How a man on the Spectrum learns to live

Posts tagged ‘Health’

Let’s Keep Moving!

"I've Got to Keep on Moving!"-Matthew Wilder

“I’ve Got to Keep on Moving!”-Matthew Wilder

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned how being active has alleviated the worst parts of my Asperger’s Syndrome and helped me eliminate the need for prescription anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs. I’m very happy to say that I’m not only maintaining this lifestyle, but I’ve found new ways to keep myself healthy and vital. It’s a gradual process because I still need to take small steps to change my established routines, but I have a variety of activities that don’t feel like chores at all.

I believe it all starts with perspective. Some people still don’t realize how Aspies can be very sensitive to disruptions in routine. Generally, the lower functioning the person, the more likely they will act out in nonverbal, hard-to-understand ways. Even though I have High-Functioning Autism, I’ve still had my moments of vocal protest.

Can you imagine being so sensitive to disruptions in your surroundings that you become gripped by paralyzing fear and heart-pounding stress? Think of a high-stress, no-relief day with no end in sight and no way to communicate how you feel! This is what can happen to someone living with Autism on a daily basis!

Fortunately, with years of counseling, specialized therapy, and a strong support system, I developed coping skills like using different activities that not only boost my physical health, but also improve my mental health and well-being. I feel like physical fitness starts with improving the body and evolves into strengthening the mind and soul. Everyone including those on the Spectrum can benefit from variety, it just takes time to find out what works best.

Some activities I learned to enjoy with time, and others I took an instant liking to. I’ve written about the different exercise tapes and DVDs that got me started on my fitness journey. Since then, I’ve also utilized my membership at a local gym. One of my favorite activities is playing the Dance Dance Revolution arcade game and the different dancing games for Xbox 360 and Kinect. They give me a fun workout and an adrenaline rush that lifts my spirits to new heights! I’ve talked about this extensively in a previous post entitled “You Should Be Dancing

In the past two years I’ve developed an interest in hiking, which used to be out of character for me, I didn’t really consider myself an outdoor person. There is such a centering, affirming quality to hiking. Looking for different trails and walking a path in the midst of nature is a great way to clear my mind. When I focus on where I plant my feet, I’m reminded of the spiritual strength that comes from walking meditation. I regain a clear perspective on life, and that’s worth feeling tired at the end.

At the gym, I take advantage of the special classes that are offered. I’ve found the most energy, excitement, and sweat equity in cycling and kickboxing. Doing the early classes helps my day to start off in a positive way, and that’s something, considering that I never used to be a morning person!

I participate in several runs for charity each year: perfect opportunities to test my fitness level in the real world. I’ve also discovered farmer’s markets, museums, parks, and outdoor festivals are great not only for walking, but for socializing as well. It may not seem like much, but I enjoy living in the moment.

I’ve come a long way from the boy who was afraid of P.E. and ate junk food to hide his insecurities. I’m more alive and youthful than I was in high school! Now, what kind of activities keep you in motion? How long have you enjoyed them, and do they lift your spirits? Everyone’s at a different place in their journeys, and I’m just glad to be in the place I am today with the ability to keep moving!

Today’s musical inspiration is a fun little ditty from the 1980s by Matthew Wilder: “Break My Stride


Running For Love

It’s amazing how one small change can have a lasting effect. I made a conscious choice to participate in a charity run after high school, but I had no idea of the ongoing impact that it would have on my lifestyle. It was the annual Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. I didn’t really care that I only power walked it, I was still raising money and awareness for breast cancer treatments so that my grandmother could have a better quality of life. It felt good to exercise outside, but I was still learning about how I was going to live with Autism, so the feeling faded. I wouldn’t feel that way again until I turned twenty-one and the trajectory of my well-being took an upward swing.

After my twenty-first birthday, healthy living suddenly made sense to me. I discovered ways to exercise without feeling like it was a chore and strength and coordination that I lacked growing up with Autism. I bought exercise DVDs and learned how to run properly. Over the next few years I could see and feel the extra weight dropping off of me. I was inspired to continue running in the Race for the Cure every year and even became involved in the Breast Cancer 3-Day Walks. Even after my grandmother passed away I still continued to run, walk, and volunteer in memory of her. However, the impact of those decisions was greater than I ever imagined.

Before I knew it, I was signing up for a gym membership and developing my own routines for staying in shape. Several healthy eating choices helped to strengthen my inner transformation. One of the added benefits was the boost to my mental and emotional well-being. I was able to eliminate the need for prescription drugs to manage my anxiety and depression; some of the side effects of living with Autism. There was also a newfound confidence that inspired me to look into different gym classes, which was something I couldn’t have done years ago. I discovered the power of changing up my routines to avoid boredom and lack of motivation. I even became more social and outgoing with the people that I met in classes. Connection is truly a beautiful thing.

Today I’m happy and proud to be in the physical, mental, and emotional shape that I’m in. I’ve discovered the amazing joy of endurance running, boot camp challenges, cycling, kickboxing, swimming, and even dance! I was able to run my first ever marathon back in 2009 and I look forward to doing even more events for Breast Cancer support, Autism Awareness, and other causes that are close to my heart. Although I sometimes wish I could have discovered it sooner, I feel even healthier and more alive than I was in high school.

I’ve learned that it’s never too late to live a healthy lifestyle. What I’ve done may not work for everyone, but my choices have improved my quality of life and lifted me out of the worst parts of living with Autism. I’m blessed to have the wisdom to take charge of my own well-being and I’m happy to just be running for love.

P.S. the 2013 Breast Cancer 3-Day Walk is happening on November 15th through the 17th. I’m signed up with the crew of volunteers. Wish me luck!

To Be Young At Heart

My grandmother holds me for the first time before Christmas ,1981

My grandmother holds me for the first time before Christmas, 1981

To be “young at heart”…what does it really mean? Being spry and able-bodied? Possessing an energetic spirit? Well, I feel like it’s the choice to continue growing and learning rather than becoming stagnant and slowly decaying. It’s a choice to give in to despair or to embrace hope. A choice to merely exist or to be fully living. It’s a state of being that took me some time to embrace completely, but I’m living so much better because I did so.

This is a feeling I’ve had for the past several years. It started after I made a conscious decision to eat healthy and commit to regular exercise. Doing that helped me to gain a new physical fitness that has greatly reduced my risk for disease and infirmity. The feeling continued as I discovered new music while revisiting all of my old favorites. There’s a great American standard that’s been done by several singers, but it always conveys the same message. It’s become more relevant to me as I’ve discovered my new lease on life. It’s the classic tune “Young at Heart”.

It starts out at different tempos, depending on who sings it, but the lyrics are always the same. “Fairy Tales can come true. It can happen to you, if you’re young at heart. For it’s hard, you will find, to be narrow of mind…if you’re young at heart.” Simply put, when someone’s mind is balanced in realism and not dwelling on empty fantasy or pessimism, they gain the drive to work for what really matters to them. Of course, the work has to be done; I’m doing the work to raise awareness about what it’s like living with Asperger’s Syndrome.

The second half of the first verse continues with “You can go to extremes with impossible schemes…you can laugh when your dreams fall apart at the seams! And life gets more exciting with each passing day, and love is either in your heart or on its way.” I feel that if someone still believes in impossible dreams, they will pave the way for more realistic dreams to become reality. Even if things don’t turn out the way they were planned, there’s still a lesson to be learned once the emotional sting has lessened. I’ve had my share of false starts and disappointments and it hurt when they occurred, but I didn’t lose my desire to make a difference in the world and show that I really mattered. I’ve embraced a new role: something I never could have imagined, but I’m excited that it’s becoming a reality. Now I know how to make a difference in the best way that I can.

The second verse is sung twice, bringing a special message to the listener when the song ends. “Don’t you know that it’s worth every treasure on Earth…to be young at heart. For as rich as you are, it’s much better, by far…to be young at heart. And if you should survive to 105…look at all you’ll derive out of being alive! And here is the best part: you’ll have a head start, if you are among the very young at heart.”

What this means is, there’s a difference between being rich and being wealthy. To be rich is to be secure in material possessions and money; to be wealthy is to have a sense of abundance in all areas of life, external and internal. Case in point: Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston were very rich. But towards the end of their lives, they were not wealthy because they had lost sight of what it meant to live a life of abundance. All of their money and fame could not buy the fulfillment they so desperately needed.

I’ve learned that having a passion for wealth is not being greedy. It means craving a life that is full and overflowing with abundance that is emotional, physical, and spiritual as well as financial. Material wealth means nothing if doesn’t enhance the owner’s life and the lives of others. Knowing that I have the ability and resources to give something back to people and enrich their lives is my definition of wealth and success.

I’m looking forward to the success of our family business: San Diego Scan and Share. I don’t know what it will look like, but I’m filled with a feeling of purpose that has given me a zest for life even stronger than what I felt in high school. As such, I feel more alive and aware than I was when I was a teenager. My health is great, I have a new lease on life, and a purpose that gives me hope and energy. Now I wonder, what makes you feel young at heart?

Today’s musical inspiration is the American classic “Young at Heart” sung by living legend Tony Bennett & Bluegrass singer Shawn Colvin:

I Can See Clearly Now!

You know, it’s more than just a song title; it’s a state of being that I’ve been experiencing for the past few months.  Have you ever felt like something finally made sense long after you learned it? Did you learn a lesson but didn’t give it a second thought until a certain moment opened your eyes?  How amazing was it when it happened, and how did your life change after that?  Well, I can’t really put it into words how my life’s changed unless I use this famous R&B hit by Johnny Nash to help me do so.

The cool, upbeat guitar chords give a springy quality to the song as it begins.  “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone.  I can see all obstacles in my way.  Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind.  It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright), sun-shiny day“.  I feel like the storm that was pushing against me has abated because I became too strong to hold down.  Of course, that doesn’t mean there won’t be other problems later on.  Now I can anticipate things that are good, bad, or indifferent and I will find the good in any situation once the initial reaction has passed.  It feels so good to have a clear frame of mind; I don’t know where I’m going, but I know how I’m getting there!

The second verse reminds me of my journey with Autism.  “I think I can make it now, the pain is gone; all of the bad feelings have disappeared.  Here is the rainbow I’ve been prayin for!  It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright), sun-shiny day“.  My negative feelings don’t cripple me anymore.  All I have to do is let them run their course and I’ll feel better afterwards.  The bridge is an outburst of joy as Johnny invites people to see the beauty of a world filled with hope.  It certainly fills me with hope!  “Look all around, there’s nothin’ but blue skies!  Look straight ahead, nothin’ but blue skies!“.  The first verse repeats one more time and brings home the positive feeling.  By the end, I can’t help but be in a good mood.  This classic song has taken on new meaning for me in the past few months.

Everything I’ve learned from Autism support groups, self-improvement seminars, family and friends, and life in general has begun making a lot of sense to me.  I have a much clearer feeling of purpose, but more than that, I’m now consistent with my actions.  The more actions I take, the easier it is to work toward a fuller and richer life.  With the steps I’ve taken to start a new family business called San Diego Scan and Share, it’s only a matter of time before my blog and the business are linked to each other.  Stay tuned for updates as our business gets off the ground.  Each experience is unique and a post in and of itself, but this song says exactly what I feel today.  My life has just begun and I really can see clearly now!

Listen to the song here:

Behind the Armor

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

The life-size Iron Man armors at San Diego Comic-Con 2010. (Photo taken by me.)

Who knew that pop culture could play a big part in my “Aspie” life?  I remember the first time I saw an iconic character on film; it really stuck with me.  The truth is that I’ve had more than my share of insightful moments in pop culture and I could continue speaking about them unabated, but that would turn most “normal” people off.  My point is that there are fictional characters that I’ve been able to relate to in some way.  One of the most famous in the “geek-centered” world of comic books, video games, and superheroes is one whose humanity made me look at myself in a whole new way.

The character I’m talking about is Anthony Edward Stark, better known as Iron Man.  Of course, the first thing I noticed was that he shared the same first name as me.  Now there may be a tendency for some men to turn into fan-boys when talking about someone as famous and possessing of swagger as Tony Stark, but my admiration for him comes from the way he became more human & less egotistical after the incident that made him into Iron Man.  When I read about his origins in the different permutations written in different decades, I could see the meaning between the lines.  I first learned about Iron Man when I was in high school; as I was embracing my geeky side I looked into his story a bit more.

He used to be the ambitious, brilliant, but self-centered head of Stark Industries, founded by his father.  While visiting a war zone he is the only survivor of an enemy ambush that kills his escort of American soldiers. Tony is taken prisoner by the enemy, who force him to build a deadly weapon with his knowledge.  He discovers, with the help of an imprisoned professor, that the explosion that killed the Americans has left pieces of shrapnel in his chest that threaten to pierce his heart.  The professor helps Tony construct a life-saving device that enables him to finish his creation: the first prototype of the Iron Man armor.  Even though the professor sacrifices himself in the process, his death enables Tony to destroy the enemy and escape back to American-held territory.

From then on Tony becomes an advocate for science that brings health and abundance to the world.  It is then that he discovers that this brave new world has both challenges and rewards.  While battling villains around the world and within his own life, he begins to slide into a state of denial about what he uses to cope with pressure.  For me this was a pivotal moment in his story: he was a textbook alcoholic leaning on liquor, desperately hoping to forget the pressures of his life.  Only the intervention of his closest friends and family enables him to get the help he needs to gain control of his addiction.

It was this story about Tony Stark’s insecurities that made me respect his character even more.  As I grew older I speculated about him having Asperger’s Syndrome.  He has an almost genius level intelligence and a natural skill for electronics and engineering.  These talents cannot disguise his tendency towards addictive behavior and a sharp tongue in social situations.  How he gained his well-deserved reputation as a womanizer is still a puzzle to me, but what really changed my perspective was the story arc of the early 1980s entitled “Demon in a Bottle”.

Several different events would push Tony towards drinking liquor very often.  When he slumps into his desk chair, pouring over scrapbooks and newspapers, the look of bitter reflection over a life that he once held together is a look I’ve seen my own mirror.  Just to know that there are factors in life that cannot be controlled is enough to make someone used to being in charge of their own life feel like caving into pressure.  That feeling can be even more pronounced in people on the Autism Spectrum.  You know the feeling you get when your life is so out of your hands you feel powerless?  That is a constant, nagging problem that can take hold of someone on the Spectrum and last for long time without support.  When the moment came for Tony Stark to be confronted with his alcoholism, it was done in such an honest and personal way that I’ve read it over and over again.

When his girlfriend tells him about how she lost her first husband in a car accident after months of him abusing prescription pills Tony says that he’s sorry for what happened. She rebuffs Tony and tells him that she doesn’t need his pity, she just needs him to listen.  He was going down a dark path; the same one that led to the death of her husband, only Tony’s choice of a slow death was alcohol instead of prescription drugs.  He may have been carrying the weight of the world, but he had forgotten about his closest friends and employees who could help him carry that weight.  All he had to do was to remember that he could lean on the people he loved instead of using liquor as a crutch.  It was a moment that stays with me today: Tony Stark made the decision to put away the alcohol and be vulnerable for once in his life.

Every time I read that story arc, it is a sobering reminder of my own humanity.  When I look at Tony Stark’s face as the pressures of his life and the words of his girlfriend collide in his mind, I can feel the desperation as he holds the half-full glass of liquor in one trembling hand.  Even as setbacks start to jeopardize his journey to sobriety, Tony becomes strong enough to put down the bottle and begin climbing out of the hole that his addiction had dug for him.

Watching the agony and terror overtake him as he stands at a crossroads is reminiscent of the times when I could not seem to find hope in my worst moments.  It’s a sickening feeling when you realize how out-of-control an addiction has made your life.  My own problems with poor diet and video games were definitely addictions; it took a lot of courage and insight to admit that I inherited the gene of addiction that runs in my family.  For someone on the Spectrum, it’s easy to be self-absorbed while not necessarily being self-aware.

Seeing Robert Downey Jr. cast as Tony Stark in the Iron Man and Avengers movies was a well thought-out move.  Using a skilled and versatile actor with his own real-life struggles was a great way of keeping Iron Man relevant and bringing new life to the franchise.  Apart from enjoying the movies, I was impressed at how human Tony was when played by Robert Downey Jr.

The power and humanity of Iron Man has had a significant impact on my own self-awareness.  It’s taken me a long time to open up to my friends and family about my own struggles, but the strength I gained from doing so made the effort worth it.  I feel like “Aspies” such as myself are forced to put on an armor of our own making to protect ourselves from a world that doesn’t understand.  However, it takes real courage and vulnerability to be open and honest so that the world can see the person behind the armor.

Small Victories

Medal heartI’ve heard people say that a person’s many great accomplishments will earn them great renown and build the legacy that will remain after they’ve passed on.  That is something that has inspired me to do whatever I can to make my own mark on the world.  Even though it’s a core value I’ve learned to adopt, I’ve always felt like it’s not the whole story.

Giving it some thought, I realized that there’s a lot of space in between the events in a person’s timeline.  I asked myself, “I wonder what else happened in their life between these big milestones?”  Not that I want to pry, I just wondered what else they had done, and what it meant to them?  What were their victories and defeats?  What kind of regrets and successes did they have in their personal life?  Soon, I discovered that the more I thought about other people, the more I began to look at myself.

I remember a lot of the smaller, more personal details of my life.  However, after I started writing this blog they took on an entirely different meaning.  There was a time when I wanted to go back and change some of the more negative events, but I’ve realized that even they contributed to making me the man I am today.  After much prayer and meditation I have learned to accept what has happened and embrace it.  There are lots of things that I’m proud of.  They may not always be significant to anyone else, but for me they proved that I’ve got a lot to live for and a lot to gain confidence from.

P.E. in elementary school was a source of frequent embarrassment for me.  Imagine having the lack of coordination that comes from being a “misfit” in school and being completely unaware of it!  There was one day when things shifted, and that was when I was playing a round of Four-Square Dodgeball.  I was playing with particularly strong focus that day.  Somehow, I was able to tag out this boy who was one of the best players at the game and take his position as server.  Two minutes later, recess was over and I walked away with my head held high.  Not bad for an uncoordinated Aspie, wouldn’t you say?

As a high school freshman, I was eager to sign up for choir because of how much I love music.  On impulse I decided to audition for the small but elite vocal jazz ensemble.  Before I knew it, my choir teacher told me that I had passed the audition and was accepted into this group that was usually reserved for experienced upperclassmen.  I believe that my teacher saw something in me that I didn’t know I had.  From that point on, I was in the jazz ensemble every year, and I enjoyed every moment of it because of the amazing fact that I had been accepted.  This culminated in my receiving of the music department’s Senior MVP Award.

In recent years, I’ve surprised myself with personal athletic victories.  2009 was the year I ran my first ever marathon.  I have also run in the Susan G. Komen 5K Race for the Cure for eleven years now and my time has improved, year by year.  By far, the most fulfilling event I have ever done was the 60-mile Komen 3-Day Walk For the Cure in honor of my grandmother who passed away from breast cancer.

These events are just a handful of the small victories that have given me confidence.  They may not mean much to anyone else, but to me they are things that I take pride in, knowing that I made them happen.  To think that a man on the Autism Spectrum could do everything I’ve done and still remember how they felt is something special in itself.  I also feel like no matter what happens, nothing can take away what I’ve done for myself.  Have you done anything in your life that made you feel this way?  What still makes you proud of yourself today?

Let’s Get Physical

Hello again!

First of all, I’m not talking about that song by Olivia Newton-John that came out after her famous appearance in Grease!  I’m talking about the role that physical exercise has played in my life with Asperger’s.

Here are my questions: what role has health and fitness played in your life?  Did you ever dread going to P.E. in school?  Were you frequently picked last in team sports?  Did you ever want to play with others but were afraid to because you didn’t know how?

Well to answer that, yes, I did have those less-than-fulfilling experiences during school P.E. classes.  Today I’m proud to be in the shape I’m in and I’ve been growing from strength to strength with knowledge I have gained from consistent healthy eating and exercise.  But it wasn’t always this way; indeed my story is probably one that is told by many an awkward kid who tried desperately to get through one day of school.

I was probably in 2nd grade when I started feeling out-of-place during team activities.  This was due to the fact that children on the Spectrum are prone to having difficulty with balance and coordination; I was no exception.  It’s also a fact that Spectrum children can be prone to having low muscle tone.  Needless to say, I’ve always had problems with a “soft” body that takes a long time to show results from frequent exercise.

These problems became more evident as I grew older.  Until about Spring in sixth grade, I was frequently picked last for teams, and that only added to the lowering of my self-esteem.  Being so unsure about what was different about me only made things worse.

I did have a few small victories here and there.  There were a few times where I was the last kid standing during dodgeball.  One time when I played four-square, I defeated a boy named Russell, who was the kid who stayed in the prime position the longest time until I unseated him with one well-placed serve.

Going into middle school, my head was filled with too many examples of kids on TV who got run over by overly enthusiastic coaches during P.E.  Thankfully, the reports of those types of teachers were very exaggerated.  I was also surprised to get my first taste of the strong mentor figure; the kind of coach who sees potential in every student and brings it out of them.  I feel like this is one of reasons why I developed a healthy respect for fitness trainers.

Entering high school and then community college, I began to really blossom in certain areas.  Unfortunately, this was also the time that my physical and mental health problems became worse.

I was put on more anxiety and depression medication, and there were too many days that I purchased unhealthy junk food from the commons.  To make matters worse, I did not know what I wanted to do with my life, so I had to take more prescriptions to stop the tumult inside my head.  Adding insult to injury, the biggest drawback was that weight gain was a side effect.

When I was finally brave enough to weigh myself, I had reached a peak of 250 pounds.  Now I’m six feet, one inch tall, and I should have looked strong, but husky.  The problem was the extra weight was all fat with very little muscle.  At that point, my self-esteem & self-image had reached an all time low.

It was in the Spring of 2003 when I had my first awakening.  I had just turned 21 and I knew that something was making me feel left out of life.  To this day, I don’t know what happened, but I had an epiphany.

When it happened, I began looking at exercise videos that I could enjoy doing at home.  The first one that stood out to me was the original Tae Bo, created by Billy Blanks.  I purchased the two-pack of tapes right away and began to learn the moves and stretches.  Before I knew it, by the beginning of June, I was on my feet learning to defend myself and getting healthier in the process.

Believe it or not, by the time Christmas rolled around, I was down to 210 pounds, which meant I had lost 40 pounds in just over six months!  I’ve taken pride in that achievement every day, because I used fitness and better food choices to do it right, and it’s a lifestyle that’s worked wonders for me since then.

It was in 2005 that another part of my transformation took place.  To tell you the truth, when I said I was born a geek, I really meant it.  For years I had no clue about making a good 1st impression, and my self-awareness about my appearance was almost nil.

By the grace of God, Mom introduced me to a hairstylist named Alberto.  He taught me how to style my hair and purchase certain products.  I also had to buy a whole new wardrobe because of my continued weight loss.  Ever since I met Alberto, I’ve been more conscious about how I present myself and my sense of style has matured, but I’ve kept a youthful polish to it.

For the past few years, I have continued to evolve inside and out.  As far as workouts go, I’ve kept myself busy with a lot of different activities.  Ever since 2001, I’ve run the 5k Race for the Cure every November.  Breast Cancer awareness is something very close to my heart, but I’ll explain it more at a later date.

I’ve had a gym membership for six years now, and I even ran my first marathon in 2009!  A great personal victory for myself, if I can do that, I can do even more!  Through it all, I’ve become a better version of myself.  I was able to strengthen my mind and body with diet and exercise.  I no longer take medications, and I’ve even done a few internal  cleanses to purge myself of toxins, in a healthy way of course.

I’ve come a long way from being a kid who was picked last for team sports.  The worst of my health problems are over, and health and fitness are a top priority in my life.  I encourage anyone on the Spectrum or those who know somebody on the Spectrum to just get moving!  Exercise can make a world of difference to your self-esteem and self-worth.  You are worth it!

I look forward to continuing on this journey and passing on my knowledge to my own children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren!  With all I’ve learned about living a full and healthy life, I wouldn’t be surprised if I lived that long!