About this new column Carley writes, “Being (1) a brash New Yorker, (2) a blunt person with autism/Asperger’s, and (3) a non-drinker, has made for an interesting move to Green Bay, Wisconsin. It’s time for me to start telling their stories, even if it’s through the context of educating me.” To subscribe to his columns, or to suggest story ideas for this particular column, please see the information on Michael John at the end of today’s story.
by Michael John Carley
Scott wants to use this picture.
“But you smile so much,” I say, “and you’re not smiling here...”
Still, Scott is sold on this pic. The image conveys an apparent dignity that, I think, Scott was shooting for in his pose. In his mind, he nailed it.
We have finished a coffee together at the Attic, off Monroe Street. It was the first time I’d seen Scott since a 2014 book reading I gave at the Reader’s Loft Bookstore, soon after I arrived in Wisconsin. And because of that event, Scott’s natural gregariousness was no surprise. During the Q&A that followed my reading, I watched how he summoned the words he wanted for the question he was to put to me. He first bent his head down a little, swirled it side to side slightly as he started to speak, and as his excitement grew; and only when he had found the perfect words to finish the question did he raise his chin to make eye contact with me. I don’t remember his question, but I remember the passion, the satisfied smile, and that of all the queries that night, his felt the most urgent.
Today I get to ask about him.
To start, Scott states “I’m not as social as people think I am.” We take sips. He shares that he likes quiet. I then share that I can handle any amount of socializing that I need to get through, but that I need relative or corresponding chill-out time afterwards. I ask if he’s the same way; and he says yes. Scott is also another Green Bay-area, late diagnosis. He finally got answers only six years ago, at age 38.
Throughout his whole life everyone knew something was up, but no one gave it positive context. Like many of us, he had an early childhood speech delay. Sensory issues also plagued him back then: lights, crowded hallways—but especially sounds. Even the sound of the school drinking fountain was a source of high anxiety. And like me, he also had motor skills issues as a child (we laugh when I tell him that I was once told, “You don’t even know how to run, do you!”).
But Scott had good supports. He couldn’t t recall any horrible experiences at his childhood schools in Neenah, and he always felt his family was behind him. His father was (what in the old days they called) a pressman, who printed labels, signs…etc. and Scott’s mother worked in a deli. But they knew their kid was in need, was not to be belittled, and they responded in a calm manner to the symptoms.
Good parents of spectrum kids, it can be noted, make sure that their offspring are exposed to areas outside their comfort zone. But great parents of spectrum kids take their children outside their (the grownups’) comfort zones. Scott had such parents, and was taken to plays, symphony concerts, etc… And even though Scott needed to stop every 30 minutes, they also went on road trips, so that Scott and his protective big brother (Ryan, now 47) would know there was a world outside.
Yet despite a childhood reading ability (and passion) to consume whole subjects, including a particular fascination with structural engineering, Scott never wanted anything to do with college. (A) “The math (needed for college engineering) killed me;” and (B) he wanted to work.
But on the job, his sensory challenges would overwhelm him. He couldn’t take breaks because nobody else was getting breaks, and so the overload only got worse…until an inevitable outburst all but assured that he was fired.
21 jobs in 29 years was more than enough to have him question whether or not he had a right to feel dignity.
Which brings us to the job he has now…
For the past 17 months, Scott has been working, first as an overnight prep person, and then as a dishwasher at the Graystone Ale House. He says they treat him very differently there, and he described his new bosses in such glorious terms that I got very suspicious.
Why am I suspicious?
Well, the level of accommodation they seem to be granting Scott, while frequently seen on the coasts, represents an employer/employee dichotomy that I just haven’t seen very often in my 3 years here. So I ask him if he’s getting paid the same as his neurotypical colleagues.
“More. Because I do extra stuff based on what I learned on the overnight shift.”
I then play my trump card, hoping to make him see that he could be treated better…What happens when he needs a break?
“They let me take a break.”
Lee Hoople, 34, is Scott’s Manager at Graystone. We chit chat, but I’m dying to get to the first question: “Do you pay Scott the same as his colleagues?”
No; Lee Hoople doesn’t have a brother on the autism spectrum, nor does he wish to anoint himself as the face of benevolence itself, if not God’s gift to autistic people. Long ago, he’d had some exposure to folks with developmental disabilities, but nothing out of the ordinary that would justify how he handles Scott. In explaining the pay issue, he echoes Scott’s explanation. Scott had spent some time on an overnight shift getting things ready for the day, and thanks to that experience, he produces more, and this justifies the extra wage.
But why does Lee allow breaks, whereas most other employers don’t? Usually, managers worry about co-worker resentment, or the unequal tone it sets when accommodations are granted.
“Scott disclosed his autism pretty quickly, but getting to know him is what made me comfortable. He also clearly communicated his need for breaks.”
In other words, communication, and solutions, were a two-way street. Scott Hacker had made his own breaks, rather than just waiting for others to do the right or lawful thing.
For his part, Lee just needed to see that giving Scott breaks would indeed work. They did. Maybe without knowing it, both adhered to what most experts in the employment field agree is the healthiest (and most compliant) way to go about requesting, and in turn, handling requests...for accommodations.
Lee Hoople admits that co-worker resentment has it’s challenges. But what he and Graystone are also doing (in addition to honoring the federally-mandated Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA}) is to teach Scott’s colleagues about what an accommodation is. Hoople recalled one employee in particular who lamented, “What the…Why does (Scott) get to leave?” and Lee, having long secured Scott’s permission to speak on his behalf, sat the employee down to explain that Scott gets overwhelmed.
“Half the staff doesn’t even know that Scott has autism,” Hoople says. After all, speech is not one of Scott’s challenges. He can, as we say, “pass.” But what helps, Lee adds, is simply that, “The people here love Scott.”
I ask: “Outside of work, do you all (Scott, other co-workers) have anything in common? “
“Oh yeah. Beer!”
I shake my head (freakin’ sconnies…).
In my last question to Hoople, I ask him why he thinks is it so hard for other Managers to succeed like he has with a spectrum employee. Co-worker resentment, I tell him, is the first excuse you’ll hear most Managers use.
He shrugs his shoulders, but he also looks at me like I’m overthinking it.
“Maybe it means (co-workers) need to be managed?” he says, adding emphasis on the last word. “That’s all. That’s kinda my job.”
Michael John Carley is the Founder of GRASP, a School Consultant, Peer Mentor, and the author of “Asperger’s From the Inside-Out” (Penguin/Perigee 2008), “Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum,” (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2016), and the upcoming “’The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum…and Beyond!” He also writes the more national Huffington Post column, “Autism Without Fear.” For more information on Michael John, you can go to www.michaeljohncarley.com. To subscribe to his columns and newsletter, or to suggest stories within the Green Bay area, please click here, fill out the contact form, and check off the box at the bottom that reads, “Yes. Please include me on the event mailing list.”