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When It All Adds Up: Am I Autistic?

In the course of my mental health history, I’ve been diagnosed with, in no particular order, major depression, bipolar II, generalized anxiety, social anxiety, ADHD and, as I aged out of hyperactivity, Adult ADD. Yet my current therapist first to allude to the suspicion that I may be “on the spectrum,” so to speak. At first, I thought she was nuts. Well, I generally think she’s nuts because unlike my other therapists who have been more traditional talk therapists who don’t give direct advice, she’s more of a crossover psychologist and coach. And, maybe she actually sees something that others have missed. Or maybe she’s just crazy.

When imagining someone with autism, there are two general stereotypes that come to mind – the very autistic person who cannot handle any stimulation, who flaps his/her hands, cannot communicate regularly, and is clearly disabled. Then there’s the “Asperger” autistic – which, apparently, no longer is a thing because now autism is a spectrum instead of types of autism – but, anyway, this type of autism is the mild form that is considered “high functioning” because these individuals are able to get jobs and even be successful in normal society, despite being different from the norm. If I am autistic, this is the part of the spectrum where I fit in.

Now, this isn’t just me being a mental health hypochondriac. My therapist has good reason to note that I may indeed be autistic. In fact, an autism diagnosis would explain most of the other disorders other psychologists have granted me when I was in my worst state and could only sit in their office and cry. Within a few weeks or a multiple-choice diagnostic test, I clearly had depression. Or ADD. Or anxiety. But there was no core cause. So neurological difference that was the root of all these issues. If it was chemical, it was an imbalance of dopamine or whatnot that could be treated with a cocktail of prescription drugs with funny-sounding names and ads featuring the happiest of people who smile relentlessly through all their small-print side effects, should I choose to take them.

I am not sure if I’m autistic. It doesn’t really matter either way, because being a spectrum a diagnosis only allows me to find strategies that have worked for likeminded people. And, even if I am certifiably autistic, the other disorders therapists have added to my record may still also be spot on the money. But, I wonder what is “normal” and what isn’t. Maybe autism is just some kind of human evolution in the ability to process the world around us. There are more cases of autism documented today then there were before, and even though there’s surely over diagnosis it seems to be more trend than accident. Some people like to blame vaccines but there’s no proof this causes autism (and I don’t believe it because then EVERYONE or the majority of people who have been vaccinated would have autism and that’s clearly not the case.)

Looking back on my childhood, I now can see a variety of signs of autism that were not caught. I grew up pre the Asperger’s hype (I think) and more-so during the ADHD era. Hyperactive child who can’t socialize with her peers? ADHD. Give her Ritalin and call us when she needs more to be a better zombie. No one mentioned Autism. Not once. Then again, none of the doctors asked about my obsession with collecting rocks (from our landscaping outside) or bugs (spiders, especially) or barbies or hot wheels or stickers or POGs. If the doctors were told about my hypersensitivity (all tags must be cut out of shirts leaving no fabric left, no socks with seams across the toes can be worn – only with a seam in front of the toe, and, the kicker, my refusal to wear my glasses because they were uncomfortable so I literally discovered in sixth grade that I could make telescopes out of my hands if I made two fits with little peep holes and pressed them firmly against my eyes.)

They say that while boys are often overdiagnosed with autism, girls rarely get diagnosed. Girls are better at mimicking other people and fitting in (to some extent) whereas boys tend to not care or not have to care due to their socialization. I don’t recall a lot of my childhood, but I do remember having lots of outbursts when I just couldn’t handle the world. That could also be attributed to ADD but something tells me there’s more to it than that.

There are other high-functioning autistic traits I can relate to. To this day, I hate eye contract, unless I really know a person – and even then, it’s a challenge for extended periods of time. At work, I find it very difficult in meetings to look people directly in the eye. It’s difficult to explain why it’s so hard, but it almost makes me nauseous when I try. I always attributed it to just being shy but the more I read about autism the more I realize this is one of the many symptoms that I have. Even though I’m hyperaware that I talk too much and I try not to, especially in business meetings, there’s something that makes it impossible to know how much or how little to say. My coping mechanism is generally trying not to talk at all – which I can rarely keep to when I have an opinion and blurt something out, and isn’t useful for attempting to be an executive in the workplace. And my personality is quite obsessive, as, despite knowing it’s bad for me, I feel most complete and alive when I’m fully obsessing over something – whether it be people or planning an event/trip or teaching myself all there is to know about something specific, like weather or earthquakes. While I don’t have a math mind, per se, I do love numbers and patterns, and probably the only thing that makes me feel really happy these days is calculating my networth twice a month in a spreadsheet that I started in 2006 and that has now existed, in all its multi-tab glory, for over 10 years.

Furthermore, I can relate to never fitting in – feeling like an alien in the normal world. As a kid at recess I would stand by myself and sing and it wasn’t because I was a loner. I longed for socialization. I wanted to fit in with the other kids. But I had no idea how to. I was bullied because I was weird and I was weird because I didn’t know how to be any other way. I hadn’t yet figured out how to mimic normal (ish.) I rocked in my chair obsessively and fell over once or twice. I tested high enough to briefly earn a place in the gifted students program but was kicked out for not being into solving riddles (I liked problem solving but I had poor working memory which is a type of intellect required to be good at solving riddles, where you must store a lot of new information at once and connect the dots.)

Well, I’m not saying I was or am autistic, but there’s certainly a case there for this being a proper diagnosis of what if off about me, because clearly, something is off. I don’t WANT something to be off, it just is. It always has been. And I can now fake it well enough to get hired for jobs and leverage my talents to add value to companies, at least in in individual contributor roles. As my boss put it – I know a lot about my particular field, but my communication skills are subpar, and there is not enough time for me to improve them to become a true leader in the company. I’m not offended by this statement – it’s only that I look at my persona and, to be completely honest with myself, the amount of energy it would take on a daily basis to become that person is just too much for me to handle over any reasonable period of time. It feels like trying to be a supermodel when I’m 5’3, always standing on my heels in platform stilettos and hoping no one looks at my feet or notices when I fall down. I don’t mind not being an executive, despite it being a little disappointing that if I could just get my act together I’d be able to obtain roles that pay more than I can even dream of right now, but – it’s just not possible.

My therapist and I disagree about a lot of things, but I’m intrigued by her mindset. She was born in Germany so in general has a different view of the world and what matters in life. She’s very adamant that money shouldn’t be my first concern (she constantly repeats the story of how at 40 she left a high-paid job in one of the best places to work to go back to school, go into debt, and become a therapist (for the record, she’s still in debt.) I tell her that financial security is the most important thing to me – although at this point I’m not even sure if that’s true anymore. My obsession of $500k before I have kids is actually arbitrary for the most part… I once thought how much I’d have to earn a year at minimum to be able to survive (as a single person living comfortably in a lower cost of living area) and the number I came up with was $50k. Then, I figured with an average ROI of 10% YoY, $500k would deliver $50k a year in returns on my investments. Of course, that could be much less or even more, depending on how the stock market performs, but it’s a good even number (I am kind of obsessed with clean, tidy numbers in a way, as I like to leave the house at :00, :15, :30, or :45 if at all possible.) In any case, $500k doesn’t really matter. But I also don’t want to spend down what I’ve earned in order to change my job to something that pays less – even if it would make me happier. Because, would it really make me happier?

I’ve been researching information on jobs for people with autism, and my career is pretty much out. It would be so nice if I could be an engineer – because that’s the go-to answer for high-functioning aspies. And, I work with many people who are probably those autistic engineers and they do just fine. Maybe if I could focus long enough code would be a good route for me, but I’m more interested in designing systems at large than coding the specifics. This is where I’m not sure about this newfound diagnosis – autistic people care about the details more than they care about the bigger picture. I am a very detail-oriented person (I’m frequently called a perfectionist and not in a positive way), and I’m always on the wrong side of the “don’t let great get in the way of good” equation. I connect details to the bigger picture. I see the picture picture and then I can hyperfocus on the details. I believe that the best big picture is composed of carefully planned details which have heart put into them. I get frustrated when people are satisfied with imperfection (though, I’ve finally learned that at work it’s better to get things done then be perfect as no one else really cares if the video is flawlessly edited or the website has the right about of pixels around each image and letter.) Still, I think what makes me me, and what makes me ultimately valuable is my hyperfocus on detail. Not everyone cares about details and that’s fine. But someone has to. In some jobs. Somewhere.

It seems the only people really allowed to be as crazy as I am are those at the top of their field, whether that be technology or something more creative or even academic. You’re a nutjob until you’re in charge and then you’re that nutjob in charge that people value because your unique insights create something great. You’re the Steve Jobs who believes so passionately in how important the tiniest detail is to the design of a product that you’d risk your job to stand up for it. You’re the Marisa Meyer who, despite being considered a failure in her tenure at Yahoo, rose her way to the top with many personality quirks, especially a focus on details, where she – at least for some time – micromanaged projects and wanted approval of the details. It’s ok when you’re up top. It’s almost expected. But when you’re down further below in the rank and file, your job is not to obsess over the particulars – it’s to get shit done.

I’m trying to create a path to short-term success in my current role. I am now doing this with the lens of “how does someone with aspergers take a very unstructured job and create a system and reward structure that enables me to focus on my output without sacrificing my belief in creating work that is great. This starts with simplicity – minimizing my projects and bucketing them into contributions with clear beginning, middle and ends. There will always be a lot of other chaos in my job with tiny tasks requiring context switching that throws me into a rut, which is why this role – at this company or anywhere else – cannot be a long term thing, but I’m giving myself the challenge of six months to knock it out of the park. In the grand scheme of things, six months isn’t that long.

The things that really kill me about this type of role is all the uncertainty that I cannot control. A huge challenge is the part where I must convince clients to provide testimonials when, in many cases, the clients don’t want to (yet) or are unable to due to their corporate rules. It’s not just a simple one time ask – it requires relationship building with many different people and maintaining those relationships – knowing when one is pushing too hard, or not hard enough. I enjoy professional relationships where I am hired to solve a particular problem, but not ones where I need to inspire other people to act when they are busy and uninterested or even interested and just busy. There is no process that can be followed to obtain success here – this takes so much energy to the point where I just avoid it altogether. Get someone on the phone and I can sell the vision effectively, but I can never close the deal.

And I can’t be a VP without the ability to do just that. The job of the VP in practically any department is to manage, negotiate and convince others to do things. Some people are natural leaders. Some people can learn how to be leaders. Some people just shouldn’t be leaders, and that’s ok too. I’m not sure yet if I want to give in after all of this – after coming so close to moving up to that next level in my career – but I also acknowledge that if it is difficult now without children in my life, that I just can’t continue this if I am to have kids. While my therapist constantly tells me not to worry about the future unless I’m willing to do something about it today, I’m still in this limbo of acknowledgement that things have to drastically change (esp if I have kids) but not knowing which direction to step in. Being paid what I’m paid today, it’s so hard to let that go. My internal monologue still says when I get to $500k I can loosen up a bit. Many people tell me that I’ll just be chasing $1M at that point, but it won’t come with the same intensity. In fact, if that $500k earns just 5% a year, it will take just 15 years to get to $1M and 29 years to get to $2M. In other words, assuming I can maintain my current job or at least a comparable one at the same pay rate for the next 18 months, and that I can achieve $500k in networth by 34, I’d have a million dollars by 50 and two million by 63. I’ll still want to earn money on top of that to pay for life in general, but I won’t have to save as aggressively at that point, so I can possibly look for a job that is better suited for someone who is quite possibly on the spectrum.

I’m going to start reading some more information about high functioning autism and see if any of the advice for these people can help me. I used to think “I’m not like them” as I wasn’t into anime or lord of the rings or harry potter, but I now realize that one doesn’t have to be obsessed with typical nerdy things to be obsessed with things. And now I’m obsessed with determining my correct diagnosis, and leveraging that information to help me stay gainfully employed through birth of my first child, and, ideally, through my $500k goal that may seem silly to everyone else, but is the lifeblood of my drive today and I believe the reason I’m doing so well in my career even if I’m a total trainwreck and I have a poor record of maintaining a jobs for an extended period of time.

If you have autism, or know someone well who does, do you think I should like I might be autistic? I don’t WANT to be autistic, either I am or I’m not – but something tells me that I’m squarely on the spectrum, and I always have been.

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2 comments

  1. Elle says:

    Your post actually makes me suspect that my fiance has Asperger’s syndrome as well. Based on what you wrote, it seems like you might be on the spectrum. Your sentence about the seam on socks especially stood out to me.

    My fiance can be very forgetful with details, even things I’ve reminded him two or more times about. It doesn’t just slip his mind temporarily, but rather he has no memory of me mentioning the topic. He also has an official diagnosis of ADHD, and takes medication for it. He’s super picky when it comes to food, and has said he doesn’t eat things he hasn’t tried before. Which is obviously false, because he’s clearly living on more than baby food. He works with Excel sheets and numbers, and loves what he does.

    You could try coding. At startups, programmers do get a lot of high-level input on the product. However, it would take several years to get to that point of expertise.

  2. Norm says:

    Yup yup yup. I identify. When I was a kid, I was always incredibly shy. I won the high school superlative for Quietest Student by a landslide. I went to a few different shrinks in middle school, and one of them suggested I could be autistic. Thanks for that, doc! Thanks for putting that idea in my head!

    Is it true? I don’t know. I haven’t been to a headshrinker since all those years ago. Whether I’m “on the spectrum” or not is almost beside the point. Because it really just manifests itself in a series of other “disorders” similar to yours. I am a definite social phobe, also have some kind of anxiety disorder, and DEFINITELY can’t hold eye contact. It is just waaay too intense. I’m not good in groups and prefer one-on-one interaction, and still mostly live in my head.

    Definitely love order and numbers. I’ve wondered if I spend more time planning a trip than actually ON the trip. You should see my spreadsheets. And I can get obsessive. My wife complains that I go “all in” on something new that I like. If I find a new musician, I have to hear all their albums, read their blog, etc. I think I’m the same age as you and started my obsessive net worth tracking just a year later, 2007.

    I took up accounting in college because it was the obvious mix of what I like to do, what I am good at, what would allow me to get away with not interacting with people, and what career is a steady source of income. My accounting teacher in high school used to say, “I never saw an accountant in the unemployment line.”

    I lost a job as an auditor long ago mostly because of my communication problems, and was seriously freaked out that I would never have steady employment because of that. Thank Bob I was able to get an accounting job soon after where interpersonal communication was not as important, because I am still here and have managed to be promoted without having to supervise anyone, which I would be terrible at.

    My advice to you would be the same. If you are or aren’t on the spectrum, it doesn’t matter. You’ve already known that you have these symptoms, and you can either work to improve them or find ways to work around them. I don’t think a spectrum diagnosis changes that. I stick with the latter, workarounds, because like you say, becoming that other person seems far too daunting, maybe impossible.

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