My name is Joe Carr. And this is my story.
“Things don’t happen to us, they happen for us.” –Vanessa Stone
“In our greatest wound, lies our greatest gift.” –Carl Jung
This is my entire life story. In the spirit of an “aspie overshare” I lay it all out for you, so you can see how all my struggles have led me to the amazing life I have today.
I grew up in Kansas City, MO, to parents who had quite traditional upbringings. I was a handful, and I imagine it was stressful for my very young, just married new mom, trying to run the perfect household. And then enter this active, loud, creative, uncontrollable little boy. By kindergarten, I genuinely believed my name was “Dammit Joe”. We laugh about that now, but imagine the message that sent my highly impressionable mind. I learned that I was a destructive, maddening burden. But I was a leader among my young peers. Always the prince or the knight in the play acting. Then came school.
School was highly traumatic for me. My mom says I went from being an energetic happy kid, to daily tears and breakdowns. I was routinely denied recess as a punishment for one infraction or another. It was so bad that they sent me back to kindergarten after one semester of first grade. Reading was hard. I didn’t seem to get along with the other kids, and I was always in trouble.
By third grade, I was terribly miserable. Begging not to go to school each day. Getting bullied constantly. Still always in trouble. No real friends. I had a few kids who would play with me one-on-one, but as soon as we were in a group they would turn against me with everyone else. My stomach hurt all the time for no apparent medical reason (now I realize it was anxiety). I was overweight. I had many suicidal thoughts.
ADHD medication didn’t help, and the school knew of no other interventions. My mother tried all manner of activities to find an outlet for me. Basketball, soccer, cub scouts, 4H, and nothing seemed to take. Then one mom pointed out how animated I was, and suggested a local children’s song and dance group. I joined and was immediately given a solo, and thus began a long career in the performing arts.
Though I remained a social outcast, I shined on stage. I had major roles in community and professional theatre, commercials, TV, and radio. I was in the city’s top children’s dance group and had a lead role in every school production. I wrote plays, songs, choreographed dances and made my own costumes. On stage, I could tune everyone and everything out, and just immerse in the experience. I had HUGE energy and could take over an auditorium, and quickly memorized my parts (and everyone else’s).
But why was everyone so mean to me? What was I doing wrong? My younger sister seemed to have it so easy. Everyone liked her. She was never in trouble. Kids came to her slumber parties. My dad always seemed to favor her, and I longed for his approval. For this I hated her. I took out all my anger and sadness on her and found various ways to torment her. My mom bent over backwards to serve me and praised everything I ever did, but I took it for granted and was also rude and mean to her.
I got into a performing arts middle school in the inner city as part of a desegregation magnet program. In 7th grade, a popular girl named Kelly Becket saw something in me. She decided that her and her friends would teach me how to be cool. I did everything they said. I stopped letting my mother pick out my clothes. I started listening to modern music in addition to the musical soundtracks. And I started learning what to say and what not to say. I even asked a girl in my classes to hit me when I interrupted the teacher so I could learn impulse control.
I also started questioning religion, social norms, and began experimenting with drugs and alcohol. This led to enormous power struggles with my father, which got so bad that I disowned him, and called him by his first name for the next two years.
My crushes on girls and sexual energy grew rapidly. I’d always liked girls. I had my first girlfriend at age 5 and my first kiss at age 7 in a backstage reenactment of the doorknob scene in Tom Sawyer. I quickly became obsessive over them because I was so desperate for love and connection. I had an obsession so fierce in 6th grade that I acquired a yearbook picture of a girl and wore it around my neck. I wrote love songs and poems for three different girls in 7th grade, and had my first French kiss in a game of truth or dare.
I was incessantly creative. I re-wrote the entire score of Hello Dolly to be “Hello OJ”, about the OJ Simpson trial. I co-created a comic book character called Joe-Man and wrote about 15 issues. I made movies, memorized musicals, and made jewelry. Academics (except for math) were easy and I made straight A’s, but I was constantly getting detention, in school suspension and even out of school suspension; I just couldn’t seem to follow the rules.
In high school, my social life improved as I made constant effort to fit in. The theatre kids were generally more accepting, and I found my place there. I began dating immediately and either had a girlfriend or was pursuing one for all four years. By the end of my sophomore year, I abandoned the attempts to fit in and made a name for myself in the counter culture. I was always going to stand out anyway, so I embraced it with crazy vintage clothes, hairdos, and jewelry made from hardware and melted CDs. I grew my hair out, died my facial hair bright colors, and began wearing skirts and nail polish. I was barefoot whenever possible, and made my wallets and backpack out of 100% duct tape. I either enjoyed the attention or was able to tune out people’s reaction to me entirely. Both (I would later understand) were gifts of my autism.
At 16, I had a spiritual awakening. I got to visit Slovakia with a foreign exchange student and read “The Way of the Peaceful Warrior” on the plane. I realized that I would be more fulfilled doing what felt right over what felt pleasurable. And so I committed to living a socially conscious life, whether I could make a difference or not.
I became a vegetarian and a passionate environmentalist. I helped start an environmental club at our school that successfully got styrofoam replaced with divided trays in the cafeteria (which remain to this day). We started a middle school theatre camp to provide mentorship to incoming freshmen (which is also still going). I even won a city-wide environmental justice award for my activism. The big energy of my autism paid off when I directed it, and my ability to not care (or even notice) what other people thought allowed me to do what was right over what was popular.
My autism also connects me deeply to the spiritual realm. My mom said as a toddler I would pray every night for all the suffering people in the world, that I constantly worried the kids in my school wouldn’t know God. But the rigid rules and uncomfortable clothes of church ruined spirituality for me. One of my worst punishments ever was for pretending to be asleep when the priest came to shake our hands. But after my awakening, I was hungry for spiritual practice. I found the Unity Church youth program, and started attending a Hare Krishna chanting and dancing service. I had some powerful spiritual experiences on marijuana, where I would travel to other dimensions and see prophetic images of myself. I even had several predictive dreams where I saw things that then happened the next day.
I enrolled in the Evergreen State College in Olympia, WA, in order to be able to “skip barefoot through a field wearing a skirt and not be looked at as weird”. I was looking for my people, and this alternative-style school and culture opened up my world. I went from liberal to radical, became vegan, and joined every activist group I could. I began spending time living high up in old growth trees to protect them from getting cut down, and organized our local chapter of Food not Bombs feeding homeless people free vegan food made from dumpstered and donated ingredients. I became obsessed with eliminating waste, eating food out of trashcans and re-using everything. I dreadlocked my hair and stopped showering (showering is illogical and I always hated the feel of water on my skin). I drew on my performance skills and directed street theater, made 10-foot tall puppets, and wrote political slam poetry.
I had learned how to perform at social skills, I was well known, and generally liked. But I didn’t have any real friendships. To escape this deep loneliness, I worked many hours on various activist projects, smoked a lot of weed, and constantly pursued attention from girls. The tricks I’d learned to get girls in high school didn’t work in college, and my activism turned me into an avid feminist so I was weary of anything that could be considered sexist. My best friend in high school became my girlfriend, but we were at different colleges so maintained a long distance, polyamorous relationship for all four years of college, that was wracked with constant arguments and pain.
My direct experience with being marginalized, mixed with immense guilt at having white American male privilege, made me a passionate advocate for the underdog. The more I learned about racism and imperialism, the more I wanted to fight for the freedom of all people. So I traveled to Palestine to join their nonviolent freedom movement. Shortly after arriving, I witnessed the murder of Rachel Corrie, a friend from Evergreen who was crushed to death by an Israeli Bulldozer as she stood preventing the demolition of Palestinian civilian homes. I was blocking another bulldozer at the time, except mine stopped before running me over. A month later, I was also right next to British activist Tom Hurndall when he was shot and killed by an Israeli sniper.
I became the media spokesperson for those incidents and wrote an epic hip-hop song telling Rachel’s story. I did an international speaking tour educating people about the Palestinians’ plight, facing enormous public criticism, even death threats, and I was able to tune all that out and stand for what was right. I spent the next three years traveling to and from Palestine, and I visited Iraq at a time when there were no internationals on the ground. My autism allowed me to stay conscious in really high stress situations, because my system is already used to having to tune out excess information. I got so used to being yelled at by teachers as a kid, it wasn’t so hard to handle being shot at by soldiers.
I wrote and recorded hip-hop albums of political music and poetry and did three national education and performance tours. My fast, pictorial mind made rapping come quite easily. I feel the beats deeply in my body, and the words just flow out of me like water. I had a lot to say, and rapping was the only way I could fit all those words into one song!
My self-care deteriorated. I had unhealed trauma from all the violence and had created enemies within the movement through social mistakes and destructive relationships. I was still self-medicating with weed and women and started to sink into a depression. I hit bottom when conflicts with a woman I was dating caused me to be alienated from my friends and fellow activists. I sought out a men’s therapist to help me with my dating difficulties and he diagnosed me with Asperger’s Syndrome. He helped me begin to see that all the things I was most proud of in myself were directly related to my biggest challenges.
At age 28, I looked at my life and realized I’d done so many great things, but had nothing to show for it. No relationships. No money. No career. No community. I withdrew from the activist community and did a year of seeking. I became celibate and completed a year-long Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) program. I started meditating, doing yoga and reading self-help books. I reconnected with my passion for children, and discovered that the education system was one of our world’s biggest sources of oppression and injustice. I received a vision of an intergalactic network of community-based education centers where children were free to play, learn, love and create in their own way. And I set off to create it.
I’d found another powerful way to direct my obsessive mind. I got a job with Communities in Schools in Austin, TX, and moved there to create a new life. I began volunteering and connecting with every progressive youth program I could find: Theatre Action Project, Southwest Key, SafePlace, Sustainable Food Center’s school gardens program, PODER’s Young Scholars for Justice, Austin Home Base Academy, Clearview Sudburry School, and I helped co-found the Education Transformation Alliance.
But with every success came another challenge. From my childhood, I took on a deep belief that I would always be excluded, and I continued to manifest it. I volunteered as assistant director at the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble for two years, but they wouldn’t interview me for the director job. I worked for Williamson County Hope Alliance creating an innovative violence-prevention program in schools and was fired in the middle of implementation because I rocked the boat too much. I co-founded the Men Rally for Change march against gender violence and was kicked out because of disagreements I had with other organizers. And I co-founded the Wake Up Youth Sangha house and community center based in the tradition of Thich Naht Hanh, which collapsed due to interpersonal dynamics between me and the other leaders.
I was lonely. I started my first romantic relationship in years, and it became the first healthy relationship with a woman I’ve every had. The personal work I had done really paid off and we were able to be super honest and connected, while maintaining a good balance of friendships with others. I believed I was going to marry her, but in the end it wasn’t right and we ended it before it got too destructive. I really struggled to date after that. Online dating got me a lot of great first dates, but afterwards the women wouldn’t return my calls. However, I did finally have a few good solid friends, and got to a really deep level of honesty and vulnerability with them.
In the winter of 2011, I learned my parents were divorcing. I had just been fired from Hope Alliance, my truck broke down, and I became bed-ridden with pneumonia for 10 days. But I had been through worse and was determined to rise again. I healed my body, fixed my truck, found deeper connection with my parents, and got a job with LifeWorks running an afterschool program for middle school kids living in the Housing Authority. LifeWorks loved my big ideas, and even gave my team their most prestigious annual award for innovation.
Realizing I’d gone as far as I wanted to go in the non-profit scene, I stepped out to found the Growin’ Together Hands-On Afterschool and Summer Program. I created the environment I never had as a child: where the kids made the rules and directed their time. They did amazing projects led by professional artisans, while creating community and managing their own conflicts. We had many kids with “special needs” including a handful of Aspies, and they flourished. I put all of myself into the project and gained a lot of attention for the program. But as the organization grew, my social and emotional limitations became unmanageable. I was again faced with having to leave something I loved because I had alienated people. I left, and the organization continued for about a year before closing.
Always seeking to become better, I studied Nonviolent Communication, which gave me concrete tools to empathize and connect with people more quickly. I completed (and almost got kicked out of) the Landmark Forum, which helped me reconnect with my vision. I attended regular indigenous sweat lodge ceremonies and began practicing Celtic magic (my heritage is mostly Irish). I was initiated into the ManKind Project, a powerful group of men that truly accepted me for everything I am. And I sought out David Wygant, an authentic dating coach that vastly improved my dating skills.
Newly empowered at dating, I met a gorgeous, intense woman who introduced me to OneTaste, which teaches body awareness methods that help people learn to feel more deeply, stay conscious in high sensation, and connect with others through fierce vulnerability. The OneTaste community could not only handle my full intensity, but demanded I be my full, big, wild self. I dove in, moving into their cooperative house and enrolling in their intensive 10-month Coaching Program.
In OneTaste, I discovered that my ability to feel deeply was a huge asset when it came to dating and relationships. I learned how to relate with women energetically rather than with my head, and suddenly I went from the awkward guy in the friend zone, to the guy who could get virtually any woman he wanted. I also learned important tools for open-relating (non-monogomy), that allowed for an abundance of love and connection that most men only dream possible. The Coaching Program taught me that my ability to violate boundaries makes me a powerful coach; I’m willing to help people push through limitations and walls they don’t want anymore. That mixed with my ability to feel a person deeply also made me gifted at sales, and I dramatically changed my relationship with money.
After Growin’ Together failed, I joined the OneTaste Austin staff fulltime in order to learn leadership and teamwork. They painstakingly worked with me on communication, attention, self-care, and energy management. They demanded I accept and embrace all parts of myself, including my autism, and I finally became fully out about my diagnosis. They also insisted I do 12-Step work, and I committed to a life of sobriety. Through all this surrender, I started to see real success. The sales team I was leading more than tripled our class enrollments. I maintained daily practices that kept me clear and energized. I completed all 12-steps and am now sponsoring others. And I began an amazing relationship with Serenity, who became my wife.
I met Serenity when my boss at OneTaste brought her into do a lecture on healthy eating. During her lecture, I realized two things. One, eating Paleo is going to help me conquer the last challenges of my autism, and two, I’m going to marry this woman! And I was right about both!
Serenity shares my commitment to personal growth and changing the world. She is incredibly sensitive, and LOVES my ability to feel and touch her just right. She can be a little timid, and appreciates my willingness to challenge her walls and bring her out. Since I’m not always so good with subtly and nonverbal communication, she’s learned to ask clearly for what she wants and set firm boundaries (skills she wanted to develop anyway). And she was willing to learn a lot about autism and have compassion for my challenges. But most importantly, she holds me to a high standard, insisting I act from my full power and show up big for her. Through our sobriety work, we decided to become monogamous, start a business, get married, and have a child.
6 months after I became sober, I realized I was burned out on all of the hard work running a sales team for a startup, and I stepped back to find the lifestyle I really wanted. For the first time, I left an organization without controversy and hard feelings, and I’m still very connected to my former team. Through acupuncture, Chinese herbs, Tantric energy healing, and a MUCH slower schedule, I dramatically lowered my anxiety. My acupuncturist said my pulse went from stockbroker to Zen priest in a matter of months! I also switched to the Paleo diet, which is IDEAL for autism, and started taking supplements that improve my mood, digestion, hormones and vitamin absorption. I created a successful independent business doing coaching fulltime, specializing in helping fellow Aspies learn to love themselves and access the gifts of their autism.
We both grew tired of the constant hustle of coaching, and after reading Tim Farris’s Four Hour Workweek I was on the hunt for a market gap I could fill with a product. I always wanted children, so when Serenity and I got serious, we began planning to start a family. Having both transformed our health through the Paleo diet, we got excited about finding healthy baby foods. But when we started looking at baby foods on the market, we were shocked at how little quality meat and vegetables were available, and how high in sugar the standard fruit purees were. So we decided to start Serenity Kids Baby Food.
It was a long and difficult journey to bring our products to market. But we were both clear that this was the path God had laid out for us, and we were answering the call. We stuck with it and launched our first two products on August 5, 2018, the same day our baby Della was born!
Now we have a full line of products that are low sugar, allergen-free, nutrient dense combinations of pasture raised meats, organic veggies and healthy fats. We are one of the top selling baby foods in Whole Foods nationwide and quickly expanding to other stores. We have an incredible team, who I’m able to help lead with a lot of communication, attention, honesty and integrity. I rely on Serenity’s oriented work style and brilliant intuition, which balances out my intense speed and passion to move things forward. My teammates say I’m an awesome boss, which feels so great after all the struggles I had in previous jobs.
I use my ability to feel others to keep my team focused and excited. I use my fierce honesty to give clear feedback and help others resolve underlying conflicts. I use my big energy and performance skills to make promotional videos, sell to retailers, and pitch to investors. And my outside-the-box thinking helps us stay ahead of other companies and create something genuinely new.
It doesn’t mean everything is easy. I still have to constantly manage my anxiety with mindfulness and Chinese herbs. I still have occasional conflicts with staff or other partners due to missed social cues or too much intensity. And sometimes I say more than I should and cause confusion or PR problems. Buy by and large I manage those challenges and consider my autism to be a net positive influence.
While the company and new baby keeps me busy, I still support autistic people and their families. I serve on the Autistic Adult Advisory Panel for the Autism Society of Texas, and for the Autism Hope Alliance.
I can unequivocally say that I am grateful for my autism, none of this would have been possible without it. All my experiences, both good and difficult, have shaped me into the man I am today. And it gave me my most important gift: a commitment to grow and help others grow. I will create a world where everyone, young and old, Aspie and non-Aspie, can be free to express themselves live their dreams.
I hope you enjoyed my story, and that you are as grateful for everything you’ve experienced as I am.
“Things don’t happen to us, they happen for us.” –Vanessa Stone
“In our greatest wound, lies our greatest gift.” –Carl Jung
Tell me your story!