In Brief | At Length
As the Founder, and first Executive Director of GRASP, the largest organization in the world comprised of adults on the autism spectrum, Michael John Carley has contractually spoken at almost 150 conferences, hospitals, universities, and health care organizations, including trainings at numerous school districts and Fortune 1000 companies. As the Executive Director of ASTEP (now "Integrate"), he also spoke at conferences focusing on Human Resources, Corporate Diversity & Inclusion, and he conducted numerous webinars for more Fortune 1000 companies.
He has appeared in the media widely, most notably in the New York Times, Washington Post, NY Newsday, the London Times, HuffPost Live, NEWSWEEK OnAir, ABCNews, BBC News, FOX News Network, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Psychology Today, Exceptional Parent Magazine, and on radio with Terry Gross’ Fresh Air, and The Infinite Mind. NPR News also aired a 12-minute story in June of 2006 that featured he and GRASP. Carley was also featured in the documentaries, "On the Spectrum," and "Off the Rails."
He was one of two people on the spectrum to address Congress in their first-ever hearings on autism, he has addressed the United Nations, participated in a TED Talk, and his articles have been published in magazines such as Autism Spectrum News, Autism Spectrum Quarterly, and Autism/Asperger Digest. He has a column with Huffington Post ("Autism Without Fear") and his first two books, Asperger's From the Inside Out: A Supportive and Practical Guide for Anyone with Asperger's Syndrome (Penguin/Perigee, April, 2008) and Unemployed on the Autism Spectrum (Jessica Kingsley, February, 2016) were both released to humbling advance reviews. He has also finished two more books; a) "The Book of Happy, Positive, and Confident Sex for Adults on the Autism Spectrum...and Beyond!; and b) The Last Memoir of Asperger's Syndrome.
He was the inaugural FAR Fund Fellow in 2003; and he has since received NYFAC's Ben Kramer Award (2008), the BCID Award for Service (2009), Columbia University's Herbert M. Cohen Lecture (2011), and Eden II's Peter McGowan & John Potterfield Achievement Award (2011). He also proudly sits on the Board of Directors of NEXT for Autism, and additionally he reviews for the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. He also sits on the Advisory Boards of GallopNYC, and C.H.A.S.E.
Until 2001, Mr. Carley was the United Nations Representative of Veterans for Peace, Inc. In that time, he was known primarily for his work in Bosnia, and in Iraq as the Project Director of the internationally acclaimed Iraq Water Project. Prior to 2001 he was also a playwright who enjoyed 15 productions and 10 readings of his plays in New York.
Along with his (then) 4-year old son, he was diagnosed with AS in November of 2000. Re-evaluated under DSM-5 in 2014 he was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. He lives with his wife, Kathryn Herzog, and 2 sons in Green Bay, Wisconsin. After decades of New York City, they recently moved to the Midwest to take care of family and write on a porch—when it isn't freezing.
When Carley was two years old, his father, a Marine Corps helicopter pilot, was killed in Vietnam. His mother and he had already moved back to her hometown of Providence, RI to live with her parents so that she could finish school while her husband was away, and so after his father's passing, they both stayed.
For the next three years, he spent afternoons with his grandmother, who (too old for climbing trees) played cards with him every day. As his grandmother had once made significant money playing when she was much younger, Carley was taught to read body signals, and not to give away a great hand, lest he perhaps lose his allowance. Without knowing it he was being taught what we know today as "non-verbal communication." His grandmother had made the decision to resuscitate this part of her after Carley had tested grades ahead of his peers in math.
His mother became a schoolteacher and the two moved into an apartment when Carley was 5. And as his mother taught at Providence's school for privileged girls, Carley received free tuition to attend Providence's school for privileged boys. It was a disaster that lasted 9 years. Due not only to undiagnosed Asperger's, the legacy of anger that his father's war had left him to answer to, but also the economic disparity between he and his peers, Carley struggled socially, angered teachers, and barely passed each succeeding grade.
In middle school, he became a sort of mascot for some of Providence's most notorious juvenile delinquents. They saw Carley as rejected by those that rejected them, and took him under his wing. While Carley never participated in anything he felt uncomfortable with, he was grateful for the companionship, and even more grateful for the adventures that he was granted thanks to the reckless behavior of his new friends. Carley, it seemed, was doing everything at a far younger age than any of his peers, and it made him feel lucky.
Also now a respected guitar player, Carley was starting to play in clubs—sometimes late at night—in many (what he calls "really bad garage") bands. This too was a great help to his social confidence. But now with long hair, a guitar, disreputable companions, and eccentric mannerisms that no one around him understood, he accrued a reputation at the Moses Brown School as a drug user (Carley did start drinking at a young age, however). The only thing the school seemed to like about him was his pitching arm.
However, Carley always worked. Starting at age 11 he was getting up at 4 a.m. every day to do an hour-long paper route that earned him constant praise from his supervisor, and starting at age 15 he had an after-school job polishing jewelry until 6 p.m. (In later college years he would work as a pot washer and prep cook, and in graduate school as a music librarian.)
At the beginning of 10th grade, Carley switched to an alternative school, School One. Known as "the druggie school" to most, School One had no sports, yearbooks, proms, or grades. It existed with just under 100 students in a converted bowling alley in a downtown Providence neighborhood known for heavy prostitution and bars that were mob-run. Carley welcomed the change. His grades suddenly soared, and he switched groups of friends to a vastly different collection of peers that were artists, that were gay, or that were theatre people, but that still displayed the romanticized reckless behavior of his prior friends.
Carley graduated in 1983, the same year that his mother remarried, and he then went to Hampshire College where he graduated after only three years. There, he enjoyed a heightened social status that he had never before experienced; all because people thought he was talented.
After graduation, Carley went to Eastern Europe. A budding Bertolt Brecht scholar, Carley had received permission from the East German government to do some work in the Brecht Archives in East Berlin. But seizing the opportunity, he spent months, not weeks behind the iron curtain, going also to Poland (during the post-Solidarnosc days), Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and other parts of East Germany. Now addicted to adventures, Carley had realized that, in travel, no one thought he was weird. Any behavioral differences were chalked up to the simple fact that Carley was a foreigner, and so travel became a chance for a clean slate, and an opportunity to experiment with different social behaviors, for there would be no cost if he failed. In travel, as Carley quickly discovered, you were soon to move onto the next town. One would never see those sources of embarrassment again, so what was the cost of social failure?
Only one day after returning from Europe, he drove down to New York City to start a partial scholarship he'd received for graduate school at Columbia University. Still destined to be the weird kid, his reputation wasn't helped by having to live out of his car on Riverside Drive for the first week of school. But once his abilities and work ethic displayed themselves, his schoolmates and faculty welcomed him, and he was the first graduate playwright in his year to be awarded a student production.
He finished classes two years later, and was set to graduate in the following year of 1989. But first, his subsequent thesis centered on another adventure: Living out of his car for five months while he traveled around the U.S., working odd jobs to pay for food and gas. He'd wanted to accomplish something else for his thesis, something abroad. But his advisors were adamant that he have his adventure here. They knew that Carley had always felt ostracized, and they feared he would leave the U.S. soon after graduating. Knowing about his father, they believed Carley had to find a voice here.
In the next 4-5 months, Carley saw how right they were. Carley was living in the most eccentric country in the world and now he knew it. Through more drinking, more labor, listening to the stories of elders, and the occasional bar fight, Carley felt that he was finally living life the way he wanted to—according to the books he'd read, and not to "the provincial theoretical lectures of my elders," and he felt accepted in his own country. He had always wanted to be someone who wasn't afraid of anything, and this trip seemed to be convincing him that he was on the right path. So enamored of a life filled with heightened self-reliance, his mother had to coax him home. Already a month late for registering for his thesis year, he had toyed with "staying out there."
Always one of the more political writers in his program at Columbia, he was determined to do, and be good. In Carley's current mindset, the consequences of his abrasive personality and social missteps were never to be worried about so long as he was accomplishing good.
He married an actress and fellow playwright in 1990, and pursued his theatre career, eventually totaling 15 productions, good working relationships, no negative reviews, countless workshops, and lots of additional work as a sound designer, actor, and director. But after the Gulf War began in 1990 he also hooked up with an organization called Veterans for Peace (VFP) and began working for them on the side, traveling soon with them to Cuba, Bosnia, and eventually becoming their United Nations Representative in 1997. One year earlier, his son, C.C., had been born, in 1996. Carley now saw good in conformity, in wearing suits, and envisioned infinitely more chances at accomplishing social change by working within the system rather than outside of it.
In 1991, early on in his VFP tenure and soon after his wedding, he decided to reject his genetic, Irish-Catholic heritage, and quit drinking.
In 2000 he began his largest endeavor, the Iraq Water Project. According to a 1998 UNICEF report, over 5,000 children were dying every month as a direct result of the economic sanctions being placed on Iraq. Waterborne diseases being the main culprit, VFP started this endeavor in theory, and then sent Carley to choose sites. Under hair-raising conditions, Carley eventually chose four water treatment facilities to be repaired in a suburb of the highest need area (Basra) called Abul Khaseeb. Under further dramatic circumstances, he returned one year later to lead a delegation of war vets (WW II, Korea, Viet Nam, and Gulf War) in a publicity gesture that also would allow him, as Project Director, to monitor the progress. In the end, the project brought clean water to 81,000 people at a cost of only $125,000. This economic and innovative breakthrough shamed the larger agencies that were spending ten times the amount to accomplish similar goals, and that were incurring resentment, not thanks, from the employment-starved locals.
In between these Iraq trips, however, in late 2000—exactly a week apart from one another—he and his son were both diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. For Carley, this answered a lifetime of unexplained mysteries; and it put all of the negative experiences under the contextual umbrella of wiring, and not character.
In 2001 he was asked to take over a small adult Asperger support group In New York. He and his wife were in the process of an amicable divorce with shared custody, and the added free time allowed him to pursue more knowledge about this strange new word "Asperger's."
At the time, the monthly meetings had 6-8 people per in attendance, and less than 20 in circulation. But within two years the group was meeting three times a month, had 45 on average, and over 400 in circulation. The idea of a peer running the show had hit a positive nerve, and speaking engagements soon followed for Carley. An opportunity from the FAR Fund in 2003 led to the formation of GRASP.
GRASP quickly became the largest membership organization in the world for adults diagnosed anywhere along the autism spectrum, and currently has 28 chapters throughout North America, 8,000 full members, and another 11,000 followers scattered through various social media outlets.
From 2002 until 2008 (or when GRASP got too big for him to continue) he worked as a backup classical music host for New York Public Radio. And in 2004, he both began consulting for the New York City schools' special education district, and wrote his first published article in the autism/Asperger world. He married New York Public Radio evening news host, Kathryn Herzog (whom he'd met in Iraq when she'd covered the delegation he'd led), in 2005 and a year later she gave birth to their son, Duke. In January, 2011 he became the Executive Director of the Asperger Syndrome Training & Employment Partnership (ASTEP), working with large companies to help train them to either better manage existing spectrum employees, or to increase their confidence in hiring new ones. And in March 2013, not wanting to ever flirt with "Founder's Syndrome," he left GRASP. With the new time on his hands, he looks forward to writing more, finally having the time to promote his books more, and either finding the next great passion within another organization or pursuing more independent work.
In his spare time he coached travel baseball (and now has coached at every age level) and before moving to Wisconsin was the oldest player in a Brooklyn semi-pro baseball league.