Dan Gross blog #1 - A Reflection on Lessons Learned

The unemployment rate of people with autism spectrum disorder approaches 90 percent, and the weight of such a number is heavy with dire meaning; especially for me, as I have autism myself. There seems no point in trying to spin it into cheery pseudo-stats, or a falsely-motivational pep talk, the kind most people cast right out of their ears.

I graduated from the University of Connecticut with a BA in Communications (and a lot of short videos I made for on-campus clubs and organizations), and then from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts with an MFA. I guess some could say I have reason to feel special because of that, (the good kind of “special”), considering only 35 percent of kids on the autism spectrum go to college.

Since my graduation over two years ago, I have made Herculean efforts to try to earn a living as a film/video editor around the country, with minimal success. I used to feel akin to a human pinball, constantly bouncing off rails with irrational energy, racking up occasional impressive points out of dumb luck, only to end up in a free fall beyond the flippers every time, in need of someone to launch me back up again (much like my experiences with online dating, but that’s a whole other story). To me, this pinball machine often represents the film/video industry, and I am just one of its wide-eyed players, always in danger of losing the quarters that fuel such madness.

I am highly aware of the “basement baby” stereotype of someone on the autism spectrum, the kind of person who seems perpetually content with never venturing far from of the town they call home, never craving new experiences or hard won achievements, seldom meeting new friends or prospective life partners, or even being aware of the lack of any of the accoutrements of the social universe. I wouldn’t know how many of you can relate to that stereotype, or know someone who does, but I believe all people, whether born on the spectrum or not, live that way at one time or another.

Autistic people are predisposed to this way of thinking and living, and until the age of eighteen I was no exception. I know I could get inspirational now and say it’s this “phase” which helped me learn to love movies, reading, and writing…but truthfully, I still have a deep embarrassment and occasional regret towards the way I often lived as a child, which is arguably why I now crave and even “hoard” the new life lessons I seek. One could say I’m going “against type” to crave the novel, to seek all passionate things untried, and to make energetic attempts to avoid falling into ruts…I’ve arguably been doing that ever since I was convinced by my mom (and several high school teachers) to make my first ever short documentary about my first-ever faraway field trip to Washington D.C., and I haven’t given up filmmaking ever since.

One question worth pondering is this: How can autistic people figure out the lessons they need to learn, that typically developing people simply intuit? I think being “humbled by life” usually does it, as necessity seems to be the mother of invention; going through emotional reckonings that parents, including mine, would do anything to save their children from; my parents are overprotective and so I managed to avoid many such reckonings throughout most of my childhood and college experiences, most of my part-time working experiences accrued through my schooling and family connections, and even through most of my film school experience (except for all things concerning my first major unrequited love affair, but, again, that’s a different story). I believe I successfully avoided these reckonings because I never had much vulnerability or life potential at stake; I simply took comfort in knowing I was learning to believe in myself and develop my own raw talent. (Many people born onto the autism spectrum are gifted visually, and fortunately I’m no exception!)

I’ve since figured out that in the “real world,” most employers simply don’t care how experienced someone is with adversity, competition or failure in getting, or keeping, a job. After all, employers don’t get paid to care about that fact, regardless of when and where they become informed of someone’s autism. Personally, I never made an exclamation mark of my autism with current or prospective employers thus far (even though I have sometimes been encouraged to); I personally find it contradictory to profess industry knowledge and confidence while also trying to explain personal idiosyncrasies and vulnerabilities, and possibly overestimating how obvious they are.

This has not stopped me from kicking myself after the majority of the fifteen job interviews I went on this past year, and I often cursed the sometimes-obvious defects with my speech and body language that can be tough to control when the pressure is on (i.e., my unpredictably-spiking volume, hard-to-maintain eye contact, occasional disfluency, etc.)

It is often impossible to figure out how to learn from social mistakes made in such a process, especially if no one can or will state what the supposedly obvious mistakes are; it seems, in the end, that the only factor one can reasonably blame is autism, and the harshness of an impersonal and preoccupied world that too often flinches away from it. The advice my Irish mother often espouses, “if a person can’t accept you for who you are and what you do, for better or for worse, you’re not meant to know that person,” can only be consoling to a point.

I suppose the big question that faces me now, along with most of us on the autism spectrum, is this: In a world that rewards confidence accrued through measurable achievement, how can that confidence and achievement be earned in a steady way, by people with the most vulnerable and misunderstood of differences? I suppose it is the same way a boxer sometimes succeeds, just being “too stupid to fall over,” as a true cynic would say. Not nearly enough schoolteachers for my liking espouse the hard-earned absurdist wisdom of constantly putting one’s nose out there wherever it can even potentially fit, and disregarding the very real possibility of it being cut at any time, just like with Jack Nicholson in “Chinatown”. Whereas most traditionally-sane people would do anything to avoid their hypothetical noses being cut, people who face long odds in difficult niches can only afford to take breaks from this type of risk. To me, that is the sad truth of today, especially for people on the autism spectrum, and it’s been true for most subsets of the world on their way towards greater acceptance.

It’s all about figuring out how best to motivate oneself (a motivation that cannot be forced) to put oneself out there like that even once, let alone over and over again for many years…and in what kind of avenues, both online and interpersonal, to do it within. It’s also about finding people in the same targeted field, who have considerably more experience and expertise, to provide support and mentorship while traveling up the many learning curves. Fortunately, this is easier for people with autism than it has ever been in today’s technologically visual-driven society; I myself have learned how best to communicate with people that speaks to my autistic soul, and I have almost 4,000 FB friends to show for it.

As for the other desserts of the financially-independent, socially-rich existence everyone seems to want, and I now very much crave, I just have to busy myself with equal parts entertainment and challenge, while keeping an eye on its hopeful arrival. After all, for better and for worse, it’s the best most of us can live for.