Learning to be self-confident in your daily life

On Saturday night, my autism group did a Zoom movie night watching the PBS documentary Autism in Love. This entry is not a movie review (although as a whole, it did a particularly good job chronicling four separate people with autism and their experiences in relationships), but I wanted to focus on one specific aspect. Lenny is easily the person of the four profiled who struggles the most. It is mentioned early in the movie that he did have a successful relationship (before the time of the documentary) that ended abruptly due to his lack of understanding of how to be in a committed relationship. He spends most of the movie alone and struggling to come to grips with who he is as a person. Lenny, to me, is defined by his overwhelming desire to “be normal”. While it is good for people with autism to learn how to tone down their symptoms sometimes in certain social situations, Lenny takes things a bridge too far.

Two scenes in the movie particularly stuck out to me. The first scene occurred when Lenny was asked in an interview what his interests were and all he could say was “sports”. When pressed, the interviewer mentioned that he was interested in conventions and had attended ComicCon the previous year, Lenny dismissed it saying, “A girl wouldn’t be interested in that stuff”. Lenny was also asked in another part of the interview about his desire to get a job. He noted that he felt a strong pressure to get a job because “you need a job to have a relationship. Women hate broke men”. Lenny, who never graduated from college also added, “I can’t hang out with people who have graduated from college because they’re higher than me”. Lenny genuinely believed that just because other people had graduated college, that automatically made them a “better person” than he was because of that one trait.

There’s a lot to unpack from the above paragraph, but I find it easiest to do all at once, because it all relates to the same thing. I used to be a lot like Lenny, and I sympathized greatly with him when I saw him struggling with these issues. In college, I struggled to relate to people, and it felt like no one wanted to be my friend, even though the reality was that I was just having a hard time initiating the necessary interactions with people that would cause them to want to be my friend in the first place. Lenny has responded to this struggle to relate to people by assuming that he needs to be “normal”, above all else, for people to like him. However, his desire to be “normal” is crowding out other aspects of his personality. He doesn’t want to tell people about ComicCon because he assumes they won’t be interested, when in reality, there are many girls that are interested in attending conventions, and he would likely have better luck searching for relationships if he eyed girls with this common interest. He also is seemingly hung up with the idea that the male must be the primary breadwinner in the family, when there are plenty of modern relationships that this is not the case. Finally, he seems to be hung up too much on comparing himself to others. While it is generally true that college-educated people are more likely to be friends with other college-educated people due to a similarity of common experiences, it is not because some people are “better” than others but simply because life happens anyway. When making friends, Lenny would do better to focus simply on common interests rather than thinking, “oh, this person’s too good for me”.

It is easy enough for me to give this advice because, for a long time in my life, I was Lenny. I used to walk around completely anxious and unconfident every day. I knew I wasn’t “normal”, I knew I couldn’t fix it, and I knew that this would cause me to struggle to relate to others. I was very self-conscious about all my autistic stimming because I felt it was costing me friends and I had seen people judge me for it. I also had some negative college experiences that made it clear that it was harder for me to relate to people than others, and because of that I thought other people didn’t want to be my friend, which is a terrible, daunting thing to go around in life assuming about everyone you meet. However, at some point shortly after I moved to Chattanooga, I just stopped making these assumptions. I’m not exactly sure what caused the transformation, but I realized I would do better in life if I just stopped caring. Sure, it may be harder for me to relate to people, but it’s going to be even harder if I go through my life with my arms slouched and head down. I need to own who I am, and not just the weird stimming and occasional lack of social grace but also my gift with music and my weird obsessions with music and game shows and alphabetizing things. I need to not be afraid to show who I am to other people.

As a result of that, I feel I’ve made more friends in the last two years than ever before. I do think part of this is because people in their 30’s are less judgmental than people in their early 20’s, especially their early 20’s, so for people with autism who are in that tough age group, trust me: it does get better. But I think things have mostly gotten easier for me due to my increased confidence. I know that who I am, naturally, as a person, is good enough for some people, and because of that, I feel no compulsion to mask it most of the time. This frees up the space in my brain that would ordinarily be spent obsessing over every little thing I say to just be, and have fun, talk, and interact with people, volunteer to do things I’m good at, occasionally stretch myself, and also not be afraid to speak up and say why I would rather not do something. It is as if a weight has truly been lifted off my shoulders the last couple years. I feel more “normal” than ever even though I have not really changed any of my activities and special interests. I have just embraced who I am, and decided that is good enough. It’s been a lot of work, but that is truly the first step to getting to know others, and it is the most important step of all.


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High school part 2: Social life

I have already described my high school academic experience (see Tuesday’s entry), and today I want to talk about the social experience. In hindsight, my high school experience was incredibly different from the typical high schooler’s experience, but I was happy and did not realize or care at the time.

It’s not that I didn’t have friends, because I definitely did have a set group of people that I ate lunch with. It’s just that I didn’t do things outside of class with them. Our friendships revolved around being in Advanced Placement and honors classes together, and the necessary overload of work that came with that. My best friends that I talked to online on a regular basis included Vlad, Carolin, Kelly, and my best friend Pete. Pete seemed to understand and not let my autism faze him in a way few people did, and we had similar academic strengths, so we were able to bond over writing and our budding interest in politics. Even though he was starting to lean way more conservatively than I was, back in the halcyon days of 2004, we could actually have reasonable discussions about this that could help both of us learn things. Pete was absent from school sometimes because he had to attend conventions for JSA (the Junior State of America) and I would frequently sum up what happened that day for him in an e-mailed daily report.

The key for me was that as much as Pete and I talked during school and online every night on AOL Instant Messenger, we rarely if ever did anything outside of school, and the same was true of my other friends. I was aware enough to know other people were doing things (and especially knew that a lot of drinking was happening on the weekends, naturally) but at that point in my life I chose not to participate. I was never invited, either. I imagine if I had been invited, I would have probably found a way to go, but my not driving at the time would have probably put a damper on some of those activities. However, very unlike my life in college later on (as you will see), I did not want to be invited all the time. I needed lots of down time after school, and there were many nights when homework would take me upwards of 3 hours to complete. I also was involved in journalism and the honors society, periodically going to meetings and layout nights for the school newspaper, and in my junior and senior years I was working a few hours a week as well. I spent the rest of my time listening to music and spending time in online communities. I had just discovered progressive rock music, and I was that weirdo who spent his time discovering and listening to lots of 20-minute songs by Dream Theater, Neal Morse, Porcupine Tree, and Opeth over the course of my final two years of high school. I didn’t even go to school events – much. I skipped our sophomore ring dance, and for junior prom I elected only to go to the post-prom and not the prom. I decided not to go to the prom because I did ask one of my friends out and got turned down, people were generally arriving in limos and taking pictures beforehand, and I just didn’t feel like there was a way for me to get involved in all that pomp and circumstance. We also had a senior dance that was much more straightforward than the prom, and for that one I did decide to go by myself, and had a great time. I had to gradually become more comfortable with going to these things as my school journey progressed.

During the summer, I did go to a couple of camps, including two weeklong church camps where I spent more of my time hanging out with the adults than the other kids in camp, but I did manage to help fix some houses that needed work in our community. These camps were really the only sleepovers I had ever been on, though. Related to this, there is one other high school event that stands out that I want to talk about. In my senior year of high school, I was part of a Relay for Life team that included several of my high school friends. The Relay for Life is a 24-hour team walking/running event designed to raise money to fight cancer. I went with the goal of staying the entire 24 hours, something completely new for me. It also required me to spend time with some of these friends overnight for the first time. I was unable to get any sleep outdoors in a public event with music blasting, while most of my friends slept easily for at least a few hours, and this frustrated me. I also noticed that some people of opposite genders cuddled up together that I never knew were even in a relationship, and this surprised me. Getting close to girls was not something I was ready to explore in high school, but I do remember feeling puzzled and left out on that particular night.

I am talking about all these social experiences in so much detail to set up my difficult college experience, which is coming up in a couple chapters. As you will see, academically, high school in particular was a great success for me, and I am very thankful to the staff at Jonathan Law High School in Milford, CT for really embracing me and knowing how to work with me. However, socially, while I had friends, I definitely kept my distance.

Just because your child with autism isn’t socializing a lot in high school doesn’t mean they aren’t happy. While I certainly had my moments of unhappiness, I was quite content with my own company even back then. I still wish in hindsight that I had gotten out and explored a little more then so I would have been better prepared for the next part of my life, but the reality was that I was happy and I had no reason to make any changes.


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High school part 1: Academics

This is the first part of a two-part series I wrote about my high school years. During this part I focused on academics and during the second part I focused on my social life. I will post the second part on Thursday. Happy reading!

I graduated high school fourteen years ago in 2006, and the more distance I gain from it and the more I recognize what the experiences of others are like, the more I realize how blessed I was to have the experience I did.

The biggest compliments I can give Jonathan Law High School, a public school in Milford, CT where I grew up, can be summed up in just a couple phrases: The school didn’t hesitate to recognize my polarized abilities in certain areas, and they gave me everything I needed to be the most successful student I could be. One thing even some people that know me well may not know about me is that I actually had one resource planning period a day in high school, where I was put in a room with just a few other students and my wonderful teacher Mrs. Babina to work on things like organization, fine-tuning my motor skills, and even having occupational and physical therapy sessions once a week. I may not strike you as the typical resource student; I didn’t then either. I spent most of the rest of my day going to honors and Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and was able to start college off ahead of the game with 12 general education credits thanks to some of the courses I took in high school. Yet, despite the fact that I was able to succeed in AP classes, the school recognized that my autism still meant I had needs in other areas, and it was willing and able to serve those other needs. The school recognized that my ability to stand up for myself and ask for things I needed from teachers and my peers might be weaker than normal. Thus, if I ever had a problem with a teacher or a class (and occasionally I did), I would go to Mrs. Babina first, and we would figure out what I needed to do and what questions needed to be asked.

Students with autism, especially those on extreme ends of the spectrum like me, can sometimes be tricky for schools to figure out how to deal with. I would say there are two main reasons for this. The first is that the student is likely not affected in the same way other students that receive accommodations are. The student could be extremely intelligent and have no problem at all understanding the material, but just have a problem with the way the material is being presented or tested on. Even something seemingly insignificant, like having noises or distractions around that wouldn’t be distracting to most people, can greatly impair a student who has autism’s ability to complete the assignment. The second is that an autistic person can be extremely gifted in one area and extremely deficient in another. These deficiencies and gifts can even be in different areas for different students.

For example, I am gifted at writing and memorization but struggle extremely with spatial relations, to the point where geometry was an extreme challenge for me (or it should have been – but I’ll get to that later). My friend, Gavin, however, who currently works as a computer programmer who majored in physics and computer science at college is the complete other end of the spectrum – he has difficulty writing but is brilliant in math and science. My verbal IQ is 80 points higher than my performance IQ, a staggering amount but one not atypical of autistic adults. Thus, just because a student is doing greatly in one area does not necessarily mean they won’t need extreme amounts of help in another area, and vice versa.

The most helpful modifications I received in school were extended time on tests and being able to use a computer to take notes and to take essay tests. Extended time was helpful because I am prone to melting down if put under an extreme time limit doing a long test. I even, as sadistic as this sounds, received extended time on the AP tests and SAT – I had up to 6 hours to complete those tests. I didn’t use it all, but knowing it was there made it much easier for me to focus. Using a computer or a self-contained wireless keyboard (such as an AlphaSmart) to take notes and take tests was important because my handwriting, as with many students with autism, is incredibly sloppy, haphazard, and unreadable. At times when I’ve been writing fast, I have difficulty reading it myself, so I can certainly understand why teachers would. Having that modification allowed me to focus more in class also, because it took me less time to take notes. Another modification I’ll mention was that I was always graded on effort in PE, and I took it period 7, the last period of the day, every time I took it so I didn’t have to change before it, because that would be a stressful situation for me. Students who have autism generally don’t like PE, but if the students are willing to put effort in, PE teachers are generally willing to work with them.

Working with the resource teacher even helped land me my first job. Mrs. Babina’s paraprofessional knew a lawyer that was looking for someone to help him with typing documents to save into his computer on an extreme part-time basis. Since my 90 wpm typing speed was infamous throughout the school, I was given the opportunity to take a trip during the school day to get to know the lawyer, Ken, and see if we would make a good match. I instantly felt comfortable in his office, and he gave me the job. Ken was the most gracious first boss I could ask for, as my first high school job was quite a bit different from your average gig at McDonald’s or the local ice cream shop. I would work 2-3 afternoons a week for 3 hours, typing and occasionally helping to write letters. One long-term project I had was typing a 50-page lease into the computer – you couldn’t just scan a physical document into a PDF with your smartphone back then. While I did this, I got to know Ken and learned a bit about the law in a comfortable environment. He even allowed me a 15-minute break halfway through each short shift, where I would either talk with the office staff or walk around the neighborhood.

All of this sounds idyllic, and a lot of it was. However, I still definitely had bad teachers and bad classes, just like the average high school student does. I had an AP European History teacher that would spend the entire class period reading verbatim out of the textbook, essentially leaving his students the responsibility of teaching 500 years of European history to themselves. I had an English teacher that had an absurdly strict grading system where it was possible to get negative scores on homework assignments and tests, and whose way of distributing information about grades was by having the entire class pass a sheet of paper around the room, where everyone knew who was who. I had a class called “online communications” that essentially devolved into a study hall which I got credit for after the main project we were going to complete as a class ended up not panning out. All of these stories are typical. I had great teachers too. Mr. Kulenych, my journalism teacher in junior and senior years, especially stands out for encouraging my love of writing and editing and my desire to do those things in college and in my adult life. Dr. Barbiero, my AP US history teacher, Mrs. Bouchard, my biology teacher, and Mrs. Babina herself all also stand out.

I will close this discussion of my academic high school career with one particularly amusing story that highlights some of the unorthodox methods students with autism choose to learn. You would think, with my verbal and performance IQs, that my highest grade in a high school class would be in an history or English class. And you’d be wrong – it actually was in geometry. Here’s how. Even though I struggled greatly with the concepts due to my difficulty with spatial relations, the teachers gave practice tests for homework 2 nights before the test that were “exactly the same as the real test, but with different numbers”. Then we would go over the entire practice test, problem by problem, in class the day before the test. Keeping that in mind, I would then take the practice test home, and simply memorize what everything looked like, and how the numbers were related to each other, for the concepts I was struggling with. Then I would come in the next day and get 100 on the test not because I really understood what I was doing, but because of the memorization. Of course, when I later had to study geometry for the GRE exam to get into graduate school, it was difficult learning those concepts again, and that class would have been much more difficult without identical practice tests. However, the story is a good example of how sometimes high school challenged me and forced me to find ways to compensate for my weaknesses with my strengths.

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My first “full-time” job: behind the curtain of the standardized testing industry

This is the latest entry in my biography series. Here I focus on my first full-time job, scoring standardized tests at Measurement, Inc. in North Carolina.

One activity I participated in during my early struggles in North Carolina was an autism support group. Unlike the autism support group that I attended later in Chattanooga, this was facilitated by a neurotypical person, so the focus was a little different. While some of the purpose of the group was simply to get people with autism out of the house socializing, another focus was on “improving” the life skills of group members and getting them hooked up with resources to find a job, an avenue to go to school, or some way to be productive in the next phase of their lives. As a result of these meetings, I also began giving talks and participating on panels of people with autism where I discussed my story. These were great opportunities for me because people who attended them were able to see that it was possible for people with autism to get college degrees and be at least semi-independent adults. While I only attended a few of these meetings before my graduate school schedule began to conflict with them, I did hold a note in the back of my mind that our counselor, Elizabeth, said. She mentioned that there was a standardized testing company in Durham who would hire people with college degrees who had no work experience, which matched my situation exactly.

For the first year after graduate school, I was at a bit of an impasse. I continued to live at my father’s house, be involved in church activities, and volunteer (mostly working from home) at the digital library. I also searched for jobs, and for the first year was mostly focused on library jobs. Eventually, however, I became desperate enough I was willing to try anything, and remembering what Elizabeth had said, some quick Google searching landed me on Measurement, Inc. I was pleased to see that the company was based in Durham, only about 15 minutes from my dad’s house, so I decided to apply. This was in late October.

After a quick interview and both writing and math skills tests, by the beginning of December, I was told I was hired and there would be work for me beginning the first full week of January. I was very excited. I knew job interviews had been barriers for me in the past, so I was thankful to find a job where the interview was not as important a part of the process as written tests. I was also excited to find a job where I would be out interacting in the community with other people again.

I still remember my first day of work well. After spending the first couple hours filling out preliminary paperwork and learning basic rules, we launched into the training for my first job. Measurement, Inc. standardized test scoring is project-based work. At the beginning of each project, everyone is given training to learn how to score the test they will be scoring for anywhere from the next 2 weeks-3 months. Projects I did while I was there included 1-state projects in Washington and New Jersey which took closer to 2-3 weeks to score, and multi-state projects like ACT and Smarter Balance which could take much longer. My first project, the ACT, was an essay scoring project. I was immediately overwhelmed by the volume of materials we were given. We would be required to score essays on a 1-6 scale on 4 different components, including the overall strength of the student’s argument itself, the way the student developed their argument, the way the student organized their argument, and conventions (grammar, spelling, etc.) The kicker was that we were given several dozen example essays looking at just what the ACT board felt a 1 essay in organization was or a 2 essay in conventions was. I left home after the first day with my brain completely fried. It was also somehow, at 27 years old, the first time I had ever worked a full 8-hour day!

Training was stressful because, after it was over, which generally took about 3 days, we had to take a qualification exam that we had to pass in order to be able to score the project. If you didn’t pass the qualification exam, you were sent home until the next project started, and would only be paid for the 3 days of training and not for the full month of scoring. So there was a lot on the line. In order to qualify to score the test, I had to score 10 “practice” papers that had already been given a “correct” set of scores, and score 80% accurately on at least one attempt out of three. Somehow, I got lucky and scored exactly 80% on my first attempt, so I was able to use the second and third attempts as less stressful practice tests knowing that I had already qualified to score the project and wouldn’t be sent home no matter how poorly I did on the last two tests. By the end, only about 70% of us had qualified. People who had been at Measurement for a long time told us that this was an unusually low percentage and these were especially difficult tests. I still just felt lucky to be there.

Then, the scoring started. I didn’t realize how repetitive a job this would be until we got going. At the beginning of each day, we would log onto the computer and a queue of tests would be waiting for us. We would start scoring, and do nothing but hit “next essay” for the entire rest of the day except for scheduled break times. Any questions we had were usually sent up by computer to our team leader and handled electronically. Because of the monotony of the work, over the course of the time I spent at Measurement I witnessed several people fall asleep on shifts or down 6 Diet Cokes in a shift in an effort to keep going. Just like training, my brain was fried at first. Even though I had passed the qualifying tests, live scoring was difficult to adjust to at first. My team leader was assigned to read behind my work and see if the scores I was giving were accurate, and she sent several papers back over the first few days in an effort to better calibrate my work. Eventually, I got the hang of it, but just when I did, Measurement, Inc. upped the ante. Because so few people had qualified, it was taking longer to score the essays than anticipated, so they began to offer optional Saturday and Sunday shifts as well as an optional 2-hour extension of Monday-Friday. Knowing that I needed money in order to move out on my own, I took as many weekday and Saturday opportunities as I could, though I did skip out on Sundays because church was quite important to me.

After about a month, we finished the ACT and moved immediately into the next project. There, I got to experience what not qualifying was like for the first time, as I failed to qualify for that exam even after three attempts and got sent home. It was a quite frustrating, stressful experience. I knew I had done well on the ACT project. But the Tennessee state writing test offered a completely new set of rules and essays to score, and because I wasn’t able to adequately learn those, suddenly, nothing I had done in the previous month mattered. Thankfully, I was e-mailed literally the night I failed to qualify with a separate opportunity that started in two days. I jumped at the chance. The catch: it was math.

Taking a chance on scoring a math test ended up on being one of the best decisions I ever made at the company, as I found I was quite good at it. The rubrics were simpler, so qualifying to score the tests wasn’t stressful as it was all but a foregone conclusion for me, and I was capable of reading and scoring test responses much faster than my peers, so there was always work for me. People reading this may be wondering how come math can’t be machine-scored. The truth is, these days math standardized tests have many essay questions on them also that do require humans to read them and assess their quality. I enjoyed the diversity of prompts I got to read. I discovered that you didn’t even necessarily have to know how to do the math question in order to score it; you just had to be able to follow the rubric. I scored plenty of responses to geometry and trigonometry questions that I would have been lost if I had actually attempted to do them myself. I continued to alternate between scoring math tests and regular written essay questions for the rest of my time at Measurement depending on what work was available, but I definitely preferred math, a thing I would never expected to say as an English major.

During this time, I felt happy to have found a job that seemed ideal for a person with autism. After all, no social interaction was really required except during training. I was able to be assessed on my sheer ability to read and evaluate essays and not have to worry about any office politics, and this suited me well. I was able to build a few modest friendships, too, because many people congregated in the same break room. After the occasional stress of the first month, it became a comfortable environment for me to get used to working 8-hour days and 40-hour weeks over the course of several months.

I was lucky enough to have fairly steady full-time work from January straight through July, with a brief week and a half in March being the longest stretch of time I had off. I soon discovered the problem with Measurement, however. It was seasonal work, and you were only paid for the time you actually worked on site. During the second half of the year, the company just didn’t have a lot of projects for the seasonal scorers to work on, so you just didn’t come in, which was great if you could afford it but not so great if you still needed money year-round like I did. Still, the 7 months worth of pay I received early in 2015 was 7 more months than I had received in all of 2014, so I was happy with that much. In fact, I had received enough money that I was able to move out on my own. Shortly after moving in October, I received another opportunity at Measurement, Inc. that would push my boundaries even more.

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Life update and a brief word on anxiety

It’s been awhile since I’ve talked to you all, but I’ve been – surprise! – pretty busy again. Thankfully, I’ve been writing this whole time, so I have quite a few biography chapters that I can also post on this blog soon for you all to look forward to. Today, however, I want to catch everyone up with what is going on in my life in 2020.

On August 1, I finally moved into the new apartment, and it has been everything I hoped it could be and more. The neighborhood is quiet, the maintenance team is responsive and friendly, and there are plenty of beautiful, safe areas to walk in the neighborhood. I even have a friend living within walking distance that I did not know about until after I signed the lease, which has been exciting for me, because having a friend you can visit safely during these weird COVID times is something to definitely be thankful for. I also have plenty of family living within a couple of miles of me, and they visit and help out often. Since I moved in, I’ve been so busy though, and things are finally, just now, beginning to settle down 6 weeks later (I hope, anyway?)

I got asked to help facilitate another conference, the Chattanooga Autism Conference, which took place this past Friday and Saturday. It felt more comfortable this time, because I had done it before, but it was still a lot of work. I really enjoy getting to help the community learn valuable information about autism through these talks, and I am thankful that we have Zoom which makes it easier to facilitate these discussions. I’ve also been asked to serve on the Chattanooga mayor’s council on disabilities, because they were looking for an autistic representative, and I am excited to be an advocate and hear a bit more about what goes on in Chattanooga policymaking decisions. Additionally, I’ve been investing a lot of time enrolling into something called the Tennessee CHOICES program. The CHOICES program is designed for people that need help with daily living skills. I am applying so that my niece can come by 10 hours a week to help me with daily living skills, and the CHOICES program will pay her for it at no cost to me. This has required many phone interviews about the exact circumstances of my disability and what I want out of the CHOICES program, but I am finally nearing the end of the process now. I do appreciate that the CHOICES representatives have been incredibly well-prepared and thorough throughout this whole process, and I think having the CHOICES program in place will be exactly what I need to successfully live alone for this next phase of my life. It is definitely something I would recommend to anyone with autism in Tennessee who is preparing to make steps to live independently. In addition to all these things, I’ve still been working my normal hours and attending and occasionally facilitating weekly Zoom autism support group meetings. I’ve even found time to write an article freelance for my friend’s real estate website, which you can read here if you’re looking for a little bonus writing from me today.  

Today though, I do want to spend a little bit of time talking about living alone. As I discovered in North Carolina, living alone can be difficult because it causes you to spend more time having to live with your own thoughts. This is only exacerbated by the pandemic this year. I am someone that usually deals with anxiety through a change of scenery, be it getting out of the house for a few hours or going out of state for a few days, and not being able to do these things as readily this year hurts. I am also an anxious person by nature, but I think that this year I’m beginning to discover a way to talk myself down. I especially get nervous in social situations, even via text message. The other night I texted my friend what felt like a pretty bold question, and when my friend answered the text but ignored that question, part of me wondered if I had been too bold, so I was anxious about it. But then I realized that I would have also been anxious if I hadn’t asked the question. If I’m going to be anxious either way, regardless of whether I ask the question or not, then clearly either decision is fine, so I shouldn’t be anxious at all. This is how I “tricked” myself out of being anxious the other night. Sometimes, logic works! I also am a big fan of sending difficult texts and e-mails right before I am going to be busy for a few hours, so I don’t spend the whole time staring at my phone or computer waiting for a response, and maybe while I’m being productive, the person will answer. It is so easy to get consumed by anxiety at this time, and having autism makes people even more inclined to be consumed with anxiety. But we really do have to take everything day by day.

I feel incredibly blessed that so many things are happening right now, and I am excited to see what the next chapter holds, though I am also scared about what the next chapter holds for our country. I hope these words about taking life and anxiety day by day will be helpful for others out there. This COVID situation has turned from two weeks to two or more years; it is a marathon, not a sprint. All we can do is commit to making each day the best that it can be.


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The importance of music throughout my adult life

Anyone who knows me will tell you that music is and has always been an important part of my life, both listening to and performing it. My mother and I discovered I had perfect pitch when I was 4 when, one Sunday, I came home from church and played on the piano a complete song I had heard in the service that morning. While I was in choirs periodically from elementary through high school, however, music didn’t truly become important in my life until after I graduated college. Music to me is not just a measure of what one person can perform by themselves, but it is also an important way of building community.

As I’ve discussed in another chapter, the summer after college was especially hard for me because I came home from college and watched my mother pass away from cancer during the ensuing two months in a time when I was already struggling to transition and figure out what I wanted to do with my professional life. One thing I did that summer was sing in the choir at Bethany United Methodist Church. My mother had encouraged me to sing in choir during the summers that I was home from college both because she knew it was a place I’d naturally fit in but also just to give me something to do. While I didn’t properly read music, I was able to use my perfect pitch and good musical memory to first match what people around me were singing in rehearsal and then later remember what I had sung before and be able to sing it more confidently. Thus, going to choir in the summer after I graduated was merely a force of habit, something I knew I’d be doing but didn’t put much thought into. And then everything changed the day after my mother died.

I was sitting at home waiting for our pastor, Jimmy, to come meet the family later that morning and discuss funeral arrangements when I suddenly became overcome with a need to do something during the funeral. I knew people would get opportunities to talk about how wonderful a person my mom was during the funeral, but I realized I wouldn’t feel as comfortable doing that as I would be singing. I thumbed through the United Methodist Hymnal, and after a few minutes I landed on On Eagle’s Wings. The song is a common choice at funerals, as those who attend the church regularly would know, but also one of my mother’s favorite hymns. I let both Jimmy and Sam, our music director, know that I would like to sing this as a solo. On Friday, we rehearsed it in church just to make sure I was ready to go, and then Saturday, at the funeral, I performed it.

As you might imagine, I have blacked out many details of the day of my mother’s funeral, including that performance. I’ve reluctantly sung On Eagle’s Wings many times since because the group I was with happened to be performing it, but the song will always hold its place in my heart as my memorial song to my mother, and nothing else. People seemed to like it, however, as they came up and complimented me afterward, but I was self-aware enough to realize that everyone was just trying to be kind to my family in the moment. However, as unlike previous years I continued to sing in choir into the fall and winter months, a funny thing kept happening. Sam kept asking me to do more solos, so he must have liked the first one also. I repeatedly accepted, with my rationale at the time being that nothing Sam asked me to do could possibly be as difficult as singing at my mother’s funeral, so I was up to the task.

Singing in the Bethany choir throughout the next seven straight years, even as I moved several times and went through graduate school and my first couple jobs, was an anchoring point in my life, a place I could come every Wednesday night and just be myself, even as the storms of life raged around me. Sam is a tremendous music director. I am lucky that the first two music directors I worked with in my life, Rick (who worked with me in the Mary Taylor church choir while I was in high school) and Sam, are as good as they are. Sam was a great director to learn how to truly be musical from. He always knew how to hone in on whatever the song we were working on needed to be successful. Whether it was a creative warm-up to start the rehearsal, a focus on consonants and vowels, or a focus on a tricky rhythm in a song, he knew what it took to make the choir live up to its potential. He also knew how to best serve each song musically, inviting guest drummers, flutists, and soloists at just the right moments but not overusing them. And through all of this, he was tremendously grateful and kind. He really cared for each of his choir members, was a nurturing presence in each of our lives, and devoted the last 15 minutes of rehearsal time each week to devotion and prayers for spiritual enrichment and just because he wanted to create a caring community. Throughout that hour and a half each week, I really grew not just as a musician as a person, and it was exactly what I needed in my life at the time.

Soon, that hour and a half became two and a half hours. The church bell choir that met immediately afterward on Wednesday nights had a vacancy open in the fall of 2011, about a year after I started in the choir full time, and I attempted to join. My first rehearsal was, honestly, a disaster. I knew I had the musical ability needed to follow along with the bells, but despite the bell director, Pat, stressing that you didn’t need to know how to read music to play the bells, I discovered that people did need to know how to read music at a level that was more advanced than where I was at the time. Also, my poor hand-eye coordination made it difficult for me to play bells at first. I wasn’t aware of just how much picking up and putting down bells and switching hands needed to take place to polish off a bell piece. Thankfully, after my first rehearsal, Pat saw some potential in me and worked with me one-on-one for an hour the next week to try to home in on where I needed help. By the end of the hour, I was playing the two pieces that we had been working on with few problems, and from then on, I felt right at home in the bell choir. We discovered that the best way to ensure my success was to highlight when I had notes to play in the written sheet music of each page, so that way I only had to focus on the picking up and putting down and didn’t have to worry about reading music. Again, for seven years, this added to my musical journey, as I discovered all the creative ways you can ring bells to glorify God. As if singing and bells weren’t enough, I also started playing keyboard in the dubiously named “Junk in the Trunk” band that periodically played praise and worship music in our church and also played at garage sales and other outdoor festivals in the area, where people would frequently sell junk out of their trunk.

The especially amazing thing is that all my musical experiences existed against the backdrop of other difficult things I have mentioned that were going on in my life. Of course, things really got off the ground right after my mom passed away, which is unquestionably the most difficult thing that has happened. But even throughout that year after her death where I didn’t do much else but grieve, at least there was music. Even when I was struggling through graduate school, at least there was music. Even when I was working 50 hours a week at Measurement, Inc., there was music. And then even when I moved away, there was still music. In Maryland, while I struggled to find my footing professionally and socially and generally had a miserable time at home, I did find a church, Ark and Dove Presbyterian, with a great message and choir, and got the opportunity to sing with them for 6 months. This included singing Faure’s Requiem, unquestionably the most difficult music I’ve sung to date but also some of the most beautiful. Given the background of everything else that was going on at my brother’s house at the time, I was happy to throw myself into that piece of music. When I arrived in Tennessee, the first thing I did after deciding what church I wanted to attend permanently, Northminster Presbyterian Church, was join the choir. Joining the choir helped me find some of my first friends in Tennessee also, and our wonderful director Lonnie continued to help me grow musically. Northminster’s choir has pushed me in that we generally only rehearse pieces of music for one or two weeks before we sing them live in church, so this has forced me to read and learn music more quickly, which has also made a better musician.

Indeed, music has formed the backdrop of everything in my life. Music has helped me feel socially confident. Even when I have felt lost in my social interactions with others, which has happened repeatedly throughout the last ten years, I have known that music is a language I do know how to speak that makes it easier to connect. Music helped me gain friends at Bethany that did tremendous things like throw a housewarming party for me when it was time to move into my apartment and a goodbye party when it was finally time to leave. I truly feel like I grew up in that church. Music helped me find people to talk to when I had none in Maryland. It helped me build quick friendships and social circles in Tennessee. It has always been there.

I do wonder, as I close this piece, what the future of live collaborative music will look like. Thankfully, even during this time of COVID-19, I have gotten the opportunity to both record music from my bedroom and living room that is used in Northminster’s services and attend the occasional virtual choir rehearsal at Bethany via Zoom, which I can now do from hundreds of miles away. But something is lost. If someone like me were looking to find their footing in the community, they would have to look at different avenues than live music right now, because it is simply not safe to perform together. I hope once we do get past this virus, these opportunities will continue, because music truly did help me grow as a person during times in my life where not much else was going my way. And I want that to continue to happen for others, too.

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Netflix series review: Love on the Spectrum

Netflix recently released a series called Love on the Spectrum. It highlights several adults with autism from Australia at various phases of dating and talks about the issues behind relationships. At 5 episodes that are around 45 minutes each, it can be binge watched in an afternoon if you so choose. I decided it would be a useful blog entry to go ahead and offer my thoughts about this series, which are mixed.

We’ll start with the good. The series really makes it a point to show that autism is a spectrum. Some people in the series have different levels of social abilities, and that is clearly highlighted – Mark, for example, is clearly a bit more adept than Kelvin though he still has his own issues, yet they are both shown going on dates with some level of success, even though the dates are more tailored to them. Mark is more suited for exploring a zoo and Kelvin is more suited for a sit-down date; these are highlighted. It also shows varying levels of success. While many people in the series are engaging in their first relationship ever, some are experienced daters, and a pair of couples that have been successfully together for many years are even highlighted, Thomas and Ruth and Jimmy and Sharnae. These couples are conveniently shown in the first and last episodes respectively, to both give the viewer a sense of hope in the beginning and remind them what the end goal is in the end. A proposal, naturally, ends the series on a happy note. Another strength of the series is that it introduces you to the characters’ families and tells you their story, which makes the viewer care about the outcome of these dates. It usually highlights both dates’ interests ahead of time, so the viewer generally knows where the conversation is going to head and can often tell if the date is going to be a match or bust before the participants even can, but the dramatic irony that brings makes for good viewing.

The second through fourth episodes are a bit grittier than the bookends, which brings me to another thing I liked; the series does not hesitate to show the awkwardness of dating and interactions. Even though a lot of the scenes and scenarios are clearly scripted to some degree, the scripts make room for awkward pauses and uncomfortable reactions to people saying awkward things. It even makes room for drawing the fine line between parts of conversations that are uncomfortable, but don’t completely derail the date to more serious infractions that end up making the couple decide they aren’t compatible. Conversations are actually quite awkward. One of the parents makes the point in the series that, up to the point he went on his first date, her son had derived all his social cues from TV. This is problematic because conversations tend to flow seamlessly in movies, TV and radio. There’s no time for awkward pauses, because either the news is only 30 minutes long, the radio station is desperately trying to avoid dead air that will make people change the station, or the conversation mostly serves as a means to an end to further the movie plot, so there is no point in adding awkward pauses to it. Love on the Spectrum lives comfortably in these awkward silences. It also showcases how sometimes circumstances are out of our control sometimes. Andrew goes on a speed dating event and is excited to find that he received a match, Evie, only to find after he further contacts her that she is no longer interested because she “needs to work on her own life”. In the most uncomfortable scene of the series, a date disintegrates halfway through because the young woman has an anxiety attack. The scene ends cordially on the part of both parties, and it makes clear that the woman really wanted to engage in the date, she just became overwhelmed by her anxiety midway through due to no fault of anyone’s.

This brings me to the negatives. It frustrates me a bit that every single relationship highlighted in this series is between two disabled people. The implication in doing that is that people with autism are not able to have relationships with neurotypical, “normal” people, which is clearly not true. While obviously it is more likely that people with autism will be more compatible with each other, at least one different relationship should have been highlighted, especially since this series did such a great job otherwise in highlighting a variety of situations and characters. I also will admit that this series, because it is scripted, has a few contrived situations and scenes, and not everything should be taken at face value. One scene in particular stands out – when Mark goes to a bowling alley for a hangout with a group of his disabled friends and two “new girls” are conveniently there to talk to Mark; those conversations are highlighted and then you never see the young women again. I also wish there were this many speed dating events and dating boot camps for people with autism and disabilities in America. It probably would make things easier for everyone. I do think that it’s likely a couple of those situations were contrived for the purpose of the film. The conversations though, especially in the one-on-one dating situations, feel very real.

Overall, I would highly recommend this series to anyone who either has autism and is interested in dating or anyone who is interested in learning more about people with autism. This series shows that it is possible for people with autism to be in healthy, successful relationships, which is a wonderful thing. It also is not afraid to show some of the hard moments, missteps, and dates that went badly alongside the inspirational moments. I learned some things about simple conversational dynamics and relationships that I didn’t even really know before watching this series. It is definitely worth an afternoon of your time.



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Life update: Helping run a virtual autism conference….and moving again!

For once I have a life update that is intrinsically also about autism, because a lot of it will be describing what it was like to work behind the scenes at the autism symposium that just finished. I must say, it took a ton of work and planning meetings to put a Zoom conference together, but I am happy at how it turned out. The 4th Annual Southeast Adult Autism Symposium took place last week on Zoom on Friday, July 24 and Saturday, July 25 for about 4 hours each day, because we determined as a committee that people would likely not want to spend an entire 8-hour day at their computer. We lined up 6 speakers, 3 for each day. We did record the conference and the videos will be released publicly in a week or so.

The topics included, in order of how they ended up being scheduled throughout the weekend: 1) Autism and aging (how the autistic brain and perspective changes as a person ages); 2) Safe and healthy relationships for all (a presentation about boundaries and healthy relationships, especially as they relate to people with autism); 3) A panel of young autistic entrepreneurs who were self-employed or who had started their own business; 4) Mental health resources and information for people with autism; 5) Dating, relationships, and sex from the autistic perspective (presentation #2 was more from the clinical perspective) and 6) Tips for people with autism hoping to get a job. As you can see, it was truly a wealth of great information that is relevant to all adults with autism, and that is part of why we hope to share these presentations soon.

While I attended last year’s autism symposium, which took place in Chattanooga, I did no behind the scenes work, and of course I didn’t live in Chattanooga yet for the previous two (though I just missed 2018’s edition by about a week). I really appreciated the networking opportunities the 2019 conference provided, however, as those networking opportunities are sorely lacking for people with autism in other areas of the country. As my friendship with Nathan, the Chattanooga program director, grew in late 2019 he invited me to planning committee meetings. For the first several meetings I attended, I simply sat back, listened, and observed, but I gradually grew more involved as the conference began to take shape. We were all disappointed when it became obvious that the conference would have to be virtual rather than in person this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we were happy that a virtual conference was even an option for us. Georgia held a virtual autism conference in May that we attended and took notes for which established the template of how we wanted to carry out our conference. Then, it was just a matter of not only learning how to use the Zoom virtual webinar platform. We had to learn it well enough not just to use it ourselves, but to teach our speakers, a few of whom were technology-averse, how to use this new technology.

There were many bumps in the road along the way. To start off with, the reason why we needed a planning committee in the first place was because Scott Kramer, the former program director of the autism center, had passed away. No single person among the group was in a position to completely step in for Scott by themselves, because Scott essentially put in 40+ hour weeks every week and took the Center on as his full-time job. Consequently, we had to delegate tasks, which was messy at times but ended up working out. The fact this conference ended up being on Zoom played to my strengths because I’m fast at learning new technology and at reading and responding to e-mail, all of which needed to be done for this conference. An in-person conference would require more networking and doing things like reaching out to local vendors to see if they have items available for silent auction, which is an aspect that would take me a little bit more out of my comfort zone. We’ll see if that happens next year! Transitioning from an in-person conference to Zoom required a shift in mindset, but we were thankfully able to keep most of the speakers that had committed to speak at the original conference.

In the meantime though, I probably averaged around 10 hours/week through the last 2 months between committee meetings, speaker planning, and website and e-mail work, and I know quite a few others that put in the same amount of work.  I was truly honored at this conference to receive the Scott Kramer Volunteer of the Year Award. It truly was a team effort. I think the primary thing that motivated me while doing this was knowing that not all areas of the country have anything close to these kind of autism resources, but, thanks to Scott, we do, and it is important. I know how valuable it has been to me. Even though we weren’t able to network in quite the same way at the 2020 Zoom conference as we were in past years, the information offered at this conference was truly invaluable.

As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches on and it becomes apparent that we are going to be social distancing for many months and perhaps years to come, the importance of creating a virtual substitute for everything in our life is being heavily questioned. It is true; not all conferences need to be virtually rescheduled right now. Some just need to be canceled. But life goes on too. Everyone has their “yes, and…” problem; “not only am I dealing with COVID-19, but I’m also dealing with this”. People with autism still need chances to network just like everyone else. I am really grateful we were able to put on a Zoom substitute for our conference that impacted many people over the course of the weekend. A Zoom conference did require a lot of behind-the-scenes work on our part, though it probably still required less work than an in-person conference. Yet, it still was able to have an impact, and perhaps most importantly, it got people to think about something besides COVID-19 for a few hours (though COVID’s impact was briefly discussed in a few of the conversations). Hopefully, whether next year’s conference is in-person or virtual, this first conference without Scott laid the foundation for many great years of conferences to come.

As a footnote to this entry, since it is a life update, I would like to add: In addition to having the conference this past month, I’ve also…found an apartment and I plan to move Saturday! I look forward to discussing that more in upcoming posts. My sister and I were originally supposed to live in our current place until September. However, circumstances changed. The apartment complex we are living in is not renewing anybody’s leases because they are doing renovations to the property. This would be alright, except that they have started doing these renovations to the property even before people have moved out. We have had a construction crew right outside our house every Monday-Friday 8-5 since June 8, doing things like tearing siding off the house and hammering in new siding, and it has been incredibly loud and distracting, especially for someone who is working from home. I will be quite happy to get out of here and into new surroundings soon.


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How the “culture of niceness” is not so nice for people with autism

I recently finished the book Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving. Irving writes about her own experiences growing up in white culture and then learning about racism as an adult, learning which began at one college class she took. One of the primary purposes of Irving’s book is to illustrate the ways in which white culture is so fundamentally different from black culture that many white people are racist without realizing it. There is racism built into the way houses and schools are laid out in every town, and even racism in the different ways that white people and people of color interact with one another. As someone who grew up in a very white upbringing, I found this book quite helpful, as my upbringing was quite similar to Debby’s, and this showed me some of the injustices and difficulties that people of color face every day that I had no idea about. In this time where we are trying harder than ever to fight racism, the first step is for white people simply to understand what people of color are going through, and this book is a good foundational work to do that.

But I’m writing a blog entry today because one concept Irving introduces in this book stood out as something that could be helpful to people in the autism world as well: the concept of the white “culture of niceness”. Irving discusses how when she grew up, one struggle she faced was being forced to go to her room when she was angry or sad rather than being able to discuss the confrontation, even into her teen years. She says, “My parents didn’t silence me because they didn’t care about my ideas. They silenced me because their own childhood socializations engrained in them a subconscious habit of steering away from conflict and authenticity and toward the more socially accepted culture of niceness.” The “culture of niceness” is the culture where we are expected to always answer “fine” when asked “how are you?” even when our body language definitively suggests we are not “fine”. The “culture of niceness” is the culture where the weather is a more common conversation topic than personal lives, even when talking with people we hold closely. And, as I didn’t entirely realize until reading this book, the “culture of niceness” is largely a white phenomenon. Irving details how she went to a predominantly black conference about racism and learned that people of color were often not shy about discussing topics such as job uncertainty and problems with raising their children into casual conversation. It was part of their culture in a way that it just isn’t part of white culture, especially European white culture.

I’ll cut to the chase here: the “culture of niceness” can also be devastating to people with autism. This is the part we don’t get. We don’t understand why masking our emotions has become thoroughly normalized. And in a sense, that is what this is: another form of masking. Just as we learn to mask our “stimming” repetitive hand and leg movements because they distract people, now we must learn to distract being genuine because it distracts other people too. In a sense, the “culture of niceness” makes it harder for me to evaluate the strength of my relationships too. How can I know if I’m close friends with someone if all we ever talk about is the weather? When do I know when it is the appropriate time to start talking with someone about deeper subjects? There are some subjects that are just never OK to talk about because they are conversationally taboo, and other subjects that are OK to talk about only if you’ve known someone for a while. How do you separate all of that in your head? A lot of that is purely instinctual knowledge, a gap that people with autism struggle to fill.

As Irving points out, “Whom exactly does the culture of niceness serve? I suppose it serves the people for whom life is going well, the people in power. But where does this leave less empowered individuals and populations with legitimate complaints?” Of course, Irving is referring to the population of people with color here. But it doesn’t do people with autism any favors, either. To be able to understand the world and communicate on the same level, we need to be able to talk directly about our issues and not just talk about the weather. That is why I tell people over and over, “If I am doing something that annoys you, it is OK to tell me.” I don’t mind having the heavy conversations, because I need those heavy conversations more than most to work towards being a good person that has healthy relationships with people. I realize there is a time and place for heavy conversations, and there is a time when certain things can become too much. But teaching people to not express their emotions at all when growing up, as the writer’s parents did, is just unhealthy. Our first step towards understanding each other is to allow ourselves to truly know one another, and we can only do that when we go beyond the surface level in our conversations. So, the next time someone indicates that they want to talk about something deeper than what they did this past weekend, be willing to open your heart to them. While the culture of niceness can be a buffer that makes it easier to greet acquaintances for the first time, it can also be a crutch that stifles many budding relationships before they ever get started.

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Elon experiences: Ancient camcorders, college radio stations, and road trips

This is the latest entry in my series of biographical entries. Here, I talk about a few different experiences I had while at college at Elon.

Now that the hurdle of my social difficulties in the freshman year of college was behind me, it was time to start focusing on what I actually wanted to do with my life. One thing college did, repeatedly, was take me out of my comfort zone. In this piece I will talk about three experiences in particular that caused me to have to come to terms with my autistic identity and do something new.

Digital Media Convergence

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life when I went to Elon, but I had settled on journalism. I had excelled in my journalism class in high school, my journalism teacher wrote me a glowing letter of recommendation that helped me get into college in the first place, and it just seemed like something I wanted to do. During my freshman year, I mostly focused on general ed, only taking two journalism classes, both of which were enjoyable, especially since one of them focused on writing. In my fall semester sophomore year, however, I hit a significant hurdle when I had to take digital media convergence, a class that was required in order for me to take many upper-level classes in the major. It was a class that focused specifically on shooting videos with a camera and then recording and editing them. I met my professor before the semester even started, to discuss my disability (something which I was now more comfortable with) and acknowledge that I might have difficulties. We discussed some possible plans for modifying assignments, including partnering up with a friend.

The hardest part of class for me was actually in the first few weeks, where we were expected to manually operate a tripod on our own outside of class with only one class period’s worth of practice time. I knew this wasn’t going to work well for me, so I ended up proactively e-mailing the professor and we made a modified version of the assignment.

My friend Matt was thankfully in the same section as me, and he was willing to supervise my video shooting to make sure that I did it successfully without breaking any equipment. We also were required to show our videos in class in front of everyone, an awkward experience because I realized the quality of my video was inferior to most of what my other classmates were putting out even though I knew the design principles I should be using, but I went through with it anyway. The story I told in my 3-minute video based upon a dream I had sometime in sophomore year. I was staying at a rundown hotel with some friends while on a road trip from Texas to Colorado, and we were greeted by some strange men who agreed to let us stay at the hotel for a reduced rate if we found 4 decks of playing cars and helped stack them in order by suit (a very autistic story). It took us forever to find the cards, and apparently it took long for the men who ended up pointing guns at our heads just as we were finishing! The story certainly had drama, intrigue, and potential for special effects to be added, so it was good enough for me. Once we got into editing with Final Cut Pro, things were at least confined to the computer, but still difficult for me as my lack of spatial reasoning sometimes caused me to make incorrect editing decisions. I had no perspective of what a good “shot” was, and sometimes I would awkwardly cut my friend’s head out of a shot and not realize it, among other issues. Despite all this, however, I persevered and ended up with a B+ in the class. I have never been the type to back out of something once I start it.

Despite this, however, when I looked ahead in the course catalog, I realized that there were more required classes that often had video components that would be even more difficult than this one was. I also took an English class in that same semester that I really enjoyed. While I was skeptical that an English major would be able to get me a job, I realized that writing and editing were really what I enjoyed doing, more than actually reporting news and more than shooting video. Thus, even though I made it through the entire class, I changed my major to avoid taking any further similar classes. I did end up minoring in journalism, since I had already taken 3 classes and only needed to take 3 more in my remaining time at Elon to complete the minor, but I purposely avoided classes that I knew had intensive video production, largely because I had enough challenges going on in my day-to-day social life that I avoided challenges where possible in my academic life.

College Radio Station

One activity I did that met with considerably more success was working for the college radio station. I started doing this in freshman year, when my friend Paul who was also really interested in music got involved. However, I decided to host a show by myself. At the time, the college radio station at Elon was a hybrid between an automated computer system and CDs. Applying for the radio station was not a difficult process, which I was thankful for. There were no interviews required; we simply had to complete a day of training before we were thrown on air. We were required to burn CDs of our shows and give them to a staff member to review, so any problems could be addressed after we had already started recording shows, and not before. This gave us the opportunity to learn on the job and make our own mistakes, something important but also stressful at first. Like all freshmen, I started off playing a “format” show, where we were primarily obligated to play the preferred format of the show, alternative rock. However, we were allowed to play 4 songs an hour from our own collection, as long as we didn’t stray too far off the beaten path of the station’s format. I enjoyed this opportunity to share my music with the world very much, even though I was never sure how many people were listening at any given time.  Artists I remember playing include System of a Down, Muse, Porcupine Tree, and naturally a show where all 8 of my personal songs were by Pearl Jam, my favorite band at the time. The gig also introduced me to a lot of good new music.

The challenge, however, was changing CDs out, keeping a log, and maintaining entertaining “talking” breaks where I introduced the songs. It was always a balancing act where I was barely keeping up, especially at first. The studio had a 3 CD changer, so I was only able to plan ahead 3 songs at a time. I eventually started planning in advance, burning all of my 8 songs from my personal library onto a CD each week and bringing that CD into the studio, to decrease the number of times I would have to change CDs. My old CD collection has survived all of my moves, and I continue to periodically discover these radio station CDs to this day.  I do think, however, that it made my poor executive functioning skills, better, because suddenly I had to concentrate on several things at one time: making sure the song playing right now was playing correctly, making sure I had the CDs I wanted to play next lined up and ready to go, making sure I had the ads lined up and ready to go, and making sure I talked at the right time and in the proper fashion, turning the mics up to the proper volume. While I dreaded this process at first, it was something I grew to love by sophomore year, and it was ultimately a staple of my life during my first three years at Elon.

Highway 64

A third experience I had in college was when I got to spend a weekend traveling highway 64 for travel writing class. We split up into groups of 2-3 for this assignment, and whoever grouped up with me would have the misfortune of having to do all the driving because I couldn’t, but thankfully my friend Dan was up to the task. We left on a Friday evening and didn’t get back until Sunday afternoon, staying overnight at a relative of Dan’s for the two nights. This was truly my first experience of western North Carolina culture or really any culture at all. We went out to eat at a famous hot dog place in Statesville. There, we saw a sign for a lawnmower racing tournament, but unfortunately the tournament was not occurring the same weekend we were there. It was also my first experience traveling down a rural highway. While I spent much of high school in the car traveling between Connecticut and North Carolina, we traveled mostly down I-95, getting used to intense city driving. Highway 64 was something else entirely. The highway seemed to veer left and right at will. There were times when signs disappeared altogether for 10 miles, and Dan and I became suddenly certain that we were on the wrong road, only to then have signs re-emerge. There were times when we got stuck behind a slow car traveling 30 mph for 20 minutes, and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it, which was very unlike I-95 or fast-paced, Connecticut driving. We also traveled in fall 2008 right before the election, and it was interesting to notice the number of McCain/Palin signs sharply increase as we traveled westward in comparison to the number of Obama signs.

Visiting the town of Bat Cave was also an interesting experience. It has a gift shop full of bat memorabilia that we visited where we talked to locals around the town. However, getting in and out of Bat Cave was an even bigger adventure. When we left the gift shop, we were oblivious to the fact that the proper turn for Highway 64 was ¼ mile before our stop. We proceeded for 20 miles along the windiest roads imaginable and eventually reached Asheville before determining that we missed a turn. Unhappily, we turned around and traveled back along the same windy roads. However, Dan spotted an oddity – a road diverging off the highway that seemed to travel straight uphill. He decided to turn up it to see where it led. We got to the top only to discover that it led nowhere – and, in fact, the only way down it was to back all the way up in reverse. Over the next five minutes, I put my life in Dan’s hands as we slowly backed up down the entire length of the huge hill, laughing the whole time. It was an experience I’ll never forget, as I’d never seen a road like that before.

To this day, I still have a travel bug, and I blame this trip for starting it. It was the first chance I’d really gotten to explore the culture of a new place by myself, and I greatly enjoyed the experience. Even though I am still not able to drive, I discovered later on that, thanks to buses and Uber rides, I still have the ability to do my own exploration.


Overall, these three experiences are just three of many examples of how I had growing experiences at Elon. In the case of the digital media convergence project, I took a class that required a skillset which happened to include areas where I knew I was lacking due to my autism, but I managed to overcome those flaws, working around them as needed, to complete the class and finish my own video, something I’d never dreamed of doing before. In the case of the college radio station, I combined something I loved (music) with areas outside of my comfort zone (talking to people live on air and juggling many tasks at once) to develop another task I enjoyed. Finally, in the case of the highway 64 project, I took a trip with a new friend for an entire weekend and learned more about Western North Carolinian culture. While I discussed in previous chapters how college, especially freshman year, was especially hard for me, it also provided me many fun growing experiences. Sometimes, all a person who has stayed in the comfort of doing the same things for their whole lives with their family needs to grow is new adventures and experiences, and Elon provided me with that.

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