Monday, December 12, 2011

The Banquet Blues

Over the weekend I drove up to Indianapolis for the USAC Night of Champions banquet and the .25 awards ceremony. Friday night was the Night of Champions at the Indiana Roof Ballroom and was one of the hardest functions I've been to in quite some time.

I'm not good at social function as I don't know what to say or even the posture to have. Everything about me in those situations feels wrong and regardless of what I say or how I move it still feels wrong.

I got there early and instantly felt overwhelmed. Over the course of the first hour while I was in the supreme "positional warfare" person after person came up and said "hello" to me and I could not place who they were. I'm used to seeing the kids in driving suits and the parents in, well, whatever it is that they were at the track. Seeing suits and ties gave me no indication as to who they are. You see, I don't look at faces all that often so I have to remember the person through other means and the color of their suits or other things worn at the track are my way, but since those we not being worn I was at a loss. I think I hid it well as people came up to shake my hand, but in my mind I was in a panic trying to remember who, exactly, they were.

Slowly, I started to get angry with myself. "Just be normal... or act normal" is what I kept telling myself but it just wasn't happening. I longed for the days of simply being at the track with flags in hand. There I feel natural and confident. This? This was a nightmare.

The anger continued as I sat down at my table and soon the .25 head scorekeeper and chief steward sat down so this was good as I could finally talk without over thinking as I have talked to them many times throughout the year. Then, three other people that I did not know sat down and I retreated back into my shell of awkwardness.

For another hour I longed for a place that wasn't there. The person beside me to my left tried to joke with me, but I was being rather literal and spent a good portion of the time utterly confused. It may have not shown on the outside, but my internal voice was just yelling at me, "Fool! Fool! Fool!" as I felt like a fool for the awkwardness I was exhibiting.

Over time I retreated into the safe world of my phone. I read irrelevant facebook updates with a profound eagerness as I started 20 different games of chess on the app. I then got a text from my dad that was a picture. The picture was of the first uncorrected proof of the new version of my book coming out April 3rd. As I was posting it to Facebook one of the persons asked me, "Who are you texting away too?" and I mentioned that I was uploading a picture of my book to Facebook.

"A book? Did you write it? What's it about?" were the barrage of questions I got. I don't think it is a big deal, but it seems those questions are always asked when it is ever mentioned that I wrote a book. And, as those questions were asked, the awkwardness vanished and I went into a small presentation Gone was the over-processing and gone was the positional warfare. As if a light switch was flipped I came alive.

For maybe five minutes I was on top of the world. What amazed me was how fast my concepts made sense to them. As the awards presentations began the person to my left said, "Let me guess, as you were talking about your job with TouchPoint and your book you were in Kansas, weren't you?" Oh yes, yes I was and it was those five minutes that saved the night for me. I felt accomplished and forgot about how awful I felt and how awkward I was.

The power of Kansas was felt once again and I can't believe how fast I went from a wreck to beaming with confidence. All it took was one question. I think back to my presentation to 5th graders a couple months ago and the question that was asked of, "Do you think people have, or will, under estimate you because you are on the spectrum?" After that experience Friday night I have to think people will because for the longest time those people at my table saw a confused, silent individual. Outside my comfort zone I am light years away from the image people see when I am in Kansas. See me outside Kansas though and 'm sure person X on the street will under estimate me as first impressions are important and the first impression they will see is a nervous, shaky person that is genuinely uncomfortable. However, get us in our Kansas and you'll see something else.

After those five minutes I had a smile on my face the rest of the night because those five minutes are what I live for. It's one thing to give my presentation to people that are already accustomed to the spectrum, but three strangers at a table at a banquet is special. I don't know if even a year ago I'd have felt comfortable explaining myself and the book as I did, but I do now and even after experiencing the banquet blues I was able to.

So, what started out as a major negative turned positive once again. Also, I love how eager people are to learn about the spectrum that don't really know it. Awareness is on the rise and if I had to endure a banquet each day to reach people I would because for those five minutes I was king of the world... or king of the ballroom... ahem, king of the table? Okay, maybe not any of those things, but whatever it was it was amazing.


  1. My son is only seven, but when is in his safe predictable home he does really well, but take him out and I get dirty looks or asked what is wrong with him? He is very shy with people and only talks about certain things. I home school him because he did not function in the classroom. I am glad to see someone successful who is on the spectrum it gives me hope.

  2. angels4, There are many successful people on the spectrum. Aaron Likens, Bill Gates, Thomas Edison, Doctors, Lawyers; the list goes on.

    Aaron, Have you considered having an Autism Awareness Puzzle Piece ring made? Or wearing a puzzle piece lapel pin? These pieces could invoke conversation in your Kansas Zone. People would see the ring or pin and ask about them thus bringing the conversation to your "Kansas". Christmas gift ideas for Aaron folks! :))

  3. As I said in another comment, a longer term solution is to get "coached up" for social functions.

    There are places where smart phones are OK to use at social functions. However, I personally recommend no more than 5% of social functions... as the MAIN objective of these events is to socialize.

    These are times that fulfill the requirements of the "5% smartphone time".

    1. Taking pictures and upload them on social media sites.
    2. After someone gives permission to add you on Facebook, you can look for that profile.
    3. Tweeting on how you feel at the social function/who you see at the social function
    4. Adding a person's contact information onto your phone.
    5. Going to an app that allows you to give that person your business card (now is common)
    6. Sending a brief message to a person's email after he/she gives you his/her email address so that that person can remember who you are.
    7. Contacting someone who may not be at the party yet and/or finding out where he/she is.

    If I were an occupational therapist, I understand individual with autism's need for "me time". However, I will be very upset if someone spending too much time in isolation and/or playing games on smart devices at social functions. There are some other alternatives than doing that... and this is what I want you and your readers to learn. My objective is not to make you guys social butterflies, but just a few pointers that are more appropriate.

    1. Leaving early to a social function and saying pleasantries before you go to some people you know well who are there at the event as well as the last person you socialized with at the social function. Some social functions are "open ended", so you can come and go as you please.

    2. If you don't see someone you know at the moment, try to socialize with people you don't know AND have some go-to questions and topics handy. Usually you will know the purpose of the social function way ahead of time. So, it is more than reasonable amount of time to come up with some go-to questions and topics before you step into the social function.

    3. If you really feel bored, take some pictures of the social function and upload them on social media.

    4. If you see people you know, have a conversation with them and ask if you can have a picture with them afterward, if not at some point of the conversation. For some people, of course, they may only have time to take a picture with you.

    5. If you feel overwhelmed, you can definitely slip into a quieter spot outside the social function space to regroup.

    I implemented these 5 strategies all the time for a few dozen social functions for the last almost 4 years and it has worked well.