The AE Team
The snow fell in a glittering silent curtain all around me. I pressed the phone closer to my ear with cold trembling hands as I listened for the sound of my friend's voice. "Where are you right now?" Hesitating and not hearing a response, my friend Charlie repeated the question. "Where are you?"
"Mmm, I'm at the school."
"Okay, good. I'm going to come pick you up. Which school are you at? Can you describe it?"
"It's the, um, it's the one close to downtown, Washington elementary. You know the red brick one with the big pine trees? It's got a big flashing marquee out front."
I paused since it's dark, "I'm going to go stand by the marquee so it's easier for you to see me when you get here."
"Okay. I'm on my way."
Charlie hung up the phone. A moment ago I had been hyperventilating on the verge of a panic attack, but now the panic and anxieties of the past few hours seemed a little more distant, less overwhelming. My breaths started coming slowly and more evenly. It was a cold winter night and I was 15 years old. I had just run away from home again, after yet another disagreement with my parents. By disagreement I really mean two to four hours of all out war where everyone is yelling, a window gets broken, the police get called and eventually I grabbed my backpack and I run away. Sadly, meltdowns like this were an almost daily occurrence for me. Starting at a young age and continuing into my teenage years. Basically growing up I was what many would have considered a parent's worst nightmare. Then whenever I wasn't melting down like that, I was severely depressed. Often to the point of being suicidal. I was sleeping 16 hours a day, playing nonstop video games and failing in school.
I remember getting diagnosed when I was 12 years old. They said I had this thing called Asperger's syndrome or high functioning Autism as it's now called in the new DSM five. At the time, I remember my parents and I were sitting there in the therapist's office on this ugly brown suede couch. Well, the good doctor sat across from us. They had finished the past couple of weeks of testing and now the doctor was taking a few minutes to explain to me the particulars of my new diagnosis. He told me all about my poor social skills, poor executive functioning, sensory issues, obsessive focus, anxiety, depression, and on and on and on and on. Eventually I just stopped listening. At some point in there, I think he must have realized that I wasn't paying attention because he started mostly talking to my parents instead. I don't remember most of what he said to them, but I do remember one thing he said. Paraphrasing here, he said, you know, you need to be prepared for the possibility, the very real and very likely possibility that your son may never be able to live on his own. He may never be able to hold down a full time job or go to college and he may never be capable of having long lasting, fulfilling relationships. He may never get married.
That was his prognosis for 12 year old me. I was destined to spend the rest of my life living in my parents' basement or in an institution. However, my parents, my amazing patient, parents refuse to believe against all odds that I was destined for such a limited future. So they tried everything they could think of to help me. They took me to see countless therapists, tried every treatment and medication under the sun, but none of it worked. In fact, my behavioral issues just continued to get worse. So finally, when I was about 16 my parents decided to move forward with what they considered to be their most desperate last resort option. They took out a second mortgage on their home and they put me into a residential treatment center for at risk adolescents. Now, for obvious reasons, my parents didn't tell me about this particular decision, so I didn't find out about it until one fateful morning when I got a surprise wake up call from two very large, very muscular men standing by my bed.
After ensuring that I wouldn't try to make a run for it, these gentlemen walked me outside, put me in the backseat of a car and took me to a large concrete building where there were locks on all the doors. This is the place that would become my home for the next year. Life in the treatment center was intense. It was eight hours a day of group and individual therapy, seven days a week for an entire freaking year. So as you can imagine, I learned a lot in there. In addition to gaining some personal self-awareness, I learned a lot about psychology and communication. I got to learn about new social skills and better ways of handling things.
Over time, things began to improve and to everyone's surprise, I actually started to do well there. Eventually I graduated the program and I got to come home. At first it was kind of strange being back home with my parents back in my old environment, but I was the prodigal son who had finally come home. So for those first couple of months, my parents and I went through this honeymoon phase where things seemed to be going pretty smoothly. However, after the novelty wore off, we got used to each other again and then being back in my old environment, my old habits started to kick in. My parents soon followed suit and pretty quickly we were right back where we were before, World War 3 every day. At this point, my mom and dad didn't know what else to do, so they sat me down and they gave me an ultimatum.
They said, "We have tried everything we can think of to help you. We have spent literally hundreds of thousands of dollars, but none of it seems to have helped. You're still having meltdowns every day. Your siblings are terrified. You're failing most of your classes at school. I'm sorry. At this point we're out of options. So here's the deal. You can't live here anymore. We're going to help you find an apartment and we'll be happy to help cover your rent. As long as you either choose to remain in school with a part time job or if you drop out of school, then we will expect you to get a full time job." And that was it. At 17 years old, I started living on my own. Now, being thrown into the adult world at such a young age was amazing.
At first, I finally, finally got what I had been wishing for and dreaming of through all my teenage years. I finally had complete control over my life and my decisions. If I wanted to, I could have Oreos for breakfast or stay up till 4:00 AM playing video games. There was no one there to stop me, but on the other hand, I was a 17 year old kid with Asperger's, anxiety and depression who didn't know the first thing about how to be successful in the real world. I remember one of the last things my parents said to me that day that they kicked me out of the house. They said, "Clearly you are unwilling to learn from us as your parents, so life will have to be your teacher." They were right. Just as my parents predicted, life was my teacher and I didn't know it at the time, but I was going to have to learn fast.
Now, let's fast forward several years into the future. I am married to the most beautiful girl in the world. I've published my first book, and best of all, I have my dream job here at Asperger Experts where I get the amazing opportunity to work with and help individuals and families who are on the spectrum just like me. So you may be wondering right about now, how the heck does that happen? Well, getting yourself or someone else out of defense mode is rarely, if ever, a fast and predictably linear process. Change doesn't usually come overnight in a flash of lightning. When it comes to human beings, the personal changes that last, tend to come gradually over time with lots of new understandings, subtle shifts, and tiny 1% adjustments building on top of each other.
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