By Richard DeRemer as told to Doug Schmidt
Seven or eight years ago, I was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. I’ve always had some difficulty with social situations, but I spent most of my life not knowing why. I was just labeled as “odd”.
As a child, the closest I ever came to a diagnosis was in the fourth grade. I had a caring teacher by the name of Bill Harris who observed me and realized something was different about me, that I wasn’t interacting with the other students like he expected. He called in a specialist counselor to talk to me. They didn’t have a medical label for it back then, so the counselor just said I was “socially impaired”. He also said I was intellectually gifted, so there was no reason to hold me back.
In high school, I lived in my own world. I wasn’t part of the cliques. I wasn’t really interested in making friends. I regret it now, but at the time, I didn’t feel a need for it. However, I was in the drama club, which I think is helpful for young people with Autism. It’s a good way to study the way people communicate and express their emotions, their gestures and tone of voice, and it trains you to be aware of how you speak and move. Plus, people who are into the arts can be a little strange, but they’re usually more accepting of other people’s differences. If you accept their weirdness, they’ll accept yours.
One of the benefits of having Asperger’s was that I wasn’t distracted by social drama, like who was dating who or where the keg parties were or anything like that. I was completely focused on academics. One year, I was the only guy in home economics class. I was working on an assignment, and a cheerleader asked to borrow my pencil. I told her I only had the one, but she said “Yeah, can I have it anyway?” I told her no. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t get anything she wanted from me, like all the other guys.
I was always interested in working with computers, so after high school, I went to Ivy Tech, and then IPFW. The shift in structure was a drastic shock to my system. IPFW had tutors available, but the tutor office opened up when I was in class, and all the spots would be filled before I could get there. The professors were pretty indifferent to me. These days, they have an entire department set up for students with disabilities. They have services that would have made my time in college a lot easier, had they been available at the time.
After IPFW, I landed a job with Irmscher Suppliers, taking window orders from salespeople and entering them into their custom glass cutting software. That was where I discovered that I loved doing data entry.
After that, I had a number of data entry jobs. I started working for Zimmer, doing data entry on a study they were doing on a prosthesis. Working in the health care field, they were understanding of my difficulties. As a kid, I always had a lot easier time socializing with adults. When I was older and actually became a part of that adult group, I was much more interested in socializing, to the point that I sometimes get distracted and gab when I should be working. Rather than letting me go for it, Zimmer just moved my desk, so I could stay focused on my job. I learned that you can alter the environment of an office to help someone do a job, rather than expecting them to alter themselves. That’s what they refer to as a “reasonable accommodation”.
In 2002, I went to Vocational Rehabilitation. They tested me and said I had Asperger’s Syndrome. For the first time in my life, I had a proper diagnosis. After spending years thinking I was the only one who had these problems, I realized that there were other people like me. It was like being hit by lightning. I could finally explain the difficulties I have and why I have them, and I could focus on my strengths instead of my weaknesses.
I got a new caseworker, and he really fought for me. He went to the Allen County Public Library and talked them into giving me the test for their PERSI (Periodical Source Index) department, the system they use to index genealogy articles. The head of the department had designed a test that covered research skills, general library skills, and data entry skills. Basically, the way she had designed the test, it was exactly my cup of tea. I had the highest score in the history of the test.
After the library, I went back to Vocational Rehabilitation, and they connected me with Goodwill Services. One of their employment specialists, Wendy Gerbers, got me an interview with Fifth Freedom. She went with me on the interview and helped explain my difficulties. Since Fifth Freedom was an advocacy organization for people with disabilities, they were very understanding and they saw my strengths and wanted me here.
Most people aren’t educated enough about Autism and Asperger’s to know how to handle it. There are a lot of strengths with Asperger’s Syndrome and Autism, and we have a lot to offer employers. For example, our honesty and loyalty, everything that they say makes a good Boy Scout. We’re honest with employers, and we don’t view jobs as just as stepping stone to be elsewhere. We actually want to be in that job.
If you have Autism or Asperger’s, you can be the one to educate people. You can be your own advocate. Through your job search, remember to keep trying, keep working, and pick yourself up when you fall. Whatever happens, just try to be kind to people and leave the world a little better than how you found it.