Thursday, April 27, 2023

Understanding the Silence

This morning, within an hour of each other, I had two events that reminded me of the fact that I'm on the autism spectrum. As I've said many times, I don't go around with the thoughts of, "I'm autistic... I'm autistic." No, it's when things go awry that there's a reminder, and that reminder started with a tackle this morning.

I exited my hotel room, went down the elevator, and out to the van where Tyger was waiting. I was a bit early, as was he, and he wanted me to send a text to the group saying we were ready. I'm glad he did, because it was then that I realized I had forgotten my phone in the room. Ugh! I've been forgetting way too many things as of late, as this story proves. 

When walking back to the room, I arrived at the elevator where it was in the process of being vacuumed. The way this was being done by two people was peculiar, but I stepped back and waited. Several seconds passed, then half-a-minute passed. Another man was getting a little agitated at the fact that the other elevator car would not arrive because the system was waiting for the car open to depart. This worried me that I was about to see some sort of altercation, but then the woman with the vacuum started to backup.

She was on a direct line with me. She kept backing up, but my mind was still on the man to my left and if he'd yell or make a scene. The woman took three more steps and I put my hands up in a way to say "STOP!" and the system process I have of "I think therefore you should know" came into play. I could see she was going to run into me, but there was no way for her to know. And then, contact was made.

She hit me with more force than I was expecting, and her legs almost got intertwined with mine which made me have to step back awkwardly. My lack of equilibrium, when outside forces interfere, came into play and I made some quick steps to prevent from falling, but the wall ended up breaking my fall as I went straight back into it.

It was a needless situation. As I tell police officers in my police presentation, "First and foremost, autism is a communications issue" and I couldn't communicate because of the fear of the man on my left. The contact hurt, but I was more frustrated with my inability to speak. This inability would play out again in just an hour.

I'm at Barber Motorsports Park for this weekend's NTT INDYCAR Series, and one of the support series team owner is a man that was a manager of where I worked at the racing school some 20 years ago. I've known he was at those races that the Radical Cup was at in years past, but I saw him this morning driving down the pit road as I was setting up some of my equipment. 

I saw him, raised one hand as if I were about to say something, but I uttered nothing. Then, he drove back up pit road and I made eye contact, which is hard for me, and opened my mouth but then quickly looked elsewhere. 

He continued to make measurements and where as he was a major factor in that timeframe of my life, I doubt I'd have been all that memorable at the time. Besides that, if I were to stop him, would he be mad? Why would he be mad? I don't know, but it's a possibility because I can't process or predict such an interaction.

He drove by at least six more times and each time I tried to say something, but each time I was unable. It's in moments like this I feel absolutely ridiculous. You'll see me Sunday, if you watch NBC 2:00 Central time, working my 50th career INDYCAR race. I have no problem whatsoever doing that job. I feel confident, in control, and I proverbially soar at the job. When it comes to socializing, I can't fathom how others do it so effortlessly, and I remain silent for the fact I can't foresee what could come from the conversation. Think of it like playing chess without being able to see your opponent's pieces. But let's put something on the line, raising the stakes of the game. You'd be nervous if every move could end the game, and for myself it's the pain of processing when conversations don't go according to how I think they might, and a person I knew 20 years ago would most certainly be an unknown.

I'll feel better tomorrow. I might be down on myself now, but since then I've had several conversations that have made me smile, I asked a police officer that had a FBINA (FBI National Academy) jacket on so I asked him what class he went on, which I was shocked I was able to... but that was a conversation on the professional level. When it comes to personal interaction, there are times I might not be able to speak even if it results being tackled by housekeeping.

Monday, April 24, 2023

Frozen at Checkout


Understanding is a difficult thing. From the outside it can look like so many different things. Even if I give an explanation that scratches 50% of the surface, well, it can still be almost impossible to truly understand the elements in play. In this story I’ll do my best, but at the end I worry you still may not have a full understanding of what it’s like living life on the autism spectrum.

Last week I was in Indianapolis for the NTT INDYCAR Series open test at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. One morning, on my way to the track, I stopped at a gas station to grab a drink and an energy bar. It was early, and the sun was still an hour from making it’s first presence known over the Eastern horizon. I was not quite half awake as I grabbed my two things to purchase and headed to the counter.

I’m not a morning person. Maybe that factors into this story, or perhaps it doesn’t, but as I put my goods on the counter, I was experiencing a strong aversion to eye contact. There are different times when this impacts me with a greater severity, and in this story, it was as strong as it gets. What happens when it is strong? It isn’t so much that eye contact is a choice in these times but rather it’s much like having the strongest magnetic repulsion possible preventing me from any eye contact of the person at all, much less the eye.

Looking away from the person is my only option in these times and I usually am looking down, away, and to the left when this occurs. I’ve never seen myself in these instances from the third person, but I probably look about as uncomfortable as possible.

A misconception people will do is to try and throw words they know to this, and perhaps that’s their way to quantify it on their way to understand it. “Oh, you must be introverted” is what they’ll say, but it has more layers than that. It isn’t a moment of, “I just want to be by myself” but rather a full body alert that’s triggered a defensive position of avoiding all eye contact and an attempt to be invisible.

The clerk rang up the two items, asked a question to which I nodded, and then asked another question which did require a verbal response to which I gave and then the clerk said, "No words to soft spoken.” That five-word sentence was like a salvo of bunker-busting bombs to my defensive position, and I quickly began to loathe myself.

Inside my mind during these episodes, I know I should respond with words. I know I could be more social, and more fluid with my outward facial expressions, but when the elements are right, or wrong in this instance, it isn’t a matter of choice. It’s here that, when a neurotypical tries to understand this, they can’t because it isn’t a matter of choice.

I fear these moments that I’m a prisoner in my own brain. Extroverted, introverted, shy, or outgoing all don’t tell the story. The sensation I have in these moments is one of mortal danger as if I make eye contact or speak, I am putting my being on the line. The ability to simply overpower this is not there. Here, again though, is difficult to explain and understand because the way I just worded it may make it sound as if I’m scared for my life. I’m not. Think of it taking a stroll on a sidewalk that happens to have a river of lava flowing safely to the side. It’s staying over on the side and so long as you wander off the path there is no danger. That’s what can happen for me, at times, when needing to socialize. I can’t explain why my inability to communicate was worse during this, but my brain felt it important to stay on my side of the sidewalk and not venture out.

For the rest of the day, I was down on myself. I wish I could simply overpower and “man-up” as some used to say. It’s such a paradox this; my body does everything it can to protect itself to minimize the chance of a bad or unplanned social encounter which in turn creates a bad or unplanned social situation that lingers with me for a long while.

Maybe I’ve explained this well, or maybe I haven’t. I don’t blame the clerk in the slightest. How could he have known what he saw was behavior from the autism spectrum? Maybe he thought I was aloof, or internationally looking away from him as if I thought myself superior. It wasn’t any of those things. It was a potential everyday occurrence of autistic traits playing out. It’s not a choice, it’s something I try to hide, but on days like that I’m unable to, and in the end it’s something that I fear because it creates life in a paradox.



Monday, April 17, 2023

Understanding What Others Mean to Me

Despite what is seen on the outside, those around me have a deep meaning. It often seems opposite of this. If you were to just see what was on the outside and not understand what is going on in my soul, you'd probably draw the conclusion that I'm uncaring, aloof, or simply just rude. It's not that way though, and because of this I often wish I could apologize to the world.

It's heartbreaking for me to see others socialize with an ease I don't understand. Truly, how do you do it? How do others greet others they don't know with, what appears to me, as being reckless abandon? I'm fearful of the unknown and others that aren't known are an unknown variable and that scares me. Even to those I know, I'll have reservations with the traditional social niceties. Again, this probably makes me appear almost snobbish in my mannerisms, and I wish I could simply cross the plane of being able to socialize like I see everyone else, but there are invisible chains holding me in place.

From my point of view, it looks oh so easy and yet it isn't. It is such a struggle that others don't understand. I don't try and be business all the time, but it takes a perfect environment for me to open up which is a rarity. 

It gets aggravating, and what gnaws at my core is the fact that mist around me will never know what they mean to me. I'm so chained by what's going on in my brain that it isn't easy, at times, to even acknowledge those in my surroundings. 

This is element of life has so much emotion tied behind it that I've found this post to be difficult to write as I think of all the people that have come and gone in my life. I haven't even been able to describe the types of people, whether I see them monthly, or just once a year, but whomever they are, the impact in my life is the same. 

I can't finish this post. It is of such a deep and painful subject that this is the best I've got. Maybe, in a way, that shows you the impact others have on my life; that I am unable to write about what others mean to me. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Closing the Saga

Not much time to write today, but wanted to end the story from Monday as the piece of luggage I had left behind did make it to Long Beach. Here’s hoping I never have a blog post like that again. 

Monday, April 10, 2023

Miracle on the G Terminal

There's an important thing to understand about Asperger's and that is, when there's a heightened sense of stress, seemingly impossible mistakes will take place. These mistakes would, under normal circumstances, would quite simply not happen. For myself, today, this took place.

I travel a lot. I can't begin to calculate how many miles my bags have traveled with me. Leaving a carryon bag behind is something unimaginable. Leaving a carryon bag with an Xbox and accessories is even something more impossible to comprehend. I achieved the impossible today.

It's tax season, and the taxman numbers didn't come up rosy. A minor miscalculation, but something that's been, let's say, taxing my thoughts as of late. Then, this morning, my ticket was no longer right. The airline rep said the ticket got "reversed" so it showed me going to LAX before arriving at my lay over in Minneapolis. Checking my bag took almost 30 minutes as they tried to figure out the problem. This raised the stress of the day to a level I thought was maxed out. Sadly, the "fun" was just getting started.

Once at my layover, my ticket again got messed up and I lost my preferred seat. Yes, that's a first-world problem and I wasn't going to throw a stink like so many travelers not on the autism spectrum have been throwing as of late. However, if I could get my original seat back, I was most certainly going to try. 

At the Sky Club (yes, loyalty to an airline pays off), I talked to a ticketing rep and she called several people and again, it took almost half-an-hour, but I got back to my original seat. I breathed a sigh of relief and sat down ready to work on my book. 

I went back into the flight app and looked at when I boarded. "12:53" it read and, wait a second! Why would a flight that's leaving at 3:37 board at 12:53? I realized I had been moved to a different flight which is why I got my seat back so I rushed to talk to the ticketing person who confirmed this change, and I rushed back to get my laptop and backpack and off I went.

It wasn't until I boarded the plane that I realized, "Where's my roller bag?!" Panic ensued. I deplaned, looking around the gate area for my bag, and it wasn't there. I didn't know what to do, where to go, and the gate agent took my name, and I boarded the plane defeated.

I was already calculating the crushing costs to replace everything. This mistake in my mind, was inexcusable. I gave myself no sympathy for such a seemingly absurd thing to do. Under normal conditions, I'd state at a presentation that, "yes, when routines go askew, a person on the autism spectrum is going to be under greater levels of stress because everything that was processed in the brain is going to have to be reprocessed and this isn't an easy task. We like knowing what's going to happen, and when levels of stress go up, mistakes that normally wouldn't happen could take place." I may understand this as a presenter, but in the midst of the storm I couldn't see that I'm a human on the autism spectrum and that it's okay to make a mistake.

Texts were sent to my dad and he got on the phone and reached the Sky Club. They would be on the lookout for a bag and, wait, a bag was just taken to lost and found, they said. They didn't know if it was my bag, and the wait over the next hour was brutal. 

When mistakes take place, I often do nothing but loathe myself. Is it conducive to a positive outcome? Does it achieve gains? No and no, but this seems to be the all too familiar way the Asperger mind can operate. We can have 1,000 wins, but one mistake will overshadow everything that came before it. We may forget who we are, what we are capable of, and we will become defined by the single mistake. This happened to me, and it was consuming me.

About an hour into the flight, I got a text. It was from my dad, and they had found my bag! It was the bag that had been turned in. It's hard for me to come up with a number of how many bags roll across an airport floor, so it's mind-boggling that it was found, turned in, and it will meet me at the hotel tomorrow.

I write this in the air on the flight. The spectrum of emotions felt in the past two hours is greater than the difference between being on the ground and up here at 37,000ft. There are two takeaways I have from this day. The first is a new understanding about the potential pitfalls of navigating life when stress is high. If you know someone on the spectrum, please understand the times of exhaustion, or higher stress, that mistakes that would be deemed "careless" could take place. It isn't that we willfully just left the bag of expensive goods in a public place, it's that so much processing is taking place that we may be operating on autopilot. I have no doubt that, if I were in the midst of working, my performace would not be impacted, but on the personal side of life, well, thaty's where the mistakes will take place. 

The second thing I learned is that, somehow, I've got to find a way to accept that I'm human. We shouldn't define ourselves by mistakes. I often will and it eats at the soul from the inside out. How can anything be celebrated when the mistake is the blocker that hides away the light? I mean, I'm headed to Long Beach to continue working my dream job with the NTT INDYCAR Series, and we are less than 50 days to the 107th running of the Indianapolis 500! Whether the miracle in the G terminal took place today or not shouldn't dictate the image I have of myself, but for now it does. 

On a month that I'm focusing on the understanding aspect of autism, I hope this sheds some light on the day-to-day challenges we may face and how those that usually have a keen eye on things and their surroundings, may make a careless mistake and then, in turn, understand how that mistake can gnaw at the soul.

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Understanding the Wall

If there's one thing that creates the biggest divide between me and others, it's the wall. This wall is both needed and not at the same time. It's a wall of preservation and the cause of great pain. I couldn't live without it but living with it is a great challenge. Perhaps, this is the essence of my existence with Asperger's.

Recently, I learned of another person's words about working with me. They aren't a coworker of mine, but have worked beside me, and they expressed a great befuddlement as to why, when I'm leading, I'm all work. Also, they wondered why I don't small talk with them. Hearing this was of a great heartache to me because this is who I am. I'm not one to chit-chat. I'm not one to ask how someone's day is going. I can't fake this and maybe, right now in you reading this, you're agreeing with this person I mentioned. If you only looked at the surface, perhaps you could draw this conclusion, however there's so much more to this.

I don't let many people in. I'm extremely guarded and as time has progressed, and I've been hurt by others, I've learned to keep people at a distance. This is the act of self-preservation. There's misinformation out there that states that, "people on the autism spectrum have no emotions" and I get angry every time I hear that. While, if you saw just the moments of myself not engaging with those around me you might think this, but the pain of being hurt socially is so great that it lingers far longer than it should. It becomes almost an obsession focusing on the pain and trying to process it, but it has no outlet. Because of this, my brain has determined it better to try and be invisible to others, which in turn leads to the exact thing I'm trying to avoid which is pain.

In my life I've let very few people in. I remember one person I worked for 13 years ago stated after a couple months, "Do you talk" and then 11 years ago they said, "Do you have the ability to be quiet?" The second question was meant in jest as they were so proud that I had opened up. It's rare, but to those I open up to and share my actual thoughts, ideas. and humor to is a rare thing indeed. Around these people I can't fake a smile because I'm actually smiling. For those that witness this, and then see me retreat back behind the shell that is the wall, well, it must be confusing.

Why do I hide? If opening up to those that I have has gone well, why not be that way all the time? If only it were as easy as writing that sentence. I think back to the time I started with INDYCAR, and I think someone once asked, "do you even talk?" They're now a dear friend, but there is such a mountain to climb for me to feel comfortable as I analyze what people's traits are. There is a door in the wall, but I have to get to a point that I can almost predict how conversations will go to bypass my extended processing time. 

Processing takes longer for those on the autism spectrum, so I either have something right away or there's going to be an extended bit of awkward silence as I try to formulate something coherent. This becomes uncomfortable for all, so I try not to converse until I'm comfortable that I can converse at a tempo that everyone else does.

I realize this is unfair for others that see me soar. Of course, remember that if you've met one person with autism you've only met one person with autism, which means that this is the way the wall plays out in my life and that I'm able to converse at a fast tempo when comfortably. Others may have it easier, or harder than what I've described. Anyway, the person that inspired this post has seen me soar, and it hurts greatly that I am unable to be the way I can be for those that I've let in. From their vantage point, this is fully unfair. And this, this right here, is why we need more than just autism awareness. They even said once, "I know about autism, but he needs to talk to me." They were aware, but had no understanding and furthermore, their words play into my exact fears I have with the unknown. If they had understanding, they'd understand that, even if I let people in to know the real me, it still takes every ounce of energy I have to silence the fears I have, and to quash my nerves which are telling me to "RUN" away from every social encounter. 

If you've ever wondered why unemployment for those with Asperger's is 75-85%, look no further than this post. The exact system we have built to allow us to function is the exact thing that could bring our downfall. Look at the cycle that forms; socializing is hard, so I hide. I feel comfortable talking to one person though, but then others wonder why I don't talk to them, discomfort happens, why talk to anyone then? 

It's a cycle that seems unwinnable. Why partake in a game that seems to have a predetermined outcome? For myself, I love my work too much to give in to the part of myself that says, "give up". I'll forge onward, and hope to use this as an example of why we MUST work on autism understanding. Understanding is the foundation for hope and through understanding I hope others can have empathy towards what is going on within me. It isn't that I dislike others, or are fully disinterested, but rather it is simply that my being, at that moment, is simply unable to converse. I may seem aloof, uncaring, or maybe even snobbish, but if I don't know a person, they are an unknown variable that I can't make sense of. Yes, if they had understanding of Asperger's, and this wall, this could've been avoided. Perhaps they'd have realized at how much damage was caused by their words. I try and be the best chameleon I can, but when it's pointed out how "different" I am there is pain. Great pain, but it isn't going to deter me. I'm going to keep going, I'm not going to push those I have let in away, which I wish the world could understand one thing; while others look at this as a weakness, most of the world is clueless to how much strength it takes to forge onward living life on the autism spectrum.

Tuesday, April 4, 2023

The Call of the Robin

For you to be able to not just be aware of autism, but to have a sense of understanding, you’ve got to understand that things in our environment may mean more to us. You must also understand that, “if you’ve met one person with autism you’ve only met one person with autism” so what I’m about to tell you may not apply to all, but the reminders in our environment that tell us of happy times, and sad times, can be overwhelming.

In 2004 I didn’t have much going for me. It was common that I’d stay up all night trying to set track records on whatever racing game was in style on the Xbox. As the people I raced went to sleep, the sounds of the robins outside, became the anthem of my isolation. 

Night after night, as morning neared, the robins would start their morning call. The months changed, but the call always had the same tempo, same tone, and it began to have the same result with me. I began to hate that call. 

I often wondered “is this it? Is this the best my life is going to be?” I had ambition and drive, but towards nowhere at the time and for myself, there was nothing more symbolic of just how alone I felt and cutoff from the world than the sound of the robin at 4:45AM. 

When I began to write in 2005, and began my journey of discovering who I was, my routine writing hours were 12-5AM. As I would finish up a chapter, the robins would start their morning call. It was odd to look out the window and no longer have strong anger at the birds because now their call often coincided with the completion of a chapter. In a way, it became a victory call.

My memory system is much like a web and one bit of sound, or smell can trigger a long and complex web of memories. This is something I’ve noticed those not on the spectrum struggle with. It isn’t just that we are reminded of a place, time, or event, but rather it’s like we are living in that moment now. It’s difficult for us to fully move on. Why do we talk about the same event for so long? Because for us, if the right reminder is in place, it’s like we are there again in the present. That makes the sound of the robin extremely confusing for me. 

When I hear the call of the robin I’m drawn to two points in time. It’s summer 2004 and I have no one to talk to, no one to Xbox with, and the world out the window is preparing for another day of progress while I’m in stasis. And yet, I’m also drawn to the computer I first wrote, and over time wondered if people from anywhere and everywhere would read the words I had been typing while I began to understand who I was.

I woke up in the middle of the night hearing the call. This has been a blog post a long time coming, over a decade, as I’ve often wanted to talk about both the crushing defeat it represented and yet the triumphant victory call it represents, but of all the things I’ve written and spoken on, this one always was too personal. With it being Autism Awareness Month and my focus on raising understanding, this is something that I hope shed light on something for you as to why a smell, sound, memory, or whatever it may be can be such a strong positive and/or negative for a person on the spectrum.