It isn’t always what we say, sometimes it’s how we say it. This can be especially challenging for someone with Asperger’s Syndrome and for those around them. Listen as Consumers Energy’s Chris Pombier shares his unique journey.
Bill Krieger: Hello, everyone. Welcome to “Me You Us,” a wellbeing podcast. It’s another wellbeing Wednesday here at Consumers Energy. I’m your host, Bill Krieger. Today, my guest is Chris Pombier. He is a BP&A financial analyst here at Consumers Energy. Chris, if you’d introduce yourself, we’ll get the conversation started.
Chris Pombier: All righty then. My name is Chris Pombier. I work here at Consumers, facilitating the finances for the gas compression team. Helping them to find the details and refine their forecast and budget, so they keep on track with the monies they spend, and don’t overspend or underspend. Get things that they need to done.
Bill: Couple of questions, just for the audience. What is BP&A? How does that relate to compression?
Chris: Budget planning and analysis. We help them craft their budgets for each year. Help them understand what they are going to spend, the projects they are going to include in their activities for the year, and then the following years as well. We help keep track of those details, and then the dollars that are associated with them.
That’s very important, especially in the days where now we’re trying to trim our gas budget down to keep it more competitive with the rest of the country. Get the gas rates down as much as we can to help our ratepayers, which is a very good thing, being a ratepayer.
Bill: Yes, most of us are. I have to do a shout out to the financial analyst folks. I have managed budgets over the years. It’s always been an amazing relationship.
I got to have a shout out to Jean, Nick, and Karen, our financial team over in people and culture. Just shout out to them for the hard work that they do. I know that what you do is…it could be fascinating, it could be fun, but it can also lead to some difficult conversations. It’s much appreciated.
Chris: Yes. You’ve got that perfectly correct. [laughs]
Bill: We were talking before the podcast. I found out that you and I graduated high school around the same time. 1983, right?
Bill: My wife brought this up. We’re coming up on our 40th.
Bill: I’m hoping someone’s planning something. If you’re out there and you went to Eastern High School, and you graduated in ’83, we need to have a reunion, doggone it. Let’s get that rolling. You graduated high school in ’83. Where did you go to high school at?
Chris: Waterford Township, right next to Pontiac.
Bill: Very familiar with that. I almost ended up in Waterford, when I was in the Navy, as a recruiter. They changed me over to Mount Pleasant. That was where my path led me. You graduated from high school. Did you think, “I want to be a financial analyst at Consumers Energy,” when you graduated?
Chris: No. [laughs] The funny thing was I was interested in hard sciences and math. Initially, I wanted to go into the Navy. Join their nuclear tech program. I was unable to do that because of some issues. I ended up changing my mind and going to college, which my parents were hoping I would go in the Navy.
Chris: I ended up at the University of Michigan. The first couple of years, I studied physics and mathematics, mostly. Somewhere along the way, with all the craziness and the issues going on in the ’80s, my attention got drawn away to other issues, just everyday news issues.
I was looking at what’s the underlying causes for all these conflicts around the world? I changed my focus and became more interested, and got into what actually was a pre?law curriculum. I didn’t realize this at the time. I studied history, social sciences, political sciences. The equivalent of what most people have as a minor, ended up being anthropology, would be comparative religions.
I was interested in all these conflicts that were going on and what was driving them. I dove into that. That’s where I ended up getting my degree, even though I was one class away from getting a double major in mathematics. Six credits, I would have had a Bachelor of Science degree. That’s how much science and math I took.
I found out that I had this real drive for trying to understand conflict, and why that occurs. Tried to clear that through my mind as to why do people do that? I don’t understand. I’m not sure I understand, still, but at least I have a more of a clear explanation of a lot of the things that happened during the 20th century.
Bill: You go to school, math and sciences, and then get into political science and anthropology. Then you graduate University of Michigan. What happens?
Chris: It was a lull in jobs. It was hard to get a job. I started at low?level customer service positions, where you’d go out to actual people’s homes and interact with them. Worked my way up to become assistant manager in the office.
From there, I had some friends that were in a local telecom company. At the time, telecom was exploding. There was telecom companies everywhere. Everybody had their own. He got me an interview. I moved around there.
I started out as more of a business analyst, or a costing analyst there, and moved around in different areas. IT planning, I became a program manager for IT, helped develop systems. Did some business analysis and system analysis in that IT role.
Then, from there, I sprung over to product management and product marketing jobs, and moved around at different telecom companies. Even going down to Georgia, working for a company down there for a year.
Since telecom dried up after 1996, there was an act there that caused the telecom area to shrink. Now, we only have a few telecom companies because of that. I was like, “This is too volatile. Too many companies going under.”
I got a chance to interview here at Consumers for a financial analyst job in the IT area under Tami O’Dowd?Williams who retired recently in the last couple of years. I got in there. From there, I’ve moved around a little bit here and there. I was a contractor for a few years. Then, I finally got hired on as a full?time employee.
I enjoyed the time here. This company has a very good employee culture. It has a lot of support. I can’t emphasize this enough how much this company cares about their employees and their customers, much more so than any company I’ve ever been at before this. I appreciate it.
Bill: I would have to agree with you. When we talk about taking care of our co?workers and caring for people, I have not found a company that’s better than this.
I want to go back a little bit. You’re talking about coming in as a financial analyst, and doing some of the work that you did. I’m wondering, for me, I didn’t take a lot of math courses, because I was never very good at math. The one thing I like about math is two plus two is four. It can’t be anything except four. It seems to me like numbers, they are what they are.
Chris: That’s one thing I like about math and numbers. Wherever you go in the universe, mathematics is the same.
No matter if you’re traveling halfway at the speed of light, or at the speed of light, or sitting still, numbers are still the numbers. You can count on them there. You can’t mess them up. They are what they are, math is what it is. There’s some comfort in that.
Bill: I would completely agree with you. You found your home here at Consumers. You’ve done a couple of different things. One of the things we talked about, too, before the podcast, and maybe some of your co?workers would be surprised to find this out about you ?? maybe not, I don’t know ?? but you do have Asperger’s.
Bill: Could you talk a little bit about what that is for the folks who don’t understand it?
Chris: It’s part of the autism spectrum. Some of the highlights, or more the stronger symptoms of that, or issue…Not issue. It’s a different way, but it’s neurodivergence.
Like right now, I’m having difficulty discussing, communicating. It causes you to have a disconnect between your brain and understanding communication. If someone’s talking to me or sending me emails, I may misinterpret that, or vice versa, because there’s something lacking there.
I can’t even explain it, but there’s buffers that filter things out and muffle. It’s like being under blankets, and someone’s talking to you with a pillow on your head. You’re trying to understand. You can hear it, but it’s not all coming through clearly. That’s not just it’s written, it’s spoken.
Emotions, it’s very hard for me to interpret emotions. Looking someone in the face, unless it’s more of a strong emotion, I’m never quite sure what’s going on. I can’t interpret that well. Those are the highlights.
There’s also some underlying anxieties for social interactions. As soon as I get into a position where I have to lead a discussion, or stand up in front of people, or even interact with people in large groups, my fight or flight instincts immediately kicked in. I’m ratcheted up to 100 percent or more.
I don’t know if I’m going to offend someone, or I’m going to say something that’ll be misconstrued, if I say something that may hurt someone’s feelings. That’s the most thing that I’m afraid of. I don’t want to hurt anybody’s feelings or make them feel bad.
That’s the farthest thing I could possibly want. I have great empathy, but I have a lot of difficulty in expressing that. Sometimes, it doesn’t come through quite the way I want. I tend to be a little more standoffish and reserved. I don’t know how else to be…
There’s something called masking, which people with Asperger’s learn to do over time, which is emulating behaviors that they’ve learned and observed. It hides what’s going on, but they’re still struggling inside. It’s like I have this internal file card system where I see what’s going on and compare things internally, and I’m thinking.
There’s oftentimes someone will say something to you. It’ll be a lapse or a gap between what they say to me and what I respond to them, because I’m not quite sure necessarily. I’m struggling internally to make sure that I’m not diverging from what I’m trying to express.
If anybody reads my emails, then [laughs] they’ve said, “Oh, my gosh. This guy writes on and on forever.” I’m over?communicating to try to make sure I don’t miss anything. I’m trying to get my point across, and that’s struggle. [laughs]
Bill: I want to go back a little bit on what you’ve said, and unpack a few things. I appreciate what you said about having a blanket or a pillow over your head. You know somebody’s talking, but you’re not sure what it is. Is it the same with written communication, too?
It’s the whole you need to process it, and that can take some time. You have that going on. Then, you have the flight or fight response, which I’m very familiar with. I have generalized anxiety and PTSD. One thing is that can wear you out.
Bill: At the end of the day, sometimes, I’m ready to go to sleep, you have that going on. Then, you have this delayed response sometimes to answering a question, or having a general conversation. I could see where all these things would play in together to make for some very interesting miscommunications.
Chris: Especially, if things get to the point where it’s escalating, and there’s getting towards conflict or argumentative, I tend to shut down more.
I pull back because these are the types of…Especially when there’s high emotions involved, because I have difficulty expressing emotions, to begin with. When there’s ratcheted?up emotions, I am pulling back and drawing in.
That’s happened at a prior job where I was a product manager. There was all these people at this table. We’re discussing a new product. We’re trying to get the details nailed down, and the IT requirements, blah, blah, blah. They all start arguing and going amongst each other. I pulled back, and was looking and going, “How did it get to this point?”
The meeting ended, and my VP was like, “You should have taken more control of that. You should have been more ahead of it, and pulled everybody back in and rein them down.” I said, “It’s like…” At the time, it didn’t occur to me, but the reason for it was the Asperger’s shut me down.
Bill: People could assume that you’re not engaged.
Bill: It sounds like you’ve had that feedback like, “You’re not engaged. What’s your problem, Chris? What’s going on here?” Then, on top of that, you know, but then you struggle to even communicate. That is what it sounds like.
Chris: Exactly. It’s almost like my voice shuts off. I struggle to speak at some points because I’m overwhelmed. That’s what it is. It’s sensory and emotional overload. It’s like sounds, sounds can be very debilitating if they become too loud or too shrill.
My wife makes fun of me because, you see, I’m wearing blue and blue. I don’t like loud colors or bright colors that pull attention to me, or patterns. Patterns literally will give me a headache. Polka dots? I don’t know what the thing is with polka dots.
Chris: What is it with polka dots? My head hurts.
Bill: [laughs] It’s not something for you to have to look at. It’s interesting. When you think about these things, you don’t necessarily think about them in terms of fashion, or any of those things. In reality, we have six senses or five senses. The sixth sense is when we see dead people. We don’t go there.
Chris: Yes. [laughs]
Bill: We have five senses, folks. We haven’t invented the sixth one, I promise you.
Bill: I can see where that would be a challenge for you. If it’s OK if I ask, how does that play out at home as well?
Chris: It can be very hard on my wife, especially, because she is a more emotional person. There are times when she’s expressing things to me, and it’s a lot. Because it’s her and I one?on?one, I struggle less, but it’s still a struggle at times. Sometimes, she’d say, “Don’t you have anything to say?” I’m like, “Yes.”
I’m trying to formulate things, and she’s starting to get mad at me because I’m not responding to her the way that she would want me to. I’m like, “I’m trying. I’m struggling.” I’m trying to explain that to her, but even after 21 years of marriage, she’s still like, “Uh?uh, come on. Work with me.” I’m like, “OK.” [laughs]
Bill: She’s learned that if she’s patient enough, that she can pull this out of you, and you can have that conversation. I can imagine that goes back to, “Well, you’re not engaged.”
Now, I tell people this all the time. I’m sure the folks on the podcast have heard that my wife is Greek. Conversation in Greek is a little [laughs] louder than conversation otherwise. Sometimes, she’ll want me to argue back. Sometimes, I do, and sometimes, I don’t.
I can imagine that in that situation, it could be very frustrating for your wife. She wants to have this argument, whatever it is. You’re trying to, but you can see that you’re both frustrated.
Chris: Yes. It has led to issues from time to time. At the worst times, when things got bad and I was so overwhelmed, I would literally say, “I got to stop this. I’ll be back.”
I would literally walk about a mile and a half around our neighborhood ?? it’s a circular neighborhood ?? and come back after I decompressed. All that anxiety, and all that frustration level of being unable to express what I was trying to communicate, and I would then be able to interact with her again. It builds up, and there’s a point where I have to stop.
My nephew also has Asperger’s. I didn’t realize I had Asperger’s until very recently, because my nephew and my daughter both have it. I recognized certain aspects of what they were going through. It was like, “Wait a minute.” It’s like a light went on. It’s like, “Wait, I did all that. I had all that.”
He’s a big guy. He’s a big kid, and he’s very strong. He dealt with bullying, and people treating him badly. When he had enough, he would walk until he walked it off.
At school, it became problematic. Because he was so big, he would walk through a hallway, and walk through people. He knocked them out of his way, not intending to harm anybody, but because he was so focused and overwhelmed, he had to get that out of him.
I recognized those different types of things that he was going through. I was like, “Wow, that’s very similar to what I’ve dealt with all my life.” It’s hard. [laughs]
Bill: If you don’t mind me asking this question, too, do you see a counselor or a therapist? Do you do anything to have…? I don’t know if coping mechanism is the right word, but how do you work through this?
Chris: I have to go away, and have some quiet…Basically, it’s like a quiet time alone, and decompress by myself.
If I’m at work, and someone notices I’m sitting at the table with my hands over my mouth and nose ?? it’s like breathing into a bag when someone’s hyperventilating ?? it’s a sign that I’m at that breaking point, I need to pull back. That helps to calm me down for some reason.
My daughter fidgets and she’ll rock, which is very common, but I don’t tend to do that. When you do those things in meetings, it’s disruptive. I’ve learned to try to find ways that are more under the radar sort of thing, sort of breathe. That does help.
As you said, at the end of the day, I go home and I’m wiped out if I have a lot of interactions, a lot of discussions, a lot of meetings, even if they’re online. It’s all that noise, and feeling forced to interact and to talk. That can be very stressful.
Bill: It’s interesting you talked about noise. I was talking with someone the other day, and they have small children. One of the children has this toy that makes this obnoxious noise. They had some friends over, and the friends don’t have children. One of the friends was like, “Is that noise not bugging you?” She was like, “What noise?”
Bill: She had completely tuned it out. It sounds like that doesn’t work for you. The louder it gets or the longer it’s there, the more you’re focused on that than anything else.
Chris: Yes, absolutely. It distracts me and pulls me away from what I’m trying to do. The office I work in at home is off by itself. It’s the door shut, the windows are closed. I have my computer on, and the light on. It’s quiet, and I can focus that way.
Actually, I’ve been much more productive since I’ve been home because there’s less distractions like that. While we were here at Parnell, even it’s not a very noisy place, there’s still stuff going on in the background all the time.
Bill: That’s true. I’ve noticed that. I’ve noticed with some of the newer offices, they put the white noise generators. Do those help or not?
Chris: Yeah. My wife and I, we have one that we use intermittently. I have a little fan. Not a fan, it’s air filter. The sound of that running in the background, it’s very low level, very quiet. It does help. It reduces the stimulus overload.
Bill: One of those things where you don’t notice it’s there, but you notice if it’s not there.
Bill: Like putting the right amount of salt in an apple pie.
Bill: If you don’t do that, it’s all messed up. Chris, what’s it like being a parent with Asperger’s, but then you also have a child with Asperger’s as well?
Chris: That’s the funny thing, because she’s always had more, I’d say, affinity with me than her mom who doesn’t. I tend to be more patient with her, because I understand some of the things that she deals with. She’ll come to me with some off?the?wall questions, or she’ll say things.
Then, another thing about Asperger’s is until you learn, you will overshare. When I was young, I would say things, and I would blurt it out. I’ve learned over time to pull that back in, and say, “Hey, no. We can’t do that,” but she hasn’t yet.
She tells me things, I’m like, “OK.” Then, she works through her little whatever she’s talking about. She comes up and goes through a whole bunch of stuff, and then goes back to work where she was doing. I’m like, “I get it. That’s fine.”
It is challenging, though, because there are times when I’m overwhelmed, and she’s overwhelmed. It’s like, “Which one of us is going to blow up first?” [laughs] I’m like, “I can’t do it. I’m the parent.”
Chris: “Push it down. It’s OK.”
Bill: Understand it. How old is your daughter?
Chris: She’s turned 20 this year.
Bill: All right. She went all through school. How was that for her? If you don’t mind sharing this…
Chris: That was very difficult for her, because she has very few friends. She had a very hard time interacting with folks, especially her own age. She would come home and say, “I hate teenagers.” [laughs] I was like, “You’re a teenager.” She’s like, “Yeah, but I don’t think like them.” [laughs] “No? Well, probably not.”
Bill: It’s an important thing when she says, “I don’t think like them.” It’s important to note that she probably doesn’t think like a lot of her peers, even at the age of 20.
Probably, even in your job, you may not…You have the same outcomes. You want a balanced budget, but you may not think the same way that someone else thinks. Is that sometimes a struggle? “I’m going to get where I need to be, but you need to understand I’m going to have to get there a different way.”
Chris: Yes. Sometimes, the communications, that’s the biggest problem. I’m trying to get a point across, but I’m not getting there.
You can see where these people are like, “OK.” Today, I sent a message out yesterday. Now, they’re like, “Can you set up 15 minutes to talk about that tomorrow?” I’m like, “Probably. Talking will probably be better for that, yes.” It is a struggle.
I don’t get mad at people. I just hope they don’t get mad at me. I’ve had a couple of people get mad at me because I shared…I said, “Hey, by the way,” and they took it personally. I’m like, “What? No, I’m just stating facts.”
I didn’t mean to disparage anyone, and say, “Well, this over here, this thing wasn’t quite right.” I wasn’t pointing fingers. I’m trying to help them understand you shouldn’t do that, because we all make mistakes. I’m not going to point fingers at anybody.
Bill: Some people don’t like mistakes pointed out either. There’s that. [laughs] Even email to me is challenging enough, because people don’t get the tone and tenor. They don’t understand sometimes what you’re trying to say. My dad doesn’t understand the etiquette of emails. Everything’s all in caps, so everyone thinks he’s yelling all the time.
Chris: [laughs] Yes.
Bill: There’s all of those things going on. Then, to add that layer of you may not be saying it the way people want to hear it can be a challenge.
Chris: Very much so. Especially when you’re trying to deliver news that isn’t quite so pleasant. It’s like, “Look, we’re two million dollars over. Sorry.”
Bill: There’s no way to candy coat that.
Chris: No. [laughs] It’s like, “This is what’s happening. We have to do something about it.” It’s the delivery. Sometimes, I understand that I lack in that, so I struggle. [laughs]
Bill: It sounds like a part of it is self?awareness, and understanding two things. Understanding that you struggle to say what you need to say. Also, understanding that sometimes, you’re going to say it, and it’s not what you meant to say.
You might argue that anyone can fall into that situation. I know that I have. It sounded great when it was up here. When it came out of my mouth, it did not come out the way I thought it was going to.
Chris: I worked for a guy. He was a friend of mine. The best piece of advice I ever had from anybody in the business role was, “Sometimes, the smartest guy in the room is the one that says the least. Dial it back, say what you need to say, keep it to that, and try to not embellish.” I’m like, “OK, that helps.” [laughs]
Bill: I can see that. I want to say I appreciate you coming on, and talking on the podcast. I appreciate what it takes sometimes to have these conversations. I’m sure that our co?workers will also appreciate that.
I’m sure we have co?workers right now who have struggles, and think that they’re the only one. This helps people see that all of us are different in one way or another. None of us has to suffer in silence when it comes to those differences. I appreciate that.
Before we go, is there anything that you would like the audience to take away from our conversation today?
Chris: Try not to judge too much, especially from very little understanding or feedback, or small interactions.
Try to be kind to one another. That’s the biggest thing I could say. Your worst day may be someone’s best and you don’t know it, because we all have things going on. Even the smallest things may be a challenge that some people take for granted, but other people, it’s the hardest thing in the world.
Again, this company does a great job at trying to keep that kind of civility, and that support for their co?workers and one another. They keep a great culture here. I appreciate the support that everybody provides. It’s very understanding, much so than most of the companies I’ve ever worked at. I’m glad to be here.
I’m glad to have this opportunity to bring this to people’s attention. I’m sure there are a lot of people out there that feel the same way, or have gone, “Wait a minute. Maybe there’s something there,” and they didn’t know either.
When I was a kid, there wasn’t such a thing as Asperger’s or autism. It wasn’t a conclusion that doctors would come to. It took almost over 50 years for me to figure that out. Think about it, it helped me. It was fairly liberating when I went through, and I did some tests.
There’s something out there called Aspie Q, and a couple of other tests you can do online to explore that if you’re interested in it. Look into it if someone feels the need to, and maybe they find something else out about themselves.
Bill: That would be amazing if we walk away from this and people can discover things about themselves. Thank you for that. I like the discussion about kindness, showing each other grace. Really appreciate it. Thanks again, Chris, for being on.
Chris: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it, Bill. It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.