Thursday, February 16, 2012

How an Autistic Child Changed A Career...For the Better

Typically, career choices are made based upon responsibilities, compensation, or prestige where a businessperson makes a change to get a higher salary, more responsibility, or greater prestige. What about the situation, though, where the driver behind a career choice isn't any of these; where it's the needs of a child that drive the change? My choice was precisely that.

Trevor was a happy, normal, active baby. He was able to laugh, coo, cry, and do all of the other normal things that his big sister, Briana did at that age. To my wife Patty and me, everything seemed to be just fine. At about age two, we noticed that Trevor was hardly saying any words and was very into his own world with puzzles, coloring, and videos. Over the next couple of years, we took him to a speech therapist to help him with his language and also enrolled him in a special-needs preschool. During this time we noticed other peculiar characteristics for a toddler; a strong desire for structure (his preschool teachers called him "Mr. Rigid"), obsessive fixations on various topics, and no real desire to associate with other children. Yet Trevor was very easy in that he would keep himself occupied for hours on end playing by himself and acting out whatever imaginary things he could think of. It was very perplexing to us.

When Trevor was five, we took him to specialists at the Autism Center at the University of Washington who conducted a series of tests to assess speech, cognitive understanding, and relational behaviors. At the end of the assessment, one of the specialists explained that Trevor had Pervasive Developmental Disorder - Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), a mild form of autism. This was odd to us because we had associated autism with more severe cases (think about Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman") where speech was limited to non-existent at all and no real interaction between the child and others. Trevor was able to speak and interact but was about two years behind his peers developmentally. The specialist explained that, while Trevor had many characteristics of "normal" children, he saw the world as if peering through a rolled-up newspaper; he had a narrow focus on the world and was inattentive to things that didn't interest him or how other people perceived him. To give you an example, think of Jack Nicholson in the movie "As Good as it Gets". His character, Melvin Udall, was a bright, successful author who was obsessed with cleanliness, kept a very rigid schedule, did not walk on sidewalk cracks, and was generally unaware of how he came off to others. Though he wasn't labeled as such, Melvin could have had PDD-NOS.

In some respects, knowing that Trevor had a milder form of autism was a relief in that he could learn to control his behaviors and be a high-functioning adult. In other respects, though, having a milder form of autism puts him in a sort of purgatory when it comes to other kids. He doesn't fit in a traditional special-needs category yet he is clearly unique when compared to other children. Had Trevor grown up prior to the 90's, his actions would have been viewed as a behavioral problem and he would have been labeled a difficult child. The truth is Trevor isn't a behavioral problem; he's just wired differently than normal children.

Trevor's public elementary school was wonderful in working with him; he qualified for special services and was able to get one-on-one assistance with a special education teacher. While we've been very appreciative of the attention the public school system has afforded him through sixth grade, we grew concerned about his transition to middle school. Through a lot of discussion, we've decided the best thing for Trevor is to pull him out of mainstream school in seventh grade and take on a more customized home-school approach. In thinking through this, Patty and I decided that, for Trevor to have the best opportunity to succeed, we needed to share the teaching responsibilities. I had spent eleven years at Accenture and was in my ninth year at Microsoft and was very happy with my career. At the same time we also realized the importance of giving Trevor the best possible educational experience to secure his leading a normal adult life. We decided it best for me to leave my secure, full-time job at Microsoft to focus on a new career which gave us more flexibility to tend to Trevor. It was at this same time that I had written a book called The Project Management Advisor which was in process of being published. I had also just started a meals-delivered-to-your-door business called delBistro with a friend. The timing seemed perfect to take the plunge and leave Microsoft to build a new career as an author and entrepreneur around ensuring Trevor gets what he needs to secure a normal, happy adult life.

This past six months has been focused on me adjusting to my new career as author and entrepreneur and us beginning research on how we are going to approach home-schooling Trevor. Already I've seen great benefit in being more available to my family and in Trevor getting used to me being around more often. I've got tremendous peace with the career choices that I've made and see focusing on Trevor as being far more important than any promotions or accolades I could have received at Microsoft or some other traditional job. Our goal is to ensure that, by September, we are positioned to home-school Trevor and that my career activities don't interfere with our home-schooling priorities. By the way, Trevor's social-butterfly-sister has already made it very clear that home-schooling is not her cup of tea so she'll stay in the public school system.

I realize that a choice like the one I've made when you have an autistic child may not always be feasible. We've been very blessed in having the financial means and opportunities to make this decision. What I can say, though, is this investment in Trevor's future will yield a return that is far greater than any return I could be getting in a more traditional career and see this as the smartest career choice I've ever made.

Lonnie Pacelli has over 20 years' experience with Accenture and Microsoft and is currently president of Leading on the Edge™ International. Lonnie's books include "The Project Management Advisor: 18 Major Project Screw-Ups and How to Cut Them Off at the Pass" and "The Truth About Getting Your Point Across". Get the books, leadership products, other articles, MP3 seminars and a free email mini seminar at

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