By Karl Wittig, P.E.
Here in the U.S., people often speak of the “American Dream”. It is presented as something that we should all strive for. As an autistic, however, I have come to realize that, to me at least, much of what it represents is for the most part irrelevant. After all, so many of the things that we are told we should want are at best of no interest to me and even downright aversive. Although, truth be told, It was my good fortune to have done very well for myself, I also came to realize that my life has been defined more by my autism than just about anything else. I thus offer an alternative for our community – a different perspective that I refer to as the Autistic Dream.
In the support group for adults on the autism spectrum that I facilitate in New York City, we typically welcome a newcomer by asking them to tell the group a few things about themselves, and in particular ask them three things: their living situation (i.e., do they live independently), their employment situation, and their relationship status. These are the three areas that, as everyone in the autism community well knows, present the greatest challenges for so many of our people. At the same time, they constitute some of the most basic things that everyone needs if they hope to live a meaningful, satisfying and even happy life. I propose that, for someone on the autism spectrum, these are the basic components of the Autistic Dream.
In my own life, the Autistic Dream first manifested itself towards the end of my college career when I decided that I wanted to be financially self-sufficient and live independently. I was raised in a very tight-knit immigrant family that had always been overly protective of me, and I knew that I desperately wanted to live my own life. As an undiagnosed autistic, however, I did not realize how challenging it could be to attain these goals. It is possible that this lack of knowledge may actually have helped me – since I did not know what I was up against, I had no apprehensions about doing what needed to be done in order to get what I wanted. It also helped to have had a lot of good luck.
A prerequisite of living independently is to have a source of income; in our society, that usually means having a job. Employment of course is a major area of challenge for many autistics because of the social aspects of getting a job (i.e., interviews) and of keeping one (getting along with co-workers and bosses, internal politics, etc.) rather than any lack of ability or integrity. At the same time, many of us are not necessarily motivated by the same rewards as the vast majority of people and for which employers expect us to strive.
I was very fortunate in that I had prepared for a career that was directly tied to my lifelong special interests and abilities. When I decided that I wanted to have my own place, however, I became primarily concerned with the attainment of that goal. Consequently, I changed my academic path towards a degree program that was geared primarily for immediate employment upon completion. It was entirely a matter of luck that the job market in my field, which had been stagnant for several years, opened up shortly before my graduation. Still, in spite of my strong academic record, I have had very few job offers over the course of my career as an electronics engineer and most were in research and development laboratories – interestingly enough, an environment in which personal eccentricity was tolerated and even commonplace; consequently, my autistic issues were not nearly as much of a problem as they might have been elsewhere. Finally, I never had the desire to become a manager, which is the typical and expected career path for most professionals. Career advancement is usually considered an important part of the “American Dream”, but for me it seemed like everything that I did not want (organizational politics, constantly dealing with people, obligatory luncheons, dress requirements, etc.). I therefore made it a point to not pursue it and even actively avoided any such promotion. This was a very good career move for me indeed, as I realized some two decades later (after my diagnosis) when I learned that many autistic professionals are typically fired about six months after they become managers. Instead, I was able to have a respectable career that, while less than stellar in the conventional sense, lasted over 28 years. I was even able to “fit in” reasonably well and actually enjoy the company of many of my co-workers; it was only after my diagnosis that I understood why I had felt so much satisfaction from such a basic level of socialization. In short, I have lived the Autistic Dream of gainful employment.
As to living independently, it requires a number of basic skills that many autistics are challenged by. It is here where we often confront a world that expects such things to come very easily, especially for someone who has any kind of special ability or skill as so many of our people do. This is doubly frustrating because it means that we need to not only conquer the challenges themselves but also live up to these expectations without the benefit of any allowances or accommodations for things that may actually be much more difficult for us than anyone can appreciate. Equally frustrating is the attitude we may encounter, when we successfully meet some of these challenges and display excitement over doing so, of minimizing and even trivializing what have in fact been hard-won victories of which we are justifiably proud.
I resolved to immediately move into my own apartment the moment I became employed. I especially resented the suggestion, popular at the time and followed by many of my contemporaries, of living at home for a year or two in order to save some money; in other words, I really wanted this. Some of the most difficult things for me to learn were very basic skills such as buying my own clothes (to this day I have never understood why everybody seems to enjoy this so much). This was particularly challenging because it involved learning about both style and fit, not to mention that I have clothing sensitivity issues as do many autistics. Learning to drive a car was also a formidable challenge for me (as for numerous autistics), although living in a city with good public transportation made this less important. I nevertheless managed to overcome these challenges, at least well enough to meet my basic needs, and acquired the skills that I needed to live on my own. As to food, I have extremely severe selective eating issues (essentially, I eat like a twelve year old), which makes my life easier as I never learned to cook. Also, by not spending very much on food (even when I frequently eat out) or clothing, and by staying in the same apartment for many years, I was able to save enough money that, when my career was abruptly ended by the changing global economy, I was actually able to retire. This is in contrast with the consumerism and conspicuous consumption that are tied to the “American Dream” – it is not that I was depriving myself of the “good things” in life, it is that at the very least I had no desire for many of these things and in some cases (especially with food and clothing) I actually had aversions to them. Once again, it was only after my diagnosis that I understood why for many years I had been so proud of my simple little studio apartment in Greenwich Village and why I had felt so great a sense of accomplishment from the attainment of such basic skills. Once again, I have lived the Autistic Dream of independent living.
Finally, as to human relationships, I consider them in the broader categories of communities, friendships and, of course, romantic and sexual relationships. These probably present the greatest challenges, among our three areas, for most autistics. Autism by definition is a condition in which socialization and communication skills are impaired, and this inevitably creates difficulties where interpersonal relationships are concerned. This is especially true in our modern society, where human interactions have become exceedingly complicated. Although autism clearly affects our ability to form relationships, this does not imply – contrary to some common misconceptions – that we are not interested in such. In fact, many autistics are every bit as interested in being accepted by their communities and having friends as well as, yes, romantic and sexual partners as anyone, if not even more so (especially when one considers that so many of us have been outcasts from various communities). Yet again, however, we often experience the frustration of people not appreciating the difficulties that we face with skills that, for the overwhelming majority, are naturally and instinctively acquired and which are essential in an area that many if not most people regard as the most important part of their lives.
Over the course of many years and with the development of numerous coping skills and mechanisms, I was able to have some semblance of a social life (at least part of the time). I also had two significant if unconventional relationships – my late wife of 20 years was some 18 years older than myself and had spent 14 years as a Dominican sister in a convent, and my girlfriend of 8 years (who also subsequently passed away) was 8 years older and an independent scholar with a psychiatric disability (and very possibly an undiagnosed autistic, although I will probably never know). Most recently, the autism community has served as the first real one that I ever experienced, and it was only after my diagnosis that I came to appreciate the importance of such. Although in this whole area I quite frankly would have wanted more, I have nevertheless lived the Autistic Dream of having relationships.
In conclusion, we as autistics have our own unusual and atypical needs and wants, which are often at variance with those of the vast majority of people. At the same time, we also want some of the same things that everyone else does. If we are to live the lives that we want on our own terms, we need to stop trying to live according to the dictates, standards, desires, or wishes of others and instead be allowed and even encouraged to pursue the things that are truly important to us. Our community needs to support our efforts in this regard, so that, to the greatest extent possible, we are all able to live the Autistic Dream. Although there are still some things that I wish even for myself, and certainly many that I wish for our community as a whole, I can at the very least say that I was able to live the Autistic Dream, and for this if nothing else I can always be grateful.
An abridged print-form version of this article appeared in On The Spectrum, the publication of the Asperger Syndrome and High Functioning Autism (AHA) Association.