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 Planet.net, 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: elsforautismglobalconf.org

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Autistic Athleticism

Usually, theatergoers are attracted to those movies: films portraying underdogs competing in a professional sport, wherein the thrill of the sporting event has added dramatic elements that engage, and inspire, the audience watching the movie. There are movies about African-American athletes competing in the Jim Crow-era South, about mentally challenged athletes rising to their best through the sport, and there are even a few movies about autistic individuals, “A Mile in His Shoes” being one of them. But movies are all about the past, they are all about telling a story, fiction or non-fiction, about an individual who transpires to become the focal point of whatever movie they’re in due to their inspirational tendencies, usually filtered through a Hollywood filter, where everything becomes needlessly glamorized. Why not shine a light on the athletes, specifically athletes with autism, who are competing in the present?

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My history in the realm of sports is very brief. I’ve always been a very slow runner with very low stamina, enough to where walking a mile would take an hour for me to complete, and I only got involved with the practice of sporting due to the requirements to do so until the end of the ninth grade. I did amass a short list of accomplishments throughout my trials in the world of sports, from becoming the “MVP” of a soccer league to taking out the champion wrestler at my High School, and I found some pride in succeeding in highly kinetic sports like Soccer and Hockey, but it never was a field that I was going to enter in. I do admire, though, those who make a field like that as their career, becoming more than just athletes, but historical icons.

And, yes, being a successful autistic athlete may be a little bit of a gift. While the diagnosis focuses, distinctly, on communication skills, delayed gross motor skills are also considered a common symptom of having ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). What are gross motor skills? According to the Encyclopedia of Children’s Health “Gross motor skills are the abilities required in order to control the large muscles of the body for walking, running, sitting, crawling, and other activities.” If you have Asperger’s Syndrome, for example, then the neurologists will say that one of the symptoms is in being clumsy, it is also thought of that early diagnoses of those with autism will find kids that cannot walk in a straight line towards the tester during some diagnosis tests. Thus, it is a lot harder to imagine anyone athletically active, and successful, who happens to also be autistic.

Well, while doing my research I actually did come across one such gentleman. The man’s name is John “Doomsday” Howard and he is a professional MMA fighter, specializing in kickboxing, who got the clinical diagnosis of autism. There are other MMA fighters with autism, like Serena “The Southpaw Outlaw” DeJesus and Connor “Captain Redbeard” Gross, but Mr. Howard actually has a record of participating in a few of the major league events held by the UFC organization.

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In an interview conducted with him in July, John Howard admits that he was very interested in learning about his diagnosis, even if in his case it is “mild and low”, due to the “many variants” of the disorder, and that it cleared up any mysteries about his life, stating that it was “good to know”. To him, autism isn’t really a setback as much as it is a fact of life. He responds to a question I ask him referring to an article from 2013 written by Coach Doug DuPont who analyzes MMA as a good field for those who are autistic, and whether or not there is any truth to it of which he confirms for me that he is very good at repetition, not uncommon for those on the spectrum and that repetition is very important to the sport of MMA. He ended our conversation by noting his social media presence on Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, just type in John “Doomsday” Howard on any of these platforms to find him.

In conclusion, you can be a successful athlete and still have autism. There is even a runner by the name of Michael “Mikey” Brannigan who has competed in the Paralympics and is so fast that he sees himself as competing in the actual Olympics in the future, and he is autistic. Just like any inspirational sports movie, it is not about genetic determinism or fate as much as the will of the player in competition or outside to change the course of history, and to declare victory in the arena of the sport.