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Monday, September 5, 2016

Commentary on the Last Few Stories

It has been a while since my last post. With my wedding to Steph coming up in less than a month, things are getting pretty busy around here. So I have found it to be a challenge sticking to my writing schedule.

The latest story, "Lou the Butcher" is the first in a series of several stories detailing my experiences with the men who collectively taught me most of what I needed to know to function in the world of work. These stories are less about life on the spectrum and more about coming of age, through my interactions with them, my perceptions of them and their reactions to me are all illustrative of certain aspects to being on the Autistic spectrum.

In this story, one aspect that comes to light was my inability to respond to constructive criticism of my work in a socially appropriate manner. It would be many years and many jobs before I would master this important skill. The reasons for not being able to handle it were about ego, but not in exactly the same way as a Neurotypical, I suspect.

One of the pervasive feelings that I had growing up was the desire to "do the right thing". I wanted to be good and I wanted other people to recognize my goodness. This would often result in me agonizing over decisions that other people could make with relative ease. For example, my toughest situations would be those where I found someone else annoying, but my empathy for them and understanding of how much it hurt to be treated badly because I was different would prevent me from simply distancing myself from them. As I became aware of the fact that I was different and the fact that so many people around me took offense at my behaviors, which in a sense was taking offense at my very existence, I realized that I needed to excel at something in order to be merely just as good as everyone else. But I couldn't just be good at what I did, I had to be the best.

This meant that in this job I tried to be the best I could be: on-time, focused and I worked hard. But it also meant that I was extremely invested in what Lou thought of me. When he praised my work I was happy, but if he criticized it, I felt like the criticism somehow negated all the praise that came before it. It was as if I built my identity around my work, or more specifically, my performance. I saw any criticism as an attack on my identity, rather than seeing it as simple feedback and information. My reaction to this perceived threat was to defend myself and argue. Unfortunately for me, as someone on the spectrum, I couldn't see the look on my face, or hear my tone of voice when I responded. Thus, I was often perplexed as to why adults like Lou thought I was being rude and as he put it "giving him lip.". This story illustrates this well and shows that as the negative reactions began to accumulate to my defensiveness, that I began to withdraw and tried to avoid getting into trouble, even if it meant lying about dropping the pate.

The story also illustrates two other aspects of life on the spectrum: dislike of change and a skepticism towards Neurotypical standards of hygiene. This second of these is illustrated by my response to dropping the pate on the floor. Most Neurotypicals would immediately inform the boss and throw it out because they would assume that it was covered in germs and couldn't be eaten. My experience throughout my life, at least for me, is that I tend to be, well, a bit gross. Not totally, mind you, but let's just say that my hygienic standards have been "a work in progress". I'm basically very close to Neurotypical in this regard now, but in my teenage years, I had a very hard time understanding what I saw as an "obsession" with hygiene. I understood that things need to be clean and it is certainly not that I thought it was OK to be dirty, but I think my standards were just different. For instance, in the case of the pate, I would have reasoned that the floor was not dirty enough to contaminate the food. Why? Because of where it was - underneath the shelves where we didn't step, and because, as I said earlier, we scrubbed the floors down every night and hosed them down. In my mind, if I picked it up quickly and wiped it off, it might be a bit misshapen, but otherwise it was fine. I think my issue was that if I couldn't see it, touch it, taste it or smell it, I had a hard time accepting that it was there. I don't know for sure if this is an Aspie thing, but I suspect very strongly that it is. Actually, I think that those of us on the spectrum probably fall into two groups with respect to hygiene: those of us who are obsessive about it, even more so than Neurotypicals and those of us who are a bit more lax.

The dislike of change is another, very core aspect to life on the spectrum. Because we have so little control over how we are perceived and how we come across to other people, we tend to seek out order in other areas of our lives. We work very hard to create that order and it is very upsetting to us when something comes along to disrupt that order and we are forced to start all over again. In this case, it had taken several months for me to figure out what made Lou happy and what didn't, and to incorporate that into a routine that I could follow. Then, without any warning, he goes and brings in Adrian, Reg and Warwick and all of the sudden, I have to figure out what works for four different guys, at the same time. Later, in my professional career, I specifically chose one of my firms because I would work for four different partners and I relished the challenge. But that was in my 30's, when I had a lot more confidence. At 13, when I didn't have any confidence in myself, this working arrangement would prove to be unmanageable to me.

The previous two stories describe the early concerns that Steph had as we were just starting to date. It is here that I reveal for the first time, my single largest regret: having been unfaithful to Kay in the early years of our relationship. I was very upfront with Steph about this, as well as the process that I went through to attempt to rebuild the trust that I destroyed through my actions. In the first of these, Steph echos a perception that I have heard from many over the years: that of being a sociopath. I explain to her that for those of us on the spectrum, body language is more or less meaningless to us, and that we do not generally possess the innate ability to control our own body language. Consequently, most of the time when Neurotypicals react to us based on what they see, rather than what we tell them verbally, they get it 100% wrong.

The implications of this for us are incredible:

  • most relationships rely on non-verbal communication, so that many of us on the spectrum have a hard time maintaining relationships unless we are fortunate enough to be with someone who understands us well enough to know that they have to talk to us rather than simply relying on their perceptions. I am very lucky that Steph is one of those people, as was Lea. Kay unfortunately was not, and nearly all of our problems could be traced back to the fact that she felt that her perceptions trumped what I actually told her. 
  • success in most office jobs, from the interview, through to day to day office life is dictated by one's ability to master non-verbal communication. I had a very hard time with interviews until I was well into my 30's. Eventually with lots of practice, I was able to do very well in them. However, even with my confidence and all the practice that I had, being successful in the small firm in which I worked, meant that I had "to be on" all the time. I couldn't just relax and be myself. For me this pretty much ruled out a career in the big accounting firms like KPMG, PWC or Deloitte & Touche, and meant that I had to opt for smaller firms where the people in charge could get to know me personally and see what I brought to the table. That was my insurance policy: my performance. This is the reality that is shared by many who are on the spectrum. 
The next few stories will be about the other mentors that I have had over the years and my experiences with them. 

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