How being diagnosed with Autism as an adult has influenced my social awareness.

Growing up there were two great influences on my life. These influences taught me how to live a life of faith, love, sacrifice, and service because these two factors greatly influenced my understanding of what it truly meant to give your life to something greater than yourself.

My father was a military man. He spent over 20 years serving our country. My family lives with the results of his two plus decades of dedicated service. Some bad. More good. As a child I was privileged to travel the world. Before the age of 11, I had been places that some of my peers would have never dreamed of visiting. We experienced the richness and beauty of a variety of cultures. I am a better man for it. My father’s time serving the nation deeply influenced my love for multiculturalism. Living with and loving other races, ethnicities, and cultures was a part of my early childhood development. It was through his service to our country that I actually learned to love people who looked nothing like me and that was a value that our family had given our lives to.

My father wasn’t just a military man he was (and still is) a minister. I can remember that he was equally as serious about being a pastor as he was a soldier. He pastored a small church in Germany where we were on a military assignment. My father wasn’t a military chaplain so he pastored the church in addition to his regular duties as a soldier. He was committed to doing both with excellence, and in many ways his ability to give his life to something greater than himself in ministry and the military helped shape how and why I serve the way I do today.

I share these two important factors because although I had a great childhood, I also had a particularly difficult childhood. I struggled to understand people and to make sense of the world around me, but when you move every few years and you live in different countries those challenges are to be expected. As a child I was always curious, and I loved to read. I loved school and sports, but I struggled. It has always seemed as if the entire world was in on an inside joke that I just didn’t understand. Yet, still I excelled. Despite almost being kicked out of high school my freshman year, I survived. I made it through college. I got married to my wife of nearly 16 years. I became the father of three beautiful boys. I even managed to earn a doctorate degree. Despite all of these accomplishments, I still had an internal struggle that I had yet to address.

In 2013, in the midst of a major shift at my place of employment, I finally hit the proverbial wall. Transitions are tough for me. My self-taught coping strategies stopped working. I came face to face with a very harsh reality that the issues that I had worked so hard to overcome or hide weren’t as hidden as I had once thought. Success didn’t strip me of my struggle; in fact to some degree my success seemed to place me at the center of finally having to deal with my internal struggle. As I patiently went through the process of becoming the pastor of my current church, I was placed on the biggest stage of my life. Almost overnight, I was thrust into a position where everyone was watching me, and as a result everyone developed a perception of who I was. I had been exposed, and although at the time it felt unreal, unwarranted, and unsubstantiated, it turned out to be exactly what I needed.

Descriptions of me, my personality, my character, and my behavior started to become a very common and open source of dialogue. During my transition into leadership, I encountered a very sobering and humiliating (in a positive way) exposure to who I was. Comments were made about my facial expressions, lack of social awareness, lack of social skills, apparent chronic fatigue, and a host of other issues that were reminiscent of things that I had been used to describe me since my childhood.

When you grow up the way I did, you learn quickly how to defend yourself. As a child who was often the subject of bullying because of my aloofness to the world around me, you learn how to manufacture a narrative that deflects from your deficiencies and instead defends your way of doing things. It’s not easy at first, but by the time you’re 35 years old, you have developed the perfect response to anyone or anything that threatens to demean, degrade, or disregard you.

And so it was with me. When the comments about me started coming forth I had the most natural reaction that anyone would have, I denied it. Nothing anyone said about me was true. Although I had heard similar comments my entire life I had determined that no matter how many people said those things it simply wasn’t true. I needed it to be untrue. In my mind it destroyed the very minimal amount of self-worth I had following years of being bullied.

After denial comes defense. I defended my actions, not that I should have had to, but it is only natural. When comments were made about my lack of social awareness and lack of social skills I defended myself by blaming others. When people observed that in large settings I literally walked past parishioners without so much as speaking to them I had decided that it was their role to speak to me, and if an interaction didn’t occur it was due to a failure on their part.

Then when denial and defense began to siphon all of my mental and emotional energy, I turned to my last resort. I simply dismissed it all. I was content on changing the narrative completely to fight for my fictionalized version of self so that I didn’t have to take seriously the commentary of others who were obviously experiencing encounters with me that we drastically different than my recollection of the events in question.

After months of this battle, and the burden that it had become on my mental, emotional, and spiritual health, I took a deep breath, looked myself in the mirror and uttered four simple words to myself that would change my life forever. “Everyone can’t be wrong.”

One of the things that I teach my staff at church is to pay attention to the conversation around you and about you. Even if it is 98% inaccurate, I challenge them to ask themselves.

“What part of what they are saying is true.”

After years of struggling, denying, defending, and dismissing I finally mustered up the courage to take a hard look at what I was experiencing and what people were observing. The result was that I was diagnosed at age 36 with Asperger’s Syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder.

What I am about to say next is in no way an attempt to make light of autism spectrum disorders. As an autism advocate myself, I take very seriously the need to provide resources and support to those in the autism community. It is a cause to which I have given my life since being diagnosed in 2014 and as a pastor, husband and father I openly use my platform and my experience to help serve and educate the world about autism. My aim is to draw a parallel from my own personal diagnosis experience to the current social unrest in our nation.

With that being said, I am often asked why I feel as though I wasn’t diagnosed as a child. There are several reasons but I will share a few. I was born in 1978. We didn’t know much about autism then and the little we did know was a very narrow and rigid understanding of what it actually was and what it wasn’t. I also moved around a lot so you didn’t expect me to adjust well socially because I was never in the same spot for more than a few years. Out of all the factors that may have led to years of living with autism undiagnosed, I think the biggest factor is that my developmental history is sort of a mystery.

The reality is that we didn’t know what to look for then, so as the years went on the struggles I did have were attributed mainly to character flaws or behavioral issues. If you think about it, I can’t blame anyone and I certainly don’t blame my parents. We simply didn’t know what the development of a child should look like the way we understand it now. As long as I was walking and talking, everything appeared to be just fine.

Being diagnosed with ASD in 2014 at the age of 36 years helped to bring some closure to a period in my life that was very difficult, but it also helped to promote a series of conversations about both my past development and the future direction of my life. Finally coming to an understanding of who I was and why I thought, saw, and heard the world the way I did has changed me for the better. As a result I understand the world around me in a much different way than before.

In a time of social, civil, and racial unrest in our country I believe that we have lived with the same silent struggle that I have experienced until just two years ago. Like me, America has excelled despite her difficulties. She is indeed a great nation. She has grown up and had a lot of success, but she has still struggled and many of her self-taught coping strategies are no longer working. I believe that much like my story; her story of success has finally driven her into the spotlight and with that spotlight comes the need to address some deep internal struggles.

Like me, our nation is a nation with a mysterious developmental history. 

Like me our nation has been left to grow into its adulthood without understanding herself fully. Her history is hazy, and her memories are minimal. The result is a country that struggles to find herself and appreciate both the beauty and the burden of living up to its fullest potential by embracing its ideals and core values that all people are created equal.

As I child I learned to give my life to something greater than myself. As an adult I learned that one of the secrets of fully devoting your life to something greater than yourself is having the courage to look outside of yourself in order to get the best understanding of who you really are.

For me that meant having the courage to listen to people comment on their experiences with me. For me it meant learning to unlearn how to deny, defend, and dismiss what everyone else seem to know about me except me. For me it meant asking myself a tough question. “What do people experience when they experience me?’

It’s a dangerous question, but it’s the question that led me to my diagnosis. It’s the question that led me to the conclusion that everyone can’t be wrong and while I am sure that there were those people who were strictly making comments about me for the sake of divisiveness, there were enough incidents and enough verifiable evidence to suggest that I take their objective observations seriously.

Our country is great, but she has been left to figure herself out for so long that she has learned to deny, defend, and in many cases dismiss the objective observations of those around her.

When African Americans and other people of color, the Native Community, and immigrants are all making objective observations about the realities of our nation, it has been my personal experience that everyone can’t be wrong. When protests of anthems monuments, policies, politics, and systems take center stage in the ongoing public debate about the state of our nation, we must at some point stop and think “everyone can’t be wrong.”

While I don’t pretend to have all the answers, I do know the value of asking the right questions. When unarmed African Americans and people of color are being shot and killed and there is no foreseeable remedy to this issue we have to start asking ourselves some very serious questions.

My prayer is that our nation, as great as she is, finds the courage to finally ask herself the question that I had to ask myself. “What do people experience when they experience me?”

So America ask yourself:

“What do African Americans experience, when they experience me?”

“What do Latinos, Native Americans, and other people of color experience, when they experience me?”

“What do people in the LGBTQ experience when they experience me?”

“What do people with disabilities experience, when they experience me?”

“What do immigrants experience, when they experience me?”

Ultimately I learned that if your life philosophy, ideology, or theology only causes those around you to experience continuous hostility, an utter lack of humility, and an aggressive dismissal of their reality, then  your approach to making the country better may very well be an excercise in futility.

So ask yourself again, this time with conviction and more importantly compassion. “What do people experience when the experience me?”

Trust me America, I didn’t like asking myself that question either. It is uncomfortable. It is unnerving. It is unnatural. But what it is not, is uneccessary.  It is absolutely neccessary, and I know because as a result of asking myself that very tough question I am becoming a much better man and because I come from a family that has given its life to you I believe if you have the courage to do the same, you can become a better country too.


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