On the Transition to Adulthood

By Victor Skowronski

As I look back on my teenage years and early twenties, some themes emerge in my transition to adulthood. I gradually took on more and more responsibility for my own welfare. Because it was gradual, I never felt overwhelmed. I was also able to get advice from others to help me at various points. This advice helped me immensely. Unfortunately, there were areas where I was not able to get the kind of advice that I needed, and it did have adverse effects.

High School – The Base
Academically, high school provided me with a strong foundation. It was a Catholic high school. The discipline that was part of the school culture made it an excellent place to learn. Some may have thought the discipline stifling; I found that it allowed me to focus.

Another feature of my high school years was a commute of about an hour. I lived in Jersey City but went to a high school in Manhattan. To get there, I had to take a bus and two trains. This meant that I had to learn how to navigate the New York City subway system. After an elementary school that was only three blocks from my home, the experience gave me a chance to learn how to take care of myself without a parent nearby.

My high school was an all boys school. I think that this had some advantages for me. Without girls, boys did not engage in behaviors meant to impress them. There was also no competition among my classmates for particular girl friends. This made it easier to form friendships with my classmates.

The absence of girls did also have its disadvantages. My contact with the opposite sex was severely limited during my high school years. Therefore, I did not learn how to interact with or date girls. This would create problems as I transitioned into adulthood.

College Years
After going to high school in Manhattan, I returned to New Jersey for college, attending the Stevens Institute of Technology. I ended up commuting my first two years, and then living on campus for the last two. I think that this arrangement helped me to adjust to college life a little bit at a time. Being able to commute meant that I could return to familiar surroundings in the evening. When I finally did move to campus, I had friends and knew the environment.

Stevens was also an all-male college. (It would become co-ed the year after I graduated.) After an all-male high school, I did not find this a problem. It did limit my contact with girls, however, and so my inexperience with the opposite sex continued.

I was fortunate in starting college to be offered a work-study position at Stevens. I ended up sorting and delivering mail in the college post office. This gave me an opportunity to learn my way around campus and also to meet many of the administrative personnel. I continued in this position for all four of my years as an undergraduate.

One of the high points of my work/study job was when I was asked to join Tau Beta Pi, the national engineering honor society. As part of my initiation, I had to get signatures from current members. One of them was the President of the college. I asked his secretary for his signature during one of my mail runs. I think that the President was quite happy to see one of the work/ study students, particularly one that he had been seeing for a few years, being inducted into Tau Beta Pi.

Early Twenties
My post college career was complicated by a number of factors. The first was the end of the Apollo program. Even before the program ended, many engineers were being laid off; there was simply no work for them in the space program. Their entry into the job market increased the competition for the available jobs. As a result, I did not get the quantity of job offers that had been considered commonplace only a few years earlier, but I eventually did find something.

My first job was working for General Electric in Schenectady, New York. I spent the first couple of weekends commuting back to my parents in New Jersey, but eventually I had to spend a weekend in Schenectady. That meant that, as a Catholic, I had to go to church. I checked a list of the local churches and found that the closest one was St. Mary’s. They had a convenient time for Mass, so I decided to go there. It turned out that St. Mary’s was one of two ethnic Polish parishes in Schenectady. Since all my grandparents had been born in Poland, I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that out.

There were other surprises. One of the ladies in the choir, Reggie Anderson, recognized me from work. On Monday, she asked if I had enjoyed the music. I was interested in singing, but had only lasted one half of a rehearsal in the college glee club. This didn’t stop Reggie from recruiting me, however. The director of the choir was Joseph Antos, who had gotten his start playing the organ in silent movie houses in Troy, New York. He was willing to work with me and his patience was rewarded. I have been singing in church choirs ever since. It seemed that, in the glee club rehearsal, I had become confused when I heard the other parts. By taking the time to rehearse me in my part without the distraction of the other parts, I was able to learn my part. Sometimes it is not lack of talent, but an inappropriate teaching technique that prevents someone from learning.

It is often said that school is only an introduction and that real learning starts with your first job. That was my experience to some extent. My studies in college had given me an excellent technical foundation. My first job, however, was where I learned the work habits that would serve me well for the rest of my career. I had entered a work culture that prized understanding how things worked and paying attention to detail. This fit nicely with my Asperger traits.

Once I had settled in, I soon found the local singles club. As befitted a club in upstate New York, it was about skiing. I didn’t know how, so I had to take lessons. Fortunately, I was able to learn enough in a few lessons that I could get myself down a mountain without too great a risk of killing myself. I did fall frequently, but this is to be expected when you are learning something new.

Unfortunately, my ability to learn quickly did not extend to dating. It often seemed that, by the time I realized someone might be interested in me, she had moved on. This was frustrating, but the alternative seemed to be for me to make a commitment before I even knew the woman. I was not prepared to do that.

I eventually concluded that the dating scene was beyond my capabilities, since I was not being given an opportunity to learn from my mistakes. Women were simply not interested in helping me—or if they were, the advice that they were getting from their peers and authority figures was simply to say or do whatever it would take to make me go away. If lying was the easiest thing to do, then they would lie.

Later Life
After my initial job, I became interested in microprocessors. The personal computer was in its infancy so I had the opportunity to work with both the hardware and software of very early microprocessor systems.

I started calling the group in which I worked the “Beyond Help” office. Our job was to develop computer systems for people with requirements that could not be met with a traditional mainframe computer system. We would learn what people needed to do, and then we would develop a system that met their needs. I would find out what was commercially available for the system. I would get those items and then build whatever components we couldn’t buy. I found that I had to learn the job of the person I was helping almost as well as he or she knew it. The ability to become obsessed with something was definitely an advantage!

Speaking of obsessions, I acquired a couple in later life. In my early thirties, a cousin invited me out to Iowa to ride in the RAGRBAI (Register Annual Bicycle Ride Across Iowa). I accepted the invitation, and became hooked on bicycling. I have since done quite a few long distance bicycle rides, but the most important result was that I joined the local bicycle club. This shared interest gives me something to talk about. There is also plenty to learn about bicycles: how they work, and how to fix them. I found this last item particularly appealing. I am not a fast rider, but I can help other riders when they have problems on the road. There is more than one way to excel at something.

I have also developed an interest in community folk dancing. I started out in New England contra-dancing and later moved on to English country dancing. I like the lack of complicated footwork in these dance styles. Also, since it is customary to change partners after every dance, asking a woman to dance is not a big deal.

I have been able to combine my interest in dancing with my electrical engineering background by volunteering at a number of folk music festivals in the northeast. These festivals always need volunteers. My electrical engineering background makes me especially valuable in that I can help with the sound equipment. It is not a bad deal: get in for free and get to play with electronics.

I went back to school about 1991. I had always wanted to get a doctorate and it seemed like a good time to do so. Graduate school turned out to be very much like my job in that I had to learn a new field, solid modeling. In graduate school, however, I spent a lot more time learning about solid modeling than I had for projects in my previous job. I spent about three years reading technical papers. It was only then that I was able to work on solving the problem that became the basis for my doctoral dissertation. After getting my doctorate, I moved to Boston where I started working in modeling and simulation.

Some time after moving to Boston, I was reading an article in Forbes magazine. The article was about Temple Grandin and there was a sidebar about Asperger Syndrome. It stated that many computer programmers had this condition. This intrigued me, and I did a little more research. What I learned seemed to answer some questions about why my life had gone the way it had. I then made an appointment with a psychologist. I was too old for the diagnosis to be certain, but she told me that I “probably [had] mild to moderate AS.” I continued researching Asperger Syndrome online after the diagnosis. I found a number of websites that offered information and an online community. One of these sites was that of the Asperger/Autism Network. That is how I found AANE.