Yesterday I had the privilege of participating in the first annual Everything Autism &… Fair & Conference event organized by the Atlas School for Autism event held at the glamorous Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City. The three dots in the title of the conference are not a typo and are most likely a symbol for the uncertainty that parents face when confronting the present and thinking about the future! This event was organized by the school’s benevolent founder and executive director, Amanda Friedman who was kind enough to allow me to sell my two books. My long-time supporter and an amazing woman named, Amanda Faision was the one who set things in motion as far as connecting me with Ms. Friedman. The day started off around three o’clock in the morning on Monday, November 18, 2019 as I made the trip to the Poughkeepsie Train Station to take Metro North into the city.
Even though I have been a public speaker for ten years, I was somewhat nervous about this particular engagement. For one thing, much can go wrong with traveling, and I am plagued by the fear of losing something that is not replaceable such as my laptop computer with all of its documents that may or may not be preserved by the Cloud. I would never want to find out the hard way whether my universe could be restored after losing one of those important gadgets we now depend on in the 21st Century. Another fear is feeling for that comforting bulge in my left pocket and feeling only unsettling smoothness indicating that my car keys are gone and there will be nothing more than an inanimate heap of scrap metal waiting for me back in the train station parking lot. Or perhaps I will be foolish enough to put my car keys down for just a moment and some well-meaning idiot believes they were left behind and turns them into some Lost and Found I shall never find. On a recent trip to New York City I could not find my debit card and searched in every crevice and pocket only to find out that it was stolen and some identity thief went crazy at Macy’s and Champ’s Department store.
This time I was also nervous about being a part of the panel about financial independence and self-direction. There were a few legitimate reasons I had to be apprehensive. For one thing, I have a history of not making the right financial decisions over the past five years that culminated in an epic disaster of $25,000 worth of credit card debt back in 2014. While I have done an excellent job of paying off the Home Equity Loan that my family gave me to pay off the credit card debt, it has not exactly been perfect with spurts of debt occurring on a habitual basis. It occurred to me that perhaps I am an expert on what not to do. I would just tell the story as it happened. The good, the bad, the foolish, and the hideously ugly. Being a part of a panel also filled me with fear considering that a panel discussion could not be rehearsed in any way, shape, and form. One of my tactics for inoculating myself from criticism or insecurity during a regular speech or feelings of ineptitude is to give the entire script to the person in charge at least two days before the event occurs. In the improbable event the audience wants to come after me with veritable pitchforks, it will be easier to slough off some responsibility on the person in charge because at least I could say, “I am sorry you are unhappy, but the coordinator said my prepared words were wonderful. Take it up with him/her, and here is an email address to get in touch!” At this point in my life I am somewhat good about self-control and saying the right things, although it is never going to be perfect. The risk of saying something inappropriate rises when the dialogue is spontaneous for many people on the autism spectrum.
It was an honor to be on the panel with fellow experts, Michele Lawton and Ezekiel “Zeke” Zimmerman who taught worried parents about how to ensure their child’s financial security especially after parents are someday gone while still keeping up with the regulations of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Joseph Campagna served as the capable moderator who reminded us that nobody is completely independent, and all of us need assistance with at least a few things in our lives whether we have autism or are neurotypical. I did my best to chime in when appropriate, but for the first time in my public speaking career I told my sordid tale about self-inflicted, financial disaster. I spoke about all of the lofty and extravagant projects I invested credits cards into supporting such as pitching Harpo Studios in Chicago by sending all fifty producers publicity packages capped with handcrafted, Moonstruck Chocolates to literally sweeten my idea of being on the show advocating for those on the autism spectrum. The scheme failed miserably, and I was left with a lot more debt considering that every purchase was multiplied by fifty times! While much of the disaster was my own fault, there were other oppressive circumstances that certainly did not help. Making a living as a celebrity author seemed like the only option in those days. With these projects it never took long for the expenses to get completely out-of-hand.
For a very long time, it seemed like nothing was enough for society. They always seemed to find something wrong! The losing streak was so relentless for six years that in 2012 I returned to an agency who fired me back in 2006 in an effort to manipulate them into allowing me to build a career. I told them they had ruined my life and there is a difference between consequences and having to suffer forever due to a rough beginning. I blamed my old school district for repeatedly firing me from substitute teaching jobs instead of educating the children about the benign characteristics of Asperger’s syndrome. Even though I now understand it was not their fault that I drowned in debt for a long time, the options were quite grim for a long time. It seemed that if controlling myself in social situations and writing at least one book were not enough to be accepted in a career then nothing would ever be up to par. My best would not be good enough. It is critical we reduce the odds of failure for those on the autism spectrum and perhaps there will be no need to resort to other means of financial success (a.k.a. Get Rich Quick Schemes!)
For the first time I was not uncomfortable or embarrassed telling a large group of strangers the numerous things I have done wrong with financial choices. Bitter experience can be the best teacher and they are opportunities that come with thorns. I have something to teach my peers as far as avoiding such financial quagmires and am a reminder to parents to monitor their child’s spending habits before the mess turns into a nuclear wasteland. When I was nearing adulthood, my pediatrician had me sign a contract with my mother. If I were to get into a situation in which I were swayed by peer pressure and engaged in underaged drinking, I would be able to call her and ask for a ride. The contract stated that there would be no rage or consequences as long as I made that phone call instead of driving off into the night in an impaired state in an effort to make it home alive without anyone finding out about my bad choices. I suggested to the audience that a similar contract be drafted with their children about the occasional financial blunder. Young adults should be able to admit toward mistakes with the guarantee there will be a calm and non-hysterical reaction from caregivers as a plan is devised on how to fix the situation. “When you find yourself in a hole the trick is to stop digging!” My anecdotes led to a healthy round of applause and there is now confidence with regards to the future if I should ever have to participate in a future panel despite not being able to plan every single word.
I thank Amanda Friedman, Amanda Faison, and the rest of the faculty as well as the parents for their contributions to the autism community. Hopefully those within the proximity of New York City will consider this alternative environment for their children. The web page of the Atlas School/Foundation for Autism is: http://www.atlasforautism.org/