Playing Checkers in a Chess World


Foiled again.

A few weeks ago, I got a call from a local organization looking for someone like me to interview for an open position.  I was quite excited and hopeful that I might get a new position to supplement my pastoral work and other part time job. They had talked about getting some information to me soon.

This is where I made my big mistake more than once.

When you tell someone with High Functioning Autism that you will do something soon, we expect that you will do this….well, soon.  In job speak, soon could mean later today or it could mean a week from now.  But not knowing the difference, I called back.  A week or two passed and I was still expectant.  I had already checked in a few times and when I last called, I could tell that there was a bit of impatience, which is understandable.  The job had to be posted, they had to wait for resumes and then a committee had to look those resumes over.  I get that now, but my brain was focused on the word soon.  And it has probably become my downfall.

Looking for work with autism can be challenging. In many ways it’s just like meeting new people. Because of our lack of theory of mind, we don’t really know what the other person is thinking.  I can be unsure as to how to respond to people.  Sometimes I don’t respond, and that gives people the belief that I am indifferent.  If I respond to forcefully, I come off as desparate or an irritant.

Also, so of what employers say is not to be taken literally.  If they say they will get back to you in a few days, there’s a good chance that it will be more than a few days.

The interview is no better.  You have to meet someone you’ve never met before and allow them to ask questions that you have to try to answer at that very moment. All the while you wonder what they are thinking and you are wondering if you are saying everything they need to hear.

It’s also hard to not get over-excited when someone contacts you about a job.  It’s already difficult to find a job, so when someone contacts you, you feel like someone actually wants you.  But job hunting is more of a game of chess, trying to look out several moves ahead to plan the move that might get you the job.  You can’t or shouldn’t get over-excited about a phone call because it is the first move in many moves. But someone with HFA is probably focused at that beginning point and not looking at all at the moves coming up.

Actually, the person with HFA is probably playing checkers instead of chess. As a business blogger noted, one game is rooted in the moment, while the other is based in the future:

Want to know one big difference between a game of checkers and a game of chess? It’s the number five. That’s the average number of moves ahead that a Class A or better chess player will generally be thinking throughout the course of a game. While checkers is primarily played in the moment, chess requires a complex strategy that is often won by thinking ahead.

With this prospective employer, I was playing checkers.  I was living in the moment which is usually where my brain resides.  But in this situation the person on the other side of the phone has to play this as a chess game, having to look at several moves ahead.  This person might have said something that made it seem he was playing checkers, but like all employers he was playing chess.

But that’s hard for someone like me.  What I hear and comprehend is more checkers; bounding and leaping all over the place.  It’s hard to not take the words of someone promising good times ahead start leaping all over the place.  But overeagerness can turn an employer off.  It’s like starting to play checkers on a chessboard.

Like I said earlier, I probably ran this poor person off with my eagerness.  A lesson learned.  I just have start to remember that this is all a chess game and while my brain chemistry isn’t easily programmed to think ahead, I have to  learn.

If this person did show interest in spite of what I did, I will be a happy man.  But in the meantime, I need to bone up on being a better chess player.

The Importance of Dandelions

As I’ve looked back over my work history, there has been one overwhelming feeling that comes up over and over again: shame.

Since I entered the workforce in my 20s, my job history has been one of seemingly disappointing people.  I never met people’s expectations of me.  It wasn’t for lack of trying.  If someone said I did something that was not up to par, I would try to be better.  But the damage was done and I was looked at as incompetent.

When I got my diagnosis of Aspergers in 2008, I was hopeful that now I could find jobs where I would excel.  But in the eight years since knowing I was autistic, I’ve learned that while I changed, employers didn’t.  I learned that sharing my diagnosis didn’t help me at all.  Many folks didn’t understand the diagnosis and still saw some of my quirks as not caring or incompetent or what have you.

Even in the years following my diagnosis, I’ve tried to correct some of autism related problems to better fit in.  Not that it helped.  I think I was still viewed as a disappointment, a failure.

At the same time, I knew I had skills. I was a good communicator. I was okay with a camera.  I was getting better creating websites.  I was surprised I could make graphic designs.  I’ve been leading a church as pastor for almost three years. I had some of the skills needed to be a good employee to someone, but the package wasn’t attractive to employers.

Recently, I was reading fellow Michigander, Ron Fournier, a writer for the Atlantic and National Journal. He has a new book out about his learning to accept and appreciate his son who is autistic.  He shared a quote from Thorkil Sonne, a Danish entrepeneur who wanted to provide a positive work environment for people with autism, people like his son. Sonne used an interesting analogy to describe people who are autistic and their gifts to society:

To most people, the dandelion is nothing more than an annoying weed – something to be rooted out of our lawns and flowerbeds. But what a lot of people don’t know is that, when cultivated, the dandelion is one of the most valuable and useful plants in nature. In many parts of the world, the dandelion is known for its nutritional, healing and medicinal properties. The value of a dandelion is very much dependent on our knowledge and perception of its value.

Most of us don’t want dandelions in our lawns – they don’t fit there. But if you place a dandelion plant in your kitchen garden, and cultivate it, it can turn out to be one of your most valuable plants. Dandelions are used to make beer, wine, salads, and natural medicines. Quite simply, if you choose to cultivate dandelions, you will reap their rewards. So, is a dandelion a weed or an herb? You decide. The same can be said for individuals with autism. The value of what you see depends on your level of understanding and accommodation.

Hearing this made a lightbulb come on. I’m a dandelion.

Part of this sounds like that whole “I’m-a-special-snowflake” crap that has been pushed around these days. But this is exactly how someone with Aspergers or autism can feel. On the downside, they might feel like a weed, a nuisance to the rest of the neurotypical world. It’s how I’ve felt at times.  But the thing is, dandelions have benefits as well.  What might not fit well on a lawn, might make a good wine or a balm.

But I think most employers, even in the nonprofits, tend to go for flowers, people that are “beautiful,” put-together, who know how to make small talk and aren’t moody or plain weird.

Maybe this is why the unemployment rate among those with autism is something like 85 percent. (No, that isn’t made up.)  Our work culture is one that is geared towards efficiency.  We want workers we don’t have to really train, let alone accomodate.  So what happens when you get someone who is autistic and needs to be cultivated and isn’t geared towards being efficient?  They don’t last long in their jobs.

I don’t think the job market was always like this. I think there was a time when companies and groups were interested in investing in the worker. Of course those with autism were locked up in institutions, so the old days weren’t so good. But I think we need to bring back the notion or nurturing workers instead of making them fit some template.

What needs to be done is a radical overhaul of how we see those with autism.  In the profile of Somme, it is noted that employers need to gear themselves to be places that can accomodate autisic workers:

One significant challenge in utilizing individuals with autism is that many employers don’t always see the upside in hiring individuals who can be considered rigid and moody or a have poor communication skills. Because of this, Specialisterne focuses on developing new approaches that allow businesses to tap into the potential of this unique demographic. Sonne believes that innovative employment programs, that focus on individuals with special needs, can turn out some of the most diligent, dependable and productive employees.


Sonne’s company Specialisterne, has a unique approach in how they hire and work alongside persons with autism:

Work Design: Traditional approach: Work design derives business needs from stable strategies and plans. Jobs are designed by determining the tasks a given job requires, translating these tasks into job descriptions and then placing individuals into stable organizational roles.

New Approach: Design jobs to maximize potential for particular individuals to create value. Project roles are customized so they “work” for short-term needs but can evolve as needs change.

But while I’m glad for Sonne and Specialisterne, I have to deal with this world, the world where autism is still a puzzle or frustration.

So, at the risk of offending potential and future employers, I will say this: I’m a dandelion. I am rough around the edges. I am not pretty, I am not great at small talk and I will not be easy to get to know. But if you work with me, you will see a creative side that can produce things you never even thought of. If you can see me as more than just a weed to be removed I can help your concern take it to the next level.

But you are going to have to work with me because I am not going to fit into your template. I’ve tried and I can’t. If you what you want is someone you don’t need to train, to just “set it and forget it,” then you are wasting your time with me. But if you want help mold someone to bring out the best in them, well give me a look.

I’m done trying to please people who won’t understand. I’m a dandelion, a person with autism. Either accept this and work with me or don’t. Either way, I’m done playing games.

The Frustrations and Limitations of An Aspie Pastor

As worship ended today, I felt a bit of frustration.  I sometimes feel like I’ve failed to be a good pastor to my congregation.  I think I’ve done the best that I can, but I also feel at times I’m failing them.

It might be that I’m trying to live up to stories.  Actually, it’s one story: the one where a pastor comes into a dying church and is able to get the turn it around.  Membership grows from say 20 people to 100, it becomes a vital congregation.

So, I look at the story and wonder what I am doing wrong.  I’ve done a lot of the technical stuff that should help with visibility, but the result is that we’ve still had very little growth.

There is another part of the story where the pastor is someone that is involved in the community and is somehow able to get people to come to church or to do something related to church.

This is where we hit a problem.  As someone on the autism spectrum, I can tell you it is pretty hard to meet people in general.  My actions probably make some people nervous.  I’m just not the gregarious guy that everyone wants to be around.

How do you get into the community and meet people when you are on the spectrum?

Walking Backwards with a Backpack of Bricks*

Ginger did everything Fred did butOne of the difficulties of being a “high functioning” autistic is that it is in a way an invisible disability.  For most people, when they look at someone like me, they see a “normal” person.  Because they see a person that seems to act just like them, it makes it hard to understand when things go wrong in that person’s life.   For the uninitiated, some difficulty looks more like laziness or being defiant which can have severe consequences in the high functioning autistic’s life.

The sad thing is that the uninitiated is basically everybody.  There are a few folk who “get it” and are able to accomodate and encourage the high functioning autistic, but most people don’t understand it, even when you try to explain it.  And the result down the road are broken relationships and (possibly) fractured employment.

Physician Lisa Jo Rudy writes about the problems that someone with high functioning autism faces.  I want to share a few that I have faced in my own life:

Social “cluelessness.”  What’s the difference between a civil greeting and a signal of romantic interest?  How loud is too loud?  When is okay to talk about your personal issues or interests?  When is it important to stop doing what you enjoy in order to attend to another person’s needs?  These are tough questions for anyone, but for a person on the high end of the autism spectrum they can become overwhelming obstacles to social connections, employment, and romance.

Anxiety and depression.  Anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders are more common among people with high functioning autism than they are among the general population.  We don’t know whether the autism causes the mood disorders, or whether the disorders are the result of social rejection and frustration – -but whatever their causes, mood disorders can be disabling in themselves.

Lack of executive planning skills.  Executive functioning describes the skills we use to organize and plan our lives.  They allow typical adults to plan schedules in advance, notice that the shampoo is running low, or create and follow a timeline in order to complete a long term project.  Most people with high functioning autism have compromised executive functioning skills, making it very tough to plan and manage a household, cope with minor schedule changes at school or at work, and so forth.

Difficulty with transitions and change.  Lots of people have a hard time with change — but people with high functioning autism take the issue to a whole new level.  Once a pattern is established and comfortable, people with autism (by and large) want to maintain that pattern forever.  If a group of friends goes out on Wednesdays for nachos, the idea of going out on Thursdays for chicken wings can throw an autistic adult into a state of anxiety or even anger.

Difficulty with following verbal communication.  A person with high functioning autism may be more than capable of doing a task — but unable to follow the spoken instructions provided.  In other words, if a policeman says “stay in your car and give me your license and registration,” the person with autism may process only “stay in your car,” or only “give me your license.”  The same goes for instructions given, say, at a ballroom dance class, at the doctor’s office, or by a manager in an office setting.  As you can imagine, this can cause any number of issues, ranging from serious problems with the police to inadvertent mistakes at work.

Most of my difficulties come to fore in two areas: relationship and employment.

When it comes to relationships, I am usually bad at figuring out social cues and basically how to be a good friend.  The message it sends is one of being aloof and it tells someone that I don’t care, which may be the farthest thing I want.

When you realize this, that’s when the anxiety comes in.  Questions flood my brain.  How do I act? What do I say?  How do I try to look cool and try to “pass?”  All of this uncomfortableness makes me want to distance myself which causes people to again think I’m cold and uncaring. (I’m this way even online.  It takes me a while to compose a note to someone; fearful I’m going to say the wrong thing.)

So a lot of my interactions is trying to make connections, missing laughably by a country mile.

I don’t want to paint too bleak a picture.  I’ve learned to be a better employee and handle changes.  I’ve been able to control my emotions, making meltdowns less common.  And while they aren’t as close as I would like them, I do have friends.  But all of this had to come from lots and lots of hard work.  What might seem easy for others is a challenge for me.  They aren’t insurmountable, but they are still challenges.

I’ve seen friends that seem to just make friendships with ease.  I’m always a bit envious of them, because I am not that smooth and it seems at times I do more to drive people away than keeping them close.

When it comes to changes in schedule, I’ve been better at handling them, but I can feel how unsettled I feel.  It feels like everything is out of control; chaotic.  My mind races thinking about how everything is out of sorts.  But I’ve learned to be a good actor and not show my emotions ( or meltdowns).

What I’m trying to get at here is that being high functioning or mildly autistic doesn’t mean that life is easy.  It’s just different.  The challenge for me is how to live in a world that seems so different than me.

And that has challenges all of its own.

*The title of the blog post is a take on the quote on Ginger Rogers, the one where she does everything her dancing partner Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels.  For me, walking backwards with a backpack of bricks describes what it is like for me to be high functioning in a world where you still don’t fit.

With A Heavy Heart…


On January 31, I got the phone call that you always dread, at the what I’ve been dreading for nearly 10 years- that call at 4 in the morning.  Long story short, I learned that my father had died.  As Daniel and I got ready to fly from Minnesota to Michigan, I left a text with John Paulson just letting him know I wasn’t going to be at church this Sunday.  I don’t know what all John did, but he was able to marshall the forces of the church to make sure church went on smoothly.  Retired Pastor Paul Ficzeri preached in my stead.

My Dad had been in declining health for years.  Congestive Heart Failure and COPD wore him down.  He entered the hospital on New Year’s Day with really low blood pressure.  He was taken to a transitional care facility to recuperate and hopefully get well enough to go back home.  His time at the facility wasn’t easy.  Unlike other hospital stays, he wasn’t bouncing back.  I had started to think he might end up at this facility permanently- something Mom had wondered as well.

He actually was feeling better the day before he died, my Mom said.  She offered to stay the night, but he wanted her home.  A nurse came into wake him up on that Saturday morning to get him ready for the day and he didn’t respond.  Dad had died in his sleep after 85 years on this earth.

IMG_1028Grief is something that always fascinates me.  I’ve always wondered how different folk grieve a loss.  I’ve also been interested in how someone on the autistic spectrum mourns.  People might think that those on the spectrum don’t feel anything, but the fact of the matter is we feel a lot.

My sign of mourning is a physical one: I feel what I can only explain as a heaviness of heart, as if my heart is crying even though I’m not visibly crying.  I felt that way a few years ago when my Uncle David died, and I felt it again when my cat Morris died a few months later.  When my other cat, Felix died a year later, the heavy heart was there again.

Over the last week, I noticed that my heart was truly heavy again.  I might not be crying up a storm, but my heart was…is  weeping for my Dad.

I share this because we all do grieve differently.  For some grief is a slow process and for others it’s “faster.”  Some people cry visibly, others cry in secret.  Those of us with Aspergers also grieve in ways that might seem odd, but it is grief.

I miss my Dad. I think that my heavy heart will come and go for a time.  But a smile comes to my face as well: my heavy heart is a sign that I am truly human after all.

Note: The top photo was taken by my husband, Daniel shortly after we arrived at my parent’s apartment.  On one of the bed posts were my baby shoes.  This is what Daniel wrote on Facebook describing the photo: A father’s love for his son…hanging on his father’s bedpost are Dennis’ childhood shoes.”

The bottom photo was taken with my Dad in November 2013.

Dennis Sanders, Sacrificial Lamb

So, a few days before Christmas, I found out that my position was eliminated due to budget cuts.

Needless to say, I was devastated…and I still am a few weeks later.  The sad thing is that this isn’t the first time that this has happened to me.  I’ve received layoff notices more than once. It’s also part and parcel of my long work history, one where work and I don’t seem to get along.

It’s not that I don’t want to work: quite the opposite, I love to work, I love being industrious.  But in the 25 or so years in the workforce, it has always been a struggle to find employment and a struggle at times to maintain a job.

Part of my problem is being on the autistic spectrum.  My communication difficulties make it hard for potential employers to connect with me.  A lot of job-hunting is people-oriented and I have a time figuring out how to best present myself to a potential employer.  How I present myself can probably give off the message to people that I don’t care which is the total opposite of what I mean.

But the other part of the problem is that I seem to always be “layoff bait.”  In several instances, when an organization is facing some kind of financial problem and they need to cut staff, I seem to always been at the top of the list.

I wish I knew why.  Was I not a good enough worker?  Was I not friendly enough?  Why didn’t the other guy that sits around all day not lose his job?  It feels as though there is an invisible sign that says, “please cut my job when the finances get to dicey.”

What this all means for me is going back to square one and starting over again.  When I was 25 or 35 I could do that, but at 45 I should be much farther along.

I’m also cruelly reminded that I can’t write my own ticket.  I’m not so desirable that I get to keep my position and I’m not so desirable that other organizations want me.

I understand that budgets need to be balanced.  But I wish it wasn’t me that always has to be the sacrificial lamb, the “surplus man” that is considered a luxury in leaner times.  I’d like to not be the guy that people feel sorry for.  I’d like to not have to rely on others, hoping they might pass my resume along to others.  I’d like to feel that my job is vital enough to the organization that people don’t think my work can be easily done by others. I’d like to be part of the solution when organizations have to economize instead of just being asked to clean out my desk.

So, I look for another job with some trepidation.  Will this new job just be like the last one, a position that can go away at any moment?  Will I be viewed as an important and vital part of the team?

I’m thankful for the jobs that I have had in that they have given me rich experiences and skills.  But I’d like to not end up on the altar of balanced budgets.

Note: I still have my part-time work as pastor, so it isn’t a total loss.

Repost: Out of Place

Note: I wrote this earlier this year about relationships. One thing I’d like to add: tell people that you care for them or that you are their friend. For someone like me with autism it can make all the difference in the world.

lonely childWhen I was in high school, I ran track. I didn’t run well, but I did run track. Practice would take place after school. I remember heading into the locker room to change, and passing by this front room set aside for physical therapy. Every time I passed by there were people my age chatting and having a good time.

One day, I decided I was going to join in. I came in after practice and walked into the room. Unlike other days, the room was mostly empty save for one student who was being attended to by a teacher. I walked in and sat down hoping to engage in some conversation. The teacher stopped what he was doing and looked at me. “What are you doing here?” he said. I gave him a confused look and started to think I had made the wrong decision. He pointed to the door and ordered me to leave. I walked out feeling ashamed that I had even bothered to come in.

I share this story because it serves as an example of the ups and downs of one person with Aspergers trying to be social. Looking back, I probably should have known that social situations change. But in my mind, everything repeats. If there were people goofing off one day, then they would be there everyday. Obviously there were time it was okay to be in the room and times this wasn’t possible. But that nuance was lost on me.

Relationships for someone with Aspergers is like walking into a room that’s pitch black. You can’t see anything. The darkness is scary and you feel very alone. The result is that you are always scared, scared that something in the darkness is coming after you.

This all makes it hard to simply be. You are constantly worried you are going to say something stupid and when you do, all hell breaks loose. So, you withdraw feeling more alone and isolated.

It’s not just that you don’t know how to act with potential friends, it’s also that you don’t know how to act with fellow co-workers. A conversation that I intended to be helpful was interpreted as being hostile. I nearly lost my position because of it.

And let’s not even talk about romantic relationships.

In many ways, I’m still that 16 year old boy trying to figure out human relationships and failing miserably. It’s trial and error, finding out what works and what doesn’t.

The thing is, after being rapped on the nose more than once you start to become risk averse. You feel like a trapped animal with eyes darting about; seeing others as a potential threat or potential friend.

Blogger and fellow aspie Penelope Trunk has said that people with Aspergers don’t have friends and don’t have the emotional need for friends. I tend to disagree with this. I want to have friends, especially close ones, I just don’t know how to start a friendship let alone maintain it.