A Tribute to Junk Food

Published: Sweet Tooth Nothings (September 25, 2016), The Good Men Project (September 27, 2016)

Yes, you read that correctly. This is a sincere tribute to junk food, as written for the blog of a certifiable health nut (looking at you, Ariel).

I offer this without apology and only a modicum of regret. The regret, of course, is for the years of life I have irretrievably lost due to the damage these years of excess have left on my body. If I don’t improve my habits, even more will be lost in the future. This is the dark cloud that hangs over the head of every junk food aficionado.

At the same time, there are genuine pleasures to be had from eating unhealthy foods. This is true for all of the poisons we put in our bodies – the alcohol we drink, the plants we smoke, anything we somehow ingested your carelessness. Yes, our culture ostensibly encourages healthy lifestyles, and as a result we are trained to feel shame when we indulge in vices that harm our bodies…. But does that mean we should necessarily feel compelled to do so?

I’d argue that indulging in an unhealthy junk food habit is a complicated decision, part idealistic and part pragmatic. We enjoy the tastes of our favorite cuisines – I’m personally a salty guy myself, and am fortunate in being less inclined toward sweets – and decide that life would be too bland without their presence. Similarly, we recognize that our bodies have grown accustomed to these unhealthy habits and that breaking them would be more trouble than it’s worth. There is a reason why 95 percent of people who lose a significant amount of weight gain it back within five years. It can absolutely be done, but it’s obviously a struggle, and realistically speaking that will impact its rank amongst one’s priorities.

This is not me urging fat acceptance, so to speak, as it is fat realism. If we’re going to struggle with our weight and with our vices, why not at least enjoy the flavors of our favorite junk foods while we indulge? And while we should always strive to get healthy, why hate ourselves in the now?

If the people who care about us want to help, the best thing they can do is give us advice when we ask them questions. Transitioning into any new lifestyle requires a great deal of learning, so it is always important to have supportive and positive influences as you prepare for this major change.

Why I Write

Published: The Good Men Project (July 21, 2016)

I feel like answering a question I’m often asked about one type of article I like to write… in no small part because I am myself curious about the answer.

It’s been more than three years since I first started writing about my experiences as someone with Asperger’s Syndrome. The idea first came to me after it was reported that Adam Lanza, the mass shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School, was himself high-functioning autistic (another term for Asperger’s). At the time, I decided to go public with my stories because I wanted to demystify the condition and establish that Lanza alone was responsible for his actions.

What I gradually discovered, though, was that an audience exists in our culture for a certain type of literary navel-gazing. There seems to be the growing realization that the best way to achieve knowledge about and connect with others is to understand ourselves. As we do that, we begin to realize that the things we believed made us ineluctably different were actually shared by a whole world of people. Sharing a part of ourselves with the world is one way, however slight, of increasing our collective capacity for empathy and insight into the human condition.

It is also immensely gratifying. More and more, I find myself using certain article topics as a form of therapy. There kind of cohesive analysis required to adequately discuss what it’s like dating with autism, or constantly damaging relationships because of social rules you don’t understand. You have to boil down years and years of stories into a few general patterns and themes, which can be enormously cathartic provided your mindset is sufficiently detached.

The only danger in this approach, I’ve found, is that it’s dangerous to be careless when using it. I often worry that problems which I discuss with focusing and driving may be viewed as embarrassing. Certainly I’ve unintentionally embarrassed other people, particularly in articles where I focus with too much detail on one particular story, which can come across as petty. There are articles that I regret writing because I know that they came across in this one and hurt people I didn’t intend to.

That said, my personal articles have more than paid off for me in one very important way: Through these pieces, I have developed friendships with dozens of people who were kind enough to reach out after reading something I wrote. Roger Ebert once referred to friends made in this way as “far flung correspondents,” and I couldn’t think of a better term for them. While it’s unlikely I’ll meet more than a handful of these friends face-to-face, I treasure my relationships with them no less.

These connections are also of inestimable value to my writing. While I usually focus on my own stories (I only name or photograph other people in my article when given expressed permission), I often draw larger conclusions about the common themes of HFA experience because of what readers have told me they’ve been through. This symbiotic relationship between the content I write and those who read it is healthy for everyone involved. It allows for a very unique kind of discussion to develop, one that I feel privileged to play a part in.

 

Chief & I

Published: The Good Men Project (July 19, 2016)

The following article was first written on my personal blog more than six years ago. Upon rediscovering it, I knew I had to publish it here.

If there was ever a moment when I wished I had a camera, it was last Friday, when I found myself emotionally bonding with an unkempt bovine named Chief at the Turtleback Zoo in Livingston, NJ.

My affinity for animals has caused some of my friends to express surprise. One saw fit to comment on my tendency to put pictures of interesting critters on my Facebook profile; others have marveled at the trivia I can spout off on zoological specimens from canines and bears to elephants and pangolins. On those occasions when someone inquires as to the origin of my interest, I find myself in an uncommon position – i.e, one in which I have no idea what to say.

What I do know is that, when I reached my arm into that pen and saw Chief – a massive, unkempt, black-and-white bovine – shamble up to me, a tiny part of my soul giggled with joy. When he tentatively leaned his massive mug against my hand, and had his eyes loll to one side as I scratched him on just the right spot of his chin, I felt an unmitigated joy that exists without parallel elsewhere in my life. The copious quantities of drool that poured onto my sweater and the scratchy feeling of his tongue against my arm were not merely rendered acceptable, but made all the more worth it from the experience. The fact that logical explanations eluded me then – and still elude me now – was irrelevant. I was happy.

Perhaps, despite my earlier reservations about offering an explanation for my feelings, one can be found in this anecdote from a biography of Senator Daniel Webster. Although the political views of the legendary orator were in many respects vastly different from my own, we certainly would have seen eye-to-eye on the unique pleasures to be had in relating to the animal kingdom.

A friend who was often with him tells how he enjoyed his cattle, and how, on one occasion, after each animal was secured in his place, Mr. Webster amused himself by feeding them with ears of corn from an unhusked pile lying on the barn floor. As his son was trying to keep warm by playing with the dog, he said:

“You do not seem, my son, to take much interest in this; but, for my part” (and here he broke an ear and fed the pieces to the oxen on his right and left, and watched them as they crunched it), “I like it. I would rather be here than in the Senate,” adding, with a smile which showed all his white teeth, “I think it better company.”

The Ableism of Non-Autistics

Published: The Good Men Project (July 12, 2016)

Wouldn’t it be great if everyone had a handicapped parking space?

Obviously this can’t happen – the whole point of handicapped spaces is that they provide the physically disabled with closer proximity to buildings than the physically abled – but an equivalent is possible when it comes to social interactions. To understand what I mean, though, it is first necessary to explain a form of ableism with which high-functioning autistics (HFAs) are confronted every single day.

I’m referring to how, when you are an HFA, friends and other associates will often discontinue their relationships with you without ever explaining why.

This has happened to me more times than I can count. Most recently I lost my best friend when, after I apologized over what I’d believed was a simple disagreement, he stopped talking to me without explaining why (and despite repeated requests on my part that he do so). This was even more hurtful  because he has known for years that I have autism, and I made it clear that I didn’t know why he was upset with me for that reason – but he simply didn’t respond.

Like I said, though, this is only the most recent example, and at least there had been a minor disagreement (or what I perceived to be minor) that precipitated it. When a friend I had known since middle school froze me out, it had come out of nowhere; the same is true for a fashion blogger with whom I had often collaborated. “I can safely say there is nothing more infuriating than me misreading a cue, this causing a large problem, and then being left for dead – radio static, nothing,” explains my friend Josh, who is also an HFA and one of the most brilliant men I know (he is currently an undergraduate studying physics). “It’s happened enough times between friends and significant others to warrant a small novel. The problem is, neurotypicals (like any other advantaged group) approach these social playing fields as if everyone is on the same level.”

Josh isn’t the only HFA I know who has complained about this; indeed, being arbitrarily dropped is BY FAR the number one complaint I’ve heard from fellow HFAs since I began discussing these issues as a public figure. It is also, by far, the concern that neurotypicals are most likely to dismiss when it is brought to their attention. Three reasons are usually given for that dismissal. The first (and most despicable) is that this is simply a part of life and HFAs simply need to get used to it – a statement that belies privilege if there ever was one.

Then there are the people who claim that, while the neurotypicals who do this to HFAs are wrong, we need to understand that it’s because explaining why they want to discontinue an association makes them “uncomfortable.” The flawed reasoning here is that they say this as if it ends the conversation. What they’re ignoring is that systems of privilege are usually supported by the discomfort that dismantling them would cause the privileged (think how often people who use racial slurs complain that they don’t want to police their speech). Because people who can’t read nonverbal social cues are at a disadvantage, not verbalizing why you’re distressed with them is ableist and abusive – regardless of whether you intend for it to be that way. Your discomfort at the thought of accommodating HFAs isn’t where the conversation ends; it’s where it begins.

This point is to important that it bears repeating. It doesn’t matter how many yellow ribbons you wear or how much change you drop into those little charity containers for autistics at your local supermarket. If you are unwilling to show the most basic kindness in your interpersonal relationships with an autistic person, then you areabusing your ableist privilege. That doesn’t mean you have to maintain association with an autistic person if you don’t want to, but unless you have sound reason to feel threatened by that individual (and I’m talking extreme situations here), it is ableism to freeze out someone who is neurologically incapable of understanding why. Just as I’ve lost count of how many times this has happened to me, so too have I lost track of how many HFAs have discussed how traumatizing it has been when this repeatedly happens to them.

This brings me to the third point I usually hear from neurotypicals when I bring this up – namely, that everyone gets frozen out. While I don’t doubt that this is true, there is a traumatizing aspect to the experience for those who are socially disabled that the socially abled simply cannot comprehend. Of course, that doesn’t make it okay when it happens to neurotypicals… and so I return to my earlier parking space analogy. Although we can’t live in a society where everyone gets a handicapped parking space, we can live in one where every individual is accountable for their social decisions. Indeed, because high-functioning autism often isn’t self-evident, perhaps it would be better if each person erred on the side of caution and simply treated each other… Well, like human beings.

Then again, perhaps the notion of actually applying The Golden Rule to every man, woman, and child is too radical even for an article like this one. At the very least, though, if you know someone who is on the autism spectrum, learn that freezing them out is no better than parking in a handicapped space.

How someone with autism views all your ridiculous dating habits

Published: Fusion (June 7, 2016)

As someone with autism, I’ve often wondered if there’s anything I can do to make neurotypicals, the name for you folks in the non-autistic community, less unpredictable to myself. I pose this question not as an attack or criticism. It’s just that those of us with high-functioning autism—or Asperger’s Syndrome in my case—struggle every day with your seemingly illogical behavior.

For me, this question applies to every realm of socialization, but for the sake of brevity (and this piece) I’ve chosen to focus on dating because it forces me to be at my most emotionally intimate and vulnerable. Based on my own experiences dating neurotypical women and writing about dating with Asperger’s, I believe there’s still a lot of understanding to explore—but first we need to identify the underlying reason for the mismatch in emotion and expectation.

Let’s start with how people with autism approach the concept of honesty, which has frequently gotten me into trouble. Although neurotypicals claim to value honesty, when I actually am, they tend to be put off by my excessive candor. The instinct of someone with autism is to bluntly state his or her full thoughts and opinions. Feelings tend to get hurt, unspoken rules of propriety are violated, and in general, even if the intentions are no longer romantic, it’s still possible to come off as a total clod.

For this piece, I interviewed several women I had dated (with varying degrees of seriousness) about the ways I have offended them. At least, the ones who answered my emails. One, who I invited to a wedding long after we’d stopped seeing each other but remained friendly, recalled being “a little caught off guard by the invite to be a backup plus-one.” She explained to me that “women typically prefer to not be a backup plan or a plan B. It’s a silly pride thing, I guess.” This made no sense, but I knew I may have inadvertently rubbed her the wrong way.

On another occasion, when I tried to commiserate with a woman I casually dated last winter about our mutual weight gain concerns, she scolded me by saying, “A tip on female sensitivity: You never highlight your female friends weight issues until brought up by them.” It made me feel like I just couldn’t win. As for dating me, she wrote, “You are very picky. Direct, to the point that you can come across as rude and inconsiderate.”

What neurotypicals subconsciously deduce, Aspies can only pick up through direct verbal communication.

The neurotypical’s aversion to being direct can be incredibly confusing for those with autism. For instance, when a potential or past romantic partner doesn’t respond to emails, someone with autism will logically, unless they are given a specific reason, assume the silence can mean anything—from hostility to forgetfulness. What neurotypicals subconsciously deduce, Aspies can only pick up through direct verbal communication; without it, we’re left with nothing but the full range of plausible explanations.

One benefit to having autism is that I’m not easily embarrassed. For example, in one of my first relationships, my then-girlfriend and I were ridiculed by a Facebook group for our frequent PDA. She was mortified, while I was simply surprised that other people in our small liberal arts college even cared. Similarly, a woman I dated back in 2014 once had to pull me aside to explain why others were annoyed by my habit of talking at length about the history of health care reform in America. This was at the height of the Obamacare controversy, and I hadn’t realized the topic was verboten because as an Aspie, fixating on topics you’re passionate about is not onlyhardwired into your brain, but one of the tastiest spices you can add to any conversation. For neurotypicals, though, it can become a nuisance, particularly when the topics can easily offend others…like politics, Obama, or health care in America.

You may have noticed there is a common theme tying all these examples together. Namely, it’s that neurotypical behavior is rooted in a reliance on a set of unspoken rules about “the way things are supposed to be.” My life would be much easier, however, if the rules of one social situation—say, dating and relationships—were the same across the board. And if each party was as honest and open as possible with their opinions, feelings, and intentions. Imagine a world where if something was said, it was meant literally and without subtext.

Instead, most people live by complex set of guidelines that determine everything from how to communicate what one wants out of a relationship to when he or she feels offended. Because these rules have never been formally adopted, however, each individual winds up settling on the ones that make the most sense based on his or her past experiences and perceived self-interest. The final result, while undeniably exciting, is also excruciatingly chaotic.

I’m currently seeing a beautiful, smart, and (luckily for me) extremely patient and open woman—who also happens to be a neurotypical. As she has pointed out, “the gift of dating with autism” is that “you understand clear boundaries and can follow them.”

For neurotypicals, boundaries are fluid and the methods for communicating them are ambiguous at best. Perhaps in the future neurotypicals will learn how to behave in more consistent and predictable ways, just as people on the spectrum will hopefully develop tools for overcoming their social impairment. Until that day arrives, though, each side will simply have to try its best to empathize with the other. After all, none of us chose to be who we are. We were all born this way.

Laptop Love Letter

Published: The Good Men Project (April 21, 2016)

When I was a child, I had a stuffed bear named (appropriately) Mr. Bear. He went wherever I did, and whenever he was damaged or lost, I’d feel devastated. It is normal for children to anthropomorphize inanimate objects – particularly stuffed animals – because, even if on a subconscious level we know better, there is nevertheless unshakable sense that they are truly alive.

This brings me to Croc, my laptop computer.

I don’t think I’ve ever owned a single computer longer than Croc. When I first purchased the Lenovo Thinkpad in 2012, I couldn’t have imagined the memories we would soon share. I had just started my PhD program studying history at Lehigh University, moved into a new house in a new city, and was preparing for the next phase of my adult life.

Then my writing career took off. I had always dreamed of being a professional writer, but right around the time that Croc entered my life, that ambition was realized in ways I had never imagined. More than four years later, I have had 571 articles published, the vast majority of which were composed on this machine. It has been used to inspire me, conduct research for me, and present me with my moments of triumph after a new piece has been published.

Croc has also played a key role in my social life. It has helped me maintain old friendship and start new ones, develop meaningful connections with far-flung correspondents who enjoy my articles, and plug me into a world far beyond the confines of the small Pennsylvania city where I live. Thanks to online dating, it has also allowed me to pursue a romantic life – from serious relationships to casual encounters – that may not have been otherwise possible for a socially awkward Aspie. Finally, it has been a place for escape when the pressures of my professional and personal lives become too great. One of my favorite pastimes has been to turn on Croc, settle down with a movie or TV series, and retreat into a completely new world.

Yet as you can see in the picture that adorns this article, Croc is huffing and puffing through his final days. The screen is falling apart, the keyboard is maddeningly sticky, and the whole device in general gives off an aura of decrepitude. For a while I’ve been in denial about this reality, but practical considerations can only be suppressed for so long. It is time to say goodbye to Croc… even if that little inner child is still clinging to him.

As a parting thought for a computer that I have loved for so long, I will share the story of how he got his name. When I first opened Croc, I had never used a touch pad instead of a mouse, and was amused at the scaly sensation beneath my fingertips. It reminded me of crocodile scales – and then, when I happened to watch an online review for a movie named “Croc,” I knew that this moniker was its destiny.

You will be missed, sweet Croc. Indeed, I can’t fathom how I could ever forget you.

Why I Write About Asperger’s Syndrome

Published: The Good Men Project (March 24, 2016)

When my first article was picked up by Mic in February 2012, I thought that my dream of becoming a political columnist had finally started to come true. I wasn’t wrong, but I never anticipated one turn that my career was destined to take. Although I still love writing editorials on political and social issues, I also find that more and more often I discuss Asperger’s Syndrome – a condition that I have had for as long as I can remember.

I write about being a high-functioning autistic (HFA) for three reasons:

  1. The only way our situation can improve is if we insist that it become part of the larger conversation about human rights.

Based on my own experiences and what I’ve heard from other HFAs, it’s pretty clear that the biggest challenge facing people with Asperger’s Syndrome is that so few people are aware of our struggles. When you are born with an inability to effectively read social situations, when your mind is wired to process information and emotions and to execute tasks in a fundamentally different way from most other people, you are bound to face misunderstanding, intolerance, and discrimination your entire life. If we want this to stop, our only option is to make sure that the rest of the world knows what we’re experiencing and what they are doing to us.

  1. The brain is the final frontier of human knowledge.

When I was a child, my neurologist once told my parents that “what we know about the human brain can fit on the head of a pin.” Although cognitive sciences have made enormous strides since the late 1980s, there is still much progress to be made, and one of the best ways to advance our body of knowledge is for everyone with an atypical neurology to shed light on their experiences. Even if the people doing this are only contributing to lay literature instead of formal medical or scientific journals, their words can still be picked up by scholars and used to yield insights about the human condition.

  1. It has been cathartic for me.

Most writers are familiar with the axiom that we often write best when we turn inward instead of looking outward. If the popular reaction to my articles on Asperger’s are any indication, this is still very much the case, but what I never anticipated was how much I grew as a person in the process. By analyzing my struggles in such a public forum, I made peace with aspects of my life that had tormented me for years. Similarly, by receiving such positive feedback from other autistic individuals throughout the world, I realized that I wasn’t alone, and was able to let their words help me as much as mine (hopefully) assisted them.

There isn’t much more for me to add right now. I never expected to find myself performing self-vivisections for the world on a regular basis, but I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. Even if I wanted to, I don’t think I could… or should. Now is as good a time as any to explain why.

Being a PhD Student with Asperger’s Syndrome

Published: The Good Men Project (March 12, 2016)

Without question, pursuing a PhD in history was one of the best decisions of my life. Not only has it opened doors in my writing career – which, professionally speaking, is my one true love – but it has allowed me to interact with some of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met. The conversations that we have had both within and outside of the classroom have challenged my assumptions and enriched my mind, while the hundreds of books and articles that I’ve read have informed my perspective as a political columnist in ways that would have never been possible otherwise.

Most important of all, though, it has been an overwhelmingly positive environment for a person with high-functioning autism (colloquially known as Asperger’s Syndrome). In most lines of work, fixated interests on intellectualized subjects are perceived as at best frivolously enjoyable and at worst downright annoying; academia, however, demands the kind of intensely cerebral passion that comes as naturally to me as breathing. Similarly, although most autistic people struggle in social situations because they are viewed as “weird,” idiosyncrasies are cherished rather than marginalized within academic environments.

That said, there is one enormous way in which academia is brutally – albeit unintentionally – unfair to autistic people. By way of explanation, I turn to aspergersyndrome.org, which points out that students on the autism spectrum “are often off task, distracted by internal stimuli; are very disorganized; have difficulty sustaining focus on classroom activities… tend to withdraw into complex inner worlds in a manner much more intense than is typical of daydreaming and have difficulty learning in a group situation.” Among other things, this manifests itself in “poor concentration, slow clerical speed and severe disorganization.”

Although that piece focused on autistic children, it is especially relevant to autistic PhD students. Despite earning a 3.9 in my Masters program at Rutgers University and a 3.8 in my PhD coursework at Lehigh University, I have never once taken notes while reading a text or listening to a lecture. Even though I absorb all of the information and analyze it with ease, the ordeal of stopping my train of thought to jot down notes is nothing short of excruciating. One analogy that I have often used is that it’s like listening to a piece of music but stopping it every three seconds for observations. Some people may enjoy that, but for me the constant breaks are unsustainably disruptive.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like our modern academic system has any effective way of accommodating individuals with this particular disability. My professors, though sympathetic, don’t seem to know how exactly I can be helped, and now that I’ve reached the point where I need to take my comprehensive exams – a series of tests that require me to deconstruct hundreds of books, many of which I’ve already read but have no record of aside from my own memories – I find myself quite unsure of how to proceed. It’s easy enough to reread all of the books that I was once assigned, and because I’ve always done well in my classes I haven’t struggled with recalling important details or grasping necessary themes. Nevertheless, I cannot simply break thirty-one years of hardwired neurological impairment and start jotting down the notes that the system insists I produce. Try as I might, it seems that I have hit a wall which I cannot break through.

I wish that I could close this article on a hopeful note, but the truth is that I don’t as yet have any answers. All I know for sure is that, whenever I write about the predicaments which I endure as an autistic person, I almost always receive dozens of emails and comments from other autistic individuals. They commiserate with me about their similar experiences, offer advice on how to effectively handle my own problems (which I very much need right now), and reward me with the inestimable pleasure of their companionship. Since I haven’t broached this specific aspect of my autistic life in the past, I felt now was as good a time as any to bring it up. With any luck, someone somewhere will benefit from it.