FAQ’s for Sci-fi Conventioneers

Before I begin answering questions, I’d like to start with a little primer, my Prime Directive of dating. Dating is like looking for a job. Men are the ones applying, and women are the HR people. We ask for their attention, and they say Yes or No. When I was applying for literal jobs, I understood that it didn’t matter how broke or hungry I was. That wasn’t the company’s problem. Their problem was finding the right employee for them. So, they had the right to turn me down for any reason. Talking to women for romantic purposes is a lot like that. It doesn’t matter how lonely or horny a man is. It’s not her problem. Her problem is finding the right man for her. So – and this is my Prime Directive – A woman has the right to turn down a man, for any reason.

This, of course, goes against the thinking of many young men who are used to watching shows in which the main character wins a woman’s company as if it were a prize. Those shows can be a pleasant escape from reality, which brings me to my point that they are not reality. A woman is looking out for herself as surely as is a man, and that’s natural and proper.

And now, to the questions:

Q: How do I get that (attractive woman) in the (sci-fi character costume) to (fornicate with me)?
A: I decided to use parentheses because I imagine many convention-goers using rather different terminology. It’s a side note, but phrasing makes a man look much more like a gentleman, which often counts.

Anyway, the answer for which convention-goers must prepare is: You probably won’t.

Going back to my comparison for a minute – Imagine you own a store, you’re wealthy, you’re at a convention, and every goofball in Creation is coming up to you, asking you for a job. They’re trying to stuff their names and numbers into the seat pockets of your jeans, and when you tell them you have enough employees already, they’re not qualified, or you just want to enjoy the convention without having people get in your face, they get morally outraged, because they think you’re put on this Earth to get them a job. This is what it’s like for an attractive woman in cosplay at a sci-fi convention.

If she wants to talk, great. If she finds you worthy of her time, and wants to grab coffee later, even better. If she’s cool with holding hands or other flirting, hey, something might be happening. There are certain levels, only instead of conquering a level, as in a video game, you basically have to get the woman’s permission to go to the next level. You have to earn it, and the tough part for men is, sometimes we can give it our all, but not get permission, and the only thing to do is to leave her alone and say, “Better luck next time.”

Q: But she’s really, really hot!
A: Yes, and she really, really has the right to say No. Next question.

Q: Isn’t she asking for something by dressing up as Princess Leia from Episode VI?
A: Sure! She’s asking to be looked at and complimented, both in a tasteful manner. Next question.

Q: So, how can I tell if she’s interested?
A: In this case, it’s a better idea to figure out how to tell if she’s NOT interested. Some signs are her turning away, looking at her cell phone when you’re trying to talk to her, talking to other people when you’re right in front of her, looking for someone she might know, or – and this is very important – saying, “I’m sorry, I have to be somewhere”, those are signs it probably is a good idea to back off. The whole “Never quit” attitude does not apply to talking to women, believe me. Once a man turns a woman off, there are no comebacks.

Q: Why are these women even here if they don’t want to fly my TARDIS?
A: I don’t know. Maybe to enjoy the exhibits and to get an autograph or two? Asking them, and showing some genuine interest in their answers, might actually help you earn their respect and, possibly, coffee afterwards. Just don’t get your hopes up – I said, might.

Q: But Captain Picard and Wolverine always get the girl!
A: I tried to explain, this isn’t a sci-fi show, and even if it were, neither of us is Captain Picard or Wolverine. We’re not even Patrick Stewart or Hugh Jackman, which I’m sure many women would find close enough. Next question.

Q: This is stupid. I drove all this way with four of my buddies, spent all this money, and wore my favorite “Doctor Who” T-shirt, and I might not even get any.
A: In the words of Yoda: “That is why you fail.”

(Note: Because of something Dr. Kuszewski noted, I wanted to make a few small disclaimers.

When I said a female is “looking to be complimented”, I meant to say that people like to be noticed, and to receive compliments. I also meant to note that women are not asking to be groped or harassed by wearing a nice costume but, at most, would like to be noticed and to receive compliments, as long as they’re in good taste.

My comment about men generally doing the pursuing comes from my general life experience, and that of people with whom I’ve spoken about the subject, and from learning as much as possible about contemporary culture.)

“Anything” Is A Ridiculously Strong Word

In the Bible, Matthew 17:20 states, “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” In many ways, this is Americans’ favorite Bible verse for day-to-day living. Not only is it wonderful and enticing, this idea that we can make anything happen if we just believe hard enough, but it’s rooted in American culture, with all the rags-to-riches stories of Americans who grew up poor and became wealthy industrialists, champion athletes, world-famous entertainers, or Presidents of the United States.

As an Autism Coach, I try to give a more moderate, realistic version of this message. My message is that faith – one also can call it trust or confidence – is a necessary ingredient for success, and that if a person has it, they’ll have a better chance at reaching any given goal, and almost certainly will have more than they’ll have if they never try because they don’t think they have a shot at succeeding. I even teach that there are some times it probably is a good idea not to try, or to quit – but that probably should be the exception, rather than the rule.

Why don’t I like the message as is? Mostly, because of my experiences trying to live by it and dealing with people who tried to give me the message. Hearing it often leaves a sour taste in my mouth.

The truth is that there are limits to how far confidence and perseverance will take a person. For one thing, whether we succeed in any given field depends largely on our talents. We can have all the confidence we want that we’ll become NFL players, but if we’re not good enough athletes, we’re not getting in. We can believe we’ll be famous entertainers, but if we don’t have enough musical ability and, let’s be honest, if we’re not attractive enough, we’re not getting a record deal. Sure, there are exceptions; there are a few examples of unattractive people who have had amazing careers acting or singing, and there are some Super Bowl champions who were told, all their lives, that they were too short or too slow to play. They’re exceptions, and there’s a reason why – either they make up for lack of ability with a lot of intelligence or work ethic, or they’re a curiosity of sorts, who become famous because they’re one of the few people who look or sing the way they do.

People also forget how much success depends on being able to schmooze. Everything from being elected President to making friends or getting dates depends heavily on social savvy, something autistics are famous for lacking. What’s worse is, that a never-quit attitude actually can get us into a lot of trouble – if someone doesn’t want to talk to us, and we decide to keep trying to talk to them until they change their minds, that’s harassment at best, and criminal conduct at worst. Or, we can use invest plenty of our time and energy toward something that never will give us a return. In any event, telling us we can do anything we want in those endeavors is no better than telling someone with a bad knee they can become a marathon runner if they really want to be, or than telling someone they should stay at the casino, despite having lost half their paycheque already, because they’ll win eventually.

Those who tell us faith can move mountains generally are giving us warm and fuzzy but simplistic advice that often ignores some very real problems. Many of them are unable or unwilling to give us the advice or the tools we need, or some actual concrete help, so they say, “It’s OK, you still can have something if you believe” in a way that makes them look as if they’re saying our problems either aren’t there, or aren’t significant. It’s a lot like the way some people may not want to donate to charity because they believe the poor can become rich if they just believe and try hard enough.

The message also is really convenient for the speaker because of what logicians call the contrapositive. In logic, if a statement, “If P, then Q” is true, so is the contrapositive, “If not-Q, then not-P”. In this case the statement is, “If you have enough faith, you can do whatever you want”, and the contrapositive is, “If you can’t do whatever you want, you don’t have enough faith”.  This makes failure a moral shortcoming, instead of a matter of a lack of inherent talent or something else that is not a person’s fault, but just the hand they were dealt.

To some extent, I absolutely think it’s important, in general, to keep trying and to have a little more confidence, as long as my clients and I are smart about it. Sometimes, it means giving up on one effort, saving the energy for something more important, and saying, “Better luck next time”. Sometimes, it means taking stock of what we can do, setting the bar a little lower, and saying, “I’m not getting a record deal, but I can learn to play and, maybe, have a good time singing in a local band.” Sometimes, it means saying, “I’m not going to be a model, but if I go to the gym, I’ll look and feel better than I would otherwise, and maybe get a little more attention when in public.” For me, it means understanding that I can’t succeed in something like politics or sales, but there are some things I can do, like writing, life-coaching, or fixing computers, and so I’ll do those things or take some classes and enjoy my life a little more because of it.

As important as this message of faith moving mountains is, to Christians and to Americans, I understand how my message appears awfully negative. I see it, though, as an act of kindness. An appeal to faith, without any ideas on how a person can better themselves, essentially is nothing more than an appeal to magic. Being more objective and realistic about what we can do and how far confidence will take us will save us false hope, futile efforts, and heartbreak, and we instead can apply the saved energy to goals we have a legitimate chance of accomplishing.

2016: The Year In Review

(Author’s Note: It’s been my habit to do a “Year In Review” entry around the end of December every year. But, this year has been so heartbreaking to so many that I really didn’t have it in me to write something clinical and objective. So, I wrote this instead, and I allowed myself to be as melodramatic as I wanted, because I needed it, and I think most people I know do as well.

As I’ve said before, I’ve had many good things happen to me this year, and there are people for whom I’m grateful, and I always will be grateful for them for keeping me going. Still, there’s a time and place to say something sucked, and this is as good a time as any. So, this is my substitute for a eulogy for this year.)

We are gathered here, online, to celebrate the death of Year 2016.

When a person departs this life, we generally mourn their passing and, even if we didn’t particularly like them, we try to find something nice to say about them and to miss their existence. We have no such obligation here. We can watch a year die, we can buy it, and we can plow salt into the soil above its grave so our children and grandchildren can look at the grave of Anno Domini 2016 and say, “This year was evil; it was wretched. This debacle must never happen again, so long as humans are civilized.”

Yes, there were be some naysayers. There will be people who try to put things in clinical terms, and talk about our being kicked in the gut as if it were an academic discussion they’re having just for giggles. There will be others who say that objectively, this year wasn’t as bad as others. They should know better than to heckle at a funeral.

There also will be people, including me, who will be tempted to think about the good things that happened this year. Personally, I’ve discussed many good things that happened this year, and I will again. But, now is not the time. No, this weekend, we will count down to the end of the year, we will drink to its passing, and some of us will dance and imagine ourselves dancing on the grave of 2016.

Year 2016 brought us an election that was so awful that millions of Americans held their noses as they voted, because the biggest reason for their vote was to make sure the other person they found even more distasteful wouldn’t win. I’ve never seen more bridges burn and more friendships dissolved on account of an election than I’ve seen in the last twelve months, and I’ve never seen more anxiety in the aftermath.

We also have seen many of the artists and entertainers we loved, people who made life worth living for us, depart this life. Many of them probably could have lived another 20 or 30 years, at the very least, and though it would have been hard to imagine some of them as senior citizens, damn it, it would have been nice to have them around. Now, Year 2016 will join them, and as hard as this may be to visualize, perhaps there will be a way for a year to be chained in Tartarus, and to have all the artists we love throw things at a calendar, for ever and ever, Amen.

As for my personal life, this was the year my body and my social life took a hit. Though my health has improved some, the fact remains that my physical energy and endurance has diminished, and though I’m building it back, the going is slow. My social life has been crippled because all the fellow regulars I used to see at the places I used to visit all the time, stopped going. I understand why, but a kick in the gut is a kick in the gut. Damn Year 2016 for taking away my energy and my friends.

I usually take a more optimistic approach to the New Year. I usually talk about how I see this human-made threshold as a chance for renewal and recovery, and I still might do that later on. Right now, though, I’m going to look back at the last twelve months, and I’m going to join my fellow human beings and say that I rarely have had more disdain for a past year than I have for this one.

It’s almost fitting that one of the most saddening deaths this past year was that of an actor from “Star Wars”, because this year was the closest to “The Empire Strikes Back” than most others I’ve seen. We had our victories here and there, but for the most part, the closest thing we have to a victory is, that we made it out alive, and we can lie down and heal for a bit before we start rebuilding and, hopefully, get rid of whatever monstrous behemoths are threatening us at the moment.

I can see my nephew being in high school and asking me about this year, about why people call it “The Year That Shall Not Be Named”, for fear that simply mentioning a number will cause the return of the havoc it wreaked upon us, and I can see myself saying, “Oh, child, this isn’t something you want to know. Let it stay buried in archives for ever.”

History repeats itself, and so we might see, down the road, another train wreck like Year 2016. May we be better prepared and more able to fight off its horrors. Meanwhile, let us celebrate its demise, with hope and anticipation for the coming year, and with resolve to make it better, and let us thank whatever deities we worship that the literal year, the one that drew-and-quartered our hearts, will never, ever, come back.

My Friends’ Lives Matter Because Mine Does

One huge positive I take from my having learned to live with autism, and my having learned to talk to my friends and neighbors about it, is the ability my work has given me, to identify with people who similarly are at a certain disadvantage. While the disadvantages are different, and I therefore cannot identify with them fully, enough of what some of my neighbors and I go through are the same, that sometimes we can find common ground, and I can identify and empathize with them, and we can work together to advocate equal respect and rights for all of us.

I suppose this common ground is why I empathize so much with my African-American friends who have become so angry and afraid as a result of the police shootings of Black men, as well as other racially motivated incidents. This empathy of mine is why I’ve altered my style of communication; I try to treat my Black friends and neighbors the way I’ve wanted to be treated when I was angry and hurt.

On one hand, there are arguments that at least partially refute what some of my friends and neighbors have expressed. Some of the shootings have been found to be justified. Black-on-black crime is a problem. Most importantly, I still think humanity will have “made it”, so to speak, when we hold race irrelevant; when race doesn’t matter when we measure our neighbors’ character, intelligence, or worth as a romantic partner, friend, employee, or customer. I still hold sacred the concepts of objectivity and logic.

On the other hand, I understand why people are angry and afraid. As an autistic, I am more likely than most people to feel under attack, or to perceive a high probability that I’m in danger. Sometimes, my perception is accurate, and even when it isn’t, I often have good reasons why I perceive as I do. As I see it, my Black friends have good reasons to feel the same way. I often have said that if the police in various communities had reputations for being fair and impartial to all citizens regardless of race, people might be willing, even in their anger and grief, to believe the police may have acted justly, and to wait until all the facts came to light. On the other hand, it is perfectly understandable, when police officers have a reputation for treating African-Americans poorly, to assume that police were acting wrongly in any given case.

When nine people in a row, who wear blue, treat a person poorly, it’s reasonable to assume the tenth person fitting that description will follow suit – the psychological process is called “induction”, and while it’s not 100% accurate, it’s a valuable enough survival tool that human beings are wired to possess and to use it.

Most of us understand how counter-productive it is to say, “Calm down!” to a person who is agitated. In the heat of the moment, it’s easy for the listener to hear, “What you’re feeling is stupid.” When I’ve been anxious or frightened, the last thing that helps me is saying, “There’s nothing to be scared of” – of course someone is going to say so. Even to accept hard evidence, I have to have my shields down. Why should I expect any less of others?

So, as tempted as I often am to throw hard evidence, statistics, or examples at people, I understand that in order to build a bridge, I have to show a little personal respect towards others. I have to savvy why they are upset – I might agree that they ought to be upset, or I might not, but either way, I have to understand. I have to show them, by example, that I know they have good reasons for feeling and perceiving as they do. Once we have built bridges, and once they understand I want them to be respected as much as they want to be respected, then I can explain the other side.

The trouble is that in many cases, people respond to violent incidents by becoming even more defensive, even when they are or may be in advantageous positions. The perception is, that a group of people have the firepower, the legal authority to commit violence, and a set of rules and customs that make it unlikely they’ll police their own, and more unlikely they’ll be punished with the same publicity with which they committed an offense. Though we understand that most people in this group are honest and genuinely caring, there’s always the fear, like the fear many of my female friends have experienced walking down a street alone, that the next one we meet won’t be one of the “good guys”, and we may incur damages which won’t be repaired even if we win a verdict and see the offender brought to justice. The fact that most of their co-workers wouldn’t dream of such a thing doesn’t matter, in that moment.

I say, “we” because I often am afraid just as surely as are some of my Black friends. Again, because of my own wiring, I have an alarm go off when I see lights go on behind me, and am confronted by a big, strong man carrying a semiautomatic weapon. My skin may not give someone cause to treat me with less respect, but my emotion might. A suspect being nervous, we learn, is a sign that they’re hiding something, and there are a few times I’ve been searched or questioned further because I’ve been confronted.

Now, do I think I have it as bad as my Black friends? Not at all – and knowing that they have it even worse breaks my heart. Knowing that I’ve been blamed for others confronting me, when I wasn’t actually trying to hurt anyone – then knowing so many of my friends will be blamed even more strongly – breaks my heart.

People often tell me that “all lives matter”. To that, I respond: “You’re right. They do! At the same time, doesn’t it make sense to pay more attention to people who are being intruded on more than others?” On one hand, I do argue, when people are ready to receive the message, that it’s important to see each other as individuals, and to hold our ancestry less sacred. On the other hand, as long as a certain segment of the population is being led to perceive they’re under a threat, as I’ve been led to perceive such a thing many times, it makes sense for me to say that Black lives matter.

I know that peace is a hard sell. Many autistics resent having to be diplomatic to those who have hurt us or who have led us to feel inferior. I know that many friends who are legitimately angry find it equally hard to explain their stances when many on the other side of the debate don’t appear to want to listen. I suppose this is why I try to build bridges so much – I’m in the habit enough, after all. The main point I want to make is, that I’m willing to show respect to my neighbors when I advance my favorite cause of autism awareness, and many of my Black friends are just as willing to show respect to Caucasian neighbors and police officers when they advance theirs. What we most critically have in common is, we just want some respect in return.

An Uncle Celebrates Fathers, Revisited

(Note: I first wrote this essay a few years ago, but various events since then have led me first to update it, then to re-write the whole thing, even though I’m following the main flow of the original. So, if this sounds like something I’ve written before – that’s why.)

I decided, a number of years ago, that I didn’t want to become a father. The vast majority of autistic men I know who have children, have at least one child who is autistic enough that they probably won’t live totally independently. I don’t make nearly enough money to provide for such a child, and I could not, in good conscience, sire a child for whom I’d have to ask for assistance from so many others, including the taxpayers. Even if the child is neuro-typical, I might teach them to be autistic by displaying mannerisms and behavior patterns they would copy. While I affirm our potential value, more of which is realized today than ever before, I always worry that a child of mine will go through some of the same problems I went through, and I’d watch the child suffer as I did, and it would be my fault because I just had to become a father. I also think I’d become overly frustrated with a child, and I either would become angry too much, or would tease the child in a way that hurt me badly when I was young and others teased me.

While I think I made the right choice, it comes with a price. I think it’s natural for people to ponder what it would be like to be parents, and in that sense, I’m no exception. I’ve wondered how I’d copy my parents, and how I wouldn’t. I especially wondered what it would be like to have a son, and I’ve thought about how great it would be to take him to a Huskers game, to the zoo, or to the park for a game of catch, and I’ve pictured helping him with homework, teaching him how to fix things, and doing the other serious or frivolous work involved with building a man. By the philosophy I hold dear, part of the essence of life is to create and build, and from what my friends with kids tell me, it’s wonderfully satisfying work to build an intelligent and independent adult.

I always love seeing people do what I cannot do, and that includes fathers. I’m surrounded not only by men who have raised well the children they helped bring into the world, but by men who have stepped into the role of Dad when they married women with children whose fathers simply weren’t involved in their life, and by men whose marriages or relationships didn’t work out, but who continue to work hard to become involved with their children and to be good role models to them.

My brother-in-law, Robert, has been an exemplary father to my nephew, and he and my sister always have made sure I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of my nephew’s life. My friends Cliff and Brad have brought multiple children into the world, and have the most loving, positive families I’ve ever seen. My friends Rick and Shawn don’t have stepdaughters; they have daughters who didn’t have Dads before, but have them now, and my buddy Andrew makes sure his stepchildren spend plenty of time with their biological father, while raising the child he and his wife Sarah had together – and for that biological father’s part, he followed his former wife to Omaha from Duluth so he could continue to be part of their lives.

While I try not to envy fathers in general, I do react a little when I see fathers – not any of the ones listed above – squander the ability and opportunity they have. I want to tell them: Folks, you have the kind of kid for whom some men would kill. Take them to the park or to the ball game. Play video games with them. We only have so many summer Saturdays every year, and next year, they’ll be a year closer to moving out of your home. If you have to work long hours so your family eats, that’s fine, but other times, the work or the chores can wait. I also want to tell them to understand and be loving when a child thinks something they have to say is a big deal – by their standards, it is – and to understand that kids are going to turn out differently than parents anticipate, like a jock’s son becoming a sci-fi geek, a Christian’s daughter becoming an atheist, or a child coming out of the closet.

As for me, I’m grateful I’ve been able to become an uncle, first as an uncle-by-choice to the children of various friends, then as a biological uncle when my sister gave birth last year to the most delightful baby boy of all time. Sometimes, I’m better as support staff, and that appears to be the case with raising kids. I often get to be the uncle who brings the child a different view of the world than what their parents naturally provide at home. I’m the uncle who teaches the children of liberal parents about libertarianism, who teaches the children of Christians about Deism, and who teaches the children of bookworms about sports.

Some of my friends even allow me to use the knowledge I’ve gained, managing my own condition, to help them. Strategies ADD-ers use work very well with children, because they have the same erratic attention spans, and many strategies for communicating with autistics work well for calming down agitated children or for setting expectations in advance and helping children stay stable and rooted.

I even have been permitted, at times, to become a defense attorney of sorts for the children. Any person can act a little autistic when stressed or agitated, and when agitated, single-minded parents exercise absolute authority, they can get carried away. They’ve allowed me to speak of for their kids, and to remind them that those kids, even when they deserve to be corrected, didn’t wake up that morning and decide to upset Mom and Dad.

As an uncle, my influence is balanced and tempered, and I think that’s best for the kids with whom I work. As I noted, if I were around a child all the time, they probably would end up with “Asperger’s-by-proxy”, meaning they’d act and think like one of us on the Autism Spectrum, even if they weren’t naturally wired that way. I’d do a very poor job teaching them to pick up social graces and to communicate with nuances, the way most people do. I might show them too much support, which would take away from their ability to learn to handle harsh people. I think I’m better off simply showing kids a different point of view, and letting them incorporate as much as they please in to their own way of thinking.

I’m at peace with being an uncle, and I love it dearly. I love celebrating the fathers I know, and watching and learning from them – this is especially so since my nephew was born, and I’ve been able to learn a lot about how to interact with babies and children from watching my brother-in-law. I’ve been able to have a few bits and pieces of the joy and satisfaction those fathers have as I continue to teach the children various lessons about life. When I see those fathers take advantage of the opportunities they have, everyone wins, and they deserve to know that people like me notice how well they’re doing, and I want to tell the kids that this is something they, too, need to appreciate.

My Five-Year Mission: To Boldly Go Where No Autistic Has Gone Before

On May 20, 2011, I was formally diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and ADD, and I announced to the world I was autistic. The diagnosis didn’t surprise many people, including me – I already had started my blog, on the assumption that the diagnosis would confirm what many people figured.

In a sense, the diagnosis was a relief. After years of trying to figure out what exactly was going on in my head, I knew for certain. Now, I could make strategies for myself, I could explain why I needed to cut myself a little more slack in certain situations, and I occasionally could ask for a little help, and people would understand why I needed it. The diagnosis explained a lot about why I was so awkward and strange all my life, and I suppose it helped me apologize and atone for all my mistakes over the years, when I could tell people I knew what was the matter, and I was being treated for it.

At the same time, the diagnosis meant that I had to switch from one road to another. After having had a mindset, for so many years, that I might see all my problems solved, I had to think in terms of lifelong management and maintenance. I often think of being autistic as the mental equivalent of being a diabetic, in the sense that there are some ways either sort has to live differently, and the diagnosis was like someone walking into a doctor’s office hoping they eventually can go back to eating desserts all the time, only to find out their body doesn’t work that way, and it never will.

I first heard of Asperger’s Syndrome in 2003, when I went to see a psychologist a family friend recommended. About 10 minutes into our first session, Dr. Williams – not her real name – started saying, “Sure, most Asperger’s patients are just like that. We can work on that.” About 20 minutes later, she finally said, “Tell me, who first diagnosed you with Asperger’s Syndrome?”

I just stammered, “Um, you did, Doctor.”

I’d never heard of Dr. Hans Asperger, nor of the condition that bore his name, and so I read up on it as much as I could. At the time, people simply weren’t as aware or informed of the condition as they are now. Most of what I read discussed severe cases, people who couldn’t hold a job or qualify for a driver’s license. Even though I’d had both since I was 16, I wasn’t sure if, somehow, I’d be disqualified from them.

Most of all, there was the possibility of that change in mindset. I always knew I was a little weird, but I always had the hope that one day, I’d learn to be normal, the way Data in “Star Trek: The Next Generation” hoped to become more human. When some people told me to be myself, and others tried to tell me to define “normal”, when I thought they had a good idea of what I meant, I took that as an obstacle I one day could overcome. I went to Dr. Williams’ office in the hopes of solving my problems and becoming like everyone else. If I were autistic, though, there was no normal; this was how I was, even if I could learn to handle my condition and pass for normal more of the time.

And so, I was really upset, and when I sat down for my second session, I said, “Doctor, what am I, Rain Man?” Looking back, I don’t think Dr. Williams understood exactly how upset I was, especially since she kept saying, “We’ll work on that”, and she really didn’t understand how confused I was when she admitted she shouldn’t have given me that informal diagnosis without testing. As I was driving home, I decided she might be wrong, and maybe I wasn’t autistic after all. Given how upset and confused I was, and how expensive she was, I decided I didn’t need to keep seeing her that badly.

In 2005, I went to another therapist, Lucie Long – this time, I’m using her real name. At the time, Lucie had a day job working for the Nebraska AIDS Project, and she mainly counseled gay men who were planning to come out of the closet. During our first session, I told her I may not know what it’s like to be gay, but I knew what it was like to be different, and if she helped gay men find a balance between being who they were and fitting in with people around them, she could do the same thing for me. It turns out, I was right – I saw her for at least the next six years, except when I lived in Pittsburgh, and she probably had the greatest effect on me, since I turned 30, of anyone outside my family and a few select friends.

I did mention Asperger’s Syndrome in that first session, when I told Lucie about how upset I was after seeing Dr. Williams. Lucie never mentioned AS again, but simply treated my anxieties, and so I figured maybe I wasn’t autistic after all.

When I finally was diagnosed, it wasn’t because of autism. I read a New Yorker article about ADD medication, and I thought I had ADD, which I figured was a compromise of sorts between being normal and being autistic. So, I went to see the psychologist who tested me, and I told her I thought I had ADD, and oh yeah, some folks thought I also had AS. The rest is history; a few days later, Dr. Thurman told me I had both. When I told Lucie about it, actually, she told me she strongly suspected so, and she gave me some standard treatment for autism, while not bringing it up, so as not to repeat Dr. Williams’ mistake.

In the five years since then, I’ve done my best to turn things into a positive, and every so often, I have someone touch me deeply by telling me I’ve helped them cope with their condition, or I’ve helped them learn how to deal with their autistic friends and family. It’s a privilege for which I’m very grateful. I also am happy that in only a few years, there’s more awareness of autism, and people are more willing to accept and understand those around them who live with it. While some people resent people today having advantages they didn’t, I think it’s wonderful that so many autistics today find it less difficult to live in this world, and to fit in a little.

There are many ways I’d love to help improve the lives of fellow autistics, but today, I hope to find a way to help others come to terms with our common condition. With treatment, coaching, and the love and support of friends and family, as I’ve had, we can learn to be at peace with our differences, and even can learn to appreciate them a little, and though we may never be our idea of normal, we sometimes might be close enough.

Aging Well Is Tough Business

I often come across as an old curmudgeon because of what I will and won’t do on account of my age. While other adults around me collect or play with Lego toys or watch Disney movies, I won’t touch the former, and I’ll watch the latter only if there’s a child in the room. I won’t eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, nor will I snack on grilled cheese or tater tots. I’ll see an occasional superhero movie, because I’ve seen so many all these years, but I won’t watch a Harry Potter movie and, despite how highly rated the zoo in Omaha is, I haven’t visited the place in years, nor do I plan to go until, say, my nephew is old enough to have Uncle Dubs take him somewhere. All these things, I won’t do because, in my opinion, I’m simply too old.

The reason I usually give is, that I didn’t like being a child. That certainly is so. While I actually was treated well as a child – I had two parents and a grandmother who loved me dearly, and I went to schools where those in charge saw to it that smart kids were treated well – I never really liked having so many decisions made for me. I like the little things about being an adult, like deciding what to eat, what clothes to wear, and being able to hop in my car any time and go to the all-night diner for coffee or to the box department store to buy something. There is another reason, though, and it’s one I didn’t realize was there until very recently.

Some weeks ago, I discussed how there were two related pieces of advice, “Be yourself” and “Don’t worry about what other people think”, that were someone detrimental to autistics, because of how literally our tendencies motivate us to take that advice. Often enough, we naturally worry so little about what other people think that until we are trained, we don’t worry about basic manners or other small but important gestures of respect among human beings. I’ve been able to develop socially, to a certain extent, because I’ve worried about what other people think, and when people tell me not to concern myself with other people, I become afraid of what will happen if I follow my natural tendency to be self-centered – it may well counter the development in which I take pride. I suppose part of that is worrying about whether other people see me as a grown man and, especially, whether I see myself as such.

In my lifetime, I’ve spent time playing with toys or watching certain shows, when I probably should have moved on or, at least, I should have expanded my horizons a little bit. I think I would have been better off had I given my GI Joe’s to my younger friends, unloaded my comic book collection, and otherwise worried a little more about the fact that I eventually was going to become a man.

My main regret is that I played the clown for way too long. I still do like to entertain a little, but 20 years ago, or earlier, I did that way too much. It was something I did to cover the distress I felt every day, but doing so much of that every day actually hurt me a great deal. Often, it was a terrible cycle; I’d be a clown, people around me wouldn’t take me seriously – some people around me actually were surprised when I’d say something intelligent – I’d be shunned a bit as a result, and I’d clown a little more to handle the distress I felt as a result. Worrying about being mature and facing my issues head-on, as much as it hurt at first, led me to find more rational, productive ways to handle myself, and I’ve become better off as a result.

A friend recently sent me a C.S. Lewis quote about how the mark of maturity is not being concerned or embarrassed when one is being a little childlike, and I definitely understand the psychology behind that. It’s similar to the Ayn Rand quote, “A quest for self-esteem is proof of its lack”, and to a quote of mine, “The toughest people also are the nicest”. Those who are secure in who they are have nothing to prove to anyone, and they’re not worried about people questioning their maturity just because they eat a Fluffernutter sandwich or read a “Hunger Games” novel. This is why, when I satirize the human motivation to be dogmatic by trolling about how people of a certain age shouldn’t dance in puddles or eat cereal with marshmallows, I try to make it clear that it’s just satire, and I don’t really presume to tell others what to eat or what to do with their time.

At the same time, the thought of becoming more habitually childlike worries me a great deal. While I intellectually understand that those who know me well respect me for the work I’ve done to improve myself, I always worry that if I take the advice of those who tell me not to worry about acting my age, I’ll regress. As proud as I am of the way I’ve advanced since I turned 30, when I started developing myself in earnest, I think I have a long way to go before I’m taken as seriously as others in some areas, such as dating and workplace relationships, and there’s always the fear that much of my work will end up undone.

This is especially so because I think our culture has extended childhood to a large extent. Perhaps I sound twice my age for saying so, but I perceive that while people used to look forward to growing up, we now are more likely to want to extend our childhoods as long as we can. This disturbs me, in part, because I have the sense that I almost am swimming up-river by trying to develop myself and to become more of a man.

Perhaps the day will come when I don’t feel so bad about reading a comic book or helping my nephew build something with the Lego set I probably will buy him when a sister and brother-in-law think he’s old enough. As with the business of being myself, I’d like to find a Happy Medium. At this point, though, I’m not sure I’m in that Happy Medium yet, and until then, I think I’ll be a curmudgeon for a while.