The Autism Bookshelf: Chicken Soup

 I consider myself a fairly voracious reader, and without getting into too much snobbish, pseudo-Victorian yearning for the discreet joys of staying home with a book and a nice cup of tea, let it suffice to say that I’m proud to do so. I was fortunate to grow up in a household that made sure I read, and to spend my formative years in a suburb with one of the largest public libraries in greater Chicago. It’s as good a recipe for a lifetime of literacy as you’ll find. As a kid, I loved just about any young adult fiction I could get my hands on, Judy Blume being a favorite. I sought out many books about flags and languages of foreign nations, with any holes in my nonfiction reading filled by my mom’s old 1966 World Book Encyclopedia, which over a childhood I more or less read A to Z. Not bad, though I will also admit to having had a sizable weakness for periodicals about video games. Kids are kids.

 

These days, I pretty well spray to all fields, having amassed a solid bedrock of American and European literature, plus nonfiction on everything from history, psychology, and music, to baseball analytics, etymologies, and the civil engineering of New York (Robert Caro’s The Power Broker — an 1,100-page behemoth which I’d love to recommend if you have an interest in politics and plan to take, say, a trans-oceanic flight). All this and yes, of course, my growing shelf of books on autism, many of which I like to share with you here.

 

What I’ve noticed in recent months is that I’m just not reading novels the way I used to. I’m sure it’s a number of factors: as you get older, your preferences crystallize, and you don’t want to try something new in case you don’t like it. A fair deal of my favorite authors just aren’t writing anymore. But most of all, I think it’s a matter of time. Great novels require commitment. A website called “Infinite Summer” helps readers tackle David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest with a daily reading guide that asks for just fifteen pages a day…for 92 days. And with I Am Autistic episodes to prepare and record, my copywriting job, and a teetering tower of books to review here, I just can’t commit right now. It’s not you, novel, it’s me.

 

What I am reading as of late are essays and short stories. Though they never get the same acclaim as The Novel, I’d rather enjoy a few great essays and short stories than read some airport novel just to say I finished a book. At the moment, I’m enjoying Nine Stories, a short story anthology largely centered around J.D. Salinger’s precocious Glass family, the tragic fall of the brilliant-but-flawed family being a favorite theme of mine in literature and film (Infinite Jest, The Magnificent Ambersons, The Royal Tenenbaums).

I’m also reading Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum. If I think I don’t have the time to sit and read, I can’t imagine what it’s like for the parent of a child with autism. Fortunately, here is a book that allows parents who are pressed for time and energy to steal a few moments for some relaxing, feel-good reading, for as much or as little time as they have.

 

The Chicken Soup format should be no stranger to any of us at this juncture: a collection of short pieces that serve to soothe, hearten, uplift, and motivate the reader, usually one who is going through some time of adversity: cancer survivors, expectant mothers, addiction recoverers, and veterans of wars, to name a few. I had Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul in middle school, adolescence being a great time of adversity indeed. The autism-spectrum iteration of the popular franchise follows form, with 101 short — generally just two to five pages — essays and anecdotes about life as a parent touched by autism.

…In the spirit of full disclosure, I will note that amidst the featured authors are Autism Channel personalities, whom we’re proud to highlight…

The book is organized into rough categories of dealing with the label of autism, social interactions, humor, challenges, and family, among others. Reading entire categories at once, or reading the book cover to cover, however, is hardly required, and can even detract from the efficacy of the anecdotes. The sixth or seventh story in the same vein can find itself without the punch of the first or second, and so the best course for general reading is to skip around the 101, sampling a little bit of each. Of course, if you’re approaching the book as a direct response to an event — for instance, a rough day at the grocery store — perhaps you may wish to load up on stories about public interactions. Or perhaps after a day that has been trying in many ways, all you want is to find something to laugh about. You’ll find that here, like the story of a camper with autism who, after compiling a collection of photos, takes the term “disposable camera” literally.

 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I will note that amidst the featured authors are Autism Channel personalities, whom we’re proud to highlight. Our Kathleen Leopold of The Blog Ladies shares a family conversation about autism in a household where some are on the spectrum and others are not, where one child wonders if dogs have autism. (My facetious verdict: they might, but cats definitely do.) And Mary Beth Marsden of Real Look Autism documents her efforts to produce a show about the autism spectrum, which she ultimately accomplished.

 

Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum is a book that, like many of the anthologies I’ve read, is largely what you make of it. You may choose to zero in on one category of stories, or you may eventually read them all. There will be stories you take from it that you’ll cherish, and there will be stories that are duds. And the duds for you may be cherished by someone else. What it will do is have you engaged in the act of reading a tangible book, something that you may not find yourself doing enough with the considerable time constraints placed on you. If you’ve forgotten how enjoyable it can feel to be immersed in a book, whether it’s a cover-to-cover page-turner or one where you skip from story to story, Chicken Soup for the Soul: Raising Kids on the Spectrum will, if nothing else, restore that good feeling of time well spent. And if you do want to accompany your reading with the proverbial nice cup of tea, I can recommend a terrific Darjeeling for a late afternoon.

 

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


Daniel Heinlein is the host of I Am Autistic, seen exclusively on The Autism Channel.

The Autism Bookshelf: The Autistic Brain

 Like most of the book-reading public, it’s not often I get to discuss a book with its author. In my case, I don’t get out to book signings all that much, and even if I did, it’s hardly polite to hijack the line so I can yammer on forever. There’s also the fact that most of my favorite authors are retired or dead. Death is often a slight encumbrance to substantive discussion.

 

I was fortunate to make an exception last May, when on a trip to the Flying High With Autism conference in Pensacola, I got to meet the author of a book I had just finished. The book is The Autistic Brain, a heady tome that delves into the hard neurological science of autism, exploring brain imaging and genetics in an effort to further explain the many enigmas of autism. The author is Temple Grandin.

 

You understand, I’m sure, that Dr. Grandin has become the most famous leading voice of the autism community, and so not only meeting but having the opportunity to have a thorough discussion with her was quite an honor indeed. Having been featured in the title essay of Oliver Sacks’s idiosyncratic anthology An Anthropologist on Mars, she rose to fame with numerous bestsellers such as Thinking in Pictures, not to mention an eponymous biopic produced by Home Box Office. Her primacy in the community is such that it almost seems as if no essay or presentation can go without mentioning her, whether a further exploration of her work or just a quick tip of the hat to show that the author is indeed conversant with our most famous personage.

 

So when I was able to interview Dr. Grandin for a very special episode of I Am Autistic, I was able to gain insight into The Autistic Brain that I certainly would not have had otherwise. I became privy to some powerful feelings that weren’t communicated quite as strongly in the book’s pages. I discovered that things I thought I had right, I had wrong — surely the kind of face-to-face revelation a high school junior wishes he or she could have had after just missing the mark on an analysis of The Great Gatsby. It’s a conversation you can see for yourself on the channel. I can only hope that I didn’t appear too starstruck.

 

In the book, Dr. Grandin, in concert with author Richard Panek, explores autism and the fields of neurology and genetics in a way that the non-scholars among us can process and appreciate. Coincidentally, autism literature is a spectrum unto itself, ranging from warm-and-fuzzy personal tales to scholarly articles that will make a layperson’s eyes glaze over. As a layperson, I can attest. So it’s a matter of striking a delicate balance when one tries to bring the scientific to the masses, but fortunately, Grandin and Panek are able to do so, owing to a preference for plain speech and the use of bulletpoints and tables to break up and further simplify information for consumption.

 

An early chapter of the book discusses magnetic resonance imaging, and how the parts of the brain can elucidate the way we think and experience the world. For instance, Dr. Grandin discovered through her MRI that the left ventricle of her brain extends into her parietal cortex, possibly compromising her short-term memory. The amygdala, which is responsible for fear and aggression, is also larger in her brain than in the average brain. This, she postulates, could explain her lifelong anxiety, colorfully referring to herself and other similarly high-strung people with autism as a “big exposed nerve.” As someone who is indeed prone to high levels of anxiety (as well as depression, counterintuitive as it may sound), I appreciate this metaphor, which really is a great way of putting it. In my conversation with Dr. Grandin on I Am Autistic, I mused that it would really be something if we could make MRIs available to a large number of people on the spectrum, so we could really get down to a biological basis for why we are the way they are. She demurred, saying that all her MRI did for her was confirm things she already suspected or knew. I’d still volunteer, at any rate.

 

After the book explores genetic sequences and sensory processing, Grandin and Panek devote time to identifying and capitalizing upon the strengths of those with autistic brains. With the underemployment and unemployment levels of the autism-spectrum community, this is pertinent material. As many of us know, Dr. Grandin rose to prominence with her groundbreaking research in animal science, drafting a slaughterhouse that used circuitous pathways to reduce anxiety in cattle. This was something she did with her preternatural ability to think in pictures. But as I learned from the book and from my discussion, not all of us think in pictures — and it doesn’t mean we don’t have autism. Some of us think in patterns or systems. Others think in words and facts. If you haven’t guessed, I’m a word/fact person. Thinking in pictures? I can’t even assemble a tent.

 

The book discusses how autism informs these ways of seeing the world, and then identifies optimal occupations for each group. Picture thinkers are well-suited to jobs in everything from welding and HVAC to graphic design, to name a few. Pattern thinkers flourish in programming, engineering, or actuarial science. Word/fact thinkers may have futures in legal research, library science, and copy editing.

 

In the black and white of ink and paper, I found this to be a useful component of a useful book. It wasn’t until my interview with the author that I realized it was its key. With arguably the most passion and consternation of the evening’s chat, feelings I never could have picked up to such extents in my reading, Dr. Grandin lamented to me that too many kids on the spectrum were whiling away their hours merely playing video games when they could be developing them. People were pitying themselves for their shortcomings and paying no attention to their strengths. She repeated, her voice rising and quavering, that there were jobs out there for people on the spectrum. It was just a matter of getting the education for them and setting out to procure them.

 

Indeed, this section, taking the science of what goes on in our brains and applying it to our worlds, is the real core of The Autistic Brain. Provided you can invest the requisite time in a book that, despite the aforementioned plain English, still falls well short of breezy, it’s one I can wholeheartedly recommend, especially to parents with an adolescent on the spectrum getting ready to face the world in earnest. Just as the book takes a wealth of scientific information on neurology and genetics and arranges it into something all of us can read and use, people with autism need to take everything inside their own brains and share their gifts with the world, not only enriching a workplace or society but taking great steps toward self-sufficiency. After concluding my interview with Dr. Grandin and going through the subsequent postmortem chitchat with our assembled guests, she headed out the door, but not before turning back to me.

 

“What did you say your other job was?”

 

“Copywriter,” I quickly replied.

 

She nodded. “Good. That’s good for you,” and the door shut.

 

Right down to the very last moment of our interaction, it was all about jobs. You’ll come away from The Autistic Brain with a refresher or new knowledge on parts of the brain, or some insight on sensory processing, but you should find, as I did with a little help from the person who would know best, that this isn’t a book about having an autistic brain. It’s a book about using it.

 

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


Daniel Heinlein is the host of I Am Autistic, seen exclusively on The Autism Channel.

The Autism Bookshelf: Asperkids

 There are two impressions that one can get from the common representations of Asperger’s syndrome. The first is that it’s a bit of a boys’ club. More boys than girls are diagnosed with an autism-spectrum disorder, and Simon Baron-Cohen postulated that high-functioning autism is but an “extreme male brain,” taking traditionally male traits of logic, systematic organization, and stoicism, and extrapolating them to their natural conclusions. I don’t like this. I am high-functioning, yet prone to highly illogical decisions and poor organization, to say nothing of my frequent emotional outbursts. Other than perhaps some deep-seated, reptilian-brain desire to spend inordinate time sitting on a couch and watching sports, I’ve never thought of my brain as being all that male, let alone extremely so. Oh, well; when you’ve met one of us, you’ve met one of us.

 

The second is that as far as boys’ clubs go, it’s not even much of a club. If we were a club, we’d show up to meetings late or not at all, forget to pay our dues, and we’d never figure out what to have for dinner, having failed to make any sort of compromise with one another. And I’m sure many people with Asperger’s, in their more self-effacing moments, would just deploy the famous old Groucho line about clubs and their membership standards. Having no paucity of self-effacing moments in my life, I’ve used it a time or two myself.

 

So how nice it is, then, to be reminded that the autism spectrum does not discriminate, and that males and females alike are eligible for participation, such as it is. Jennifer Cook O’Toole, mother of three and overseer of a growing franchise of books, introduces us to her family where everyone is on the spectrum in Asperkids.

 

I first read Ms. O’Toole’s work — albeit out of order — several months ago, in The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules, this flagship book’s followup that details how young adults can find their way in a world where they don’t always fit in. I was familiar with the author’s prose style, which I described as “friendly but authoritative” as she helped her readers navigate. In Asperkids, we are treated to a history of the author’s road to her own diagnosis and her efforts to homeschool her three children, all of whom have Asperger’s, often in addition to other challenges, like ADHD.

 

Homeschooling your own children may not be reasonable. And modern homeschooling, due to its often fundamentalist Christian implications, has gotten a bad name in America these days. But even if your children attend mainstream schools, education isn’t limited to school grounds. The blueprints for activities detailed in Asperkids, if not applicable to a homeschool setting, will be perfect for some casual summer enrichment, taking your children’s special interests, building them up further, and dovetailing them into more comprehensive and global studies of core subjects. Chances are your child already has quite the zeal for learning, and will appreciate a summer curriculum tailored to his or her interests and pace. Ms. O’Toole approaches her own children as someone with a background in special education, giving her the requisite appreciation for exceptional minds and exceptional ways of learning. She also, of course, approaches her children as someone who is on the autism spectrum as well. From a daughter’s special interest in Greek mythology, for instance (one of my old favorites, too), Ms. O’Toole teaches not just history, but geography, physics, geometry, music, and even the classical languages of Greek and Latin — the knowledge of which go a long way in improving our strength with our native English. While I was able to get an A+ on a family tree of the Greek gods in sixth grade, I never thought to extrapolate my studies into the construction of the Parthenon, or the Greek etymologies of everyday words. Alas, we can’t teach ourselves everything.

 

One topic to which the book devotes some much-needed attention is that old bogeyman of mathematics. In a chapter entitled “All Aspies Are from Missouri,” named in tribute to their “Show-Me State” moniker, Ms. O’Toole talks about the difficulty of applying the abstractions of math to the concrete minds of kids with Asperger’s. I can empathize. While I blazed through English and history courses, I repeatedly found myself tripped up by math — with the not insignificant exception of geometry. (That so many kids on the spectrum struggle with math should really throw our extreme maleness into question: clearly we’re not all budding engineers.) I could memorize facts, learn languages, but when it came to algebra, there was so much I couldn’t begin to process. I still don’t know what a matrix is, or how to multiply one against another. That math teachers couldn’t “show me” didn’t help. While the book doesn’t progress to the perils of high school algebra, it does offer an array of tips to make math not only something tangible, but something applicable, answering the refrain that eats away at every person who has ever taught a math class: “When will we use this in real life?”

 

Beyond the pedagogical content is some warm advice on how to handle the challenges of being a parent of a child or children on the spectrum. Ms. O’Toole talks about comfort zones, particularly how we will quite often find ourselves beyond them. Meltdowns, teacher conferences, and difficult discussions are not anyone’s idea of comfortable, but they are unavoidable in this life, and the author hopes to assist her readers in handling these situations with confidence, bravery, and, when applicable, a sense of humor.

 

Asperkids is a touching, informative book and a valuable resource for the family touched by the autism spectrum, whether that’s one child, every child, or every child and a parent or two. More than anything, as someone without children of my own to educate, Asperkids is simply a book that makes me happy. I love learning, and think fondly upon my autodidatic excursions, while lamenting the shortfalls that could have been improved with more malleable instruction and, let’s be honest, at times a more receptive learner. While there are certain lost expectations that every parent of a child on the spectrum will have to grieve, the life of raising that child will still indeed be rife with enriching and meaningful experiences.

 

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


Daniel Heinlein is the host of I Am Autistic, seen exclusively on The Autism Channel.

The Autism Bookshelf: Finding Your Own Way to Grieve

A lot of people I know grew up with grandparents who were almost abstractions. No longer needing to avail themselves of job opportunities and leafy suburbs in chilly Chicagoland, they retired to Phoenix or Tampa-St. Petersburg and left their grown children back home. Sometimes their families would visit them, usually in March so they could twin the trip with a spring training game, but living a thousand miles apart, it was difficult for their grandchildren to bond with them.

How lucky I was, then, to have spent a great deal of time with my maternal grandparents, who ran radio stations in Chicago and Autism Bookshelf: Finding Own Way To GrieveMilwaukee, always too engaged in their work and their family to scuttle off to a condo in Boca Raton. Living just down the road, theirs was my home away from home. It was on their watch that some of my gifts started to show themselves: my reading and memorization at such an early age almost became a parlor trick. “What would he like?”, the waitress would ask my grandpa, motioning to the toddler with bread crumbs on his face. “Ask him,” he’d reply, and I would do just that, politely reading my choice from the menu. (It was usually just chicken tenders. I wasn’t a very adventurous diner yet.) I’d complete the evening’s entertainment by reading the names of the credit cards in his wallet, as if I even knew what revolving credit was or how it worked. I still might not.

It was with their keen eye and their generosity that for the first three years of my education, I was fortunate enough to attend a school for gifted children. I hadn’t been diagnosed as being on the spectrum yet, and I have a feeling that some of my eccentric classmates would later encounter the same discovery that I did. Still, we flourished there, under well-meaning teachers and administrators who I’ve come to suspect knew more about Asperger’s syndrome than most people did — perhaps more than they knew they knew. The local public school district fell short of diligent upkeep on the disused grade school building we occupied, and elected to raze it, evicting us.

Grieving is hard enough for anyone… As is so often the case, these concerns are magnified for a person on the autism spectrum.

Though I couldn’t continue there, my grandparents continued to make sure I had outlets for learning and creativity beyond what the average child enjoyed. When my grandfather bought another radio station in Wisconsin, my family moved up to help him run it, and I was allowed to learn radio hands-on, running around the studios after hours, doing mock radio shows with myself and my imaginary sidekicks. I still have the airchecks somewhere. I am never going to play them back.

Continue reading Finding Your Own Way to Grieve…

The Autism Bookshelf: How Can I Help?

Hillary Clinton’s famous remark that “it takes a village to raise a child” triggered what’s become an ongoing national dialogue of sorts: debating the importance of people, communities, and institutions beyond the traditional household in helping a child to grow. By now, most families would probably agree that the truth lies somewhere in the middle: no two parents can reasonably be 100-percent responsible for a child’s upbringing, and on the other end of the continuum, even the kibbutzim stopped making kids live apart from their parents.

But the debate is an especially poignant one for families touched by autism. I would suppose that if asked whether it’s about the family or something much larger, their answer might be that the truth lies not in the middle, but somehow both extremes at once. Raising a child on the spectrum can require two devoted parents, one of whom is singularly devoted to caring for the child. It can also require a far-ranging support system of friends, relatives, medical professionals, and educators. It takes a family, a village, and everything in between. The demands—and the stakes—are that high.

Ann Palmer’s book, A Friend’s and Relative’s Guide to Supporting the Family with Autism takes a bold first step in integrating layers of support around the family touched by autism, inviting grandparents, relatives, co-workers, neighbors, and close friends to play a pivotal role in a child’s growth, whether through direct involvement or through greater understanding for the parents’ journey.

The book begins with an introduction to the autism spectrum and a brief history of how we got to this point, from the early work of Drs. Kanner and Asperger to the debunking of icy mothers or measles shots as culprits. Sure, this is old hat for the experienced parent or caregiver, but this is not a book for the experienced parent or caregiver. Ms. Palmer does us all a great service by explaining to the unacquainted what autism isn’t: we are not Rain Man, we do have emotions and feelings, and yes, we can even be successful.

The book stresses the stress that raising a child with autism can put on a marriage. As Ms. Palmer explains, it’s not as simple as parents being busier. The sleep deprivation that attends child care on the spectrum can lead to hormonal imbalances, bringing about depression and irritability in people who are already overextending themselves. And that’s before we even make it out the door in the morning, if we do at all: a mother may have to quit her job to stay at home, while her husband takes on a part-time job to supplementBookShelf240 the household’s income. And with the costs associated with healthcare and support services, they’ll need every cent. If you aren’t living it already, you can see how hard it can get for two people who love each other to stay devoted to themselves while remaining devoted to a child who relies so extraordinarily on their love and hard work.

This is where the book shines, as it instructs and encourages relatives and friends to give what they can, whether it’s as simple as being a good listener for a venting mom, or as involved as providing respite care so that a child’s parents can be at their best for their family and themselves. As any good guide should, it matches what to do with what not to do. Not lost on Ms. Palmer is how conversations can be minefields with a spectrum family. We’ve all been told somewhere along the line to avoid matters of politics and religion. The latter is especially true here. The book specifically advises the reader to tread lightly on matters of faith. “God chose you to have a special child” may seem touching and encouraging until that mother, pushed to her wits’ end, questioning her faith as it is, sputters back that maybe he should have chosen someone else instead.

A Friend’s and Relative’s Guide to Supporting the Family with Autism takes a bold first step in integrating layers of support around the family touched by autism

From cover to cover, the book is full of heartfelt and useful advice. That being said, some of the advice may fall outside the book’s intended purview. On several occasions, the author speaks directly to issues facing “your child” or “your partner,” which wouldn’t apply to the friends and relatives in the title. Perhaps the intention is for parents to give the book a read before handing it off to a grandparent, neighbor, or another involved party. My only fear is that these passages for the parents themselves will fail to resonate with readers outside the household, and leave them liable to skimming.

And this is not a book to be skimmed. Ms. Palmer incorporates cited selections from relevant autism literature, as well as personal anecdotes from friends who, like her, have raised children on the spectrum. As a dedicated skimmer myself, I have a tendency to skip those block quotations set apart from the main narrative. Do not do that here! You would miss a wealth of terrific stories and insights.

A Friend’s and Relative’s Guide to Supporting the Family with Autism is subtitled “How Can I Help?” The first step, of course, would be the reading of this book and taking its lessons to heart. If you’re watching our channel, chances are that you have a maxed-out support system within the household, and a pretty solid circle of friends and relatives who are of invaluable assistance. Nevertheless, I’m sure you can think of people whom you’d like to inform or involve, or perhaps lend some guidance to a family member with good intentions. This is a book that can make your “village” of child development bigger and stronger. The question, then: is the book the gift, or is the gift the good feeling that will come with constructively volunteering one’s time and energy to people who need it so badly? Once again, it really is better to give.

 If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.


Daniel Heinlein is the host of I Am Autistic, the flagship show on The Autism Channel.

The Autism Bookshelf: The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome

It’s a goal of mine, albeit one much too deferred, to run the Chicago Marathon. As I was finishing up school in 2008, shedding the pounds I put on from years of cafeteria binges and late-night Chinese takeout, I resolved to run the marathon as a way to cap off an arduous stretch of personal improvement. But 2008 became 2010, which became 2012, and while I’ve run hundreds and hundreds of miles between then and now, I haven’t run the 26.2 I wanted to. So what’s stopping me? All kinds of people out there run this thing every year. It’s not just the best in the world out there. All I need to do is train, sign up, and give it my best shot. But I haven’t. What is it that I’m afraid of?

 

This winds up being a parallel to the job hunt for a lot of folks on the spectrum. That includes me. I’ve struggled with the metaphorical starting line almost as much as the real one. Prior to coming on board here, I stayed in a bubble of self-employment that was comfortable to my situation, but hardly lucrative. When I was finally forced to send out flurries of résumés, many came back with rejection letters, more came back unanswered, and I wondered why I bothered at all. So I didn’t anymore. It was a career setback that begat personal setbacks, that in turn begat further personal setbacks, and this all would’ve kept snowballing into a very unpleasant situation had I not had the amazing fortune to arrive before you here and put forth the hard work to stay here.

 

In a way, people with Asperger’s often approach searching for employment as something as insurmountable as a marathon. Just like how the weather on an autumn race day can land anywhere between sweltering humidity and bone-chilling rain, all the planning and plotting out can’t prepare you for every condition you’ll face in an interview. And when you’re fixated on doing everything right and doing it best, so much that you’re scared to death of any surprises along the way, it’s hard to come to terms with putting yourself out there in a pack of competitors and judging yourself against them — to say nothing of the world-class Kenyans at the front. We’re so afraid to fail that we don’t give ourselves the chance to fail. And that, to be a bit trite, is the real failure.

 

Barbara Bissonnette is a career coach who specializes in assisting people with Asperger’s, and with her upcoming book, The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome, she hopes to help people with the hardest part of career development: getting a career in the first place.

 

The book explores a number of key issues that give particular trouble to job candidates on the spectrum, and offers a number of ways to navigate them. Some, like the importance of appearance, seem obvious, but still provide a closer look into all the ways that one has to be “switched on” beyond just dressing for success. Other topics are not as self-evident, and are full of tremendous insight. For instance, people with Asperger’s are notoriously bad liars, and struggle with the nuances of selling oneself. The subtle fluffing that goes into any effective résumé, or the euphemisms and buzzwords that make up the language of the office, conflict with our literal nature and fear of being tarred and feathered for breaking the rules. Fortunately, the book devotes time to writing a résumé in such a way as to be an effective sales tool. With Ms. Bissonnette’s guidance, a résumé can be honest and persuasive in detailing its writer’s accomplishments, while—and this is so key—being well-organized.

 

To me, much of career coaching, life coaching, sport coaching, or any other mentoring position seems to consist of knowing whether a moment calls for a pat on the back or the equally important kick in the ass. And with all due respect to all parties involved, be forewarned: this is a time for sore rear ends. Procuring a job in today’s climate is stressful, competitive, and hard. It’s not easy for anyone, but when you have Asperger’s, almost any prospective job opening will require you to go “behind enemy lines,” so to speak, and be in a world where, simply put, you are not like your peers or superiors. People with Asperger’s have a lot to offer to employers and to the world. If they didn’t, the author would not have made it her job to bring those talents forth. But this isn’t our world, and Ms. Bissonnette has no warm and fuzzy feelings about embracing every last one of our idiosyncrasies and peccadilloes. As much as we hate it, there are rules to be followed if we’re to get past the gatekeepers.

 

If we can revisit my marathon analogy, another important lesson this book teaches is one of pragmatism: sometimes finding a job isn’t about coming in first place, but simply making it to the finish line. Ms. Bissonnette encourages readers to put away the “dream jobs” for which they could be woefully unsuited, or to forget about jobs that don’t exist. While Asperger’s lends itself to intense interest in a particular subject, your given subject may not be a lucrative one. Maybe you aren’t able to monetize your encyclopedic knowledge of baseball statistics or model trains or 1980s television theme songs right now, or ever, but the wiring that got you to that point can be rewired for other pursuits. The book contains checklists and personal inventories that will guide readers toward the right jobs.

 

The Complete Guide to Getting a Job for People with Asperger’s Syndrome is an essential resource. There’s no other way to say it. Finding employment is daunting for people on the spectrum, and the numbers bear that out, but a steady income and the feeling of contribution will go a long way in solidifying one’s quality of life. Even though the numbers say it’s a longshot, I’d like to see every reader of this book—and there ought to be many of you—find a rewarding and meaningful career. But I’ll warn you right now, before you get any ideas: you don’t want my job. There’s a lot of Asperger’s to confront and overcome here. When I’m staring down deadlines, or psyching myself out for the pre-show phone calls that I’m so irrationally afraid to bother people with, or having to be mindful of every lapse in eye contact and every placeholding “y’know,” I just think to myself “I have no business doing this.” But the name of the show, after all, is I Am Autistic. If I could do this show without a single hitch, they never would’ve given me the gig.

 

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.

The Autism Bookshelf: The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules

When you see me on I Am Autistic here on The Autism Channel, I’d like to think you see me as well-behaved. I try not to cut guests off. I avoid looking down at my feet, or up at the lights. And if I ever had a terribly boring guest—not that I have, of course—I would never dream of sighing, rolling my eyes, and playing with my phone. I have a pretty good idea of what to do and what not to do. Too much of this, I’m afraid, I had to learn the hard way: scoldings from teachers, punishments from parents, and that discomfort that you carry every day when you realize you still haven’t mastered all the pesky details of being a social human being. It’s one way to learn the rules, I suppose, but it certainly can’t be the best.

 

Jennifer Cook O’Toole has written the book I sorely could have used growing up: The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules. Not only being on the spectrum herself, but raising a family of five where everyone is part of the “Asperfamily,” Ms. O’Toole is uniquely experienced in identifying areas where people with Asperger’s can use some improvement. The book is a guide to refining the physical, mental, and interpersonal quirks that make us who we are, but also make us stand out in the wrong way. These life lessons are presented in Ms. O’Toole’s unique voice: friendly but authoritative, having lived as something of an “Asperger’s spy” among people off the spectrum, now reporting back to us for our benefit.

 

The visual presentation of a book meant to reach out to young adults—such as this one—can be pretty dicey for an author and publisher. A dry, no-frills affair will alienate a great deal of readers who need more than just words on paper to really absorb a book. At the same time, one cannot reach out too far, either: cutesy illustrations and over-the-top youth-culture imagery are a turnoff to kids who can read a book just fine, thanks, and don’t need to be condescended to by grown-ups in order to do so. I’ll never forget being assigned the youth-oriented spinoff of the old self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, self-evidently entitled The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teens. The front cover featured those blue jeans that the kids wear, so we would know right away that unlike its counterpart, this rap session would really be hip and with it. Fortunately, Ms. O’Toole and illustrator Brian Bojanowski hit this one right down the middle, starting with the front cover. The mottled black and white of the classic composition book is a time-honored image of reflection and expression, something that will slide in nicely on any teen’s bookshelf. And even though I’m well aware that I’ve just engaged in the forbidden act of judging books by their covers, this stuff does matter.

 

Within, Mr. Bojanowski’s illustrations complement the text, rather than distract. Ms. O’Toole distills every chapter down to its “need-to-knows,” a collection of rules and lessons ranging from universal truths like “everything is hard before it becomes easy” to autism-specific advice like “neurotypicals expect us to grasp the gestalt,” and this is where everyone gets huge credit for not overdoing it. Set in big loopy letters beneath cats or nature scenes, “everything is hard before it becomes easy” is the sort of banal platitude you’d find tacked to the wall of any public school classroom, and if you’re a kid on the spectrum in dire need of social guidance, that classroom is probably not what we’d call your “happy place.” But here, in black and white, from someone who can write to young adults without talking down to them, it comes off not as empty classroom dressing, but as a succinct piece of wisdom worth holding on to.

 

While roughly 95% of the book’s wisdom can be put to use right away, perhaps that last 5% is more of a graduate-level course in socialization. In the book’s chapter on listening skills, following tips on basics like eye contact and body language—basics I could still stand to master!—the author advises the reader to engage in something called “reflective listening,” in which the listener repackages the words of the other person speaking, or tells the person how he or she seems to feel. For instance: when I say “aw, man, the Cubs lost again!”, the reflective listener would say “are you upset about this?” When I would say, “yeah, I’m really tired of them losing so much,” the reflective listener might reply “you seem to be a big baseball fan.”

 

A couple things here. Conversation is an art. Maybe I can’t make a masterpiece myself, but I can appreciate them when I see them. And in the hands of someone on the spectrum, I’m not always sure something as nuanced as reflective listening can avoid being paint-by-numbers. Consider that there are still people out there—people who aren’t on the spectrum—who can’t demonstrate their engagement without sounding rigid and by-the-book. This is advanced stuff. There’s also the reality that a young adult on the spectrum is going to wind up doing a lot of interacting with like-minded folks. Now, I don’t know if it’s part of a greater Asperger’s worldview, part of my working alongside glad-handing sales departments, or both, but I feel that I’ve honed a pretty keen sense of when there’s a “strategic” aspect to a dialogue: when you’re that “on,” what are you selling me? Goods? Services? Or just yourself? I fear that contrary to the best intentions, this approach can be off-putting and agitating to a listener on the spectrum, eventually leaving both parties ill at ease.

 

Nevertheless, The Asperkid’s Secret Book of Social Rules is one secret that needs to be shared with the entire class. The lessons in this book will prove critical for kids with Asperger’s, and may even be a worthy refresher for the rest of the family, too. It can be a mean world out there for people like us, and a book like this will go a long way in helping us navigate it. It’s a regret of mine that I came along too early to benefit fully from the many helpful lessons contained in this book. I hope that you and your family can.

 

If you are so inclined, you may purchase a copy of the book here.