Man Reflects on His Struggle with Autism Spectrum Disorder as He Approaches 1-Year Anniversary of Being Housed
Our pets are funny. When our morning alarm goes off, our little cat comes up first, motorboat purr and whiskers announcing her presence as she burrows between us. Our Pomeranian, “Frodo” always waits for the snooze alarm for some reason. But as soon as that goes off, he bounces up and joins in, a great big yawning ball of fur. At that point, we can either get up or get smothered. And so we crawl out of bed, my wife going off to fix coffee while I shower and get ready for work.
Or at least, that’s how mornings were in March when I was working at the day shelter overseeing the computer lab for homeless people. On Fridays I taught computer literacy at the Department of Workforce Services. It didn’t pay well but just knowing that I was giving back in some way did my heart good. I had lived among homeless people for almost a year, from late 2018 to August of 2019. I got to know many of them well, and I came to understand the unique struggles they faced apart from those of the general public.
But springtime brought Coronavirus, roaring and unwelcome with its terrifying new reality that cast us all into uncertainty. Many services closed or rolled back. Of course, this included the computer rooms.
My wife and I live in a tiny apartment we were able to secure with a housing voucher for homeless veterans. At the time this happened, I was shocked to discover I was eligible for the voucher because I was never able to finish my tour in the army. I simply thought my failure in the military invalidated any benefits, but I was happily wrong in this assessment.
In late 2018, I became a homeless person.
I was forced to leave the home where I had been staying since my wife and I had lost our last apartment. Laid off repeatedly in the tech field, it was getting harder and harder for me to find a new job. Nobody wanted an older tech-specialist with a shaky employment history. My wife had someone who could take her in, thankfully. She is a former RN who was disabled by a parathyroid tumor that ruined her ability to process calcium.
Jobs just never worked out for me. I would stay four to six years at a job. Then one day, I’m shown the door with no real comprehension as to why. The pattern became so familiar that over time I never really asked. I just quietly cleared out and started looking again. To make a very long story short, I was socially broken – no addictions, no convictions – just one of those guys that couldn’t build a career.
It seems I was always looking for another job at a loss for explanations I knew would be required of me. As the frustration would build through every successive stammering, embarrassing interview, the jobs became harder and harder to find. And I was only getting older.
All that I knew for sure is that I sucked at relationships. I could never “hang out” with anybody because I would inevitably do or say something that offended them. Friendships were a mystery to me. I became the guy who would never accept an invitation, never show up at a party. Dating was difficult because my diet has always been very bland, so fancy restaurants were out. Comedic movies irritated me because I find them confusing. So, I was also the guy who wasn’t much fun on a date.
My entire life boiled down into a series of fits and starts interspersed with dramatic moments of turmoil and emotional shutdown.
As a young boy, my parents had paraded me around to several psychiatrists, all to no avail. My parents eventually put me in a residential private school and basically wrote me off. My teenage years were a miasma of outward confusion and emotional meltdowns.
At 18, I joined the military because I thought the army would straighten everything out for me. But they sent me back in a manner of months on an honorable/medical discharge. They had put me in a psychiatric ward for a while. Ultimately, they couldn’t determine what my problem was. So they just discharged me on a generic medical form and sent me home.
With no other recourse, I struggled on with my confusion and flitted from place to place, job to job. Eventually, I earned a college degree in computer science and worked up to a position as technical server engineer.
I thought that I was finally a success. But my social difficulties came back, nipping away at my confidence and chewing away at my psyche. Once again, they brought my world crashing down.
It wasn’t until I was a homeless man in my 50s that a bright, young counselor was able to correctly diagnose my condition.
I had Autism Spectrum Disorder.
The news came as such a shock that I consulted three other counselors and two psychologists, one a PhD and the other a PsyD before it fully sank in. I took hours of tests, reliving my life again and again. The doctor in charge of the testing created a 14-page report. There it was. It was true, a fact – I had been autistic the whole time. I was just high functioning enough to throw off a correct diagnosis when I had been younger. In my ignorance, I had always thought of autistic people as mentally disabled people who were somehow incapable of communication. It somehow never occurred to me how accurately I was describing myself.
Now, they tell me, all I can do is attend counseling and try to override my most self-impeding behaviors. Had they caught it when I was younger, I could have possibly lived a mostly normal life through my adulthood.
It’s coming up on August 9, 2020.
This date marks one year since I walked out of the homeless shelter and rejoined my wife in the tiny little apartment we secured with the voucher from the Veteran’s Families organization. We are doing okay except the pandemic has put a hold on my employment and kept us inside.
The voucher will expire soon.
Then we will have to spend 64% of my wife’s meager disability income to stay housed while we wait for the pandemic to end. After talking it over extensively, we have decided to stay inside until the medical sciences develop better treatments for the virus or the vaccine comes along. That’s a hard thing for me. I read every day about the struggles of the homeless community here in Utah and elsewhere and it just breaks my heart. It is especially distressing to read that 28 million more people are in danger of homelessness because of impending evictions. My wife and I are intimately familiar with the abrupt and agonizing loss of an eviction, as are so many.
I eagerly await the day that I can return to assist my unhoused compatriots in some way. It feels so much better when I can help. My wife and I make a point of finding someone that we can give a dollar to when we go shopping. It’s such a tiny thing, but I have been on the other side of those cardboard signs. I will never forget the awkward pain of the experience.
Until the pandemic breaks, until we can all go back to the imperfect sense of normalcy of last spring, my wife and I will hang on here. We pass the time by reading all the books we can find in our library’s digital inventory. And of course, by reveling in the furry love that fills our tiny apartment as we shelter in place.