Double the Insight: An Interview with Alex Plank of Wrong Planet

On April 28th of this year, Els for Autism is going to help celebrate the end of Autism Awareness Month by hosting the inaugural Autism Innovations & Global Impact Conference: The State of the Science which will see a team of leaders all devoted to explaining the current state of the union on autism. One of our presenters, who is hosting the VIP dinner, is a shining star of sorts, not just with what he can talk about regarding autism but also how he utilized his condition as a springboard for opportunities for everyone, including himself, who seeks to be heard, or understood, when it comes to Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

His name is Alex Plank, founder and owner of Wrong, a forum for those with Asperger’s Syndrome, a variant of autism, which has become the largest web forum for autism. This past Wednesday I was given the opportunity to have a 30 minute interview with him when he toured the Els campus.

Now, typically, when doing an interview I just keep to the script, even if it hurts, with very little room to improvise or to concentrate on the answers of the person being interviewed, almost like a robot. With Alex, for the very first time in my short interviewing “career”, I felt like I could finally be myself. What went from an interview turned into a conversation, as I could relate so much to a person who I could’ve been friends with years ago as we have the same condition, Asperger’s, the same birth year, 1986, and were born very close to each other – he in Charlottesville, Virginia and me in Columbia, Maryland – but we finally got to talk to each other now. While it is usually inappropriate to talk about the growth of a simple interview, for me it was a big deal as it allowed us a greater connection than if it was just some random neurotypical.

Alex Plank was first diagnosed with Asperger’s at the age of 9, a year after the U.S. government officially recognized the variant of the disorder, around that time young Alex was being bullied a lot and had a hard time reading social cues and making friends, since his direct approach of asking people to be his friend led him to rejection after rejection. Like Alex, I didn’t have a large group of friends, and as I grew, instead of eating lunch in the cafeteria I would eat it in my next classroom, or I would spend time in a small classroom for autistic kids, “Hannah Moore School”, studying and maybe having lunch afterschool, while Alex would be beating his guidance counselor at chess, “He wasn’t just doing it to make me feel better” adds Alex, though he also added, “I hope”. We also found it easier to bond with the teachers, and the adults, on a school’s campus than the students themselves because of our interest in things that the adults could relate to more than the kids.

When he found out about his diagnosis while going through his parent’s documents, he felt ashamed, like he was somehow defective. As the years have gone on, he has come to understand his strengths and weaknesses. While he had to self-teach himself all kinds of social cues by studying others at his alma mater, George Mason University, the innate “obsession” or hyper-focus abilities that autism gives a person facilitated his starting Wrong Planet at the age of 17. He does believe that while focusing on academics is a laudable life skill what will shape your world will be something that relates to those inner “obsessions”, in his case computer science and movies which have helped him succeed in jobs.

So, the big question you may have is: How did Alex start Wrong Planet? Throughout much of his life, Alex Plank didn’t know anyone like him, and it was especially almost impossible to connect through the magic of the internet, it was long ago enough that Wikipedia had only one server, so he and a forum mate, Dan Grover, talked about how they should create a web site meant for people with Asperger’s Syndrome to find each other, with the name coming from the both of them feeling like they are “aliens from some foreign planet”, living on the wrong planet.

What does he want to do for the future? While he wants to create better quality resources for people to use from his web site, he is especially interested in maximizing the social climate for Aspies by facilitating offline social events, and conferencing so that social functions like dating, and just hanging out, could have a purpose besides an online forum.

Besides Wrong Planet, Alex has worked with the visual medium and has used his reputation as a way to speak at different public events. In 2010, as a side-project for Wrong Planet, Alex started a web series called Autism Talk TV. The 26 episodes typically deal with educational topics for those with autism, expert and authoritative interviews, and even a few appearances by native co-hosts, Kristen Lindsmith and Jack Robison (son of John Elder Robison who wrote, “Look Me In The Eye”), who both have autism themselves. From 2013-2014, he had worked as a consultant, and briefly acted, on FX’s “The Bridge”, a TV series about a detective with undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome who has to solve crimes. He has also appeared in multiple documentaries including “Shameless”, a French documentary about the misunderstanding of autism in that country, but what I really wanted to know was his perspective on the big blockbuster movie, “The Accountant”, where Ben Affleck plays an Aspie anti-hero.

While he liked the “absurd, off-the-wall movie”, his biggest disappointment was that there was nobody with autism credited for the making of the movie, but rather a bunch of doctors, even the Aspies who Ben Affleck claimed helped the film for him, were uncredited. To Alex, (and to me), doctors and specialists will never work in the same way that people with actual autism, because while they may treat those with autism, they can never know what it is truly like “to be someone with autism”. He also responded to the portrayal of Affleck’s character by saying that it is a myth that people with Asperger’s are cold, and devoid of any interest in social interaction.

As far as public appearances, many of which can be seen in videos on the web, Alex has given many keynotes at conferences for ASCEND and the Autism Society of America, and even DJ’ed at an all-autism wedding. What can he give audiences that many conference speakers cannot?

“I’m very tired and fatigued from these autism conferences where it’s dry and you hear the same stories over and over again,” he commented. Alex wants to overcome the typical doldrums of the circuit by enlivening his speeches with humor and fun, “making light of really bad situations by making fun of them.” He will also use his expertise in Hollywood to go over how autism is treated in the media, and how important it is for people to understand it. In a past year with “The Accountant” and academy award nominee, “Life Animated”, I think that his message couldn’t be more relevant.

So that was my interview with Alex Plank, if you have any personal experiences with the man, leave a comment, or any stories about Wrong Planet, and if you just wanted to read my writing, again, make sure to follow the blog.

To register to attend the conference and/or to meet Alex Plank at the VIP Dinner on April 28th, go to:


How to say goodbye, properly, to an inanimate parent.

Note: The government officials of Maryland and Florida do not endorse this article. Reader discretion is advised

As readers of this blog may know, I didn’t hatch out of an egg in the state of Florida. Instead I spent my formative years, with a healthy collection of angst, in Maryland, the seafood state of crabs and rich local history. Living in Maryland, to me, has always been like that of being a natural growth in a laboratory far, far away, and Florida is like the city that the growth either spreads mischief (in a family film) or destruction (in a oh no! monster film), though the hardest part of logic is the meaning that such an analogy overrides any prior contemplation of nostalgia for the “Free State”, after all laboratories are safe, secure, experimental, and interesting.

As the years have gone by, though, I’ve regarded Maryland as more of a curiosity, a kind of Southern state (though I think that its designation as a border state during the American Civil War is more apropos to its regionalism) with northeastern politics, a state which, if you’ve lived in it, was the perfect setting for something like “The Blair Witch Project”, due to its haunting nature and its rows and rows of forests. Almost creepy, Maryland can be. It does have greater character than I saw at the time, though it hasn’t changed my mind about the move I made after graduating from High School. Maryland was the past; Florida is my future.

And as the past can turn magnificent entities and buildings into ruins of memories and other eras, so has the same turned the old house that I used to live in from a large red storage unit to an empty museum. While these memories of mine are preserved well enough that I don’t need to see the full closing of the gallery of Merrick lore, I decided to take one final look at the house and the state in which I had spent so many years, during a short visit a few days ago. Short visits may always be the best way to approach my childhood memories..

Once I flew into Maryland, I felt the cold, harsh grab of its hand. There was chaos all around at BWI (Baltimore-Washington International Airport), bundled up in four layers of clothing to take on the constant gray skies that, along with the fog, were accurate representations of how I view Maryland, my Maryland. Now, it was the wintertime when I was there, but at least I could’ve seen remnants of snow, even abandoned orphans of the cold. Maryland has always had its dynamic highs and lows when it comes to snowfall though.

When I got to the house, it was mostly empty except for a few rooms. Strangely enough, even with all of the cautionary invisible tape around the structure, that was one of my most enjoyable times in that weird contraption in a while. I enjoyed watching fantastic movies, including “Fistful of Dollars,” one of the great westerns, reading an interesting book, “Land of Lincoln” by Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard, and playing an excellent video game, “Drawn To Life” for the Nintendo DS, while sleeping on the couch, and having little to no disruptive allergies, Plus, the fantastic food, cozy theaters, and playing “house archaeologist” (even finding a very important part of my family’s history) all made my last visit, perfectly done.

But, that may be the most surprising thing for readers here, the food. Unlike Florida, Maryland has a lot of fantastic local places, especially for Mexican food. But the no.1 thing   Maryland is known for is its crab cakes; in fact the last place I ate at before leaving the state (maybe for good) was a fantastic restaurant in Baltimore called G & Ms. It’s a real old-timey place with what you would expect from a continental steakhouse, of sorts, except their highlight is the crab cake sandwich, the biggest, and maybe priciest crab cake sandwich you can have. For 17 dollars, you can get a crab cake that completely falls off of the roll, or crackers, as you bite into it, with a side of nicely prepared steak fries to complement the fantastic meal.

Second place of honors goes to Romilo’s in Severna Park, my Maryland hometown. One of those unique Greek-Italian hybrids, the unfortunate case of Romilo’s is that it is the place that made me fear pizza for years, although their pasta and other Italian meals were pretty good, but not to an exceptional standard, and I hardly ever had their Greek food but, besides the Greek salad, one of the best versions ever produced, none of them are extremely memorable. Interestingly enough, their best meal is neither Greek nor Italian, but the Greek flair enhances it, and those are their Philly Cheese Steak Subs, some of the best that I’ve ever had, and north Palm Beach County residents should know that I’ve been to Baldino’s. At Romilo’s, they give you the lettuce and tomatoes from their Greek salad, add some Greek seasonings, along with the steak and the cheese that the sub is known for. Not only that but none of the ingredients are over-emphasized at the cost of the sandwich, and they don’t spoil you too much, keeping the sub restrained, fresh and compact with a twist that makes it go from “alright” to “great”.

But the hall of famer was a place that has been a family tradition for decades, Ledo’s Pizza. You can find these restaurants all over Maryland, and on other parts of the Southern east coast. There is even one in Tampa. How glad I was to have this pizzeria so close to the house I used to live in, during a time when my faith in pizza, itself, was low. It’s often hard to explain the miracle of Ledo’s, the best pizza pie I’ve ever had, although Grimaldi’s and CPK come very, very close. At the start of your meal come sides dishes like their salads, especially with their house dressing, and spicy toasted ravioli – thinking about it makes me drool buckets – and then comes the pizza.

First, what is unusual is that they give you two medium pizzas on two pans instead of one huge pizza on one huge pan. Second, the concept is of a large rectangular pizza cut into squares, almost bite-sized pizzas. Third, nothing is wasted, you can have stewed garbage on the pizza and it will still taste great, the sauce is restrained but works very well with the cheese, the crust, if you can get those slices, is some of the best crust I’ve ever had, thin and crispy enough that it goes down with the same grace as the slices themselves, add on either the best pepperoni you’ll ever have (greasy, solid and flavorful), or a round of excellent vegetables and you’ve got yourself a great pizza. If only I can get a sponsor for a franchise out here on the east coast.

So that is a summation of my trip to Maryland, especially of the fantastical food highlights offered by its hometown kings. While, I may have discarded the state nowadays, the one thing that I may always miss is the good homegrown cooking, thankfully it’s only a two hour and 30 minute plane ride to get there!