I hadn’t been applauded for kissing my wife and walking down an aisle since our wedding day. However, this time the aisle in question was on an airplane instead of in a church. And the mood was more factious than festive because a family had been split-up instead of joined together. A mother (with infant twins) and a grandmother had seats relatively close together, but the husband’s assigned seat was about a dozen rows away. To further complicate the matter, it appeared that neither woman could speak English and the husband’s English skills were very limited. However, that had not stopped him from negotiating a couple of seat-swapping deals, including one with an obviously very drunk passenger. What the attendant was trying to do was to get everyone back to their assigned seats before initiating any changes. In addition to the fact that no one was listening to her, the attendant had another problem that could not be ignored. The three adults and two children were now together in a three-seat row in violation of FAA rules because there were only four oxygen masks for the five people. So, the attendant couldn’t leave things as they were, but the husband–who was in paternal protection mode–wasn’t about to leave his family.
It was at this point that I decided to pull an Alexander Haig and take charge, even though I didn’t have the authority. Since I assume nothing (a characteristic of “people on the autistic spectrum,” according to author Caroline Scott) the first thing I did was look for an empty seat, even though it was a supposedly full flight. To the surprise of the attendant, I found one. After that, the rest was simple. The puzzle could be solved in two moves. The husband would take my seat across from his family and next to my wife, and I would take the empty one a half dozen rows back. However, I couldn’t resist hamming it up a bit. So, in response to the attendant’s question about not sitting with my wife, I said, “We’ve been married for 40 years, we can sacrifice four hours apart.” And then to a ground swell of applause and “aahs” I turned to my wife, gave her a big kiss, and headed down the aisle. Problem solved.
When you have a lot of problems, you get a lot of practice solving problems. I wouldn’t say that I have more problems than other people, it’s just that my brain makes everything a problem. For most people, the myriad of daily decisions about what to wear, what to eat, and how to prioritize tasks are so routine that they don’t even consciously think of it. But for people on the autism spectrum, “the process of problem solving can be quite a challenge,” says Sherry A. Moyer in an Autism Support Network article.
It’s not that I can’t figure things out, it just takes me a little longer. That’s why the same teacher who originally referred to me as “retarded” reassured my mother that “Once Guerdon figures things out, he never forgets.” However, figuring out school was difficult. To do that, I had to hand copy my textbooks to get what I had missed in class because I couldn’t understand verbal instruction. Basically, I had to work twice as hard to be half as good. To excel, I had to work ten times harder. But the hard work turned a weakness into a strength. Alan Turing, the inventor of the computer, could have had me in mind when he said, “Sometimes it is the people no one can imagine anything of who do the things no one can imagine.”
As a financial advisor, it seems that I’m still doing things that others can’t imagine. That’s why an attorney once introduced me as “The best at what he does, unfortunately, no one knows what he does.” That was especially true when I switched to a fee-only structure and an academically based investment strategy, as well as started studying retirement distribution law and fiduciary responsibility issues. The driving factor in all those pursuits was a desire to better serve my clients. In the process, it made me half of rich and famous. While the notoriety was nice, I didn’t do it for the applause. Like the situation on the airplane, I just saw a problem that needed to be solved and I did what I do best – solve problems.