Friday, February 25, 2022

A photo

 Good morning from Saint Petersburg, Florida. Today kicks off the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series season with the first practice. It still brings tears when I think about how awesomely special this view I am blessed to have is. 

The race is on Sunday on NBC.

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Anxiety of Next

What's next? This is a question my brain is constantly thinking and analyzing. However, I want you to expand your thinking on this and not think about what's next as in what are you doing after you read this blog. I mean, you should think about going to Amazon and buying the book called Finding Kansas, however that's not what I mean. Instead, think about next and every possible interaction that could come in the next five minutes. Think of every phone call you may receive and think about all of your potential responses. Then, keep going with an infinite list of possibilities and maybe you'll get in the ballpark of what my brain does to me in almost every circumstance. To put it lightly it is indeed exhausting. A couple weeks ago I talked about autism burnout and this, for me, is one of the things that'll get me there quickly.  

I haven't found an off switch for this and when I am out with people all day long, I become emotionally fatigued in a way that's almost shameful to admit. Shameful? How can I easily explain that, even with nothing directly traumatic happened, I'm exhausted from the daily grind of processing and fearing what may come next? It isn't an easy thing and for myself it's doubly worse because I am aware of this. 

On the flip side of that I also can't explain my strength. Strength? What am I talking about considering I just mentioned I get rather fatigued simply be existing? While it is true that I get a bit overwhelmed at the end of the day the thing is I did, in fact, make it through to the end of the day. I can get hung up on the "weakness" at times and totally lose the fact that it takes an inner strength that is hard to describe to get the nerve to leave the front door in the morning and take on all the anxieties I know I have. I know my brain is going to overprocess and try to calculate the oblivion of next, and yet I will.

For anyone you may know on the autism spectrum I implore you to keep this in mind. While it's easy to focus on the weakness, and we live in a society that so often just focuses on the bad, try and think about how much strength it takes to simply get through the day living life on the autism spectrum whether one can't tune out any bit of sensory input, or to those that overprocess everything. Whatever it may be the dedication, passion, and inner strength it takes to simply attempt to leave the house, or pursue a dream, takes more strength than my vocabulary will ever allow me to attempt to describe.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

My most memorable race

 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.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

A post from 2016: Taking the Stand at Indy

 With INDYCAR starting this week I wanted to share a post that I wrote in 2016 when I was beyond blessed to be in the flagstand for a day of practice for the Indy 500. This goes with yesterday’s post about employment in that getting any opportunity for experience can be vital many years later. 

               There I was, checkered flag in hand as 6:00 came and three cars doing in excess of 220mph were headed my direction off of turn four as I stood high atop the famous yard of bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The cars approached, I idid some fancy stuff with the checkered, and the cars went passed and that was it, the greatest day of my life was over. It’s odd to start a story at the end but for this story to have the merit it deserves we must start at the end because to the outside observer the end product would be the only thing seen because here I was, a starter for practice for the largest race in the world much less the 100th running of it. This, really, is the stuff dreams are made of and I could easily make this blog about myself in the hard work I’ve done, or the years of dedication, or my style, part that would be a shame on the true meaning of this story because to understand this story we have to look at it going from the end to the beginning.

                The day prior I had been working an event put on by Purdue and USAC in a parking lot in the infield that features electric karts. I noticed a track official whom I had met previously in 2012 when I filmed a video blog in the flagstand the day prior to that year’s Indy 500 and then the next year that event led me to be an honorary starter for a day of practice. He saw me and asked me how I was doing and how my books were going and my presentations. It was a great feeling to be remembered and he then asked, “Have you ever been in the stand while the track was hot?” In 21 years of flagging I’ve never once been atop a stand when Indycars were on the track so I nervously said, “no” in hopes that maybe, just maybe this conversation would head towards where I could only dream. Again though, that day was made possible by the event which encouraged me to do a video blog in the first place because it wasn’t simply a random, “hey, wouldn’t it be cool if I did a video blog from the flagstand at IMS?” Nope, it wasn’t that so we’ll have to continue going backwards to get to the answer.

                Prior to the video blog from 2008 to the present I’ve been the chief starter for SKUSA and that led me to become a starter for USAC which has me traveling all over the country working races. The start with SKUSA was amazing because the owner and CEO saw me at a regional race and turned to the promoter and asked, “What the heck is that?” pointing in my direction as I was doing my normal thing with flags. I then was surprised at the awards ceremony when he called me out and said I was the new starter for the SKUSA Supernats which is the world’s largest karting event and it was from doing that which allowed me to get involved with USAC. Now I mentioned my usual flagging thing which for that we have to go back even further to 1995.

                I was 12 and I started racing gokarts at the Saint Louis Karting Association. The club had a flagman and his age was reaching 80 and his ability to discern colors was fading and when the color of the flags means everything it became a hazard so I volunteered to hand him the right flags when I wasn’t racing. I was amazed he and the club allowed a 12 year old such a responsibility but it happened and with his retirement at the end of my first season I became the club’s chief starter at the age of 13, but why was I so eager to help Frankie, the club flagman? For that we get to the beginning of this story.

                It was 1990 and I lived in Indianapolis just about two miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and I was enthralled with all things motorsports, specifically though the chief starters and especially Duane Sweeney whom was the chief started of the Indy 500. While many childhood heroes of the time had the last name of Unser, Foyt, Andretti, or Mears mine was Sweeney. My dad was a pastor of a church and a member of the church worked at USAC, which at the time was the sanctioning body of the race, and he asked her if she could get me an autographed picture. Duane did one better by giving me a picture AND HIS CHECKERED FLAG he was going to use in 1990. Needless to say, as a seven year old, I was hooked and my love of flags grew and grew and grew some more.

                What’s the relevancy in all this? Why did I start with what could be a crowning moment in my life and stating that, if that were the only part of the story, then the story would be lost? While it may have been myself and myself alone with flags in hand it wasn’t myself alone that got me there and this is the soul of this story. I was diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 20 and back in 2003 the information on the internet did not paint a pretty picture for my future. The only thing that kept me going in life were the 11 club races I’d flag a year. I stayed that way for several years but then I got that regional series that Tom, the SKUSA CEO, would see me at and things started turning around. 

                My story, along with other success stories of those on the autism spectrum are filled with these events and if you just look at the finished product you are missing the true value of the story. It wasn’t that I simply flagged some in practice today but it’s all the people that helped out along the way. Much like how next week the winner of the 100th Indy 500 didn’t get to victory lane and didn’t get to drink the sweetest tasting milk in all the world all by himself. It took a team and a lifelong commitment from friends and family. So too, in a way, is the stories of those that are on the autism spectrum and have excelled. 

                It takes a team to succeed and as I climbed down from the flag stand it hit me like a sucker punch to the gut on just how rare of an achievement it was to do what I had just done. Few will ever have the view I had and as I shook the hands of all that were with me on that day I envisioned shaking every person’s hand that gave me a chance, or gave me support along the way. Every story I have in my development would not be possible if not for the event that preceded it. Some of these were major events from family members, or those that got me involved with Easter Seals Midwest, and others were seemingly minor. I thought about all the teachers I had that did amazing things, and the few friends I had that were a support, and without them this experience wouldn’t have happened. I then thought about the teachers of today, and parents of today, in that seemingly irrelevant events may have such wonderful ramifications down the road, but most of all I thought about Duane.                 

                When I got into my car my emotions finally hit and I’m not afraid to admit I cried. I fought back tears the first time I displayed the green at Indy, but many drivers will admit that they teared up too their first time to Indy as a driver. But yes, I thought about Duane and I made a statement to the observer in the flagstand with me that worked with Duane for many years and I said, “You know, I’d give about anything to be able to tell Duane what that flag he gave me meant because without that flag what you see today and my story simply wouldn’t exist.” 

                History will remember the winner of the 100th and yesterday will simply be a small footnote at the end of this year’s race. Some will remember the driver that was the fastest, most won’t. Some will remember the perfect weather, but for this writer it will be a day that lives forever but I didn’t get there alone. It took a team and for every educator, parent, or simply a member of society it’s amazing what even the smallest of gestures can bring and that’s why yesterday wasn’t about me, but rather every person that fought for me, cried for me, gave me a chance, and spoke for me when I couldn’t that allowed me to stand atop the yard of bricks and experience racing at the grandest stage and have an experience I will never forget. To all that were a part of this story I will never find the words that will give justice to how much it all meant, but most of all I wish I could simply tell Duane the simplest yet most sincere, “thank you.”

Monday, February 21, 2022

The Most Important Lesson: Chain of Command

The flags are packed! Today is the day I fly down to Saint Petersburg as this weekend the 2022 NTT INDYCAR Series begins. This will be my third season working my dream job but the lessons that helped me get here were learned long ago. I'm currently working on a book that's going to tell the entire story of the journey to Indy on how things learned decades ago were paramount in making it and in today's story, well, I really enjoy this story of learning how chain of command works.

It was January 2002, and I was working at a videogame store in a mall. It was a miracle of sorts that I even had a job there as I gave the world's worst job interview. No, really, it was atrocious as I said, "I don't know" to every question the manager asked. Did I have any sales experience? Did I have any management experience? To those questions and others, I stated that I didn't know. Somehow, I got the job the next day.

Quickly, I picked up the art of sales. I loved it, actually, and it was something I had done forever while playing Monopoly. It was my goal to make you think you were getting a great deal and it was my goal to win the game. The rules of this game to win were to be #1 in every sales category they kept track of. One of these were game reservations and at the time those cost $10 but then a competing store opened a location in the mall and offered $5 reservations.

I complained to the store manager that we were being killed due to this. He disagreed because, "Whether it's $5 now or $10 now the end price of $59.99 is the same." While that might've been true the reduction in reservations showed otherwise. He countered by saying, "Of course it's going to be down 50% because there are two locations now." However, my numbers were down 75% which was greater than the expected 50%. We were losing business, and this meant my goal for being number 1 in the whole district was in jeopardy.

Perhaps I shouldn't have cared. This was an entry level job, and the turnover rate was exceptionally high. Also, the pay was a few cents over minimum wage. Why would I care so much? Well, when I do something, I'm going to do something the fullest of my abilities. It's either all in or all out and I was fully committed to this sales thing even thought there was no bonus or reward for my dedication.

I continued to lobby the manager for some sort of change, and he eventually said that there was a feature in the sales terminal to email corporate directly. Later, he told me that he meant this as a joke but as he took a lunch break, I went into the sales terminal, and I found the corporate email section and I began my letter.

Writing came easy to me explaining my case. I also used some humor and a hint of desperation in the business we were losing. It took an hour, but I was happy with the case I laid out and I hit send.

The following week when I clocked in the manager saw me and called me over. He said, "Aaron, big thing, corporate did not appreciate your email. Really? You used humor in the email? That email goes straight to the CEO! They were not a fan of reading your writing so never use that email system. Oh, and reservations are now $5." Mission accomplished!

This was a big lesson for me, though. It wasn't learned right then as it took some other events down the road to solidify the concept of chain of command, but just because I knew I was right didn't mean I had the power to use tools not meant for me to change the system. Up to that point in my life I would supersede any chain of command if I knew I was right and I didn't understand the concept of, "even though you're right you're wrong." There's a system in place in most places and to go rogue is not typically a good strategy.

When I've heard stories from other individuals on the autism spectrum in the workplace this concept of command seems to get us in trouble and the problem is when the person is actually right. What's the balance here? There are times when bypassing the chain of command is the right play, but most of the time it isn't. Learning this dance can be difficult because, truly, in this videogame store example they did agree with me and changed the price for all stores with a competing store nearby. While I was spoken downward somewhat because of the email I got my end goal, but what if they had fired me for bypassing the chain of command? Would I ever have spoken up ever again? 

In the workplace everyone will experience the chain of command in their life and learning the delicate balance that exists. For us on the spectrum in can be a bit trickier because if we put our entire being into the work, we can easily get frustrated if others don't have the same passion we do and we will continue to pursue avenues until we get the conversation we want. Some may consider this a bit of annoyance, but shrouded in that potentially frustrating annoyance is actually a dedication most employers should be pining for.

Friday, February 18, 2022

The Wall

This is to all the people I've worked with over the years that have never seen the other side of the wall...

I’ve worked with many of you for many years, and others have seen me at the track for many years. It’s no secret I have Asperger’s and on track I can assure you it is a great advantage for me. I can’t recall the amount of time I’ve heard “Aaron, how did you see that from half a track away?” I love it! The speed, the challenge, the reflexes required but at the same time there’s one aspect that weighs heavy on my heart and it’s been an albatross for as long as I can remember.

My wall is high. I do my job and put every ounce of my soul into it but one thing I avoid is either before or after the day and that’s the social aspect. I don’t know how many of you actually “know” me. Sure, everyone puts up walls, everyone is a little guarded, but when I have the energy to go out with the crew at the end of the day it seems to be a cause for celebration, and I’m always confused at this; is it excitement that I’m going along or more that I’m not hiding away?
It’s an isolating experience. There’s a part of me that does want to know everyone; to be a true part of the crew instead of a mysterious lonesome figure that is either 100% on or invisible. I may come across as cold, uncaring, or maybe downright rude and I have no intention of that. What’s going on in my brain I can only describe as a tempest mixed with a hurricane mixed with a GPS system that doesn’t know North from space zebras that are wearing funny hats.
Today I’m feeling down as I look back on the people I could’ve known, people that I do know but simply see, and while I should challenge myself to be more my limitations are great. Maybe in previous jobs this led to resentment. I’m not sure, but if I work with you now do know that even though I may seem emotionless or aloof I’m very grateful you are there. It takes so much for me to simply get through the day, and perhaps this is a way I stave off the burnout I blogged about earlier in the week but do know I so dearly want to be a part of what I see you all have, but for me it's a greater thrill to be working at 100% of my potential and to be a part of a great team. That's where I shine, and I am extremely grateful the racing series I work for understand this about me. I may prefer to be alone at the end of the day but I'm beginning to realize I'm not fully alone because there's a peace that comes with others knowing this about me and not expecting me to be something I'm not. Perhaps all the work we've done in awareness and understanding of Asperger's is evident right here in my life because I haven't heard a cross word and others understand my need to recharge. The desire is still there to be a part of the team socially, but while writing this I got sad thinking about the chasm between but I'm smiling greatly in the realization I get to work with such awesome people that understand me. I hope the future will have this be commonplace for those on the spectrum to where it isn't even thought of for a second that it should be any other way.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

A Threat in the Fog 10 Years Later

The following writing below was written a decade ago when I was in Springfield, Missouri. The odd thing is I had a dream about this event last night and had no idea today marks ten years. 

This post is important to me because it shows the potential dangers of being socially paralyzed. I think I'm extremely fortunate this story ended the way it did.  

Recently I was in a town for a presentation, and I was staying at a hotel. It was a little past 10:30 p.m. and I got hungry, so I decided to go to a gas station to get some snacks. As I left the lobby of the hotel, I noticed just how junky the weather was; there was a fine mist in the air with a dense, soupy fog in the air. I almost walked back inside because, after all, if I were making a horror film this would be the weather, I would have in it.

As I neared my car, I saw two people walking down the sidewalk. I calculated in my mind that I and them would get to where my car was parked at nearly the same time. I am usually extra cautious to avoid people because and even more so in this weather because of my horror film concept, but on this night, I didn't turn back around and go to my car.

When I got to my car, I heard someone say, "Sir, excuse me..." and I instantly froze. Panic ensued and I was sure I was about to be robbed or worse. The lady continued, "my mother and I need to get to Wal-Mart before they close, and we've been walking for two hours. Could you drive us there? We'll pay for your gas."

If I were panicking before I was now at Defcon 1. I stood there, staring off into space, processing; I was trying to think of a way I could say no and not seem like a jerk. I wanted to say, "I'm sorry, I am too afraid." or maybe "I would if it is daylight" but I didn't know how to put that into words. I then thought of all the stories I've heard of people on the spectrum being taken advantage of simply because we can have a hard time simply saying "no."

In my presentations to police, I mention a story of a 16-year-old with Asperger's lost in a park. The police were called and when they got to him, they asked him his name and he said nothing. They asked him who his parents were and still nothing. He resisted any and all comments and essentially became a statue. Eventually the parents were brought to him and his mom, right away, asked, "Son, why didn't you help the officers?" The son replied, "But mom, why are you mad? You always told me not to talk to strangers." That story was going through my mind at this point in time as I continued to stand there trying to come up with some way out of this corner and I wish I had that 16 year-old's resolve.

I started to shake a little bit and I decided that, if these two were robbers I was going to be robbed whether or not I got into my car with them so, with a highly remorseful voice, as if I were signing my own death sentence, I said, "Okay, get into the car."

I've done some dangerous stuff in my life; I've covered a couple hurricanes, been to Africa three times, and I raced for a decade but this I thought as I headed towards Wal-Mart that this very well could've been the most reckless thing I've ever done.

The fog seemed thicker and as I pulled out of the hotel parking lot I noticed my two passengers had not put on their seat belts. I just about spoke up, but I wanted to say as little as possible. The younger one, in the back, asked lots of questions and to each one I said just enough not to give anything about myself away.

Of course, as we got to the first light, it was red. I reflected on my life and thought about how I got into this situation. It happened so fast and since I have a hard time saying no as well as having a hard time processing on the fly, I truly was cornered into this.

So many times, I've heard parents tell me that their son or daughter got caught up with the bad crowd on a whim and they couldn't understand how they got swept up in the ordeal. I would respond with an answer of some sort, and it was the right one, but now I know just how easy it is to fall into a trap and be in a corner.

The following lights were green and when we got to Wal-Mart the daughter offered to stay and when the mother got a refund, they would pay me gas money. I declined saying, "it was less than a mile, don't worry about it." and they both thanked me saying how wonderful I was and out they went and off I went.

Obviously, I survived and obviously nothing went wrong, but it could have. I got lucky. If anything, this is a major wake-up call because "no" needs to be in my vocabulary. I may be an autism advocate, but I am a horrible advocate for myself. However, this just adds to the things I can speak on from first-hand experience. I've always heard people on the spectrum are very much more likely to be a victim than others. I now know why, and I know now that "no" is very quickly going to be used more. Yes, it was probably a very nice thing I did for those two people, but I don't know if it was the safest. Yes, they needed a ride, but on a foggy night is it the safest thing to do? Even if it weren't foggy the answer is no and I hate to say that the world is dangerous, but if one doesn't know a person can they be trusted? Sadly, the world we live in has shown that the answer isn't 100% yes and all it takes is that one time. Thankfully, on that night, it wasn't that one time.

Wednesday, February 16, 2022

Why I Twirl the Mechanics

 There was a comment submitted recently about the twirling of the belt loops that sparked my interest. The commenter was correct that everyone has a sensory need of some sort. People not on the autism spectrum may twirl their hair, tap a pen, a foot, or any of an infinite number of potential things to meet the sensory need of that moment. So then, for myself, what are the ingredients to spur the belt loops? 

Quite often the need for some sort of sensory distraction comes with processing. Sure, I'm not going to lie, when there's a beltloop that's torn either on the top or bottom it is nothing short of sensory heaven to twist and twirl. It's a calming bliss that is impossible to describe unless you know this feeling. However, outside of a quick trip to sensory paradise, the need to twist is there when there needs to be a lessening of the proverbial volume of my brain.

Volume of brain? Yes, let's take the initial email on my phone that alerted me to a comment on my blog. As I unlocked my phone with my right hand my left hand was twirling a beltloop as my brain began to fear every potential bad comment I could have. Who did I make mad? Was someone out to make sure my blog would be ruined? Were those catastrophic thoughts? Absolutely, but that's where my brain goes with any unknown and to lessen the alarms my brain offsets this with that little bit of sensory input of the twisting of the beltloop.

When presenting I've noticed I will start off with a bit of twirling and by about the quarter mark I've quit but as soon as Q&A begins, I'm back to it because of the unknown aspect. I love the questions and answers segment, it's actually my favorite part of any presentation, but there's still that momentary sense of stepping into the unknown and the beltloops ease the stage fright.

So in short this is a coping mechanism my body has learned to help me to either focus or to dispel anxiety just a bit to allow me to fit in. When presenting to police officers I do stress these sensory needs in that, if an officer thinks a behavior is annoying or not necessary, they can try to request, or by force, stop one of these sensory needs for it to be replaced with a different behavior later because they could be taking away a much-needed coping mechanism.

So do remember this if you know someone on the spectrum that has any given quirk like this. Everyone does have some sensory need in one way or another, but for us on the autism spectrum that need may be absolutely needed at times to get through the chaotic nature of this thing we call life.

Monday, February 14, 2022

Autism and Burnout

 I had a parent send me a message and ask if I had any material on burnout. Well, the message was "autism burnout" but as I was working on a racetrack at the time, I missed the autism part and spent the weekend thinking about employment burnout and how that played out in my life. Re-reading the message today I read how it was actually phrased so I looked up autism burnout and was amazed at what I read as I've explained what I was reading in many different ways without knowing that autism burnout was a thing. From firsthand knowledge I can assure you it's a thing. Because this isn't a medical website, I'll let you do your own web searches on autism burnout, but I will describe to you how burnout has played out through my life.

copyright Ken Johnson
I'm extremely blessed in that my work at a racetrack is fully within my Kansas. Just yesterday I was at Homestead Miami Speedway for the SKUSA Winter Series, and the weather conditions were challenging. The day before it was extremely hot, then yesterday we raced in the cold rain which eventually gave way to hot and humid conditions. All the while I'm playing in traffic and putting on a show with the flags at the finish line. It's physically taxing, and I am feeling it today, but for myself this is a breeze compared to the things that'll lead me to burnout.

Next week the NTT INDYCAR Series begins, and I'll be in Saint Petersburg for a week with extremely early hours and working in the conditions whatever they may be. The hours are long, it's a marathon, but again this is easy compared to what I've experienced in the past.

So what causes what I would consider "burnout"? For myself it's always been due to the social aspect of a situation. And this, I think, is where this can be a tad bit confusing if you aren't on the spectrum because you may find it difficult that social situations where nothing bad happens can be just as draining as situations where something bad did occur. For myself, it's the processing aspect of life which is the gasoline on the fire that causes the burnout and regardless of if a social situation went well or bad the amount of processing is still high.

Processing delays are common for those on the spectrum, but this doesn't mean that the processing is slow. Quite the contrary because the way it plays out in myself is that so much processing is going on that it's difficult to be able to get the information I need out of my brain in a timely manner because so much other stuff is being processed. The problem here is that, without a break, this time gets longer and longer, and it'll get to a point where I'll have to hear something or read something several, if not more, times to finally understand what it is that is either expected of me or the info I need to recall.

I haven't had the extreme lack of recall since my school days, but at the start of the pandemic just under two years ago I had been going on about a year straight of nothing but go go go between presentations and flagging. I have memory gaps at the end of 2019 that are of a fog and in March of 2020 I remember telling my dad, "I can't explain this, and I know autism can't get 'worse', but it feels as if my autism is getting worse." Reading what I read today about autism burnout explained a lot.

Thinking of this leads me to understand that there's a difficult balance here. Going back to my days in school is difficult to think about safeguards that would've helped because I wasn't diagnosed at the time, and I had no ability to relay how I was feeling because I had almost no self-awareness. How could I have verbalized that the constant sensory bombardment throughout the day led to extreme exhaustion which then the exhaustion led to fatigue which led to an inability to do the work given because I had no energy left to do anything except simply exist? There's a lot of steps there and without a diagnosis and with zero understanding of myself, and myself to others, there was no hope of any adjustment to the environment that would've helped.

Looking ahead, what can help? Being aware of this, both by a person on the spectrum and those around them, is going to be critical. And this is where I go back and stress that situations that weren't bad can be just as detrimental. As I've said, understanding is the foundation for hope and simply understanding that this exists can help things head in the right direction. I wish I would've known about this 25 years ago because my keen recall of dates and facts had vanished. I knew I knew something, but just couldn't come up with it. This compounded the problem because I started processing the fear of not knowing something because I typically did know something when asked.

I'm going to be doing a lot more thinking on this subject. I'm wondering if this whole burnout thing has been the cause of many of my low points and also, if it had been, what could've helped. Clearly, I am not alone in this struggle which even in writing this I have felt a hint of needing to justify its existence which within that means I have a hint of guilt on this when that shouldn't be the case. I shouldn't feel bad about needing time to recharge, recoup, and get back to my baseline level. I shouldn't feel bad when I need to skip a social function like, say, everyone going to dinner you after a workday so I can be energized for the next day. And yet, you may have picked up on the tone that I have that hint of remorse that I do need to. That internal fight by itself is enough to cause the burnout because I'm aware of "what others think" and what I need. Trying to "fit in" or to "hide" who I am to be part of a group is emotionally and physically crushing and I'm so grateful the race series I work understand what I great at, and they allow me to be the best I can be, but nonetheless there are times I do wonder what that block is, what it would be like to simply be without all this processing and what it would be like to be in a social situation without a million thoughts happening all at once... anyway, this final paragraph was written in this fast paced, circular, almost confusing manner to illustrate the constant elements at play. IF you did think it was a hint in the realm of a ramble all I can say to you is imagine having this at all hours of the day. If you can, then you're on your first step to understanding the burnout.

Friday, February 11, 2022

Imposing Aerobiz

 If this wasn't a big red flag that I was on the spectrum I don't know what would be! From an early age I loved video games and I really didn't dislike any genre. However, when I was 10, I found a game that was nothing short of pure bliss. This game was nothing short of awesome combining cut throat strategy, geography, and money. Sounds awesome right? Now, if I say it involves airplanes does that make it even better? And not only that but they're officially licensed planes! That sounds super amazing, right? Now, what if I were to say you don't actually fly the planes? Well, you don't, and that's okay because this game is an airline CEO simulation!

The game was Aerobiz and from the first time I read about it to the first time I rented it I was in heaven. My love of this game might have been teetering on the level of an obsession. From the colors, to the music, and the graphs this game was sensory heaven. 

At school this was the thing I talked about for weeks on end. One day, after we moved to Saint Louis, a couple friends were coming over and I had a rented copy of Aerobiz (I rented that game at least 100 times!) and my Dad advised me, "Aaron, don't ask if they want to play Aerobiz because they don't." This confused me because everyone should have wanted to play that game. There wasn't one ounce of thought in my body that said a person could dislike that game because it was the supreme game of all time.

Of course, when those people came over, the first thing we did was Aerobiz and I tried to explain how opening a route worked and how matching the right plane to the right route was important and that when a price war happens you've got to sometimes barely break even to not allow the competition a foothold in the market and after five minutes the two of them were staring at me as if I were trying to explain quantum mechanics. They never came back to my house again.

The few times I have gotten people interested in the game were some of the best gaming moments ever. My sister-in-law got hooked the same way I did and when I was 12 I think we played for 10 hours straight. Also, a friend that lived behind me was just as interested and we probably played through the game 20 times, plus we played through the sequel Aerobiz Supersonic.

I think it would be safe to say that Aerobiz was a strong Kansas but at the time, and even now, I don't understand how someone couldn't find this game engrossing, awesome, and the best game ever. I often get comments of, "oh, that sounds like an awful game" and when I hear that I don't know how to respond. Okay, I understand a little bit more than I used to as to why people wouldn't find this game interesting; I mean, there's no guns, you don't fly the planes, and you can play the stock market in the game. As game designers sit down today I doubt that those are the markers of a sure-fire hit. Back then though I imposed this game on everyone. It was the only game that mattered and I was sure every other 10 year old shared my passion for it. I was oblivious to the fact that no one else shared in it, but thinking back on those days, when someone else entered my Kansas, those were the best moments ever.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

The Contradictory Nature of Asperger's

Racing season is here! I head to my second race of the year tomorrow. However, as excited as I am, today’s blog is going to use the most traditional of all things in motorsport, the checkered flag, as a concept to describe Asperger’s. The thing about the checkered flag is that it’s so contradictory. In the top corner is one color and if you go just far enough, you’ll reach another, but then keep going and you’ll be back to where you started and so on and so forth. What does this mean? My experience in having Asperger’s is one of stark contrasts and it gets tiring. Here’s what I mean…
I want to be part of the social world but the social world tires me.
I want to be part of a team, but I often can't see the concept of teamwork.
I have extremely good senses, especially when it comes to hearing, but I often wish I could turn it off.
I want to be alone but being alone is extremely isolating.
I need to be perfect in the things that I do but there is no satisfaction at achieving perfection.
I can give some incredibly witty remarks but often miss out on when someone is being witty.
I want to make sense of the world but often the more I know about things the scarier the world is.
Being in my Kansas is awesome but I often wonder what life is like out there.
I yearn to be normal but normal seems so boring.
I can do some things great and many things not so great.
Hard things come easy and what is easy to most comes at a high degree of difficult to myself.
I want to care about others but allowing myself to feel is overwhelming.
I want to tell others what they mean to me but expressions of any kind are paralyzing.

Do you get the idea by now? It's a constant struggle to be wanting both sides of the coin; to want something but to know if I had it the results would be just as difficult as living without it. This is why I stand by the title of this post in that living with Asperger's, at least for me, is living a life full of contradictions.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Tales of Hypervigilance

Several months ago, I wanted to share my enjoyment of golf with my girlfriend, Kristen, and the tranquility, bliss, and utter frustration that the sport can produce, but while the hitting on the course was decent what came after on the way back home was anything but tranquil.

One of the themes I've written about for almost 20 years has been the hypervigilance I usually have of my surroundings and all you have to do is go back to last month's post about the flight I had to see an example. On this day, of this story, we had finished up a round of golf at one of my favorite courses which is about 50 miles out of town. The golf? I was shocked as Kristen, first time on a course and only being to a driving range twice, was tied with me after two holes and had a par on hole 2. What came after hole two? Remember the whole frustration? Yeah, I think it best not to describe the remaining holes.

Anyway, golf aside, at the end of the round we got in her car and started driving home. The car needed gas, so we stopped at a gas station near the interstate. I was a bit exhausted and looked over to her looking at the gas pump then I looked to my right, out the passenger side window, and I saw a car and instantly thought, "that car has seen better days" as the headlights were smashed out, rust had been eating through the hood, the windshield had many cracks, and there were no license plates. Wondering who was driving it I started to peer upward but then I looked back at Kristen who was trying to find her credit card.

Looking back at the odd vehicle I looked in the windshield and my alarms started going off as the two occupants were shirtless and I watched Breaking Bad, and these two men would've fit the description of many of the, well, they could've easily been perfectly cast. I had a hint of concern but heard Kristen open the passenger side rear door as she looked for her credit card in her purse. That's when it happened.

My eyes were drawn inside the car and the passenger in the car pointed at Kristen. The driver then looked her way, and their lips were moving which I could not hear what they were saying but then the passenger pulled out a switchblade and opened it up with a snap. "Uhhhhhhh" is what I said aloud, and Kristen then walked around to the gas pump, which was driver's side, but my eyes were fixated on the two suspicious looking men, one with a switchblade, with a car with no plates. This was not ideal, and I began to panic as they both now were trying to find where Kristen went.

Kristen made her way back around to the passenger side to put the credit card back and as she looked in the car I simply said, "we need to go now." I'm not sure if my voice could've conveyed just how concerned I was and I didn't want to create any sort of panic and I didn't want to say, "some dude opened up a switchblade and he's in the car right behind you" as the last thing I wanted was for her to look behind. 

In response she said, and rightfully so in an inquisitive tone, "Say what?" I fumbled about trying to find what I needed to say, and I responded, "it's not safe here. We need to go now." The urgency I needed to say it wasn't there, so she methodically put the credit card back and walked around to the pump. Meanwhile, the switchblade wielding man was getting out of the car and my eyes darted from him to her, back to him, to her, and back to him while he walked in a position of triangulation between our two cars and the pump. Kristen now got back in the car, and I said, "go! Go now!" and we proceeded to leave the parking lot and I filled her in on what had been going on behind her.

Perhaps they hadn't pointed at her. Maybe there was something behind the two of us. I have no idea what and I've played this out many, many times, but in each scenario I play out I get that same sense of fear I had at that moment. Perhaps it was justified, perhaps I overreacted, but I don't have an off switch for sensing danger in my environment. I've thought this to be the case due to the fact of commonly missing social cues, so I have to doubly be prepared for when things out of left field occur. Sadly, this isn't "A tale of" but instead is entitled, "Tales of Hypervigilance" because this story isn't over.

We drove across the interstate to a truck stop and Kristen got her credit card out to get gas. She inserted the card and looked at it with a hint of befuddlement. I was still trying to get over the surge of adrenaline I had and when an older lady started walking right towards Kristen from a parked car at the front door and my internal alarms were set off again.

This woman looked a tad bit angry, and she came over demanding, "You can't use this pump! I've prepaid! You must stop!" Kristen looked at the pump screen and there was no indication of a message of prepayment. Kristen looked at me and at this point I'm over the point of giving anyone the benefit of the doubt, so I whisper "Scam!" to her. Furthering my belief that everyone on this day was out to do harm were two men pointing at this scene unfolding that obviously had some relation to the woman demanding the use of this pump.

A few moments passed and then a message on the pump did say "$20 prepaid" so there had been no scam, no attempting phishing, and no attempted robbery. In these two stories is the benefit and the downfall to constantly being on alert as when there's a legitimate threat I may see it, but when there's simply a woman who had prepaid gas and her husband and son looking on, albeit a bit suspiciously, I may think something is up when it's not. 

These two stories are also an example of why I try and avoid random social encounters when out in public. If I can achieve that isolation, I'm not going to have to discern what is and isn't a threat. It's tiring and yes, I do know that everyone is going to be aware of their surroundings, but as one of my former coworkers whom I dearly miss working with said, "the only thing autism is, is human behavior to one extreme or another. It's behavior everyone does but for those on the spectrum they will do too much or too little of it." There's no off switch for this, and maybe a major crisis had been averted at stop #1, but at stop #2 it truly was an honest event. What's right or what's wrong? I don't think I have an answer to this, but I know I'll always be aware of what's going on and there may be, at some point, myself or someone you may know that'll say, "we need to go, now!" and it could be like the first gas station. 

Friday, February 4, 2022

Thoughts at 39

It was fitting I wrote about ends on Wednesday as today marks another major change as my age goes to 39. The two days I loathe the most each year are New Years and this, my birthday. 

This is the day of all days to measure what hasn't been achieved. I know, I know, I should look at it the other way around and see all the things that were accomplished in the past 365 days but that, sadly, isn't the way my brain is wired. It's so much easier to see what's been left on the table than it is to see what great things I got to experience. 

However, the past two years have been different. When I see the things left on the table, I'm seeing the presentations that haven't taken place because they weren't able to occur. And actually, because of this, I can sort of see the great things that have happened in the past year because it wasn't my fault and wasn't my lack of skill as to why I wasn't traveling the country giving presentations. 

All things considered, 38 was a great year! Back in May I got to experience the Indianapolis 500 as the starter with 135,000 fans. It is almost impossible to describe the electricity in the air and the mammoth pressure of the job. I worked my entire life to get to that position and despite all the setbacks, and injuries motorsports has given me I lived out a dream that I say is an impossible dream come true.

Another major event was I met my girlfriend. She's been patient enough with all my racing adventures and racing talk and, well, more racing. It was extremely awesome though, back when the NTT INDYCAR Series visited WorldWide Technology Raceway that she got to experience her first INDYCAR race. 

While the racing accomplishments were big there were several presentations in the midst of the year while the COVID numbers were lower. I had a great virtual presentation with Ron Ekstrand, CEO of EasterSeals Arkansas early in the year that was amazingly fun.  My annual trip to Iowa to present to police officers was great (thanks dad for driving me as I literally flew to Saint Louis from Birmingham between INDYCAR races) and I learned how to make Zoom work for me as well. 

I didn't reach 100,000 people spoken to in my career last year but there's a good chance year 39 will see that through. I'm actually extremely hopeful, for a change, that the following year on this Earth will see good things. Hopefully the pandemic subsides, and presentations become commonplace again. I miss the interactions I had with families and hearing stories from others that help me in my own growth and understanding. I was blessed in having one school presentation and I'm hoping those can happen again soon in a safe manner.

It'll be hard to beat last year. For a bad year it was pretty grand. Heck, I even started my blog once more which I was afraid the proverbial writing well had all dried up. Thankfully it hadn't and thankfully you stuck around after all these years. I'm so grateful to be a small part in raising the level of autism understanding out there and I look forward to trying to make year 39 the best year yet. 

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

"Never Again"

With round-robin matches beginning in the sport of curling, the XXIV Olympic Winter Games have begun in China. The Olympics have always been a mile marker of sorts in the way I organize my memories. From my introduction to hockey in the Albertville games, or my short-lived desire to be a skier after the Lillehammer games (seriously, the one time I went skiing is a hilarious story that I'll have to write about sometime) I can recall each Olympics with detail. However, this post isn't about the fond memories of each Olympics but rather another post how a small, seemingly irrelevant thing can create an emotional response.

As with this post last month that I spoke about memories of a water tower, I can have an emotional attachment to things that are lost or over. At the age of six I cried and cried when 1989 ended and became 1990 because it would "never again be 198X". 

It can get a tad bit annoying to have this, but as I've written several times the "everything is now" memory recall system makes ends all the more difficult because it represents change and almost all of the time "change is bad". 

So, let's get to the topic of this post and why I mentioned the Olympics. It has to do with the most recent example I had of a small event creating a vacuum of sorts in the memory system. It was the Tokyo 2020 Olympic video game and the title menu.

As the Games approached, on the title screen, there was a message relaying how many days it was until the Olympics began. Seeing that didn't do anything to me, but when the Games began the message, as seen in this picture, said that "The Olympic Games are on!" During those 17 or so days that message was displayed but the first day I noticed that message I stared at it and became flooded with unfiltered emotions. I find it strange that something just like that message can create a storm of emotions. However, it did, and realizing that, when the Games were over, that message would never be displayed again.

Maybe it's ends I'm emotional towards and perhaps afraid of and things like a year-end or a message notifying the world that the Games are on are a reminder that all things come to an end. Ends are the worst because whatever is may never be again. Maybe it's Asperger's, or maybe it's not, but I've often seen everything at once which means that, when I think of an end, I'm seeing every potential end to come. This is why I do what I can to avoid emotions, because when an emotion like the realization that the Games are on message will never be seen again, I fear every possible thing in the future that will never be again. Change may be bad, but ends that will never be again are overwhelming.