He believes the religion's rituals -- the wrapping of teffilin, the prayers, the observance of the Sabbath -- have given him a regimented routine that helped him overcome certain autism-related behaviors, such as repeatedly playing the same level of a computer game to the point that his work suffered. "Before I practiced Judaism, it was like all the rituals of the world crashed in on me and I could not move as a consequence," he said in an e-mail.
Adults with high-functioning autism typically have difficulties perceiving the nuances of speech and behavior -- for instance, friends say Sheppard often misses sarcasm and takes some phrases too literally.
And Sheppard has other day-to-day challenges, such as filling out online forms. "Sometimes I forget about that because Joseph is such an exceptional person," Tanaka says.
Tanaka has helped Sheppard fill out online applications for scholarships and funding. Beyond the name and address fields, categories such as "subject area of study" don't immediately make sense to Sheppard. It's like "trying to fill out an IRS form when you have no clue what the questions are," Tanaka explains. Meeting deadlines is also a challenge for Sheppard, who can talk or write on and on in long "monologues" about particular subjects.
Jacqueline Bush, a graduate student at the University of Victoria who tutored Sheppard in statistics, found him extremely bright and quickly realized he didn't really need tutoring-- only structure. They've stayed good friends, in part because of Sheppard's spontaneity and "contagious" excitement about life, she said.
"He's an incredibly genuine person with a real passion to help everybody," Tanaka said.
Journey to diagnosis
Sheppard's family moved around a lot when he was a child: England, Peru, Boston, New Mexico, British Columbia. His parents owned stores that sold sacred objects from all over the world, he said.
He remembers that whenever his father was cross with him, his father always thought Sheppard was smirking, and as a boy he had trouble telling his father how he felt. His friends were stuffed bears: Beary and Mary were a couple, who were also friends with Larry, Terry, Jerry and Gary. Typical of his ability to see patterns, he notes that, today, his rabbi's name is Harry, and the name of his ex-common-law wife rhymes with Beary.
After studying philosophy in the 1990s, Sheppard became a professional event planner in Victoria, organizing everything from hip-hop concerts to fashion shows to go-kart races to the 1997 North American Indigenous Games. As an independent contractor, he didn't have to keep to anyone else's schedule. He would work anywhere from about 20 to 60 hours a week, at any time of day or night. What others consider a "normal" 40-hour workweek is an impediment for Sheppard: "Keeping myself on the schedule becomes my focus and accomplishment, not creating something that is super successful."
Sheppard later taught life-coaching workshops in Arizona. But after the 2000 burst of the dot-com bubble and the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, Sheppard found that people were less open to innovative, quirky ideas and more concerned about money. He delved deeper into his reading and writing, and homeschooled his children for 3 1/2 years.
By 2005, Sheppard was unemployed and physically ill. He had untreated asthma, Celiac disease, sleep apnea and migraines.
Around that time, a young relative he didn't want to identify was not speaking in full sentences at the appropriate age. Sheppard talked about it with a school principal he knew, who suggested the child get tested for autism. A team of specialists evaluated the child and arrived at a diagnosis of autism.
After Sheppard read that autism can run in families, some of his odd behaviors and challenges fell into place.
"Suddenly my past started making sense in ways I cannot describe. I then decided to be brave like my relative and accept being tested," he wrote in an e-mail. In 2006, he underwent about eight hours of tests, which helped a clinical psychologist conclude that Sheppard had high-functioning autism.
"He was able to look back on his life and make sense of a lot of things," Bush said. "For sure, I think he felt that getting that diagnosis was very helpful in understanding how he's different."
Within a year of the diagnosis, Sheppard's relationship with his common-law wife underwent a steep decline, and they ended it a year and a half later. Their three children don't live with Sheppard, but he still sees them.
"I do not blame the diagnoses or my ex or myself" for the end of the relationship, Sheppard wrote in an e-mail. "My illnesses had something to do with it I think, I just was not functioning properly, and a family most often needs parents that can function fully."
Later-in-life diagnoses of autism are not uncommon, says Leslie Speer, clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Center for Autism in Cleveland, Ohio. While doing autism evaluations in Salt Lake City, where she got her doctorate, she identified many adults as having high-functioning autism in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
"The individuals I met, they were often depressed," Speer said. "They couldn't understand why they had so many difficulties in their social relationships, why their wife had left them and why they couldn't keep down a job."