By Wendi E. Powers
“Why won’t you marry him? Don’t you know he is rich?”
“You could make so much more money if you would only go on-call.”
“Everyone hates change!”
While these comments were well-intentioned, they were spoken by people who don’t understand autism or its effect on motivation. Insistence on sameness (IS) is a hallmark of the autistic brain. There are studies which attempt to understand this phenomenon. While it will be interesting to know what the researchers discover along the way, I can tell them one thing for a fact: IS dramatically dictates the life of a person with ASD. For a group of people who love to have a sense of control, it is ironic that IS is usually something we can’t control.
My mom recently told me a story about my childhood that I did not remember from when I was about four. One day mother came home sporting a fancy new wig. Apparently, I was not a fan. Mom said I refused to even look at her in it. For the next three days, I refused to eat. And perhaps more telling, I refused to even talk to her, with or without the wig. Finally, she called the doctor who offered a solution. Mom somehow convinced me to play with the wig and even wear it. Problem solved.
So what does IS have to do with motivation? In my case, it is everything. Even at such a young age, my biological drive for food was surpassed by my insistence that my mother’s appearance remained unaltered. I was not even motivated by the promise of my favorite dinner… apparently mac and cheese with cut up hotdogs. A funny thing about that is how food has never been a motivation for me. It has always been something I consider to be a necessity rather than a pleasure. But that may just be me.
When I was seventeen, a male friend asked for my hand in marriage. He was a genius who had graduated both high school and college the same year at the age of 16, most likely a fellow Aspie, and he was a self-made millionaire due to his hard work with the emerging computer industry. But he was also a best friend. I didn’t have many of those at all. In fact, he was one of my three friends at high school. And while I loved him with all my heart, I did not want our relationship to change. So I told him I could not marry him.
We stayed in contact as friends. He would call the telephone company with a fake emergency so they would kick me off my modem phone line so he could get through to talk to me. He fell in love again with another woman, but the young lady was killed by a driver who was eating a hamburger rather than watching the road. He asked me again to marry him, and I again turned him down. Then one day I got the call that his private plane had crashed. He was gone.
Once again the reality of life strong-armed me into accepting a change I did not want. His death triggered a mental collapse when I was 24 and in college. Thankfully, a watchful professor saw I was in trouble. She went out of her way to get me into the school’s therapy program. I have no doubt she saved my life by doing so.
After college, I was offered a job working with technology (which happened to be my favorite thing to do…all the time), so I accepted it. I quickly learned the skills I needed to learn. My employer rewarded me handsomely. And I enjoyed getting up every morning and heading into the office. I loved everything I was doing. I loved teaching other people how to do things that I had learned to do. It became a solid routine which filled my soul with tremendous joy.
Then, just like my mom walking through the front door a different person, technology changed. I can learn almost anything, but my brain is very slow on the uptake. Once I have the information though, watch out! The managers would get upset with me because I was not learning as quickly as the other people. It is no wonder the turtle is my personal animal totem. But I did try my very best.
As the years went by and technology grew into the powerhouse it is today, techs like me were expected to change as rapidly as the monster we had helped create. A job which once guaranteed set office hours now required scheduling flexibility. On-call rotations became standard for almost all technology positions. My job was not the exception.
Anyone who has experience with an ASD individual can tell you that we depend on our schedules and we thrive on our routines. Sure, we learn how to incorporate flexibility, but we tend to plan even that.
When I initially took the job, I had specifically asked if it included being on-call. I was assured it was not a part of that position. Of course, they could not predict how the years would change the job requirements. But those same years did not change the demands placed upon me by autism. I need to know exactly when I need to be at work. I need to know when I leave work. And I need to know my bedtime. Once in a while, I will work through the agony of mixing things up if I need to do so. But being on-call is beyond my ability. Even the offers of a higher salary, or a more advanced position, were not enough to break my inborn autistic IS. They could have offered me a million dollars a year, but it would not have mattered one bit.
This deep thing, this IS, is etched onto the very fabric of my DNA. Every neuron in my brain is programmed to follow my IS protocol. No matter what other people think or say about me, no matter how much money is offered to me, the only motivating factor I understand is that IS.
Some who read this blog may feel sorry for me thinking that the IS of my autism really hurt my life. Sure, it cost me a job when my brain finally had a meltdown after my boss told me about one change too many. But please don’t. This big, bad IS monster is actually one of the best parts of my life.
Even after losing my job, IS got me out of bed at the same time. It did not matter if I did not have to get to work or not, it was 5:00 AM. It was time to get up. IS knew that as well as it knew I had to be back in bed at 9:00 PM.
IS refuses to let me sit around mourning my losses. It knows my brain needs to do something it loves during the daytime. Because of very severe PTSD and other issues, I am on disability. Ok, this does stink. But IS requires me to find a way to be productive regardless. It demands that I keep doing things that help others who struggle with mental health issues … things like writing this blog.
That all being said, it is important to understand IS can become the carrot for almost anyone on the autism spectrum. It is our kryptonite!
Do you want to have an employee who will show up for work? Would it be nice to have someone on your team who understands the guidelines and can teach them to new hires? Isn’t it wonderful to know you can expect the same high quality of work day after day from at least one person? Hire someone on the autism spectrum.
Sure, it may be difficult for neurotypical people to find ways to motivate the ASD people in their lives. But keeping in mind that our insistence on sameness can be one of our greatest strengths, can go a very long way. Familiarity is our currency!
Born in Florida, I spent my childhood being bullied for reasons I did not understand. Autism spectrum disorders were unknown to my family or teachers. Taking everything literally, unable to read facial expressions, and emotional ruptures, resulted in being an outcast.
Today, art therapy provides me with a way to share my experiences and emotions with the outside world.
Digital art work “Motivation” by Wendi Powers