A Spectrum as Wide as the Human Experience

color spectrum

The spectrum is very wide. Is it possible we’re all on there somewhere?

I talk a lot on this blog about the things being an autism parent has taught me. Among the most important: learning to recognize difference in others and place it into perspective.

Since autism is a spectrum disorder, the differences in those it touches are all a matter of degrees, from those lightly brushed by its touch, who may present as awkward or quirky but otherwise “normal” (for lack of a better word) to those who more severely affected, who may be non-verbal and require extreme support to communicate their thoughts and needs.

Being a parent of a child on the mild end of the spectrum has opened my eyes to the fact that lots of people who may struggle in one social area or another could probably be described as being on the spectrum.

We saw this phenomenon recently when comedian Jerry Seinfeld speculated in an interview that he might be on the spectrum. Because of his fame, those comments drew plenty of attention and some backlash, and Seinfeld reversed himself.

Because I have spent a lot of time observing my son, trying to figure out how his brain works and learn to view situations as he views them, my radar has gone up for recognizing similar traits in others. And hopefully, it has made me more tolerant of the differences I find. I used to believe that the key to helping my son navigate the world was to teach him how to blend in and act like everyone else. The more time we spent on this journey, the more I realized that was a recipe for failure. I believe strongly the key is to teach him to recognize his differences so he can mitigate challenging situations, while at the same time hoping to teach the world to bend to meet those with differences.

Another thing we have spent a lot of time doing: reinforcing to Ryan the amazing strengths that come along with his unique brain wiring. He is obsessive-compulsive. It presents challenges. But it also allows him to accomplish extraordinary things, once he sets his mind to it.

Having spent a career around professional athletes, I have seen the result of a lot of obsessive-compulsive behavior. These are people who have reached the peak of their field, and they have done so by being singularly focused and obsessed with certain goals. They practice repetition to the nth degree. Sound familiar at all?

I want to share two passages I found in some recent articles about two incredibly successful people who are at the absolute pinnacles of their profession. The first:

Many [Person A] interactions are uncomfortable. He has habits that mask his discomfort and any true introspection. He almost pathologically cloaks himself in catch phrases and quotes. … And when he’s thinking about [his profession], he detaches from the known world. You can ask him a question and he basically doesn’t hear it. … It can make [him] seem spacy or rude, but everything that isn’t [doing his job] is a distraction. It’s why he “cuts the drag” and wears the same clothes every day. It’s why some are put off by his curt and gruff style. … “I don’t think he has any empathy,” the ex-employee says. “He has no way of putting himself in someone else’s shoes. It’s a strength and weakness. He just says, ‘I’ve gotta move on with my life.'” … He buys cakes on birthdays and has a Will Hunting ability to calculate quickly how many days someone has been alive. … [He] ended his speech with a story, words for [his employees] to live by. The story began, as many do, in his childhood. [His older brother] was 10; [He] was 8. [His brother] always stuck up for [him] in fights, but one day in their yard, [his brother] pushed [him]. So [he] punched [his brother] in the stomach. [His brother] welled up, and their dad came outside.

What happened?

[He] punched me.

Why did you punch him?

‘Cause he pushed me!

Dad said to [his brother], “If you push someone, then they might punch you back. You understand?'”

Dad said to me, “Do you have something you want to say to your brother?”

I said, “Good, now he knows.”

Does any of that sound familiar? I mean, even a little bit? I mean I can’t even tell you how many scraps between my kids have ended with an interaction like that one.

Want to guess who the story is about?

His name is Jim Harbaugh, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers. (And hopefully soon to be the head coach of the University of Michigan!!!!).

I won’t bother trying to disguise the subject of the second story. It’s Nick Saban, generally believed the be the best coach in all of college football:

Most of their conversations take place precisely between 7:12 A.M. and 7:17 A.M., when Saban calls as he drives to work. But this call happened to be in the afternoon. The two men almost never discuss football—Rumsey is the rare Tuscaloosan who doesn’t know or care much about the game, which, he suspects, has something to do with why he and Saban have become friends. But given that his golf buddy had just won the national championship, Rumsey figured he ought to say a few words of congratulations. So he did, telling Saban his team had pulled off an impressive win.

“That damn game cost me a week of recruiting,” Saban grumbled into the phone.

Rumsey at first thought he’d misheard. He asked for clarification. Saban repeated himself. He just knew that while he was preparing for the title game, enduring all the banquets and media bullshit that came with it, some other coach was in the living room of one of his recruits, trying to flip the kid. The thought was making him crazy.

Rumsey pointed out that Saban and his team had just been on national television before millions of people—including, most likely, every high school recruit in the country—and reminded Saban that they had won the national championship.

“I said, ‘I’m not sure, but I think that helped you,'” Rumsey recalled. “And he said, ‘I just don’t know. Maybe. Maybe that was good.'”

And yet something about Nick Saban bothers a lot of people. The rap is that he’s grandiose and unfeeling, a robot set on “win,” that he’s a hired gun with no particular loyalty to any team or institution.

For four hours, we stand on the same golf tee with next to no interaction. I approach, he drifts away. I listen in, he stops talking. The situation is too fluid—there are too many “external factors,” Saban’s term for all the forces in the world out to trip you up—for him to feel comfortable.

“It used to upset me,” he says. “I would come and say to my wife, ‘I’m not like that at all. Why do these guys say I’m that way?’ And she would say, ‘You ever watch yourself in a press conference?’ You can blame the other guy for saying it, or you can look at yourself and say, ‘I must have contributed to this.'”

For breakfast, he eats two Little Debbie Oatmeal Creme Pies; for lunch, a salad of iceberg lettuce, turkey, and tomatoes. The regular menu, he says, saves him the time of deciding what to eat each day, and speaks to a broader tendency to habituate his behaviors. Saban comes to this system by instinct rather than by adherence to some productivity guru’s system. When I try to engage him in a discussion of the latest research on habit formation, he hits me with a look his assistants call the bug zapper, for its ability to fry all who encounter it; he has no idea what I’m talking about.

···

If you poke around Alabama for a few weeks, you’ll run into a lot of people who’ve had similarly awkward interactions with Saban—on the golf course, perhaps, or at booster banquets, where Saban often looks like a man held captive. Those close to him make excuses for the behavior. His wife, Terry, says he’s shy and introverted. His golf buddy Rumsey says Saban has a kind of tunnel vision that short-circuits social niceties.

“He’ll walk by people and they’ll think he’s rude,” Rumsey says. “He’s not an [jerk] — he never saw ‘em!”

Indeed, Saban seems so consumed by thoughts of work that he projects a kind of loneliness. The duties of a head coach crowd out relationships and spill over, sometimes literally, into his living room. John Sisson, another golf buddy, once stopped by Saban’s house to see if he wanted to play nine holes. Saban pointed to a ziggurat of boxes in the den and told him, “I’d love to, but I’ve got to sign 1,300 footballs by tomorrow afternoon.”

While Saban says he’s come to view relationships as more important than football, he’s at a loss about how he actually forms them. When I ask him how he makes friends given his obligations, he shrugs wearily.

“I don’t know.”

The role of helping Saban interact with the outside world falls to his wife, the outgoing daughter of a West Virginia coal miner who is known in Saban’s world simply as “Ms. Terry,” a down-home nickname that undersells her savvy. When it comes to her husband, she serves as both a protective gatekeeper and an all-knowing oracle.

“Oftentimes I feel like I’m an interpreter,” she tells me from her car, as she makes the five-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Lake Burton in North Georgia, to get their vacation home ready for her husband’s annual two-week break. “A friend will tell a joke and they’ll elbow me and say, ‘I don’t think he got it.’ I’ll say, ‘He thought it was funny! He did get it!’ You don’t see a lot of teeth, you misinterpret.”

The big question in Alabama, and in college football, is how long Saban will stick around. Everyone has a theory. Steven Rumsey remembers asking him once about the possibility of his leaving. Saban’s response: “Terry likes it here.”

“I remember getting my feelings hurt,” Rumsey tells me. “I thought, It’d mean the world to me, Nick, if you said, ‘I like it here.’ But after thinking about it, a practice field looks the same if you’re at Baltimore, U.S.C., Texas, Tampa. The grass is the grass, the goalposts are the goalposts, and if you work sixteen-hour days it’s all the same to you. So really when he said, ‘Terry likes it here,’ what he was saying was, ‘That’s the most important thing to me, because she’s the one who’s got to experience the life here.'”

Wherever Saban spends the final years of his coaching career, football fans—sometimes the ones pulling for Saban’s own team—will continue to puzzle over the man. Many will continue to see him as an evil genius, unknowable because he is exceedingly complex. His utterances must be parsed for their true meaning, if they have any. His gruffness is a strategy for manipulating players, the media, and university trustees. Saban, in this view, is not just a master of the game but a man with a carefully cultivated Machiavellian worldview.

But anyone searching for a grand unified theory of Nick Saban should consider another view: Saban is not a complex man but an incredibly simple one. He means what he says, though he might change his mind. His gruffness is not a façade but a form of mild social dysfunction he copes with and tries to manage. In theory he’d like to have more friends, but he wouldn’t have time for them if he did. His drive—the engine behind the process—is not something he willed into being but a kind of father-haunted compulsion that he has managed to corral and direct into a successful career. There’s no guy behind the guy, just the one you see, the one trying like hell to smile after a big win and just not quite feeling it. That’s at least in part how Saban sees himself.

“I don’t think I’m complicated at all,” he says. “I’m not political, and I’m not trying to be diplomatic. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings, and I don’t say bad things about people. There is no agenda. There’s no trying to fool somebody.

“It is,” Saban says of himself, as he does about so many other things he finds self-evident, “what it is.”

Hmm. Single-minded focus. Habitual behaviors. Awkward social interactions. An ability to hear people without engaging in non-verbal language. Again, it all sounds so familiar.

I’m not suggesting Nick Saban and Jim Harbaugh are on the autism spectrum. I am suggesting that that which makes us similar is a lot more common than that which makes us different. I’m suggesting that there is no “normal” and that people who have extremely overdeveloped skills in one area are often deficient in another — and that it’s a good thing. It’s exactly that type of neuro-diversity that has given us some of our most gifted, creative, successful, driven, (choose your own adjective) people.

We’re not yet at a place where we can lump all these difference together. Society sees a kid who takes thousands of jump shots to mold himself into a NBA player and shrugs. Society learns of a person with autism who has spent thousands of hours memorizing some expansive set of facts and reacts with awe, and probably some discomfort at that which we find different.

I am also sensitive to the resistance of those more severely affected by autism being lumped in with people who are clearly much more mildly touched by it. I’m not sure they should all carry the same diagnosis. But it’s the one we have, and it’s a spectrum for a reason.

That spectrum is as wide as all of humanity. I, for one, am thankful that I am learning to recognize how many people may fit somewhere on its vast scale.

Link: Jim Harbaugh comfortable in chaos
Link: Nick Saban: Sympathy for the Devil

A Christmas Miracle

Christmas tree

Ryan places the angel on the tree. No, he no longer needs a chair. Yes, that is his pull-up bar in the background.

‘Tis the season for giving thanks, and for celebrating miracles, no matter how minor.

We bought our Christmas tree on Saturday. We decorated it on Sunday. Both of these events came off without any major issues. Ryan took part in both, albeit at his own pace.

And perhaps most importantly, Veronica and I recognized that the key to family harmony was to let him participate at his own pace, and not insist he take part fully in an activity that didn’t really interest him.

After our experience two years ago, some of Veronica’s co-workers reminded her that Ryan’s disinterest in trimming the Christmas tree probably had little to do with his diagnosis and lot to do with him being a 12-year-old boy.

It was with that in mind that we set about decorating the tree yesterday. We let Ryan go off and do his own thing while Riley hung most of the ornaments. Veronica set aside several of the hockey-themed ones for Ryan. When it was time, she called him down and he came willingly and hung them on the tree. There was no controversy, no pleading, no complaint.

When Riley tried to claim, for about the ninth year in a row that it was her turn to place the angel atop the tree, Ryan protested. He had heard us read the note in the ornament box proclaiming 2014 to be his year.

He carefully placed it atop the tree, and we were done. It should be noted that he no longer needs a chair to reach the top. It came off havoc free, and with family harmony intact. A Christmas miracle, indeed.

A Fragile Calm

The Masked Marvels

Proof that you can find anything on the Internet: The book that inspired me to be a major-league catcher — for all of 10 minutes.

When I was maybe 10 or 11 years old, I read a book called The Masked Marvels about some of the best catchers in the history of Major League Baseball. It was one of those school-age chapter books, probably acquired from a Scholastic book sale. I still remember the cover, with a photo of Milwaukee’s Ted Simmons tagging out a runner at home plate Chicago’s Carlton Fisk preparing to receive a pitch. (ed note: My memory was faulty. I found the cover shot, above, after writing the post. But that Simmons photo was somewhere inside the book.)

I’m sure I read it two or three times. I stared at that picture of Simmons. He just looked so damned cool in the photo, with the equipment, his mask askew, dirt flying, applying the tag to a surprised runner. I remember trying to draw it in art class. I searched my baseball card collection for Simmons, taking delight in finding one of his cards.

I decided right there I would be a catcher. I had never played organized baseball, but when I signed up for Little League, I did, indeed put on “the tools of ignorance,” as catching gear has famously been called, and get behind the plate.

I loved it. I loved the view of the entire field from back there. I loved that the catcher directed all the fielders during each batted ball. Later, in high school, I loved calling pitches in sequences that set up hitters to strike out.

There was just one problem: I was not very good. Actually, that’s being charitable. I was terrible. I was a no-hit catcher with a terrible arm. Somehow, this didn’t prevent me from getting playing time, maybe because most people don’t want to get down in a crouch for two hours and get hit with foul tips.

But back when I first discovered the position, courtesy of that book, I had the answer. The chapter on Reds great Johnny Bench described in detail the routine he followed as a young player that turned him into a Hall-of-Famer. I decided all I needed to do was create and follow my own routine, and success would follow.

I was learning about computers at the time and I remember sitting at our family’s Apple II and typing up what would be my daily practice routine, then printing it out on the silver scrolls of paper that our early printer used. It prescribed all manner of squats and throws that I would complete each day.

And then I went out to practice. I remember throwing tennis balls against the garage wall and attempting to block the rebounds that came back, thinking this would be a useful skill to learn.

I lasted perhaps 10 minutes. I was bored, hot, and miserable. I went back inside. I never revisited that routine. I don’t need to point out that I didn’t become Johnny Bench.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying, I am not my son. When Ryan sets his mind to something, he goes out and does it. If he fails to achieve something, it won’t ever be from lack of effort.

The relative recent calm in our house was shattered last night, as anxiety paid a very unwelcome visit and took us back to some dark days of a few years ago.

After returning home from his school concert, Ryan retreated to the basement to watch hockey, as he does most nights. But soon he was exercising in a way that can only be described as manic. He was running up and down the stairs and turning laps around the house. He was pounding out sets of push-ups and pull-ups. He was clearly upset.

As we tried to slow him down and find out what was driving him, it all came pouring out. Hockey was frustrating him. Something about the stats was triggering a wave of uncontrollable anxiety. It made him angry. As he explained to us amid tears “you don’t know what it’s like to have your favorite thing make you so mad!”

And so he exercised, trying to follow to the letter what I’m sure was a throwaway line from a coach about a recommended daily routine.

It has been two years since we’ve seen something like this. It was ugly. It was painful. It was sad. And yet, the difference from the last time was stark. Ryan was able to express to us, in precise, measured language, exactly what he was feeling and how it made him feel, as well as what he was trying to do about it.

We tried to slow him. I grabbed him in a tight embrace to reassure him all would be OK. He struggled against me, reminding me that he is not a little kid anymore. He is a rapidly growing young man with strength he did not possess even a few months ago.

As the wave passed, we began to talk about it. We tried to help him understand that replacing one compulsive behavior with another was not likely to solve the problem. We empathized that yes, it sucks that hockey can make him this upset and no, it’s not fair.

But we did something else, too. I told him I needed him to understand something about the way his brain is wired. He is always going to tend towards the compulsive, and that can cause him difficulty. But that compulsion is also the reason he can pound out those sets of push-ups and pull-ups that he couldn’t a few months ago. It’s why he’s an honor roll student. It’s why he can do some incredible things that very few other people can do.

I told him the story about my dreams of being a catcher as a way of illustrating that I do not possess the desire and drive that he does. I pointed out that people who do extraordinary things — in any field — likely do.

Ryan laughed at my story. He loves knowing that he’s better at something than I am. It was not a cure, because this is not something that will be cured. It’s part of who he is, and we just have to mitigate the challenges it presents while also embracing the strengths it creates.

Maybe it’s that I’ve spent some time around professional athletes — people who are extraordinary in their fields — and recognized the traits of compulsion that led to those extraordinary skills. All sports fans have read about a player who makes 500 free throws a day. Jaromir Jagr is 43 years old, and keeps keys to the practice rink so he can work out at midnight. Mark Zuckerberg went on multiday coding binges. None of these things is “normal,” and yet, the results are extraordinary.

When Ryan began exercising regularly over the summer, one of his doctors warned us to be careful and watch that it did not become an obsession. I smiled, because everything Ryan does becomes somewhat of an obsession. It is who he is. It is our job to help him navigate it. Veronica and I agreed we would monitor his exercise habits and intervene if we saw it becoming a negative.

Last night, we intervened. We tried to help Ryan understand that it’s all connected, that the same reason he gets upset about hockey stats is what drives him to do some incredible things. And that it’s a trait that we sometimes wish we had.

For us, it was a reminder that he exists in a carefully structured routine that is extremely fragile. If things get even slightly out of balance, that routine can come crumbling down.

Thankfully, we have resources at our disposal to help us keep that structure intact. Veronica is reaching out to the team at school, who will work with the coach to understand that there are no throwaway suggestions with Ryan. We will ask for specific exercise (and nutrition — Ryan informed us his coach doesn’t want him eating some of his favorite foods) guidelines that he can follow without going overboard.

And we will continue to praise the hell out of him for his desire and drive.

Mitigate challenges.

Embrace differences.

Recognize — and encourage — strengths.

It is what we do.

Average People Don’t Get This Far in Life

Before he was a talking head at ESPN, Herm Edwards was a coach in the NFL. He was a successful assistant with my favorite team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, under Tony Dungy as they began to turn what had been the worst franchise in the league into a team that would eventually win Super Bowl XXXVII.

Edwards, who was famous as a player for the “Miracle at the Meadowlands,” was always good with a quote. When he became head coach of the New York Jets, the tabloids had a field day with some of his better lines, including the infamous, “you play to win the game” quip.

But my favorite Edwards speech was one he gave back in Tampa. He was firing up his guys before the start of a playoff game, and it was captured by NFL Films.

“Average people don’t get this far in life!” he shouted at his players as they nodded their heads in agreement. “None of you are average!”

For some reason, that quote always stuck with me. It was an attempt to remind his players that merely by being in the NFL, they had reached the pinnacle of their profession. Each had sacrificed and worked and studied long and hard to be there. Each had done things to separate themselves from the pack, to make themselves good enough in high school to earn a college scholarship, and good enough in college to get to the pros. It was a reminder that everyone who earns a paycheck to play a professional sport is far, far above “average.” Edwards, who made it from William and Mary to the pro ranks, knew of what he spoke.

Yesterday was a cold and windy day. The temperature was in the thirties. Yet Ryan was not deterred from going outside to work on his hockey stick-handling and shooting. He put on his winter coat, hat and gloves (and of course, flip flops and no socks) and headed to the backyard for multiple 20-minute sessions of working on various skills.

The steady click of the street-hockey ball against his stick blade drew my attention away from where I was sitting on the couch, wrapped in a blanket. Watching TV. I went to the window and watched him for a few minutes. That Herm Edwards quote popped into my head. This is what it not being average looks like:

Ryan is attacking improving at hockey the same way he attacks everything: by going all in. Keep in mind, these outdoor practice sessions came in between and among dozens of sets of push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and leg raises.

I am not suggesting that Ryan is destined for a career as a professional athlete. I’m pretty certain — as is he — that he is not. But I am suggesting that he possesses the kind of drive, desire and dedication to make him successful at something.

Ryan’s place on his school’s honor roll is a testament to those same characteristics. We have had review sheets shoved in our faces with a request to study at the crack of dawn on Saturday mornings too many times to know otherwise.

Ryan’s dedication to the things he is interested in is not average. And here’s the kicker, the part that has taken me years to learn, understand and finally embrace: His drive comes from his brain wiring.

In other words, it is because of autism and not in spite of it.

Miracles In Motion

My inbox is inundated with “Giving Tuesday” solicitations. I’m not sure when the whole concept originated, but it’s supposed to be in response to the materialistic gluttony of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Well, I sat out both of those events this year (in fairness, we would have been Black Friday participants but our family was leveled by the stomach flu that day), but I’m planning on making several charitable contributions today.

Here’s one I hope you’ll consider:

I’m wondering if your favorite moment in that video is the same as mine. Here’s a hint.

Miracles In Motion is an organization that has 160 volunteers and helps over 150 kids with disabilities every year. It has recently launched a program for veterans as well. Their goal is to create a year-round facility so that they can allowed disabled children and veterans to experience the healing powers of animal interactions year-round.

For more on this organization, you can visit its Indiegogo campaign page here. Or find them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or their Web site.

I hope you’ll consider helping out their campaign or just helping to spread the word.