Friday, July 29, 2011

Interview: Alex Plank, Autism's Most Eligible Bachelor

We spent a good amount of time at IMFAR hanging out with Alex Plank and other autism community members and journalists. While many discussions were laced with respectful disagreement, there was one matter upon which everyone agreed: Alex deserves the title Autism's Most Eligible Bachelor. Not just because his kinetic energy and wicked sense of humor are utterly charming, and not only due to the  drive and focus that led to his creating the popular online Asperger's community WrongPlanet.net as a teenager, plus founding Autism Talk TV last year. No, we were just amazed that someone as awesome as Alex is single. Read on, and you'll understand why.

For those who may not know, what is WrongPlanet.net?

WrongPlanet. net is the online community and resource for people with autism and folks connected to them -- pretty much everyone.

When did you found WrongPlanet?

In 2004. I was seventeen, and in high school. It was the summer before my senior year, and I wasn't doing too well in school. I was kind of depressed -- I spend a lot of time online and was refusing to do school work. So I wanted to make a community for people with autism and Asperger's -- the biggest community. And it turned out quite well, I think. It's getting bigger every day.

Yes, it's a huge forum. Is it self-moderated, or have you appointed moderators?

One thing that's great about the Wrong Planet community is that we have volunteer moderators, who work with the community and are very involved with the community -- and whom I pick. If I see someone who would make a good moderator, who follows the  rules and is respectful of other members, then I make them a moderator.

It sounds a bit like Wikipedia, in that it's volunteer but quality curation.

Well, I used to work with the Wikipedia project, before it became famous. When I was in high school, before I created my website, I was a very big contributor to Wikipedia. I edited 10,000 articles, and was a systems operator for some of the wikipedias. I specifically focused a lot on the Civil War and battles of the Civil War: I wrote a lot of the original articles on the Civil War.

What was your connection to the Civil War?

I grew up in Virginia, and there are a lot of Civil War battlefields. My dad is a Civil War buff, so I grew up learning a lot about the Civil War, and we studied it a lot in school. It just always interested me.

You're currently in Southern California. How are you doing, and are you enjoying a change from the East Cost?

Things are great. I really like the weather here. I'm very sensitive to the sun; when it gets cloudy I tend to get depressed. I'm much happier here.

What was the reason for your move from the East Coast to Los Angeles?

I came to work in the entertainment industry. I've worked on reality shows -- on "sizzle" reels, the 5 - 10 minute demos of pilots that get pitched to producers. I'm still doing freelance work, that varies. I've been filming a lot, I've been editing a lot. It's turned out to be a good decision, moving here. I've gained a lot of good connections.

It's great that you're happy, not everyone who moves to L.A. ends up liking it. Sometimes they find the people superficial or preoccupied.

That's one thing I've noticed, but I'm here for a reason. Plus the weather's so great, it doesn't bother me. And sometimes the people are so preoccupied with themselves that they treat people on the spectrum they way they treat everyone else. They're so concerned with how you view them that they don't even consider that you might have autism. In a way, that's a good thing, I guess.

What did you do between college and coming to southern California?

I worked on my website and WrongPlanet.net. I was also living up at John Robison's house, and working with him and his son Jack on our show Autism Talk TV. I started the show out on my own, and then John introduced me to folks from Autism Speaks -- and they sponsored some of our funding.

Some folks with autism aren't happy with Autism Speaks. What's your perspective?

I understand black and white thinking on this issue, as I’m on the spectrum myself. But the fact that they hired a guy with autism is a good first step, better than any other autism organization I’ve worked with. They were also the only ones who offered to sponsor Autism Talk TV, and their sponsorship is completely hands-off. I get to produce the material I want to produce.

Tell us about Autism Talk TV. What is it, what was your inspiration for starting it, where do you see it going?

I started a couple of years ago, because I wanted to have a TV show online, that was the goal. It's become something bigger, we post the videos online and get 1000s of views, which is cool. It's all online, you can see it at WrongPlanet.net.

I do the show with Jack and Kirsten, who are both on the spectrum. We just got back from the Autism Society's national conference in Orlando, and did some filming there. We also made quite a lot of videos at IMFAR (The International Meeting for Autism Research), and we still have some that are ready to be posted. People were pretty psyched about our work at IMFAR. Actually, a lot of people are asking us to film their conferences.

But we're continually improving the show, making it better. I work very closely with my friend Noah, who went to film school with me. We're going to try to pitch it to some TV Networks, and we're working with some folks who've produced network TV before.

How do you decide who you're going to feature on your show?

I just look for people who have an interesting story to tell that's related to autism.

Your Autism Reality short film was made in 2009. Do you still consider it representative of how you feel?

Yes. I give talks all over the country, and I like to show it before I speak -- so I don't have to speak as much!


autism reality from Alex Plank on Vimeo.

In the film, you say it takes a lot of energy for you to maintain a social atmosphere, even with people you know really well. Is this draining for you, right now, giving an interview?

Not really, it's an interview, so it's a controlled structure: You ask questions and I answer them. There's no uncertainty about what's going on, socially, for me. But I do have to think about how I'm going to phrase things more than other people -- I guess; I really have no idea how someone who isn't me thinks.

But in social situations with my peers it's much more difficult, because I have difficulty with the non-verbal stuff as well. Though what's amazing is I'm getting much better at reading people -- I'm really growing in that sense, I have a lot of friends.

In Autism Reality, your parents talked about some difficult experiences you had in elementary school, specifically with a principal who actually had kids sit down with you and tell you what they didn't like about you.

The principal put us all in her office, and we all got to sit at a table, and all the kids got to say one thing they didn't like about me. That was their intervention to stop people from bullying me.

Is the incident an artifact of your past, or do you still think about it sometimes?

I don't think about it much, and I don't think it's at the top of my parents' minds either. I just think about the future, and the present. I don't really focus on the past in that sense. At the same time, being teased or bullied is hard, it still bothers me that that happened.

But I'm not the kind of person who feels like a victim, so I treat it as a learning experience. I treat everything as a learning experience -- the good and the bad. I don't like when people go around complaining. I can understand that they were upset about what happened, but I don't want to do that, personally. It's empowering to not be a victim. 

If I did [go around complaining] I would be miserable. I would start looking at the world in a negative way. I think part of the reason I've been successful is that I look at the world as this really cool thing -- the good and the bad. It just is what it is. When good things happen, I get surprised. When bad things happen, I think about what I could have done to prevent them from happening -- and if I couldn't have done anything, then it's not a big deal.

So, let's talk about your being autism's most eligible bachelor. You've dated before?

Yes. In high school, and in college. Different girls.

What kinds of things are you looking for?

Intelligent, funny, good personality, physically active -- I ride my mountain bike every day. I also like to go out and see movies a lot. Especially Woody Allen movies. I like Woody Allen a lot.

Do you have any dealbreakers?

I don't know what a dealbreaker would be. You can't really know until you meet a person. That seems like common sense to me.

What other kinds of things are you into recently?

I went to a Magicians' Club in L.A. called The Magic Castle -- and I'm pretty sure a lot of the people there had autism. I'm thinking about taking magic lessons.

Do you think you have the underlying skills for prestidigitation?

I think if you practice anything you can do it well. John Robison said something I completely agree with: if you're spending a lot of time at something and you're not good at it -- regardless of autism -- then there's something else wrong. And since you have autism, you're going to be spending a lot of time at what you're interested in -- more than most people. So you're going to have an edge.

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Alex's sites include www.wrongplanet.net and www.alexplank.com, and you can contact him at alex -@- alexplank.com We suspect John Elder Robison is the only person who can get away with calling him "The Plankster."