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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Cinematic Autism

Movies are an essential part of my life as a human being today. Almost everyone, of any age, has an interest in a certain era or certain genre, and film has been long established as an art form that any type of person, from the hipster to the layman, can appreciate. Movies create larger-than-life personalities, introduce people to stories beyond their own, and can create stars through soundtracks and merchandise, too.

Because of its cultural appeal, I am not distant from a love of cinema, but what is even more interesting is that a current film riding high on the box office, The Accountant, deals with an autistic main character and a possible Oscar entry for best documentary. “Life Animated”, is about a boy who finds his and his family’s life changed when he gets regressive autism, which is when a neurotypical kid exhibits autistic symptoms all of a sudden. What better time, than now, to talk about the moving pictures?

My childhood, like many others, was influenced by the Disney movies I saw. Aladdin, Beauty and the Beast… those were the movies I got into and one of my favorites was The Lion King. I also absolutely loved Jim Carrey – Ace Ventura: Pet Detective– was my first live-action film, and Carrey was my favorite actor in the 90s. Graduating to more mature films was also quite easy, and eventually I got an appreciation of the film medium as much as any other, the artistry, and the unique genius in the world. Because I’ve always been interested in people, it is a way to understand people’s lives without becoming a voyeur, especially including documentaries.

Through seeing, probably, hundreds and hundreds of films of all kinds, I have movies I would call my favorites. My favorite genre of film has usually been the comedy, with the western almost being tied. In comedies, just being able to laugh in such a stressful situation during life is of high importance. The idea of recreating the freedom, liberation and beauty of a western landscape filled with little communities, and a timeless tale of good vs. evil is what I like about westerns. My favorite film, though, belongs to neither genre, and that is Psycho. Typically, a good horror movie isn’t always about scares, but about creating great characters through the twisting of humanity’s psychosis like Norman Bates or Freddy Krueger, in a way it may be the genre where the villain could matter more than the hero/heroine, almost creating an underdog mythos through a character with very few redeemable qualities. Psycho does all of that, especially with Anthony Perkins giving one of the best performances that I’ve seen in a film through the character of Norman Bates. Plus, Alfred Hitchcock is one of my favorite directors.

So what does this have to do with autism? Autistic individuals are generally into repetition which many films provide in a sometimes clichéd manner. This form of repetition makes it easier for us to understand. If the films aren’t completely adaptable to understanding every social situation, it doesn’t matter due to the visual importance of cinema, but they may still be able to learn important social skills, good and bad unwritten rules and proper behavior due to seeing good and bad examples onscreen. It also doesn’t require a lot of work to utilize, therein poor motor control has nothing to do with being able to enjoy a film.

But what may be the most important thing when it comes to autism and film is that it can allow neurotypicals the ability to understand autism in a way that they couldn’t otherwise, and for those with autism to look at role models, to even see their condition brought to a place from which very few social pillars can reach. Besides the confirmations that Daryl Hannah (Bladerunner) and Dan Aykroyd (The Blues Brothers) are both autistic, there are many, many movies, of many different stripes, that all try to tell their version of the autistic story. Besides Rain Man (which is, probably, where many people first heard about autism), there is a Temple Grandin movie, The Story of Luke. Additional movies include Adam, The Big Short, The Imitation Game, The Social Network, A Beautiful Mind, and the list goes on and on. Particularly notable is the film “Change of Habit”, which was one of the earliest film treatments on the condition, and which stars Elvis Presley in a rare dramatic, and final, role. Due to  the era in which it was issued, its mentality on autism can be seen as very insensitive in light of more contemporary practices and views.

For years, I’ve loved cinema, and it is one of the best ways to bond with other people. You go to a theater, get some popcorn, sit in a nearby seat, watch a movie and you don’t have to worry about any social or communication faux pas as you, and another person, suck in the quality of whatever it is that you watch. Because these films move beyond whatever limitations you think you have, you can then socialize about something related to the subject, almost like you can love the film as if you weren’t autistic at all.

Important Message:

As an organization centered in the U.S., we are taking our time to celebrate one of the most important holidays that our fellow countrymen cherish, Thanksgiving. While being uncommonly filmed, those celebrating the holiday can still watch “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, an excellent Thanksgiving-based comedy that is one of the few films that I’ve watched more than once. Have any other movies you’d recommend?  Share them in the comments below and follow us to stay in conversation. Have a happy Thanksgiving!