Autism, Work and the Advantage of Being Wired Differently

This post is the result of several conversations I’ve had of late about autism, employment, and the difficulties many neuro-atypical folks have negotiating the world. I know for me, with my own neurological mixture of autism, dyslexia, and PTSD, the world is often very perplexing place, but my neurology has some amazing advantages as well; sometimes it is a matter of finding a way to express it. This is about the time I discovered a unique skill; book scouting.

When I was in my mid 30’s, I worked at a used bookstore called Leon’s. Leon’s was an institution for many years in downtown San Luis Obispo, CA. It was a huge place lined with shelves stuffed full of books. People would come in all day long to sell or trade their books. The exchange for me was magical because I never knew what kind of treasure might be hidden in those paper bags and cardboard boxes of books. Some of these folks were known as book scouts. Book scouts made a living or tried to make a living by finding used books cheap and selling them to the bookstore for a profit.

I quickly became fascinated with the idea of book scouting. It was treasure hunting and I liked the idea of treasure hunting. Once I started book scouting, I became instantly fixated. I scouted anywhere I could find books cheap enough to make a profit; garage sales, thrift stores, rummage sales, library book sales. Scouting worked for me on several levels. First it was a solitary endeavor. I traveled hours by car to look for books, affording me these beautiful stretches of solitude. Second was my brain’s ability to effectively compartmentalize and select specific books out of a field of many. Imagine trying to scan 1000s of books rapidly and all at once to find maybe one book of value. That is what scouting often was. My brain could skip common books or books with brightly colored dust jackets because those were usually popular novels and of little value. My brain saw color tones [hues of yellows, gold] or specific fonts or graphic design that would delineate a specific period of time. There was size and weight. I never read the whole spine for example. It would take me too long and more than likely confuse me. I only saw parts of words or the shape of lettering. My brain processed this kind of information quickly and I operated on gut instinct.

Scouting books occupied all of my thoughts. I studied everything; publisher and bookseller histories, price guides [these were pre-internet days], guides to identifying first editions, and rare book dealer catalogues by the ton. But most importantly for me, I spent hours just looking at valuable books either in bookstores or photographs. I studied and internalized their lines and colors, bindings, the lettering on spines, the whole of their architecture, which became a code in my mind and a special language associated with the object of books. This language was expressed somatically, like different frequencies of butterflies in me stomach, or the hair on my arm standing up, and increased heart rate. Everything else that might be going on externally around me was shut out when I scouted. It was a glorious state of perception to be in; successful, empowering and safe.

Book scouting worked because of the same neurological wiring which made the world so vexing for me. It was the up-side. This specialized skill was a part of the whole of me. It was the first thing I was ever good at. It was the first time that I was ever able to access an ability that was unique to me and that folks with typically developed neurology could not do as well or with the same depth and consistent outcomes. I scouted for 15 years, bought literally thousands of books and some quiet rare.

My brain’s ability to organize, connect and codify information in unique ways made me a great book scout. The success I had finding books helped me appreciate and trust the way my brain works. This is so important, because it came to me after a lifetime of being shamed and told that the way I think or perceive was wrong. I see connections where others often don’t and I’ve learned that it is best to not follow along the same paths as everyone else. For the past five years my particular neurology has helped me design a cutting edge transition and an adult day program from top to bottom with the sincere hope of creating a space where other neuro-diverse folks can find their unique advantages, their skills and passions.

Lovely Secondhand Books!


[Brent White is Autistic. He designs and directs adult programs for intellectually and developmentally disabled adults for the non-profit Ala Costa Centers in Berkeley, California].

5 Responses to Autism, Work and the Advantage of Being Wired Differently

  1. raspycricket says:

    Tapping into one’s strengths is both powerful and empowering, and trusting yourself is rather priceless. I think that your book scouting experience is probably in part responsible for your incorporating those qualities and goals into the structure of our program.

  2. Pingback: Newsletter 14th April | Spectrum Bloggers Network

  3. Pingback: Parenting Autistic Children and Martyrdom | Davs Art

  4. wildlyrandom says:

    How on earth were you EVER able to resell them?

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