The Reason I Consult: The Inner Voice of a 40-Something-Year Old with Autism14 min read
I have known this couple for many years. They are both great friends and got the opportunity to work on engagement with both (at separate times -- I'm not getting involved in a husband/wife at work situation!).
A few years ago, they learned that their son was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
It was hard news for both, but the mother took the news especially hard.
In her mind, it was as if her son had been sentenced to never achieve any form of independence, to never fit in socially, and to never be able to have a job. Her son would never marry, have 2.4 kids, and buy that white picket fence.
When she shared her fears with her husband, he told her: "You know that Hugo is Autistic, right?" (I'm sure he said it with a lot more sensitivity than I did, but I'm the one telling the story). "He's successful at his job. He travelled the world for his work! He got married. He has kids."
I'm sure that it didn't take her pain away, but -- at that moment -- it helped her to know that someone she knew, someone she had worked with, who was ok at his job, who had a weird sense of humour also shared an ASD diagnosis.
I read her blog today. She chronicles her journey as a parent of a child with ASD, and her own son's journey. She writes beautifully poignant stories.
I asked her why she didn't share her blog.
"I write for me. It's therapeutic", she replied.
I encouraged her to share her blog, telling her that other parents of children with ASD would benefit from reading her blog.
Then it occurred to me that I was being hypocritical. I encouraged her to share her story, but I have never discussed my own ASD.
I don't like talking about it (unless I use it as an excuse to act like a jerk, then I blame my autism). But just like my friend's blog can help others, I hope that my writing about being a professional IT consultant with ASD will help someone else.
I don't rock myself back and forth, insist on pancake Tuesdays, have the ability to instantly count toothpicks on the floor (246), or many other things people think is associated with autism.
I'm not especially smart. I'm not violent (unless you stand between me and my first coffee), and I'm not a savant. I'm not particularly good with numbers (ask my accountant). I'm not cold or lack empathy (but I don't always agree with everyone being so emotional about everything either).
Don't get me wrong: I'm still weird. I'm still socially awkward. But I'm also independent, I haven't had to look for work in over 20 years, I often do public speaking engagements, blog regularly, and I found an amazingly loving wife who tolerates my quirks.
I also have three beautiful children, two of which are also on the autistic spectrum.
None of the things I have achieved in life make me prouder than seeing my children become amazing human beings.
Being autistic does not mean being condemned to never achieve anything in life. It comes with its own set of challenges, neither better nor worse than any person -- neuro-typical or not.
The Reason I Jump
The title of my post is a play on the book The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism, by Naoki Higashida. If you haven't read the book yet, I strongly recommend it.
It amazes me how the author, as a 13-year old, was able to express his answers to the questions he imagines others most often wonder about him in a way much more eloquent than most of us with ASD would ever be able to. And he did so with the use of an alphabet grid to painstakingly spell everything out.
I cannot hope to have the same clarity or eloquence as he does in his book. He writes with such insights into the inner workings of his mind that reading his book helped me gain insights into my own mind.
It often feels like more of an autism user's manual than a book.
Where I have been
The purpose of this article is not to brag about the things I have done. I'm not trying to make people feel bad for me. I'm not trying to excuse the things I do or who I am.
I'm just trying to establish a bit about myself.
I grew up near Quebec city, speaking French. I started playing with computers when I was 12. It started as a way to bond with my dad -- he would read code from one of those old computer magazines, and I would type the code in. It quickly became my passion, because I felt that I could express myself through code.
I started consulting when I was 16. I eventually moved to Ontario to learn to speak English and I've been busy ever since.
If a 16-year old was hired to come into your place of work to teach you how to do your job -- which you have been doing longer than he has been alive -- you would probably resent it. I had to deal with people who felt threatened by me -- some even threatened to beat the crap out of me.
To avoid getting beat up, I learned to develop consulting "tricks" to integrate better with the clients' staff and achieve better success. I subtly mirrored people's postures and gestures, picked up the same way of speaking, used "us" (versus "us" and "them"). I learned time management skills, presentation skills, and anything else that would make me appear more "professional" (instead of "just a kid").
At first, I was one of those geeky IT people who did not tolerate people who don't understand computers or software.
It wasn't until I joined McKinsey & Company as a Senior Associate that I learned to appreciate the giant gap between business (i.e.: the people who did not understand computers), and technology (i.e.: the techy bits).
I had to learn to explain technical stuff to C-level executives in a way that would make them excited about technology and explain "business-y" stuff to developers and IT folks in a way that would make them understand the business needs.
In other words, I learned to be one of those geeky IT people who tolerate people who don't understand computers and software.
I had found a niche, it seems. At a time when 16% of software projects were delivered on-time, on-budget, and met the business needs, I learned to bridge that gap between business and technology -- which happened to be one of the leading causes for software project failures.
My work took me all over the world: China, Japan, Singapore, Hungary, Germany, France, UK, Finland, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, South-Africa, United States and Canada -- that's just the ones I can remember.
I have worked in various industries: Healthcare, Finance, Energy, Transportation, Education, Government, Manufacturing, Professional Services. Each with their own domains of expertise and processes.
I like to keep my engagements pretty short because I get bored when things are no longer challenging.
Usually, by the time a company brings me in to help with their projects, they have tried to implement a software solution and failed 2 or 3 times before.
Every engagement is different: different language, place, industry, company, background, problem and solution.
In fact, the only common thing about my work is the unknown.
So how does someone affected by a developmental disorder that predisposes them to fear the unknown and react negatively when faced with unpredictable situations make a living embracing the unknown and unpredictable solutions with every new engagement?
Dealing with Chaos
In his book, Naoki Higashida compares having autism with being in a room filled with radios that are all tuned to different radio stations, each one with the volume at full blast (I'm paraphrasing here, the author is much more eloquent than that).
Autism people often have difficulty prioritizing the various inputs. Sounds, smells, textures, colours are all like one of those radios blasting to compete for attention.
It requires a lot of focus and self-control to learn to prioritize each of those stimuli so that we can process the information.
As Higashida-san puts it best:
“When you see an object, it seems that you see it as an entire thing first, and only afterwards do its details follow on. But for people with autism, the details jump straight out at us first of all, and then only gradually, detail by detail, does the whole image float up into focus.”
Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
I deal with the unknown of every new engagement by applying a pre-established framework for everything.
Seriously. It's annoying. (Well, to everyone but me, I'm sure)
Want to migrate to Office 365? I have a migration framework.
Project has a risk that we should address? I have a risk management framework.
Need to gather requirements? I have a framework.
Presentation needed? Framework.
And it goes on.
I didn't invent those frameworks. I have learned to stand on the shoulders of giants and use pre-established frameworks that people who are much more intelligent than I have developed.
I even have a framework for dealing with the unknown. One for solving problems.
Note that I call them frameworks, not methodologies or processes because they consist of a series of pre-established guidelines that evolve and adapt to changing needs and not a rigid set of steps that do not evolve.
Knowledge that does not evolve is dogma.
If I don't have a framework for something, I'll have an eponymous law to explain my recommendation.
Work durations? Parkinson's Law.
People and skills? Dunning-Krueger.
To quote my friend Luis: "Hugo has a law for everything". It usually sounds more of annoyed observation than a compliment, but I choose to accept it as a compliment.
I'm sure it is annoying to everyone who has to work with me, but it helps give credibility to your ideas when you can refer to a higher authority. It's not Hugo that says you should lay things out on a page to accommodate for the left-to-right, z-pattern movement of the eyes when looking at evenly distributed items, it's Gutenberg. He's a lot more credible than I am.
These laws, frameworks and rules help me make sense of the chaos and the unknown and give me structure. If you want to see me lose my cool, try taking that structure away.
My frameworks are the safety blankets that help me deal with the scary unknown.
And when I finally figure out what the solution to a problem is, and it involves coding, I get to convert those ideas into a language that computers can understand.
With code, there is no grey area. There are only zeroes and ones.
Done and not done.
It really upsets me when a co-worker says to me that there is a random bug. That "for some weird reason" something doesn't work. Or that a bug "just went away".
It's not random, it just appears random to us. It's not a weird reason, it's a very logical reason that we haven't quite figured out yet. It didn't go away, the condition that causes the bug went away temporarily -- the bug is still there.
But then I relish the idea of breaking down the problem and methodically find the problem until we solve the issue.
Standards of Success
The standard by which I measure my success is different from yours.
I get to play with computers every day. I get paid for doing that. At least I think I get paid.
I get to talk to audiences about my passion. I get to bond with people over software, just as I did when I was a kid.
On the other hand, I can't drive a car. I have a driver's license, but I don't drive. Instead of a feeling like a room filled with radios at full blast, driving is like a car filled with horns blasting in my ears.
I can't do taxes or most forms of paperwork. The questions are too vague. Yet, I can design forms for a complicated business process.
I can't talk on the phone. I can do conference calls because they're scheduled and the topic is often pre-defined, but I can't do a one on one call, because I can't see some of the social cues that I've learned to rely on. I could be on the phone and someone would say "Sorry I missed our meeting, I was at my mom's funeral" and I might say something stupid like "Haha, that's funny!", or "That's great!".
I don't get some social conventions. For example, I won't say "Bless you" when you sneeze, because I don't actually believe that your soul escaped your body. I'm not trying to be rude -- just rational.
I'm diabetic, and if I don't eat at regular intervals and control my blood sugar, I crash. Yet, when I'm working, I completely forget to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom (until the very last possible moment).
People will say "why don't you just go eat when you're hungry?" but they don't seem to understand that the organ that's responsible for producing insulin in your body is also responsible for alerting you that you're running low on sugar. If you're diabetic, that organ is defective (for some weird reason).
If you're autistic and diabetic, your body is not doing a good job at warning you that you need to eat, and your brain isn't doing a good job at listening to those warnings.
"Why don't you set an alarm?", they'll suggest. That sound of an alarm blaring in the background may not even register when competing against the sound of the air conditioner fan, the electrical buzzing somewhere in the house, or the computer fan right in front of me. Any sort of rhythmic sound or pattern takes over -- even the sound of your own heartbeat -- and forces you to dig deeper and shut the world out just so it does not drive you crazy. An alarm isn't going to make a difference.
(Thankfully, I have a loving wife who once in a while makes sure I still have a pulse).
Some of these skills might be someone's idea of being a successful grown-up. They might even be vital to one's survival (like eating when one's blood sugar is low). I have learned to accept that they aren't part of my criteria for success.
And I'm ok with that. (Although I'm sure my wife would be happier if I drove)
I love my work. Occasionally, I have to deal with Lindas, but it is mostly awesome 🙂
I love it because it allows me to approach every problem with a structure. It gives me a sense of security, well-being, and self-worth that I crave when I'm not working.
I try to teach my kids to question everything and to try to find what makes them truly happy. If they can do
something that makes them happy, they'll never really work a day in their lives. It will always feel fun.
To quote Naoki Higashida:
“To give the short version, I've learnt that every human being, with or without disabilities, needs to strive to do their best, and by striving for happiness you will arrive at happiness. For us, you see, having autism is normal -- so we can't know for sure what your 'normal' is even like. But so long as we can learn to love ourselves, I'm not sure how much it matters whether we're normal or autistic.”
Naoki Higashida, The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen-Year-Old Boy with Autism
If your children have been diagnosed with ASD, you can help them succeed and be happy by helping them make sense of the world around them.
I'm not implying that every autistic child will end up a public speaker or an IT consultant -- I understand that autism is a spectrum, and I have had it pretty easy compared to others -- but a diagnosis does not instantly mean that they will never live a happy life either.
Remember that your "normal" isn't necessarily their "normal". Your idea of success may not be the same as theirs, but as long as they're happy, you should be too.