Wednesday, April 24, 2013

My Aspergers Story -Guest Post by Paul

Editorial Note: Today's Guest Post is brought to you by Paul, another member of my "Confessions Facebook Community" . Paul and I have never met personally, but I can tell you that he is a gentle spirit and an essential, positive part of our supportive community. He offers us insight as someone who is on the spectrum himself, as well as being a married father of two children with Aspergers, a business owner and homeschool teacher for his son. You will be touched and amazed by his story. Without further adieu...

My Aspergers story actually started back in 1971, although I wasn’t fully aware of it for most of the last 42 years.  I was one of those undiagnosed kids with whom autism rode shotgun as a silent partner throughout most of our lives, undetected by most of society and not fully realized until well into adulthood.  Had it not been for Aspergers beginning to show itself in the lives of my own kids approximately 7 years ago, I might have gone my entire life without ever knowing what Aspergers was at all.

As a child growing up undiagnosed in the 70’s and 80’s, without the benefits of early diagnosis, IEP accommodations, behavioral therapies, or the blooming awareness we enjoy today, life wasn’t always a perfect picture.  In fact, it got pretty ugly sometimes.  What I’m sure I looked like from the outside was a very socially awkward teenager with no ability to self-regulate, an explosive temper, poor executive function skills and no filter to speak of whatsoever.  What few self-taught coping skills I had seemed to center mostly around imitating the behaviors of others, and unfortunately those ‘others’ were mostly the types of people who should never be imitated at all.  I often found myself on the wrong side of those who loved me and seemed to have a knack for hurting them more than anyone else.  

I also had a way of finding myself frequently engaged with law enforcement as well, and had been arrested at least a half-dozen times by the time I was 19.  To say the least, I had some behavior challenges. Most of the years between being a teenager and young adult, when most kids are applying for college and planning for their future, I had managed to work my way into a solid 5 year federal prison sentence at a US penitentiary in southern California.  (Note: This part of my life is really a whole ‘nother blog...much too long to get into here...but if you’re a parent raising kiddos you think are maybe on a similar track...feel free to contact me anytime!  I’ve got a few good insights and am always willing to talk about it!) : )

More importantly than any of that though, as I grew into a young man with what was yet undiagnosed Aspergers, I was able to overcome those challenges and turn it all around for good.  The years between 22 and 26 were ones of tremendous change and growth for me because of some unlikely individuals that really reached outside their comfort zones and invested heavily into my life.  I didn’t deserve this help, I didn't ask for it, but they didn’t let any of that stop them anyway, and their actions became a huge catalyst for change.  I walked out of prison almost 15 years ago to the day - April 29, 1997 - and I have never looked back.  

In the years that followed I was able to get married, start a family, have two beautiful kiddos, own my own business and enjoy a successful career in landscape architecture and project management.  My kiddos, both with Aspergers, are now 10 and 11 years old.  They are the best things about me, and the reasons behind everything I do. The most recently written chapters in my life have seen me shift careers into working for a local area non-profit organization that exists solely to help special needs children and their families, take up advocating for autism services and education, and also beginning to homeschooling my own son.

Paul and his Beautiful Family
It’s easy, knowing what I do now, to look back and see the fingerprints Aspergers has left all over my life...and not all of them are bad.  Some are extraordinarily beautiful.  Truth be told, the vast majority are positive. While I recognize that things might have been very different for me had I gotten an early diagnosis or known some of the things about AS that we know today, I also don’t feel like it’s fair to place all of the blame for my early struggles squarely on having it.  Challenges, struggle, mistakes, bad decisions, not getting things we need, facing consequences...these are issues that everyone in life deals with regardless of your neurological standing  A life without Asperger’s doesn’t mean a life free of conflict or bad times. Those things will find you no matter what. More than that, I feel like Aspergers gave me the tools and strengths that I ultimately needed to help overcome many negative situations.  I consider it a blessing.  And that’s not to say it’s fun or that it’s not frustrating and maddening or enough to drive you wonky some days...because we all know it is all of those things and more, but what I am saying is that I truly feel like my life is better off from having been touched by Aspergers than I would have been by not having it at all.

Along the journey of these past 41 years, I’ve picked up many things here and there from people much smarter than myself.  They’ve sown into my life without the thoughts or hopes of anything in return, and if I could pass on even just  3 of those things closest to my heart to any parent, child, adult or other person dealing with Aspergers and autism in anyway, this is what I would say:

Serve others
Have you ever noticed that the happiest people you see are generally the ones who are doing something for someone else?  The ones who are giving selflessly and investing of themselves into the lives of others?  The ones who offer encouragement and plant seeds of hope without any expectation of receiving back anything in return?  Be that person.  Encourage others, walk beside them, and share your experiences.  I wish I was a smarter guy and could tell you exactly why this works...but the simple truth is that I can’t.  I just know that it does.  Somehow there is power in setting aside your own problems and conflicts and struggle, and turning your focus toward helping others through theirs instead.  Serving others has been something I practice with my children regularly, from homeless shelters to mowing yards for elderly folks to carrying grocery bags at a store...again, I don’t know why, but the blessing you receive in a situation like that is far greater than any you give out.  It works.

Fear is a liar
Fear will cripple and paralyze you faster than anything else. It’s relentless. It will seek to isolate you, fill you with doubt, and leave you feeling helpless.  Fear might tell you that you’re alone in your struggle.  It might tell you that everything is your fault.  It might tell you that you’re not capable of changing anything.  Fear says it’s too late; there’s nothing that can be done. Fear will tell you that people won’t understand you, that you’re alone, and it will ridicule you to no end.  Fear will make you feel embarrassed and insecure. Don’t believe it for a minute. Fear is a liar and a thief.  Surround yourself with positive people who speak truth, share experiences, and walk alongside people who support and understand you.  Learn encouragement and forget judgement.  Challenge fear at every turn; make it prove you wrong.  Find new ways, breathe new life.  Try new things and don’t be afraid to fail.  Toss the rule book.  Forget how things have always been done.  Explore options.  After all, if the fear speaking to you is right, then what have you got to lose?  When fear says ‘quit’ or ‘why even try’, that’s exactly when you should stand up and thrown in everything you have.  The fight is worth it!

Celebrate what is
Everyday.  Every little thing.  Celebrate it.  Be grateful for small things and never take them for granted.  Small things become big things.  Focus on the positives and develop those first.  Point out what a person does right, and be willing to leave alone sometimes what they do wrong.  I’m not saying ignore it, or refuse to deal with it.  We should always be committed to making progress and positive change, but I’m saying don’t wait until a certain trait, issue, challenge, struggle or anything else is perfectly resolved before you celebrate it. Any progress, any victory, and small step forward is cause for big celebration in the world of autism. Gratitude is a beautiful and powerful thing.  It can overwhelm troubles and bad attitudes like nothing I’ve ever seen.

You all in this community bless me everyday and I’m humbled to be a part of it. 

Many thanks to you all : )

I can only hope that one day my boys will be as successful and inspirational like Paul . Thank you again for sharing your story with us. You can best believe...this is one story that I will make sure my children and my husband read. ~Karen