Have you considered welding?

I was a horrible student in school.  Most of my schooling involved me barely passing the required courses.  I had a tremendous range of grades and a rather strange mix of classes.  For instance, I had to retake freshman English and world history (and some others).  Yet I was in advanced placement math.

My teachers had no idea what to do with a student like me.  Or, rather, most of them didn’t.  So I ended up failing courses that should have been easy – English for instance.  I love reading, and have learned to love writing.  I’m fairly good at both.  Yet, I flunked basic English not because of lack of reading or writing ability, but simple lack of executive functioning combined with a way schools have of taking something that kids have natural talent at and turning it into a boring, dull subject.

That’s the first problem I had with school.  It didn’t help that I was getting the shit beat out of me, I was incredibly lonely, and was suicidal during most of my schooling.  But, ultimately, even if those things weren’t happening, I didn’t do good with school.  My college career, bookmarked by 4.0 GPAs during my first and last semesters  was pretty lackluster.  And college was a very happy and enjoyable time for me, so I can’t blame that on the abuse and depression.

I was plenty capable of doing well in school academically.  As I mentioned, I did great at the beginning and end of my college career – even with difficult classes like engineering physics.  And I did good my last year of high school, but we’ll get to why later.  But, in general I couldn’t do it.

The first reason I didn’t do well was simply executive function.  My ability to maintain a schedule and keep up with homework is variable.  Sometimes it’s relatively easy (at least as easy as it is for anyone).  Sometimes it’s very, very difficult – even impossible.  I just can’t finish, sometimes can’t even start.  That’s the autistic inertia you’ll see autistics, but not professionals, talk about.

Sometimes, through sheer willpower, I could overcome that – at least for a time.  But, inevitably, there’s a crash coming soon afterward.  From my experience, I can keep it up for about a year, if there’s tremendous motivation.  But no more than that.  That’s why I did good my senior year of high school (4.0 there, but not other years, as I graduated “in the top of the bottom quarter of my class”).  But I had some significant motivation.  I had two things that year – a mentor, which I’ll get to in a bit, and my parents’ help.

My parents helped (actually my mom) by making a deal with me.  “I’ll write you a note to get out of school anytime you want, for any reason, if you bring home A’s on your report card.”  For a kid who faced abuse at school, few things can motivate as much as getting away from ones’ abusers.  Now I don’t suggest that we abuse autistic kids so that we can give some motivation in the form of getting away from abusers.  But for me, this was exactly what I needed.  I needed a break.  And it wasn’t just from abuse – it was from the stress of the routine, that I simply couldn’t maintain.  I could do my burst of energy and activity, then take a day or two off from school.  That helped.

My mentor was also a huge help – for two reasons.  She was the computer instructor in the school, at a time when my school was one of the first schools in the world getting hooked up to the internet.  Because hooking schools to the internet, particularly in a rural area, was pretty unusual, nobody had rules about how to do it yet.  So I got to run wires through the school, set up servers, and, in general, just learn how the internet worked.  This teacher saw that this was something I was interested in, had aptitude for, and she could build upon.  So she turned me loose and took a huge risk with me.  She also told me that she would arrange for me to get out of any class I was doing well in if I wanted to work on the internet instead – once again, a great motivator!

What’s amazing about this instructor was that I never had her as an instructor – she saw me in a computer lab, saw that I had some interest in computers, and did what someone who loves teaching does – she taught me.  Not with formal lesson plans, which wouldn’t have worked well with me, but by letting me do something I valued.  It had a great side-effect of turning into my career (I’m employed today “making the internet work”), and has let me earn a good living for myself.  At my company, I’m the least formally educated person in my peer group.  That opportunity was available to me because of the experience  I gained, starting with running ethernet cables in high school.

Yet, while this was happening, I was getting career advice.  They felt all high school students should make plans for their future.  Fair enough, but horrible implementation.  Ever since I was 5, I wanted to program computers.  Once I was 10 or so, I knew I wanted to do computer security.  When I was 25, I was programming computer security systems – I was the only person I knew who was doing exactly what he dreamed of doing as a small child.  How many people end up in their dream job?  I’d consider that success.

So, I remember my career counseling.  I remember filling out worksheets to find out what I was “good” at, or what I had “aptitude” for – and finding out I should be a file clerk or mechanic.  I remember then talking to the actual staff, and telling them what I wanted to do.  The most memorable experience was one where I was told, “Computer programming?  That requires college.  I don’t think that’s the best choice.  Have you considered something like welding?”

Now, I have great respect for someone who can weld well.  I married a highly skilled welder!  I look at what my wife can do with a few pieces of scrap metal and am always amazed.  But I can’t do that.  Part of it is that I’ve never had training in welding – but part of it is that it isn’t what I have aptitude for.  I’d probably be able to become an okay welder, with enough education, practice, and time.  But I’m a good programmer, and much more helpful to society as someone who can practice his craft at that level than merely at the okay level.  Ironically, his comment about college also was wrong.  I finished college last year, about 16 years after I started it.  I never had a college degree when I was hired at a job.

That’s my problem with schools and career counselors.  Most look at the typical path from A to B.  I’m not typical.  I’ll never be typical.  I can’t do school and succeed the way my peers can.  But that doesn’t mean I don’t have things to offer the world, even if I might have to take a bit more twisty of a path to get from A to B.  Fortunately, some people saw my ability, and I had good mentors who helped me not with the technical stuff (although they did that by letting me loose on it!), but being able to engage me in my weaker areas while I was focused on my strengths.  I’ll write about that sometime, but this is long enough.

But in the meantime, I don’t want any career advice.  At least not from the system that thought it would be better to be an okay welder than a good programmer.  (for what it’s worth, I shudder when I think of the loss to society because others who would be great welders who are now just okay programmers – it’s a loss either way around)

The Need to be Pointy, Not Round!

“Employers often seek people with a well-rounded education and a broad skill set, rather than those who have training in one field.”  They may.  But that doesn’t help me, or most other autistic people.

Well-rounded means equally good at a bunch things, when referenced to the norm of NT (neurotypical) abilities.  Autistics are many things, but we are not NT.

We have things that are difficult or impossible to learn, but which are well within the grasp of most NTs (for me, recognizing someone’s face comes to mind).  Yet other tasks are almost instinctual to us, such as those used in the hidden figure test.

If you took the average NT, you might draw her abilities as follows, both before and after she receives her well-rounded education:

A graph with four categories, face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification.  Two lines exist, one at 100% representing natural ability (blue) and one at 200% representing educated ability (red)

That’s the goal of a well-rounded education – not just to focus on one area of life, but to focus on all of life.  Of course students don’t start with perfectly average (even for NTs) abilities in every area – they have strengths and weaknesses even relative to other NTs.  But stick with me and let me discuss the “average” NT.  I’ll address natural variation later.

Of course Autistics are bad at some things compared to NTs and good at some things.  Once again, two autistics are going to be different from each other, and may have different strengths and weaknesses.  So I just drew an example of the natural ability of a hypothetical autistic.  Note that this graph doesn’t actually represent true abilities or anything such, just a hypothetical individual compared to the NT norm:

A graph with four categories, face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification.  Two lines exist, one at 100% representing natural ability of an NT (blue) and a red line representing autistic natural ability in red that starts below the blue for face recognition and social skills, but rises above the red line for hidden figures and classification.

So, this person in the hypothetical well-rounded education program where they teach face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification would find themselves needing to do little or any hidden figure and classification homework to keep up with his peers – but would end up doing a lot of work on face recognition and social skills, compared to his NT peers.  In some cases, no amount of work would be enough.  Sure, I could run a mile faster if I trained weekly.  But I’ll never be able to beat an Olympic gold medalist!  We have different natural abilities.

Of course that’s not the only way to look at this – there’s another way.  We can look at the “average” NT skills versus the hypothetical autistic’s skills.  Let’s say our hypothetical autistic was seen as “normal” and the average NT was the exception:

A graph with four categories, face recognition, social skills, hidden figures, and classification.  Two lines exist, one at 100% representing natural ability of a hypothetical autistic (red) and a blue line representing typical NT natural ability in red, compared to autistic ability, that starts above the blue for face recognition and social skills, but falls below the red line for hidden figures and classification.

Now, if the well-rounded education was based around our hypothetical autistic’s abilities, the NT would do little to improve their social skills and face recognition, areas of relative strength.  But they would spend a lot of time worrying and practicing on hidden figure and classification subjects.

Would that make sense?  The proponents of liberal arts education would say it doesn’t.

In today’s dynamic workplace, a liberal arts education is more desirable than ever before. Employers want individuals who can think logically and creatively, solve problems and adapt to change. Employers often seek people with a well-rounded education and a broad skill set, rather than those who have training in one field. (University of Idaho)

So, obviously, they would want the NT to improve their social skills above neurotypical norms.  They also would want someone who improves other areas.

It makes no sense to ignore social skills in the NT, just because they are already better than the hypothetical autistics’ social skills.  Likewise, however, it makes no sense to focus excessively on face recognition and social skills for the autistic who can also get better at classification and hidden figures.

Of course in the real world “face recognition”, “classification”, and “hidden figures” aren’t directly studied by most, plus there are plenty of NTs that are bad and good at specific things, and plenty of autistics who don’t fit the stereotype perfectly.  But for those individuals, does it make sense to ignore the strengths and only focus on weaknesses?  Of course not!

The autistic person, if they improve all areas of their ability, would have a lot of peaks and valleys compared to the well-rounded neurotypical ideal.  They might be really good at some technical area, compared to most NTs, but really lousy, again compared to most NTs, at some so-called “soft-skill.”  Is that bad?  Not necessarily.

For me, my strengths keep me employed.  I understand some key technologies used on the internet, and can utilize them to do what some people see as useful work.  I can do this in a way that my employer feels I make him more money than I cost him – I have a market value, for whatever that’s worth (in my eyes, not much – financial value of an individual is very different than their worth to human kind, as some of the most financially valuable people are among the most worthless or even costly to society in non-financial senses and vise-versa).  Of course not everyone’s strengths tie to employment, and not every autistic will have strengths in given areas compared to neurotypicals.  But even for autistics without these things, it’s still worth improving their ability to do the things they do best, not just the things they do worst.

If my teachers said, “You’re technical skills are already well above those of most computer science graduates, and you’re a high school student,” I would never have learned the skills I need for employment.  And, likewise, if I spent my time learning to recognize faces rather than becoming more technically skilled, I’d just end up with decent technical skills and still-lousy face recognition skills.  That would not have helped me – even if I was twice as good at recognizing faces as I am now, I’d still be horrible at it!  I’m never going to get a job or even personal enjoyment out of exercising great facial recognition skill.

Will every autistic be great in some technical field?  Of course not.  But not every NT is good socially, either (think about an asshole you know who is NT – assholism is not a good social skill!).  And there are plenty of unemployed NTs.  So, yes, some of us won’t ever be in a situation where we earn money.  Some of us might struggle at seemingly everything (although as the hidden figure tests showed, there may be hidden skills that have gone unrecognized in some people).  So I don’t mean or want to imply that this is the normal autistic experience.  I don’t think any of us have a “normal” experience!  But at the same time, even the person with the stereotypical autistic experience would benefit by growing in his strengths, not just his weaknesses.

Should I improve my ability to recognize my friends?  Sure, to the extent possible and realistic.  But I’m not going to worry too much about it – I don’t think I’m ever going to be great at that.  So I’ll still spend my time learning the technologies that I enjoy using and which is valuable to my employer.  Even if I’m much more pointy than round.