Monday, October 4, 2010

My Final Thoughts on the Most Important Day of My Life

Is it over? As much as I worried and as much as I stressed I am sad that it is over. I mean, how many times in a person's life do they sit next to a person who single handily changed the world?

If you read, or watched, my blog last week you know that this panel was the only thing I was thinking about. This continued after my last video blog before the panel and as I took my seat to watch Temple's keynote I was in a state of panic.

During her keynote I was listening, but nothing was processing. I was as scared as scared could get. My heart felt like it was at the back of my mouth and every breath was labored. My heart rate was way up and even though the room was ice cold my hands were sweating from my constant hand clasping. With each minute that passed I knew I was getting closer and as much as I wanted it to be over I also wanted time to freeze so I could perfect what I was going to say.

As Temple's keynote ended I had no idea what to do. I was a panelist, but didn't know where to go. That being the case I wandered to the stage with a look of complete lostness on my face. I have learned that this expression, more often than not, will get someone else to give me direction. That, and the fact that my name tag badge said, "Aaron Likens" and in big red letters below "Speaker".

For the moderator being on stage is something that requires no thinking. It is natural. For me, I was scared and she told me to just, "choose a seat." Being as nervous as I was, choosing a seat was something that quite simply could not be done. Which one do I choose? The other two men on the panel had already staked out their side and as I tried to sit they talked among themselves that they would save the end for Temple. My reaction to this was to just wander back to the middle portion of the stage.

Let me state that next time I do something like this, if there is a next time (please be a next time!), I will not have this pre-panel anxiety. Anytime something is new, and anytime the new event is something of this caliber, I will have a reaction like I had.

So I was lost once again and there was still 15 minutes until it started. The moderator was away from the stage so I just stood there with a look of complete despair.

I was experiencing every possible negative emotion a public speaker could feel before a presentation and it was amplified. I was fearful my words would not be heard. I feared that I would be unable to speak. I was sure someone would either yell at me or find something to throw at me. My biggest fear of all, and I didn't state it in either of my posts or video blogs, was that I was truly afraid another panelist would take offense to something I said or disagree whole-heartily and yell at me. These fears grew at an alarming rate with each passing second.

The moderator came back and I asked the question once again, "Where do I sit?" She at once said, "Wherever you feel most comfortable" but I don't know where that was. In fact, at that moment, feeling comfortable would have been impossible.

Knowing my weakness and knowing that if I didn't say anything I would continue standing there, I decided to take a chance and make a stand, "Could you tell me where to sit?"

That question may not seem like a big deal but it was a huge one for me. I spoke up for myself and that is something that doesn't normally happen. This was a momentary victory and she walked me up on stage just as Larry Kaplan (The CEO of USAAA) walked up. He said, "We will put Aaron here and Temple on the end."

"OH MY GOODNESS!" I thought in big bold letters, "Temple Grandin is going to be seated next to me?!" If there was pressure before it was minuscule compared to the pressure I now felt.

How does one react to knowing that they will be sitting next to a person who is on Time Magazine's "100 Most Influential People in the WORLD?" Well, I can now say from experience, that a lot of shaking is involved. My hands started to shake and the moderator asked if I wanted any water and I said no, but then realized that holding the small cup of water would be a good way to hide my hand that was shaking.

As 10:30 neared Temple was called to the stage and then there she was. I have heard the term, "rubbing shoulders with the best" and always thought it was a figure of speech, but the way we were sitting I literally was rubbing shoulders with the best.

During the video that was played from a person who couldn't make it, (I honestly didn't hear one word of that video because I was scared almost to the point of fainting) my hands were shaking like there was an earthquake taking place in my arms. To make matters worse, Temple noticed this and kept looking at my hands.

At this point in time I accepted the fact that failure was not an option because there was no option because I WAS going to fail. I never had that level of emotion in my body and was about to give up when it seemed, out of nowhere (I was having trouble paying attention due to the flood of fear), it was time.

The moderator started the timer and I had no words pre-planned. I had no clue what I was going to say, but I just started talking. I don't remember the order of what I said, nor if it was any good, but I just tried to get as much relevant personal story out that I could in six minutes.

Within about 30 seconds of speaking I felt like I normally do in a presentation. Those pre-stage jitters? Gone. The acceptance of failure? Vanished. My only mission now was to get as many people to remember who I am and that there is hope and to not let autism define a person.

I don't remember much of what I said, but I do know Temple liked my line about having no idea what a prepositional phrase is when the grammar question came up. This was a turning point because beforehand I was worried I didn't belong up there. I am new, the rookie so to speak, and I was up with the big time. Speaking and noticing that Temple was agreeing with me gave me so much hope for myself. My fears of being yelled at vanished.

From that point, to the end, it was just a blur. I kept looking at the time of day clock that was on the back side of the podium thinking two things, "I hope I can get to the end without saying something stupid," and, "I wish this would go on forever."

The most awkward time came when Temple had to catch her flight and left. I didn't know whether or not to join in on the standing ovation so I kept looking over to the other two panelists. If they stood I would too, and they did so I joined in.

Then I was asked to tell the room how I choose my profession. It was about the only thing I remember word for word and I made sure, as I was saying it, to be forceful with my hands. The first three rows all shook their heads in agreement and I felt alive at that point in time. That moment was a moment of complete achievement. I knew then that what I had, and have, to say is not only heard, but people want to hear it.

Saturday October 2nd, 2010 will be a day I will remember forever. I got to sit next to Temple Grandin, on a panel, and along with the panel, got to tell our stories and gave people a glimpse into how our minds think. On that day I can think of no other place I would have rather been and I can think of no other place that could have been a bigger honor.

I started writing so I could be heard because I could not speak it, but I have grown now. I can speak and it is such a wonderful feeling to know that, even amongst the big time, I was heard.


  1. Aaron,

    Bravo to you for overcoming your fears and speaking from the heart. People do want to learn about you and your story. For every person who has had public speaking jitters, your essay brought their authentic experiences to life. It also showed that you can have courage to work your way through the fear, be in the moment and simply express yourself. Well done.


  2. As I have been "catching up" with your entries the last few days, just the fact that you started your journey til this point (still got more to go) is amazing.