The great irony of Eric Kisly’s disability is that its traits are exactly what would make him a model employee.
Focused. Honest. Hardworking. Intelligent.
But the Woodstock High School graduate’s handicaps speak much louder than how he looks on résumé paper. Kisly, 23, had a form of autism called Asperger syndrome.
In a typed suicide note left for his loved ones, Kisly described the difficulties he had finding a job.
“I hate to say this but by the time you are reading this, I will probably be dead,” Kisly wrote. “I am doing this because I realize that I can’t fix my life given whats [sic] left within me.”
On the morning of June 16, Kisly was killed by a commuter train headed from Harvard to Woodstock.
He was wearing his dress pants, a dress shirt and tie – his interview outfit.
“I thought he was upstairs, because when I came home, the car was there,” said his mother, Linda Kisly of Lakemoor. “The police came about 9 in the morning. When they told me [what happened], I said ‘No, the car’s out there.’ I looked and the car wasn’t there.
“Then I just lost it.”
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Asperger syndrome is a developmental disorder characterized by the inability to gauge emotions or read social cues. It is marked by repetitive rituals and behaviors, peculiar speech and language, and hypersensitivity to light and sound.
Grouped with other autism disorders, Asperger syndrome is thought to be on the milder end of the autism spectrum.
Eric Kisly fit the mold in many ways. He was a Green Bay Packer superfan. He preferred to wear only yellow, cotton T-shirts and drank only Sunkist soda. Socially, he struggled to make friends.
Asperger syndrome traits often are mistaken for rudeness, social awkwardness, or simply just being weird. This made Kisly a target for schoolyard bullies. Unable to adjust the volume of his voice to his surroundings, Kisly often would be shouting – even during job interviews.
“If people are able to look past that first impression of his weird quirks, I think he would have had a much easier time,” said Eric Kisly’s 22-year-old sister, Lauren Kisly. “But people don’t know how to recognize why he acts in a particular way.”
The job search weighed heavily on his mind and had shaken his confidence.
As Eric Kisly stated in his note, “If I can’t convince myself, how can I convince an employer?”
Like others with Asperger syndrome who have above-average intelligence, Eric Kisly graduated with honors in 2011 from Michigan Technological University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
But all the book smarts in the world couldn’t prepare Eric Kisly for a job market grueling enough for recent college grads who don’t have social impairments.
Rudy Simone quite literally wrote the book on people with Asperger syndrome, or “Aspies,” in the work force.
“We need [people] to understand Asperger’s, otherwise we’re fighting a constant uphill battle of people judging us through a neurotypical lens,” said Simone, who has written three other books on Asperger syndrome. “It’s like telling a dog he should act like a cat.”
In her book, “Asperger’s On The Job,” Simone, an Aspie herself, writes that up to 85 percent of those with Asperger syndrome are under- or unemployed. Trouble reading facial expressions or understanding subjective phrases make interviewing a daunting task.
“If only we lived in a society that prized honesty, integrity, strong work ethic, intelligence, focus and all these traits above the ability to make small talk, above confidence, above that sort of idea of being cool and being normal,” she said.
Social abilities and being a team player often mean more in the professional world than creative or independent thinking, Simone said.
“We’re not the yes man,” she said. “We’re the one’s to tell the emperor that he’s naked.”
The incidence of Asperger syndrome is not well-established; the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke estimate that two to six of every 1,000 children have the disorder.
Asperger syndrome goes hand in hand with depression and other mental illnesses, experts say, although the link is not well-documented.
“People with Asperger’s are very intelligent, and they see a picture of what normal life should look like,” said Cindy Sullivan, executive director of Options and Advocacy for McHenry County. “If you can’t achieve that idea of normal, then it brings those feelings of depression and despondency.”
Options and Advocacy runs an autism support group run by program coordinator Winter Noe.
Travis Hafford works alongside Noe as a peer specialist for the autism program. The 32-year-old Crystal Lake resident was diagnosed with Asperger syndrome in adulthood.
Hafford works two part-time jobs and is a full-time student attempting his second bachelor’s degree. He talks in rapid fire with impeccable grammar and a vast vocabulary. He doesn’t make much eye contact.
“I understand what that young man felt because I have had those same feelings,” Hafford said. “I understand what it feels like when no one will give you a chance.”
Having worked years in the retail market, Hafford constantly had his intelligence called into question. But he admitted he takes discipline more personally than his non-Aspie co-workers. The disorder made him feel singled out and can trigger strong feelings of aggression or anxiety.
Now five years into his diagnosis, Hafford has the tools to control his symptoms and prevent an emotional outburst. Like many adult Aspies, he shows very little outward signs of a struggle.
“Just because they look like they’re holding it together, and look nice on the outside, doesn’t mean it feels nice on the inside,” Noe said.
Often Asperger syndrome is mistaken for a litany of other disorders, making it difficult to identify those who have Asperger syndrome versus another disability on the autism spectrum.
There is no one cure for Asperger syndrome. Doctors say it’s best to intervene as soon as a child starts to present symptoms of the disorder, and to put coping strategies in place. Aspies should continue those strategies through adulthood, Noe said.
“As kids get older, social relationships become more complex,” Noe said, adding that those with Asperger syndrome can act out or have behavioral issues if the root of their disabilities are not identified and dealt with.
Intimate relationships also may suffer.
“While a misnomer may be that [those with Asperger syndrome] don’t want relationships, sometimes they just don’t know how to initiate them,” Noe said.
• • •
In Eric Kisly’s room, a tower of empty Sunkist soda cans still are stacked on his desk. His mother just doesn’t have the heart to take them down.
Her wounds are too fresh. When she spoke to the Northwest Herald, it had been only three weeks since Eric Kisly sat down to type his final words.
As she describes Eric’s Sunkist tower, Linda Kisly explains how he would meticulously open the cans without actually breaking the can’s seal, making it look as though they were fresh out of the box.
A stack of bright yellow shirts grabs her eye, and she lifts one up and stretches it out. It’s so worn it’s covered with holes and tears. The pile likely will remain in its place.
There were a sea of yellow T-shirts at Eric’s funeral.
“I can’t even fathom in the slightest bit how much pain he’s gone through his whole life and what it had built up to,” Lauren Kisly said. “I hope and pray that he’s not having a hard time anymore.”