After 28 years in the big apple, our family is moving to Green Bay, Wisconsin. So much for the "Without Fear" aspect to this column!
The move is precipitated by the best of reasons -- family needs (in particular, my in-laws). And while such a transition carries risks, there are several factors that would indicate a favorable outcome: (1) 65 percent of the work I do now can be done anywhere, (2) we'll pay tens of thousands less per year in rent, (3) having a backyard and a garage doesn't sound too shabby, (4) I'm trained as a diplomat, and (5) I'm one of the lucky ones who would do anything for my in-laws.
So what's my problem?
My problem is that when not at work, I'm not so diplomatic. How's the act of a loud, blunt, albeit happy, Asperger New York City personality going to play in Green Bay, Wisconsin?
Autism/Asperger's by Region
Back when I was running GRASP we tossed around the idea of a study, wherein we asked our members (the largest database in the world of adults on the spectrum) where the best and worst places to live in this country might be. We didn't end up doing the study, but we speculated, and were probably correct in assuming that our beloved, snooty Northeast was by far the best place to be, as all the progressive, original thoughts seem to start here (sorry, more generalizations coming). Los Angeles was the worst;* with its emphasis on body types, its cultural tendency towards not saying what you mean and not meaning what you say, and L.A.'s clear existence as the epicenter of Jenny McCarthy's theories (I mean . . . who wants to be pitied as "vaccine injured" all the time?).
Those assumptions were easy. The more interesting guesswork, to cite one example, told us that in some of the craziest, survivalist places like Idaho, or in various Southeastern regions; that there was actually some great "live and let live" cultural pressure, making life for our spectrum folks surprisingly easy-going. And in another example: Because of the "fix my kid" aura that sometimes surrounds wealthier communities -- as well as poorer communities' greater ability to let the small stuff roll off their backs -- we saw to our surprise that economics was rarely a deciding factor.
The Midwest was another surprise. Despite the fact that autism awareness is quite heightened there, and that there are indeed comparable services and the funds to pay for them (I, for instance, have been contracted to speak at more Midwestern conferences than Northeastern conferences) that the culture there was often not so good for spectrum adults. They are nice to an extreme in the Midwest, rather behaviorally provincial (somewhat due to the alarming racial segregation), and therefore, the Midwest is not so pluralistic when it comes to differentiating mannerisms and tones. There is a visible "standup Midwestern guy/gal" way of being that is full of nobility, strongly encouraged, makes for great families (I oughtta know)--but that lacks room for flexibility. The relative weirdo might be "tolerated," because they really do try hard to be nice out there. But as most of us know, "tolerate" doesn't cut it when compared with true acceptance.
Also, I firmly believe that "nice" is vastly overrated: "Nice," though implied as similar, is not at all the same as "good." Granted, the people trying to do the most good, that I've been privileged to know? They're not nice. In fact, they're unbearable people to hang out with. Being nice is a smart move in this world -- a very smart move. But (dramatic example coming...) ask Polish Jews from the 1930s about their non-Jewish neighbors, and they'll tell you how nice they were... until the Nazis came a'calling and thus appealed to those neighbors' real selves.
We don't show our true colors until things are shaken up a bit. And therefore, I'm comfier in atmospheres where things get shook up, as it allows me to see people for who they really are. And things don't get shaken up too much in Green Bay.
Remember... "appropriate" and "inappropriate" are not just subjective, judgmental terms. Their definitions are completely dependent on the cultural majority that employs them. In New York, for instance, a remarkable high school special education principal once challenged me, albeit with a smile: "Why should I let you train my staff?" Sensing her gutsiness, I rolled the dice . . . "Because you know that I will f _ _ k them up with love." I got the gig, the training went great, and I was asked back. But let's be serious: even I understand that an example like that will never play outside NYC (and fear not, puritans, it rarely works inside NYC, either).
The approval or disapproval of all behaviors -- autistic or not -- pass through cultural filters before they are judged. Global examples of this natural law might include countries -- China, for instance -- that put a far lower premium on socialization than we do, cultures that discourage heavy eye contact, or countries like Switzerland where behaviors are so tight, they squeak. Simply put, the weird girl in one indigenous tribe might be killed instantly, yet in another tribe, made Queen.
My drawn-out point is that the move is a big change -- one full of unknowns, and very real risks. And because we all fear the unknown, up until now I've been throwing myself a massive pity-party. And that is so wrong.
For one thing, with all the family visits I know Green Bay pretty well. Not only do I like the folks there just fine, but they seem to like me. This certainly doesn't imply full acceptance, or the absence of "outsider" status once we stop being visitors, but it's a start. And additionally? The nobility I alluded to that motivates their behavioral inflexibility... is real. They truly give of themselves to their neighbors at a greater degree than we. So if I truly respect this, than I know that there are qualities worth emulating.
Secondly, like many other adults with Asperger's, I am used to adapting -- It's an often inescapable part of our lives. Dr. Brenda Smith Myles brilliantly notes how, in the workplace, complaints resound about how much accommodation individuals with developmental disabilities might need, but that this level will never compare to the accommodations the individual is making in their attempt to fit in.
Third, I am already well-ingrained to both the interior and exterior banter surrounding Green Bay's football team. Herein I can roll.
Fourth and final, I have been focusing so much on making a painful goodbye to the greatest city in the world, when I should have just been saying "thank you."
Thank You, New York City
I came to New York for grad school, one of the luckiest undiagnosed spectrumites there ever was because wherever I'd been, I'd been loved, and my talents had always been noticed, respected or praised; often more so than they deserved.
But was I liked when I was 21? Honestly, no -- or not by many; sometimes not even by my family, whose love and respect I fortunately knew was a lot more important. So I wish I had the words to write what it feels like when this big city, that you've heard and read so much about, almost screams at you . . . "We don't just like you, we really like you." . . I'd found my home.
I lived. I was a starving playwright/director/actor, a minor-league diplomat out of the U.N. (working for crazy but beautiful veterans of WW II, Korea, Vietnam -- even the Spanish Civil War) conducting projects in places like Bosnia and Iraq, the latter where I met Kathryn. Soon after the diagnosis of Asperger's (that, had I lived in any other city, would have been delayed by years), I found my career success in the Autism/Asperger world, and I therein discovered the beatific, humbling, and horrifying fear of ever letting down those who now believed in me (how lucky are any of us to have people placing faith in our laps?). I wrote a book that luckily remains on shelves, and arguably became a big fish in a small pond. Until GRASP got too large I also enjoyed seven years as a backup classical music host at New York Public Radio, and then I had two boys so wonderful that they stripped me of any desire for individuality; and through their dreams I happily became the dad they needed, rather than the dad I originally expected to be, only to find it was no sacrifice.
I changed here. Through gratitude, and not ambition, my borderline-streetpunk childhood opened itself up to respect, but also sympathize with authority figures. Though no pacifist, I became a seeker of peace, a seasoned mediator who paradoxically still believed it imperative to have a face -- even if never used -- that could communicate to the bad guys . . . "Your only duty on God's green earth, is to get the ^%&$ out of my way."
My relentlessness was praised here, not cautioned. My being a meddler, and not a "mind your own business person" was supported, not scorned. In charge of the rights of so many at GRASP, I actually detested "my rights this/my rights that" thinking; but that was ok by New York. Only here did I learn that success wasn't always about, or dependent on being right or wrong. I learned to trust others, and not just my cut-throat instincts. And thanks to the anxiety-reducing acceptance that 8 million people seemed to bestow, misperceived "nervousness" gradually left my body, and I began listening to others, in addition to the insatiable logic inside my head.
New York also has encouraged adventurers, and so I made periodic travel away from the city a priority, whether I had the professional obligation, the money, or not. So as I began to build a life, I did so with the confidence that you could drop me in the midst of any community on the planet . . . and I'd be fine, whether that was true or not. Now a pluralist, I was liked, and saw the benefits of being liked. New York, like a good parent, gave me wings, not handcuffs.
"But with all this adaptability, don't you worry that you don't know who you really are?," a shrink once asked me. I think my retort was something stupid like, "Chameleons have souls too, dumbass" (I was in my 20s, after all, and we were on good terms). But what I wish I'd been mature enough to say back then was . . . when you have any level of autism, your natural profession isn't what the stereotypes tell you -- stocking shelves, data entry, musician, or IT genius -- It's anthropologist. You're studying the behaviors and customs of what is at first, a very weird world. The means with which you convey truth within this alien culture might be fabricated (as opposed to instinctual), but your truths -- the area where the real individuality lies -- are by no means fabricated.
Cities change too, however, and will continue to evolve just as people do. New York, for instance, is not the place where amazing but financially-broke people can come to anymore. The balance of culture, greed, and working class aura . . . isn't so balanced here anymore. The "Bang on a Can" marathon is gone, Richard Foreman hasn't created a great show in decades, I miss the dirty honesty of the old Times Square, and the new sports stadiums seem soulless by comparison. Still, others will love the new New York just as I loved the old. And the stigmas that existed when I was 21 years old are mostly gone.
Thank you big waves at Long Beach, fellow travel baseball coaches, culture, 4:00 a.m. sushi, and tight-knit travel hockey families. Thank you for the near-total absence of ideological controversy: No idea was verboten in New York; yet no idea went unchallenged either.
Hello Green Bay, Wisconsin; where I take comfort from our shared, indisputable desire to do what's right. Change me! I'm not afraid.
* Ironically, if you have a more-challenged child/adult with autism, the services in Los Angeles are quite good.
Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, and the author of "Asperger's From the Inside-Out" (Penguin/Perigee), "The Last Memoir of Asperger Syndrome" (TBD), and numerous articles. In 2000, he and one of his two sons were diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. More information can be found at www.michaeljohncarley.com