Learning to Thrive on the Spectrum

Lindsey McLennan is the Manager of the Memphis School Guide at the Memphis Education Fund and an alum of New Memphis’s Embark program. Click here to learn more and start your application.

“Have you ever been evaluated for an autism spectrum disorder?”

This is not the question that I, a 28-year-old college instructor, anticipated when I walked into my counselor’s office in the spring of 2015.  I expected tools to help with attention deficit—not another problem to solve.

But as we explored my past experiences with social challenges, sensory issues, and delayed physical coordination, it became clear to me that what I was struggling with had its roots in something different than ADHD.  As an adult, I was still struggling with developmental milestones my peers had mastered long ago, while masking my difficulties with a master’s degree, full-time employment, few but quality friendships, and a smile.

Autism is a spectrum disorder—meaning, all of us who are wired that way have the same things in common, but to varying degrees. Some people with autism cannot speak, handle certain inputs like textures, noise, or lights, or live alone.  Others, like me, have fewer challenges with our diagnostic criteria, but may have more pressure to “pass” as “normal” while still struggling with social norms, sensory input, and physical coordination.

I have what used to be called Asperger’s syndrome.  There are a few key differences between Asperger’s and classical autism. “Aspies” often do not have challenges with language, but we still struggle with the underlying social layer beneath our verbal talent.  Many people with autism, Asperger’s or not, have a phenomenal ability to focus on very detail-oriented tasks and soak up all the knowledge they can on things that are of interest.  Ultimately, if you’ve met one person on the spectrum, you’ve met just that: one person on the spectrum. It can be as confusing for people who aren’t as it is for people who are.

I moved to Memphis for a fellowship program shortly after my counselor asked that question.  While I enjoyed teaching—especially the being an expert part of it—managing 200 students every semester was outside of my wheelhouse.  I now manage the Memphis School Guide, an online database of every school in Shelby County created for parents to find and choose the right school for their child.  Part of my job engages that true Aspie detail-oriented core I have—I get to make sure all of the information on 300+ school profiles is accurate and functional.  I also do copy-editing and graphic design to support my coworkers.  To me, this is a natural, efficient lane to work in, and I’m able to be very productive.

The other part of my job exercises the people skills I have developed over the past 30 years.  While the social world may not be intuitive to me, I love making connections with people.  In my current role, I get to do that and answer questions.   Providing quality information, creatively solving problems, and addressing inequities is squarely within my wheelhouse, and I have an efficient and enjoyable way to make a life for myself.

Participating in the Embark program at New Memphis in the fall of 2016 provided me another opportunity to connect with my peers, identify my strengths, and develop strategies to better navigate the social aspects of my work life.  I have used the knowledge I gained through our sessions to continue constructing the framework I use to understand the world around me.

Just as important as the leadership development training was the unstructured time. I carpooled to class with two or three of my cohort-mates, and those drives turned out to be an important space where we could hash out questions about our work and social lives.

When it comes to living on the spectrum, I may come across as an average jane, but only because I’m working overtime to make it seem that way.  It gets lonely, but my experience in Embark helped to alleviate the isolation I often feel as a result of living as a square peg in a round-hole world.  I also was, and am, reminded that there is a space at New Memphis where my strengths and perspective that comes from being a person on the autism spectrum is respected and encouraged.  I am moving from seeing my condition as another problem to solve towards recognizing my unique set of skills and perspective.  I also see the opportunity to be supportive for other people who are on the same path as me—on and off the autism spectrum.

Thanks to Embark, I now have a cohort of people around me who are similarly motivated to move forward together—to strengthen each other and the city we live in. By sharing our experiences, we can empower each other & help each other figure out the best way to be in the world around us.

Lindsey McLennan is the Manager of the Memphis School Guide at the Memphis Education Fund and an alum of New Memphis’s Embark program. Click here to learn more and start your application.