Imagine questioning the context of your entire life... that's where I am

posted by Jeff | Friday, August 12, 2022, 5:09 PM | comments: 0

I was talking with someone recently about the strangeness of Gen-X'ers finding out, in large quantities, that they have autism spectrum disorder or ADHD. That wasn't something on the radar when we were kids. It didn't just happen, they've been living with it their entire life. I don't think you have to know a ton about either condition to understand why this would shake you to your core. Every event, emotion, social interaction, relationship, job... everything... may have happened a certain way because of these conditions.

Since my diagnosis last year, that's where I am. It's overwhelming.

It's hard for me to put into words what this means. Every day, some random memory or feeling comes up, and I think, oh, I get that now, or maybe I should look at it differently. For example, I knew that weak grades in certain subjects in high school, and especially in college, were not because I couldn't understand the subject. I mean, I C-ed my way through chemistry and physics, but my ACT score in science was in the 98th percentile. I took and IQ test in college (and again in last year's diagnostic gauntlet), and I was just short of where I'd be labeled "genius." But at the time, especially in college, I had deep feelings of resentment toward myself. I vividly remember walking across the quad my senior year, not really getting it done for my last literature class, thinking that I had serious personality flaws for my lack of follow-through, and how was I going to survive the "real world." But now I understand how ADHD affects my ability to start work, especially if I'm not that interested in doing it.

There are good things too. I'm a self-taught software developer, and I had a book published in 2005. Do you know how hard it is to write a book, or a technical book? That's the secret blessing of ADHD, that it enables hyperfocus, but it tends to only come for things that you really care about. It has served me really well recently as I've started to push POP Forums into a really solid, full-featured app. Again, how many people make software? I got so annoyed with Amazon and Google's music services that I built my own. 24,035 song plays to date. (Since late 2020... I listen to a lot of music!) I should give myself a little grace to acknowledge that sort of accomplishment.

The ASD bit I imagine has influenced a lot of my social life in suboptimal ways. I was fairly lonely in high school and college, and were it not for my senior-year roommate whom I'd met the year before, it would have been pretty bad. Women always wanted to be friends, and I thought that's what they wanted as the basis for romantic involvement. I'm sure failure to read social cues contributed to my divorce. I've had very deep friendships, but only a few, and not many long-term trivial friendships. I got women wrong for a very long time, and I'm not sure how Stephanie or Diana overlooked those attributes enough to marry me, not to mention the very few girlfriends I had before and in between. People who know me are quick to point out that I am "very direct and tell it as I see it," but I know now that just means my filter isn't the same as that of a neurotypical person.

I'm sure the conditions have influenced work, too. My boss in one job, in the first round of layoffs (the company eventually died entirely), said he chose me in the first round because I didn't code as fast as others. (In retrospect, maybe he has ASD too... HR would not be cool with that, I suspect.) There was one job I had where, as a senior manager, I delivered and exceeded on every expectation set in my goals, awarded huge bonuses, but I did not buy-in to the touchy-feely entitled bro culture that my boss wanted to foster. He thought it would be best to just part ways, with a pile of cash for my troubles. But even in college, where the extracurricular work in radio and TV was treated very much as a "job," I did not see eye to eye with the instructors about their entire approach to education, and their roles in it. I was validated by their bosses, but the friction didn't help me, to say the least.

But again, there are up-sides as well. My teams have generally really liked and appreciated me, and I've appreciated them. I've got a stack of recommendations to demonstrate that. ADHD works surprisingly well when you have to constantly context switch as a manager. I'm very outcome driven and prefer to look at objective data to measure outcomes. I see patterns and gaps in teams that help me hire the right people and compliment personalities, while identifying those that aren't aligned with the wider goals. I've got a long list of things to point to there that objectively measure that success.

So imagine having decades of memories, good and bad, and the way they played out wasn't entirely because of the reasons you might suspect. There was a huge contributing factor, or factors, that you simply didn't know about. I wasn't an academic asshole in school, I didn't ignore social cues in relationships because I couldn't see them, and there may be more pros than cons in terms of what I've contributed professionally. Regardless, my entire life, I have to reframe its outcomes and how they occurred. That's a lot to process.

And if that weren't enough, I'm trying to navigate what it means to have ASD. That landscape is changing quickly. For many, it's a core identity issue, and as is the case with some minorities, among racial or LGBTQ lines, there are a lot of opinions about how one self-identifies and the language used. You've got people who believe that you should say, "I have ASD," to "I'm autistic" or "neurodivergent." I mean, in a slightly amusing to me way, people get pissed about which words you use. Some, understandably, object completely to autism being classified as a "disorder." And I'm just sitting here thinking, "I saw myself in my kid who was diagnosed at age 3, and I figured it out at 48, I'm just happy to be here!" If that weren't enough, I'm a protected class that can't be discriminated against, but at the same time, an employer can't ask me about it. Weird, right? And oh shit, have I been discriminated against? Probably.

As you've probably guessed, my intention is to just be forthcoming and talk about it. Autism is classified as a spectrum, meaning it ranges from someone brilliant like Einstein to someone completely nonverbal and unable to care for themselves. My autism brain can't even reconcile how that's the same underlying condition. It's a brave new world, in that sense, but what I suspect will be more clear in the coming decades is that some of the "spectrum" involves not impairment in human interaction and problem solving, but different ways of doing so. That's muddy, but there will never be a clear line. If I try to be objective, my own "symptoms" have not kept me from some kind of material success or self sufficiency, but it has hurt my social and to some degree professional potential. The question is whether or not we as a society can identify these variances not as shortcomings, but differences in wiring.


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