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.
[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.