up is a process, but this process was leaving cold inside. This got my thinking back to where I was before I went to sleep thinking about where I was five years ago. My only hope before going through the parent training program was to be a race car driver and nothing else ever crossed my mind. A couple days ago I had momentary thoughts of, "What if I had made it in racing? Certainly I'd be better off, right? I'd have been to more places, I'd have more expensive toys, and I'd be a household name." While those lines might be true had I made it to the top who would I be helping? Each time I think of who I could've been I lose sight, momentarily, on what I'm doing now. This dream was a harsh reminder of all this as the venues in my dreams were all places I have presented in the past. If I had made it in racing those venues would not have had my presentation and, perhaps, the reality my dream played out of an uncaring world might have played out. Okay, maybe not to the grim ways my dream played out, but perhaps understanding and awareness wouldn't be at the level it is.

I guess my dream I had was of my biggest fear. I fear the world changing for the worse and becoming cold and uncaring towards the autism spectrum which in turn makes my ability to present worthless. It was a big motivator to keep at it, to not get tired, and to keep spreading the message because the world in my nightmare is a world I want no part of being in.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Measuring Progress

On my most recent post before this I used a picture I took in Utah to illustrate the path when I shared the post on my Facebook author page. As the long weekend at the race track went by I thought about that picture and how fitting it actually is in a metaphor to describe the potential frustration with having Asperger's.

If you've driven in Utah, or any place with mountains in the far distance, it can be highly frustration because the feeling of progress can be, well, lackluster. You drive, you drive, you drive some more, and still those mountains are off on the horizon. The sense of progress can't be felt. You are, actually, making progress but it can be hard to measure. So too can this feeling be felt when having Asperger's.

In my life I've always had goals that were way out in the distance which were so lofty (and I still have goals like this to this day) that realizing whether or not the destination is nearing is hard to judge. What come of this? Anger, frustration, and a sense of hopelessness are some to name just three.

Think of it this way; you're driving, no, let's make it walking down that road in the picture and the only thing you want is to go to that mesa that's far off left hand side of the photo. Along the way you're talking to people and a person you come across shares the same interest you do. You have an amazing conversation that lasts for hours which you haven't had in quite some time but when it is over you look up and that mesa is still so far away you feel like giving up. Instantly at this point you have sort of lost everything you gained from the day's travels and the conversations you've had.

I can't speak for everyone with Asperger's, nor would I want to, but in my life this metaphor has played out more times than I care to think about. We live in a society where everything is, "now, now, now" and "cures" and the like mean that everything becomes better, perfect, and heavenly instantly. This, well, this just isn't the case in life (autism spectrum or not!) and growth is a progress that takes place over time. If a person just looks out to the horizon and sees where they aren't they aren't going to realize the journey that they are on. Can this be hard to grasp? If you're on the spectrum then yes, most certainly it will be because we may have black or white, all or nothing thinking. You either have it or you don't. You're either there, or you are not. With this mindset the progress of growth can be greatly hampered by the frustration of not being at the destination now.

The destination in this metaphor could be anything; it could be a job, friends, to be "normal" or, well, anything. Again, as I've said in many blog posts, when you see what you are not you forget who you are and in this metaphor it would be fitting to say that when you see where you are not you forget where you are and where you are heading. When this happens growth can be lost and a day's proverbial travels will have to be traveled again. There were many times during my depression years after diagnosis that I wanted to not take part in the travel to the destination that was out there, on the horizon, seemingly mocking me with its presence. But somehow, and with the help of those around me, I didn't give up. Was the process, or "The Path" as I called it in a blog last week, difficult? Yes, yes it was. But those around me wouldn't let me give in to that voice of doubt in my head that said, "you're not good enough and you'll never be good enough." Do I still have these thoughts today? Yes, and I think most people do as we strive for growth, strive to be more, to become more, and to fulfill whatever dreams we have. For us on the autism spectrum we can just focus on the negatives of the day and this can washout the growth of the day. This isn't so much a post to say, "stay positive" because that phrase would make me so angry when I was depressed, but rather a post to explain why growth, for us, could take longer and I know with myself, when I did finally make it to that mesa, I arrived without knowing that I actually had made it because growth can be like that and measuring growth isn't the easiest of things to do.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Path

Yesterday I rode along with the USAC crew to North Carolina from Indianapolis and had plenty of time to think about the past, present, and future. I was thinking in particular to where I am now and how much things have changed since I got my diagnosis of Asperger's ten years ago. This is something I think of rather frequently, actually, but in the midst of these thoughts I got an e-mail about a story that Golf Channel ran about a dad and his son who is on the autism spectrum. Since I was in the mountains of West Virginia I couldn't watch it but I was able to read the blog post that motivated it (this is a must read) which was odd because I typically will not read works from anyone else to keep my works uninfluenced.

As I finished reading it I had chills as I recalled my younger years and the way my dad was with me. In fact, I too had a course of sorts in my backyard. Okay, so it was just one hole without a flag and it was actually a flowerpot, but hey, I had lots of fun. I also thought to my current love of golf and the times I've spent playing golf with my dad, and the two times this year. I finally cracked though and bought current clubs which I am going to miss my Spalding set from the 60's, but that isn't the point of this story (although I am going to miss all the comments about, "Wow, I haven't seen a wood wood in decades" from other golfers.)

When I finished reading Tim Miles' blog post I looked up and to my left I saw the river that runs alongside I-64 in a few places in West Virginia. The timing couldn't have had any more impact than where we were because back in 2003, a few days after Thanksgiving, the process to get diagnosed began.

My dad was driving and I was riding alongside and for the first time my dad mentioned to me his thoughts that something was, in fact, different with me. A week or so prior my dad had just learned about Asperger's and it was here he decided to inform me about his thoughts, concerns, and the fact that he was going to go ahead and get me assessed. He then stated, "Aaron, we're on a path here and it will probably be difficult at times. It's going to require hard work and I can't tell you how long or short the process will be, but we will get through it together."

I watched the waters flowing in the river back in 2003 and I was lost in what all that meant and yesterday I was once again lost. I thought back to my dad's speech and I went further back in my memory to all the things my dad had shared with me in my life. From the backyard haphazard golf course, I mean hole, to the Sunday afternoons at the bowling alley to all the weekend's spent at a race track the path had actually started much longer than the cold November day in 2003 when I was being told it was beginning.

The miles went on and I kept thinking about all that had happened since that ride in 2003 and the path my dad had mentioned. Was the path difficult? Oh, most certainly and it was made worse by the misinformation about autism back then, but I did navigate the path. Well, I should say we navigated the path because I wasn't alone. And that was the thing, I wasn't alone; I wasn't alone when I didn't have a diagnosis, I wasn't alone in the process leading to the diagnosis, and even in my darkest times I wasn't alone.

If you take one thing from Tim Miles' post take the fact that there is a shared interest and that, in those times that "Kansas" is being shared things are more normal (whatever normal is) than not. I, again, think back to all the things my dad shared with me and without a doubt I would not be where I am without his presence. Were there other factors? Of course there were, but my dad said it best on that cloudy, cold November day in 2003 when he said, "we will get through it together" and while I think that path is still being traveled today the hardest times, and the darkest times, are in the past and I'm so grateful I didn't have to travel this path by myself.


Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Recalling My Most Memorable Race

I ran this post last year, but I've been thinking a lot about that day and the lessons learned from it so I thought it right to post this again:

In my book Finding Kansas there is a chapter about my first race. While that race was certainly memorable it is nothing compared to the race that is the most.

It was 1997 and I was in my third season of racing karts. This was a rebound season for me as I had a crash at the start of the 96 season and had spent the rest of the year timid behind the wheel which led to getting involved in crash after crash.

While the series was the Saint Louis Karting Association we were actually in West Quincy, Missouri due to the fact that our track, which I blogged about in 2011, was under water. This was fine by me as the TNT Kartway was a blast to drive with a banked final corner leading onto a nice straight.

This story picks up right before the main race. I was 14 years old at the time and also flagging all the classes I didn't race in. As the races before mine were ran I was getting nervous as I thought I had a legitimate chance at the race win, but my starting position didn't show it. In the first heat race I won, which was my first heat race win, but the 2nd heat race saw me getting taken out so I would be starting 7th of about 15.

It was time. I zipped up my racing suit, crossed the track, and got into my kart and waited. This is one thing I don't miss about racing; this time before a race when one has to try and tune everything out. The world around is moving, there's smell of cooking food in the air, but inside the helmet there's a world of complete isolation. As my dad started the engine he gave me his customary, "use your head" gesture.

We rolled out of the grid and onto the track in anticipation of 15 laps of racing. As I said, I loved this track but going from 7th to the front was going to be difficult but at least I would be starting on the inside.

The field came off of the final corner (it's the one in the bottom right of the photo and we ran counter clockwise) and a slow pace waiting... waiting... waiting... then there it was, GREEN! and we were racing into turn one.

Starts had intimidated me as it was on the first lap of a race the previous year I had my crash at the old Gateway race track, but I had to put that aside as I knew I could get to the front. 15 laps may sound like a lot, but it isn't when lap times are around 30 seconds. With that so I had to move up quickly to not allow the leaders to pull away.

I didn't get the start I wanted as the outside line got the jump. I wanted to blame the flagman, but it was a substitute so I couldn't be all that upset. Besides, driving angry is a one way ticket to a bad race.

At the end of lap one I was in 8th with 7th right in front of me. You wouldn't think it, but there's drafting in karting, and a lot of it! Headed into turn one I had an unexpected run and as he turned into the corner I aimed out and held my breath as I was attempting an outside pass on a flat out corner. "Aaron, what are you doing?" I thought to myself. What the picture of the track doesn't show is the knee-high curb (okay, it isn't that high) that is in the kink that is turn two. That meant if I didn't complete this pass the driver in front of me wouldn't know I was there and I'd run out of room and I'd probably get launched over that curb. That didn't happen though as I stayed on the gas and somehow pulled off the impossible and was now in 7th with 14 to go.

6th place was right in front of me as we headed into the final corner and once again I got a run down the straight and once again I went to the outside in turn one and once again I pulled off what I thought to be impossible. As fun as those passes were they were certainly scary moments, but I was on a mission and running the best race I had ever ran and it was only two of fifteen laps in.

My passes on 5th, and 4th were more conventional as I passed on the inside in braking zones and now I set my eyes on third as the race was now half over. I was losing heart, though, as first and second were long gone as it took me several laps to get around 5th and 4th.

With five to go I went for my move in turn one once again, on the outside, and made it work, but I had settled down and relegated myself to knowing that making up about five seconds in five laps was impossible. I may have been the fastest kart on track, but in the sport of karting a tenth of a second can be an eternity so five seconds was a margin that could not be overcome.

Of course, in the sport of racing anything can happen and it usually does. The leader and second place had been swapping the lead and in the north turn they made contact and both drivers spun way off the track. I saw the dust as I came out of turn one and as I got to turn three I counted two karts. It may have been by default, but now I was the race leader with less than five laps to go. Coming off the final corner on the same lap I glanced behind me and I had about a half second lead; all I had to do was to hit my marks, not push it, and I was on my way to my first win.

Across the line there were four laps to go, then three, then two and each lap passed as if a decade had passed. Time was crawling and I started hearing every bump, rattle, and I was sure something was going to go wrong. "Just keep it going, no mistakes!" I yelled as I headed to the final corner. The two karts which had been leading were back in the race but they were a good five seconds behind and I now had about a full second lead over second place.

Around the final corner and I could see the white flag in the air. This was it, the final lap; I was just 30 seconds from achieving a dream I had had since I was three and that was winning a race. I wasn't breathing as I went into turn one and my entire body was tense, but I hit my marks and I headed to turn two then the tricky turn three.

Headed into turn three I lifted off the gas in the same spot I had done but then a flash of something caught my eye flying over my head. I didn't know what it was and I tapped the brakes and turned into the corner. There was something odd though; silence. I stepped back on the gas but there was nothing and I was slowing down. "No! No! No!" I yelled. To my left flashed the second place kart whom I sure could not believe what fate had given him and at the same time I couldn't believe what cruel blow fate had dealt me.

I pulled off the track and I just sat there. I was just 20 seconds away from a win, and now I was seated in my kart, in the weeds. I would get up out of the kart just as the race winner went passed me with his one of his arms raised in celebration as this was his first win in what should have been my first win. About a minute later the retrieval vehicle came and the kart was loaded up and I then saw a huge hole in the engine which was the demise of my race.

Instead of riding back with the kart I walked towards the finish line as I still had to flag the remaining races. I took my time walking back as I wanted my eyes to dry first and I had to have composure to be able to do my job rightly.

When I got to the finish line I took the headset from the sub and stood in a very dejected manner. The track owner, who was also announcing on this day, came on the radio and said, "Aaron, I know you are probably dejected beyond belief right now. But look at it like this; anyone can win, but it isn't how you win that matters but rather it's how you take defeat. Especially defeat when so close to victory so keep your head high and move on."

What made this the most memorable race? The final race of the next season I would pick up a race win in a race that saw even more daring passing on my part so why isn't my first win the most memorable? It was the track owner's talk over the radio as I just had experienced the most ultimate gut punch fate could deal me in that race. It wasn't so much going out while leading at lap four, this was going out when I was so close that it was all but a guarantee. However in racing, and life, there are no guarantees and I think back often to that race as I recall the moves on the outside, the liberating feeling of being the first to see the white flag, and that big shiny piece of metal which was my engine blowing up. Yes, I think back to this often as anyone can win, but it's how one deals with adversity and challenges that shows a persons strength. A few minutes after his pep talk I was starting the next race with the same passion as I had on all the races prior and yeah, I truly wished I would have won, but isn't this what shapes who we are? And wow! that day certainly was a precursor to the events that follow in my life.

Monday, June 16, 2014

A Presentation Challenge

On Saturday I was at the Southwest Missouri Autism Network meeting where I would be giving a presentation. However this wasn't a normal presentation as the majority of the people there had seen me before so the format would be different in that it would be a two hour Q&A session.

This was my 541st presentation and I haven't been nervous before a presentation in a very long time. Last October I had a couple presentations where the audience was over 1,000 but there were no nerves. Why? How can I, who is rather shy and quiet, speak to so much and have no issues and yet a room with about 30 people as was Saturday create issues?

For the vast majority of my presentations I have controlled the stage and with control comes safety. When I'm in front of 1,000 students speaking about my story I have control, I'm not sharing the stage, and I can control the tempo. On Saturday, however, there was a moderator and instead of being able to speak at my pace, and also not having my normal script to go by, caused the nerves to rise.

This isn't to say that the format was bad. The thing was that this was new. I've grown accustomed to my presentation and I do Q&A at the end of my presentations (normally) but this was Q&A without the presentation. Also, with a moderator I lost the metaphorical captaincy of the ship if the ship represents the presentation.

As the presentation was about to start I had a serious case of the yawns. This is my nervous reaction to something and I used to do it before presentations, but now it's usually just before media interviews, but last Saturday the yawns returned with a vengeance.

When it did begin I had a very hard time making any eye contact with the audience and my eyes were glued towards the direction of the moderator. I've trained myself to have my eyes scan the room while presenting but without the normal words and normal format I couldn't. For those that had seen me prior when I had the stage by myself I'm sure the difference was obvious. For myself, it was an odd sensation to have, in a way, mastered public speaking but I was back to feeling like a rookie.

While my outward appearance and demeanor may have been tense and perhaps a little bit on the forced side my words and speaking ability were not effected. The questions came, and some from the audience, and I tried to minimize my world by just focusing on the moderator as if I were having a one-on-one conversation.

Slowly I began to become comfortable with this new format and slowly my eyes ventured out towards the room in front of me. It was tough and throughout the entire session I never think my eyes made it to my extreme right to those on that side of the room, but I just couldn't get my eyes to go there. When I did look out in front of me instead of to the moderator it required an extreme amount of thought. Typically, now as it wasn't like this when I began, eye contact with the audience is not thought of, but in this environment it was. Also, I was at a fixed point which added to the change of it all. Fixed point? Yeah, instead of standing I was seated in a chair which I typically deflect eye contact with the audience by moving around a little which creates the illusion of eye contact but I'm so concentrated on my movements that I am not consciously aware of any eye contact.

Despite the anxiety I felt the time flew by and in the last half hour I was in my normal presentation groove and I lost track of all time. By the end I was enjoying this format for it's difference from the norm. Again, I spoke of the difficulties I had but it wasn't a bad thing or caused by any person but rather because it was change and it takes a while, sometimes a long while, to become acclimated to change. As with every new presentation I've done I've fretted about it beforehand and at first I've struggled to be comfortable but once again, by the end,  it was good. I actually now hope for a presentation like this again soon because it got me off my script and many of the questions sparked new thoughts and new stories which I have never shared before. 

Friday, June 13, 2014

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Flags and growth

I had an interesting conversation Sunday night regarding myself and how far I've come since I began with USAC in 2010. The person who I was talking with has known me since my first day with the USAC .25 series in 2010 and he was adamant that I'm not really the same person I was back in 2010.

That first year I was beyond shy. I had skill and I had my normal confidence while holding "the sticks" as the announcer often likes to say, but that was it. What those beyond the fence line didn't know was that my entire social skill set was on display because once that final checkered flag flew I retreated to solitude.

In 2011 I was brought on to do the full USAC .25 tour and I had also been doing the SKUSA Pro Tour, but that was just three races compared to the 12 of USAC. Having so many races and so many car rides with the USAC staff led to situations where solitude was impossible. Many of my blogs from 2011 were born from these experiences and even today flagging is an important aspect of my presentation.

When I first met the USAC .25 director at the time in 2010 and he asked me if I wanted to be the chief starter for the series I gave this speech, "Look, I have this thing called Asperger's; it's a form of autism and I'm not the most social of people out there. If you all go out and eat after a race I'll probably just want to go back to the hotel and order a pizza. I can be social, but you've got to give me time. If you push me too hard I will retreat even harder." Amazingly I was given the time I needed. This is something that I am ever so grateful for because, often times in society, people are looking for things to be perfect now but for myself it takes time.

The seasons went on and my confidence grew and grew both on track and off. One of the major things that helped, just not in my skill in flagging, but in life, was the repetition of working these events. Slowly I began to talk to those around me and since we shared an interest in racing we had common ground. We could also talk about the day's activity and the events to come.

I always knew I could talk, that wasn't the issue, the issue was having the confidence in saying what I wanted to say. Without confidence I would just go to the hotel and hide. Working all these races has carried over to my real job (some people at the track are SHOCKED when I say flagging isn't my real job) and I'm sure I'd be half, or less, the presenter I am now if I wasn't flagging. It is that important and I think to my school presentations that I've done and there is no way, no way at all, I'd be able to to do that without the confidence that flagging has given me.

All that I've written is what we talked about Sunday night and it wasn't until it was mentioned that I noticed just how much growth has been instilled in the past four years. When I signed onto doing this many events in a year my only reasoning for doing so was it may increase my chances of flagging on race day at the Indy 500 (my ultimate goal in life) but what has happened is, perhaps, much more important than that. I am a better person, a more confident person, and have a better understanding of the how important confidence is when regarding to any topic related to Asperger's.

I think back to that first day and how quiet, nervous, and anxious I was. I may have been the same flagger as I was, but as a person I'm not the same. Don't get me wrong, my passion for racing, flags, and safety are and will always be with me, but it's amazing how much more has come out of working at a track on a weekend than just watching cars go by. I truly love it, but I'm the person, the writer, and the presenter I am because of it. That may seem like a stretch, but if you could have seen me that first season (and seen my presentations back then) compared to who I am now (and the presentations I give now) you'd realize that is no stretch at all. I'll forever be thankful for the USAC staff (and SKUSA, of course) who let me be myself and instead of forcing me to interact they gave me time and that time, well, I am who I am today because of it.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Breakfast With Bobby Unser

Back in 1996 I was at the Indy Racing League Las Vegas 500k. My dad had had an affiliation with a race team (Byrd-Cunningham Racing to be exact) and was doing some other work so he and I had tickets and hospitality area credentials. The day before the race I was eating breakfast at the Byrd tent and suddenly I look up and there's Bobby Unser sitting down right in front of me!

Bobby Unser, if you don't know, is a member of the famed Unser racing family and Bobby himself won 3 Indianapolis 500's but I personally didn't know him as a racer but rather from his commentating on ABC (he retired from racing in 1981; I was born in 1983.)

I had always been nervous meeting any person who had any celebrity status whatsoever and I kept eating my breakfast and did everything I could not to acknowledge that Bobby Unser was just across this small table from me. He, however, had other ideas.

"Hey you," he said, "do you like racing?" That question may seem like one that has the most obvious answer, but I now realize that, if you want to engage a 13 year old at a race track you should ask about racing. "Well, yes I do" I said sheepishly to which he then asked, "Do you want to race when you grow up?"

Did I want to race? It was the only thing I ever thought of and I responded, "Well, I actually do race now as I race karts." to which he got a huge grin and I was feeling more and more comfortable and he followed up with, "How did you did in your last race?"

My last race was interesting to say the least as I had had a new experience and I was more than willing to tell Bobby, "I was doing great in my last race with two great showings in the heat races and in the main I was running for the lead when my dad had forgotten to tighten the bolts and my right rear wheel came off sending me spinning off."

My words hung in the air for a moment and Bobby's tone sort of changed and he didn't respond at first and he went from looking at his food to sort of looking up over my shoulder and he said, "Son, if you want to make it in racing, or life, you've got to learn this one lesson. Never, and I mean never, criticize those on your crew because at the end of the day they're the ones that will tighten all the bolts and if you don't support them they won't support you. This goes outside racing to and is a lesson you need to learn."

I felt bad then because I was now being lectured by a legend and I didn't realize what I had said was a taboo of sorts because my dad would be the first one to tell you that his mechanic skills on the kart were lackluster at best (we once did an unintentional science experiment on how long an engine can go without oil. The answer? Two laps) so I thought it was okay, but from an outsider's point of view I quickly learned it wasn't right.

A few awkward moments passed and Bobby then said, "Did you check the wheel yourself?" to which I responded that I couldn't because I had been flagging the races before me to which brought up the flag that the chief starter of the Indy 500 gave me and the tone went from a mini-lecture to one which was like two friends who had known each other for years. He then signed my flag as I've only had winners of the 500 and a select few sign it

By the end of the conversation I think 30 minutes had passed and breakfast had long since gotten cold. It took me a long while to really soak in the wisdom he gave me from that day but while flagging a race in Phoenixville, PA yesterday I fully understand what he meant by staying positive even when a mistake happens. All to often I'd be the first to criticize a mistake and to continually do so, but come the next time would that person be willing to help me at all knowing that I'm going to be overly critical of any mistake? I guess you could say I was given a mini-motivational speech 18 years ago, but I often think back to the awesome opportunity I had to have breakfast with Bobby Unser and even with so much time gone by the conversation still has wisdom that I am learning.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Test at Gingerman

Driving back to my sister's from working a race over the past weekend saw me drive through the town of Benton Harbor, Michigan. That town holds a special place in my memory because 12 years ago that's the town I stayed at when I had a test in a Star Mazda race car at Gingerman Raceway. Before I get to that story I do have to say that one of the reasons why my diagnosis was so devastating in what I read about, "people with Asperger's will never have a job, will never have friends, and will never be happy" was amplified because of this test.

It was the summer of 2002 and after setting some of the quickest times ever at the Derek Daly Academy I got a test in a Star Mazda and this test would be at Gingerman Raceway. I had never heard of the track nor did I have access to a track map so when we got to the track early in the morning I was more than anxious to see the place. Not only that, but I had more excitement than I could relate to you on what type of thrill I was having thinking about buckling into a true race car.

Before I was let loose on the big track the team principal wanted me to get acquainted with the car and get used to the shifting with the Mazda rotary engine the car had. This also would be practice on downshifting which, I must admit, was my biggest weakness (don't get me started on how much I struggled with the 'heel-toe' downshift) so this practice on the tracks access roads (which is illustrated in the track map.)

It was finally time and the engine was fired and the thrill quickly turned into a fear as the car shook. "What am I doing?" I said to which no one could hear me because of the sound of the engine but I was having second thoughts. "This isn't for me, this is too loud and is shaking too much!" Reluctantly I stepped on the gas pedal and let the clutch out (thankfully, I didn't stall! That would've been a bad way to start this test hoping to impress the team) and off I went down the wrong way of the pits to shake down the car.

Speaking of shaking, the car shook as the rpm's came up and was much more than anything I have ever experienced. It was almost violent in nature and violent is the only way I can describe the sensation of putting the metal to the metal as the force made it hard to breath.

"I can't do this... I can't do this... What am I doing here? Racing isn't for me. I'm going to make a mockery of this!" is what I was saying and thinking constantly as I made my laps learning the car. "This is it... I'm just going to quit!" was a thought that kept flashing across my mind, but this test wasn't free and we drove a long way from home so quitting was something that I just couldn't do. I was sure, once I got to the big track, I was just going to bring shame to myself.

The time came and it was time to tackle the big track. Gingerman isn't the fastest of tracks, but going into the braking zone of turn 11 saw speeds near or just above 130mph so it's still plenty fast and plenty fast to quickly get into trouble. The team principal had taken me around in a van pointing out the nuances of the track, turn markers, and that two turn is the most aggravating corner in racing because no matter what you do you'll always feel you can take it faster. I found this out on my first flying lap and never fully figured that corner out.

My first session on track was exciting as all those feelings of doubt and fear, and the sensitivity to noise disappeared as it was just myself, the car, and the race track. I was taking it easy, or so I thought, and as I came by the start finish line I saw my dad give me the thumbs up. I didn't know what this meant because I was used to seeing this at the go kart races when I hit a new fast time so why was I seeing this now since I was just taking it easy.

20 minutes came and went and the checkered came out and into the pits I came and as I pulled under the awning and started to unbuckle I saw my dad smiling and the team principal walking over with a look of astonishment. I was unaware of this, but was quickly made aware of it that my times would have been good enough for pole on a regional race held there the previous weekend. And not only pole, but pole by over a second! In racing that is an eternity.

The 2nd session I went even faster and the speed I was showing was too much for the team principal as he got into his car and I noticed the blur of his sky blue and white car in my mirror but coming out of the final turn I saw a big brown cloud as he had buried his car in the gravel trap trying to keep up with me.

Once again I was seeing the thumbs up sign as I flashed by the finish line and as the session was over I pulled into the pits and once again my times were incredible. The third session, which was my fastest of them all, was just tenths of the track record!

The afternoon sessions weren't as fast as the tires I had, which were already used at the beginning of the day, started to have extreme fall off and then a wheel weight was thrown which made for a bumpy ride in the braking zones. All that aside, the morning had been incredible as I went faster than I ever could have imagined and I conquered all the fears and doubt I had had. The times I ran were without effort as I felt as if I wasn't even to the limit yet.

After the final session on track as the sun was now in the western part of the sky I drove really slow up the pits to the parking spot because I wanted to savor every second I had left in that car. I had no idea what the future had planned but I was in a state of complete satisfaction as I proved to myself that I was not just a good driver, but one with true talent. I parked the car and the team principal came over, and he had finally recovered his ego from his off into the gravel trap earlier in the day, and he said, "Aaron, no one should be that fast. The only way I can compare you to anyone is Kimi Raikkonen because he can just be fast without reason and that is you Aaron."

Other people had told me that I "had it" referring to talent, but this was the most open and direct I had ever heard. What did it mean? It meant that the team would be willing to take me on at, instead of an astronomical amount of money, an alarming high amount of money. Racing is about money and over the next few months there was no way to raise that and eventually time ticked away to a year, and then a year-and-a-half and I got my diagnosis and I gave up on everything.

It would have been one thing had I not been good, if everyone said, "Aaron, you're just not that talented" but instead I was compared to a future F1 World Champion. This added to my frustration and depression because, as I said, "there is no plan B" and why should there have been when I had the talent. In the end it all had to happen like this because if I had not been so close to making it, had I not been so good at driving, and had I not impressed so many people then I might not have been as devastated as I was and had I not been so devastated the process of writing and getting me to where I am today would not have happened. Would I change anything? There are times I see drivers at the top rung of the racing ladder and I envy the lifestyle, the fame, the money, but then I think, "Who are they truly helping?" Through all the odd turn of events in my life I ended up with not just job but a passion of the utmost importance. Had we go the money, had I started down the path of racing superstar, I may never have been diagnosed and at some point that would have caught up with me and on top of all that I would not be a public speaker and I would not have reached as many people on a personal level as I have. And to tell you the truth, I'm just getting started!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

To The Teachers

This is written to my 2nd and 4th grade teachers but really this could be applied to any teacher who has had a profound effect on any student autism spectrum or not...

Dear Mrs. Jendra and Mrs. Colvin,

As another school year comes to a close I, as I do every time this year now, think about the two of you. What you did for me was nothing short of extraordinary and here's the thing; you have no idea and probably never will.

Mrs. Jendra, you opened the door that got me out of only thinking about auto racing by using auto racing as a means to springboard into other topics. Your one question of, "Aaron, where is Silverstone?" got me to wonder about all the places Formula 1 visits each year which spawned my love of the world. While this may not seem like much to some, for me this opened my eyes that the world was greater than racing stats, or the barriers that enclose a race track because, prior to that question, that's all my world was. Did you mean to have this profound impact on me? Thinking back I think you did. Over the course of the school year you listened to my endless conversations about racing but then engaged me in math, and science. You really challenged me when I was bored and changed the way information was presented when I was struggling. It's amazing, really, that you did everything right despite the fact that Asperger's was still two years from officially being classified as a diagnosis. You had patience, and in the end you opened my eyes to a world of endless opportunities.

Mrs. Colvin, you too played an important part in my development. As with Mrs. Jendra you took an interest (or at least faked the interest) to what I had to say. Maybe it was that you noticed I didn't speak to too many of my peers, or maybe you really were interested, but whatever it may have been I gained confidence in speaking when you would ask me about a race, or the weather. Of all my teachers it was you who constantly said, "Aaron, are you sure you want to be a race car driver? I ask because you could be so much more like a meteorologist, or a doctor, or a lawyer." I laughed it off because a race car driver is the only thing I wanted to be and yet you saw the potential in me that I wouldn't realize until 2009! You also challenged me and kept me interested in what was being taught. Maybe it was that you used so many real world topics and examples to keep me interested, but whatever it was I was never bored in your classroom.

The truly life changing thing both of you did was something that I now close my presentations with. School was a challenge for me be it the length of time or the endless social interactions, and maybe you noticed the the challenges I had socializing, but both of you changed my life. If you remember, I loved academic games whether it was the flash cards or states and capitols (my favorite) but there was a problem in that, the game we would play where two kids would go head-to-head and whoever got it right would proceed to the next desk, well, the problem was no one else got to play. It wasn't that I was smarter than everyone else, it's just that both of those topics are my special interest (I now call it "Kansas") and I have extremely quick reflexes. In other grades I would not be allowed to play the game and would be given busy work to do. This busy work wasn't graded but I had to do it. This angered me but both of you thought outside the box and instead of banishing me you gave me the honor to host the game. Maybe you just wanted a break, but I think it was more and certainly more is what turned out.

I'm now a public speaker and have met many, many teachers like the two of you and each time I do I almost want to cry when they realize that a student in the distant past had Asperger's because here's the cruelest thing; you may never know what type of impact you had. So often people on the autism spectrum and their families get caught up in trying to fix everything right this second, but often times it is like planting seeds and you've got to give them time to grow. The two of you planted the seeds of public speaking and it took two decades to sprout, but here I am with over 500 presentations given and almost 50,000 people spoken to. This wouldn't have been possible without your planting of the seeds and when I see teachers that have the devotion, dedication, and compassion you did my heart is filled with such a high level of hope and joy.

I realize I must have been frustrating to work with at times and I often would question the reasoning or logic of your decisions, and I would be the first one to mention if we were one minute late for a subject transition, but you never once got angry with me. You both had patience beyond anyone else and this made me feel comfortable to learn in your classrooms.

How do I close a letter like this? How do I say "thank you" in a way that is fitting to the two people that planted the seeds to give me the skills to become who I am? As I said, it is just cruel that you may never know, and since it's been so long and I can't find you on Facebook I don't even know if both of you are still alive. But maybe this cruel fact is what being a teacher is. It's like being a farmer with the possibility of never seeing the harvest. The only way I can show my thanks is to keep moving forward and to keep using my ability of public speaking to spread awareness and understanding and to present to teachers and let them know what you did for me because, somehow, both of you saw my potential. It's amazing what you did and I'm sad that you may never know what I've become because of you, but maybe that's the essence of being a teacher so all I can say, wherever you may be, is, "thank you."

Monday, June 2, 2014

Flagging and Hope

I somewhat mentioned this post was coming on my Facebook page as I was reflecting back to ten years ago. As I've mentioned many, many times, the time after my diagnosis was not good. I got my Asperger diagnosis in December of 2003 and hope was not a word I'd ever use to describe my outlook on life. There was a major event that occurred in 2004 that started the path towards that direction though.

Since 1995 I had in one form or another been an official for the Saint Louis Karting Association (SLKA) in the capacity of being either the assistant starter (1995-1997) to the chief starter (1998-2008) and even to race director for the last three years of my association. In 2004 a new race director came on board and asked if I wanted to also flag practice. The club never had had an official flagger in practice but the club was experiencing extreme growth and practice now needed to be regulated.

This was great news because I had just been looking forward to working 10 days of the year, but now this number was doubled. At this point in time I had no job, no positive outlook on life except for these 20 days of the year; and look forward I did! With the race season approaching I could hardly contain my excitement as this was about the only thing in life I had any anticipation for.

A strange thing happened on the first day of practice as the race director did not show up. The board didn't really know what to do and in the end they told me I was running practice. all the previous years I never had been in a position to make calls outside of stopping the race in case of injury but now I was making the practice schedule, as well as enforcing safety rules on practice day.

All of this was such an odd twist of timing as I was at my lowest point I had ever been and now I was being thrust into a position of authority and one to ensure the safety of those at the event. At the time I couldn't know just how important this was, but now looking back this was nothing short of saving my being. For those of you that don't know, the first thing I read on the internet about Asperger's stated that those with it will, "never have a job, never have friends, and will never be happy" and yet, on those 10 weekends, I did have a job, I did have the club as friends, and I was in a state of complete happiness. I now know I was in the highest of all Kansases, but at the time I was unaware of this.

The race season went on and I felt more and more comfortable in the position of being in charge on practice day's. Even when the race director would show up he'd turn the reigns over to me. But, as the season was coming to a close, and the final race was of the year came, I had a near breakdown.

I remember the last race of 2004 as if it were yesterday. The practice day was amazing and the race day was one of dread. With each race that was completed it marked another race closer to the end. And for me it was very much like the end because what laid upon that next day was one back of hopelessness. I was blind and couldn't see that the road was being paved in front of me and that the experience I was getting then would translate into all the places I'm flagging now (and presenting as the confidence I acquired from flagging allowed [and still allows] me to present) and instead I saw that the next day, and all the days thereafter, would be filled with loneliness, hopelessness, and a life lived in a dark void.

When the final checkered flew on that day I had to fight back tears because I thought that was it and there would be no more flagging ever again. I stayed at the track parked in my car until the sun went down trying to savor every single second of what the season had been. It's hard to have 345 days of the year lived in a state of hopelessness and have 20 days of the year where everything felt perfect and my diagnosis didn't matter. That was where I was, however, and despite my fears that I would never flag again when 2005 rolled around I would be back with my flags in hand and once again all days of the year were either days I flagged or days I looked forward to flagging. It's amazing how times change because if we went back 10 years I never would have envisioned any of the events in my life playing out the way they did, and I'm sure the race director had no idea what type of impact the simple fact of putting me in charge on the practice days would have, but here I am and I'm grateful the I was given just the chance and that chance has proved to be amazing.