Tuesday, November 28, 2023

20 Years an Aspie

"Aaron, I don't know what the future holds, but I know two things. We are going to get answers and there's going to be a lot of work to be done." 

Those were the words that introduced me to prospect that I might be on the autism spectrum. I was somewhere in West Virginia riding with my dad as we were driving back to Saint Louis after Thanksgiving. It was 2003 and my life was about to change.

I can't believe it's been 20 years. With this year's anniversary and with me being 40, I'll be at a point that I've known I was on the autism spectrum longer than I hadn't. This feels a bit surreal because I remember that drive back home in 2003 so vividly.

When my dad brought up the subject, I didn't really know what to think. He mentioned he read an article in a newspaper that sounded a lot like who I was and my skillset. I had never heard of Asperger's and he mentioned that he was going to have me see my doctor when I got back. While I was intrigued about this, the "a lot of work to be done" had me a bit scared. What did this mean? What would I have to do? While I would go to the doctor, I wasn't too invested in all this yet. Of course, the doctor meeting went bad.

I find it odd that I'm having a hard time writing about this. I've been jammed internally with the need to write this post, but the words aren't flowing yet. Maybe as December comes I can give this milestone 20 year mark the post it deserves.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Why don’t you talk?

“Why doesn’t he talk to me?”

That was the question an indirect coworker asked of a direct coworker. This was many moons ago, but the person asking the question didn’t understand. Most people don’t. 

Having Asperger’s, socializing just doesn’t come naturally. I’ve grown immensely in the past decade, but I’m still highly reserved and it takes a long time for myself to be able to socialize. That’s why most of my socializing is on the job. 

It can be confusing for those that can see a person like myself socialize with a seemingly level of ease that others could envy, and yet, if there’s just one change in the environment, there can be a drastic reduction in my ability to communicate. Things don’t get built overnight and so too my ability to socialize takes a while. 

I’m working the SKUSA Supernats this week and I’ve worked with some of my coworkers for a decade, some even longer! It’s awesome to be accepted for who I am and my lack of socializing outside of the track is understood. 

Employment can be hard for this very issue in that it can be so difficult for all parties to understand the dynamics in play. On the track I can be social, and the teamwork that takes place here at SKUSA, and with INDYCAR during that season, is something I wish came naturally for me outside of the workplace. 

As for me, now, I’m going to cherish today and the next two days as I stand at the finish line of the world’s largest race, and I’m free from the questions of, “why doesn’t he talk”? However… there seems to be a push to get me to dance. I understand this is all in fun, and it’s amazing to be in a workplace that I can truly thrive.

Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Unexpected Call

“Aaron, you’ve got to stay for the podiums.”

Ugh! It had already been a long weekend of racing in Saint Louis and as soon as my responsibilities as the flagger and the race director were over, I’d head home. The social aspect of just hanging around to chit-chat was not my thing. However, the promoter told me I had to stay.

It was the first race of 2008, and I was working a regional series and the season started at my home track. The series became SKUSA affiliated and the owner, Tom Kutscher, was in attendance. I didn’t think much of this as no matter the day, if I were at a race track I’d be giving it everything I had.

The podiums began and I thought my presence was needed to assist with trophies, but as I attempted to help I was pushed aside. This… this was odd. Why was I still there? I endured the awkwardness of hanging around, and now I was just there, standing awkwardly, and for anyone that didn’t know I had Asperger’s, the signs were obviously apparent as I had no idea how to stand in the space I was in. 

I was getting flustered. On the track, there is no second thought of how I stand, how I move, or what is required of me. I love it. I crave it. At work, I’m at play, but this? What was this?

I tried not to look too uncomfortable, or irked, but I applauded on cue when drivers were announced and they got their trophies. Then, it happened.

Tom grabbed the microphone from the promoter and said, “folks, I’ve seen some crazy…” there were some colorful words, he then continued, “yes, I’ve seen a lot at race tracks but I’ve never seen anything like I saw today.” Oh goodness… what did I do wrong? That’s all I could think of. Whatever was about to be said couldn’t be good, “What I saw was amazing!” Amazing? This was sounding better, “Amazing, passionate, it was a show… I have found my new flagman for the Supernats… Aaron, do you want the job?”

The world stopped spinning at those words. I knew the importance of that race, it’s the largest kart race in the world. It’s an event that draws racers from all over the world, and I had to blink several times to think if I heard what I actually heard. I was speechless and now all eyes were on me. Tom then asked, “so , Aaron, do you want it!” 

Want it? I dreamt about working a National event and couldn’t believe it. I nodded, I tried to say yes, I was fending off tears as the crowd erupted in cheers. It was a scene out of movie, and as I drove home that evening, I kept the news to myself until I walked into the house and told my dad the exciting news, the news that would change my professional life.

Two things inspired me telling you this story. The first is that, right now, I’m on a plane heading to my 15th SKUSA Supernats. Secondly, the question I was asked by an individual as I presented at Easterseals Arkansas has haunted me for almost two weeks now. “Aaron, how do you keep your dream alive?” 

That question and this story, combined, gives me so much hope. I probably understates just how much of a fish out of water I was standing around awaiting the podium ceremony. My social skills were minimal back then. My timing in conversations were about as awkward as someone trying to tango during a slow waltz. However, my passion an ability at the job itself was noticed.

A dream can bring so much hope and so much anguish. My dream to be a race car driver was dashed right at the time of my diagnosis. It was the only thing I wanted to do in life, however, all dreams may not be fulfilled, but sometimes the dream can turn into a wonderful dream you didn’t know you had. From picking up SKUSA, I continued living my dream at the racetracks and there’s no doubt in my mind that my path to the NTT INDYCAR Series and the Indianapolis 500 absolutely needed that regional kart race in Saint Louis in 2008.

In this world, I firmly believe that dedication and passion for a job, any job, is noticed. It can be difficult to keep the work ethic of giving it one’s all because, what’s the point? Who is going to notice? If other people barely try, why should I? Those questions are easy to fall into, but one may never know who is observing, who is watching, and chances one didn’t even think were possible can come out of nowhere. Well, actually they came from somewhere. The passion and drive we on the spectrum can have when our job lines up with our passion. It may not be a job, it’s play, and given the opportunity we may shine brighter than anyone could’ve imagined. I never could’ve imagined the events that came after 2008. I’m grateful, beyond grateful, my passion was noticed. 

Friday, November 3, 2023

Fear and Interviewing

"Aaron, do you have any sales experience?" 

The question hung in the air with no response from me. If this were a game show, I'd have been buzzed long before I spoke, but I had to assess this question.

Job interviews can be daunting for those on the autism spectrum. We can strive to be perfect which, at times, may make us overprocess the question at hand.

This was an interview for what I hoped would be my third job. I didn't interview at my first two, so this was a new experience, but in the back room of the mall videogame store, the setting reminder me more of a police interrogation instead of a place of commerce. It was cramped, and the manager was hovering over me with my resume in hand. It was as if he had all the answers, and in this inquisition, it was up to me to get the right answers but... what was right?

There had been about 20 seconds since the question had been asked. Sales experience? I thought back to my jobs and my first job that wasn't at a racetrack was at a bowling alley. Now, the question was, "did renting out bowling shoes count as sales?" 

When I present, I make sure to let my audiences know that, while our answers may be delayed, it doesn't mean we are "slow". Others may easily be able to rationalize an answer, but I was trying to determine what the meaning of sales were. 

I had the thought of, "why can't we talk about videogames because those I know.? Panic began to set in. I knew an answer was needed but I couldn't think of the right answer. To give an answer of anything I gave the response of, "I don't know." I then thought, "genius answer, Aaron, pure genius."

The next question surely would be about videogames but instead, out of leftfield, came, "Okay, I see you've worked at a racetrack so do you have any management experience?" 

He was right, I had been flagging for the Saint Louis Karting Association for six years, and when I was on track I was in charge of the operation of the race, but was this managing? I had corner workers I'd talk to during the race, but was this managing? I didn't hire them, but I could tell them to wave a yellow flag. More alarms in my brain started going off as I wasn't prepared for these questions, I wasn't yet diagnosed with ASD so I didn't know that overprocessing was a thing, and I most certainly couldn't come to a conclusion on the definition of management experience. 

"I... I..." I what, Aaron... what? I was screaming at myself internally as the adrenaline spiked and a panic the sorts of which I was unfamiliar with set in. For being such a simple question, I was locked up, unable to respond. So, again, I answered with a, "I don't know."

Last week as I presented to a wonderful, intensive program about employment for college aged individuals put on by Easterseals Arkansas, a person asked me about interviewing skills and the above story was the one I gave. I had never given the nuts and bolts of the interview in how I overthought simple questions which ended up with me giving non-answers. It might've been the worst job interview of all time, but as I ended the story, I told them that, somehow, I got the job. Once I had the job, I was a model employee and it turned out I had amazing skills at sales. 

Interviewing is an important part of employment, and it is one I've always struggled with. I always try to know all possible answers in advance, but when a question that is asked that is unexpected, it throws my whole system off. Think of my brain creating this wonderful, thousand-step dance, but to work it needs to have every step preceding each step to be the artform that it is. However, I doubt any amount of planning can truly let a person nail an interview on preplanned answers.

A follow-up question was, "Any advice on interviewing?" and I didn't know what to say. I wanted to give the perfect answer. I wanted to... and then I realized that such a profound question, this question of an event that all in this program will go out in the world and have to navigate, was much like a job interview for me. I overprocessed, I wanted to be perfect, and as I relayed that I also said, "Here's the thing... about the only thing the managers at where I interviewed noticed was my enthusiasm. I might not have had all the words, and I may have just said 'I don't know', but they picked up on my passion for the job. Don't lose sight of that should something go amiss in the interview. While managers may not say it, I firmly believe they will pick up on passion and enthusiasm so if you want the job, they will, I hope, see it and that will work in your favor.

Was that the right answer? I've wondered that for an entire week, but I know it to be true, and I hope all managers out there have that ability to see that an interview doesn't define the employee. For those that have interviewed me, I hope they'd agree.