Party of One: An Autistic Primer on Dining Alone

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It’s hard being an autistic lover of fine dining; finding a way to eat out with others is awkward, and eating alone is also awkward.

I’m married with kids, so this mostly moot for me nowadays. Except when it isn’t. 

Business trips, company outings, anything where the agenda spells out “DINNER ON YOUR OWN” — yeah, I’m liable to panic.

I try hovering within the periphery of others making plans to see if I can get roped in by happenstance — that’s OK, because I’m not inviting people myself, I can tag along, use up my reserve of small talk, enjoying a dining experience without resigning to take-out.

But I’m not always that fortunate, and sometimes I end up dining alone.

If you’re on The Life Autistic, then you might enjoy dining out in solitude — I only wish I had your self-assuredness!

But if you don’t enjoy it and can’t always get around it, here’s a few things that help:

Observe. I ate alone at college for my entire first year of college, probably averting that “Freshman 15” just out of the sheer joylessness in dining out — but I watched others, observed behavior, picked up on patterns, people, tucked away some learnings about the human condition. Find a window. Watch. Listen.

Smile. The best revenge against grief is a life well-lived. I took myself out for my birthdays while my fiancée was away; I was hungry, and I wanted to make at least something special of the day. As some kid looked over at me in my lonesome, I clapped back with a smile. In that moment I realized: I can still enjoy this. I can look 100% content if I have to.

—Play on your phone. Everyone else does this when they’re with others anyway. You don’t look as awkward as you think.

—Capture a memory. I’m not a frequent diner-outer-loner anymore, so it’s easier to do this now, to note the noteworthy. Maybe you overhear a great joke, or a server relays a memorable story, or, in my case pictured above, you’re served a steak with a pillar of salt on fire.

Sometimes those memories alone snowball into better ones together.

As I sat in my corner at a conference, I overheard my friends discussing dinner with their work peers, so I glanced their way with a courteous half-smile.

“Oh hey, H2,” they said, motioning me over. “You have GOT TO show these folks that thing you had at III Forks.”

Somehow, the ‘solitary element’ of the amazing loner steak dinner added this aura of intrigue, self-assured flair, and discriminating taste — enough to where, two days later, I went from “party of one” to “party of six” at III Forks because others wanted to enjoy that experience — even with me.

Dining alone can be a lonely affair, but it can be the key to your next great shared experience.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Autism and Irrational Confidence

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My uncle once told me that if you walk in somewhere and act like you own the place, people will think you do.

It’s a great bit of advice, though I don’t quite recommend waltzing into an Outback Steakhouse pretending to be “Paul Outback, Owner” and trying to get a line cook fired for messing up your Bloomin’ Onion.

But for all of my social foibles, autistic inhibitions, inability to read a room properly at all times, I’ve unlocked a small victory in The Life Autistic:

Act confident, and the confidence will follow.

On the surface, it feels SO irrational.

I can barely dial a pizza chain to place an order, nor can I get gas if there’s no pay-at-the-pump. I’m not a confident person.

So when I “pretend to be confident” – it’s like a switch goes off. My lack of confidence keeps me from coming off as overconfident (well, most of the time) and helps keep my most confident leaps forward from leaping overboard.

When I took phone calls as an agent, I was nervous to the point of nausea. For MONTHS on end. Couldn’t stomach breakfast. Shook. Twitched. Until I picked up the phone and slipped into “The Confident Advisor.” Once someone assumed I was confident, I had it, and that was that.

There’s sound, and there’s effort.

After a Tableau conference in 2018, I heard a very senior level person in our company present and use the word vignette. 

A ‘normal’ person wouldn’t notice.

A ‘different’ person might pick up that choice word and nod.

Me? No, I’m abnormal and different, so I email this person afterward and tell him how much that word caught my ear and how I enjoyed his preso.

He actually responds and opens his proverbial door for recurring talks — which we have every quarter. He’s a visionary with excellent mentor-level advice, and he’s generous to offer it to me — and I’m pretty much a level 1 rando.

“Wait, so YOU have a standing 1×1 meeting with [AWESOME EXEC]? How did you manage that?”

It is the most irrational kind of confidence, indeed.

Where the smallest, oblique signals turn into a confident action.

Where you foist myself into “acting confident” to offset all the awkwardness that floods at the beginning if you’re not.

Where you never imagined you’d walk in acting like you own the place and people assuming you do.

 

Sorry for Everything: Over-Apologizing to Survive with Autism

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If I could dispense advice to my younger self, I’d tell him:

“Bet all of your money on Leicester City winning the 2015-2016 Premier League title at 5,000-to-1 odds.”

Then I’d add:

“Get good at apologizing.”

Because if you’re on the autism spectrum, you’ve probably felt the need or pressure to apologize for everything.

You might contend that you don’t and you just “let people deal with it.” Ok, good on ya.

But if you’re not awash with friends or financiers or the kind of work acumen that would otherwise allow you to skate through and succeed in The Life Autistic 100% unapologetically, then you may be engaging in what I call “apologetic survivalism.”

Apologetic survivalism is saving face and preserving grace by being quick to apologize for the negative consequences of autism-driven circumstances — and I wish this didn’t have to be a thing.

I can remember on one hand the genuine apologies I’ve received as a result of others’ rudeness, shortness, ill-tempered outbursts, blatant insensitivity, disregard, etc.

The apologies I feel I’ve had to give on the same? Innumerable.

“I’m sorry for overreacting to this change in circumstance,”  I’ll begin. “It’s just that—no, I struggle sometimes with needing to adjust a routine really quickly, and I —” and by that point I feel stupid, regretful, and more vulnerable already.

But what else is there? Leaving a relationship strained? A bridge damaged? Do I just “turn off my autism switch” and negate where I’m prone to react to things that stir me innately?

I’ve tried; I’ve gotten better; I’ve vented in silence, holed up alone to send up a column of ire and flame through a silo.

It’s hard for us. We often don’t have the skill or social capital or charm to coast over our faults, and we can’t be expected to lock into a loop of apology for every unintentional transgression, aberration, misunderstood reaction.

To what extent should I apologize for shouting STOP in a din of argumentative chaos, knowing it’s going to trigger an untoward reaction from me? Or when I retreat from a group to ensure I don’t melt down and lose my bearings. Or step away from help under duress, knowing I’ll cause harm if I continue?

We can be sorry for when we’re doing wrong.

We shouldn’t be more sorry for who we are.

 

Autism: A Different Kind of Cool

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I misspent my youth pursuing a mythic swagger, the kind of 90’s aura that exuded confidence, often styled in baggy clothing, large sunglasses, maybe a mushroom haircut — the absolute zenith of what one could be:

Cool.

I sought cool — the intangible unobtainium — working with an earnest passion, but with a maladroit, inexpert approach. Cool was at once effortless, but effort-laden. You couldn’t pull off cool without putting it on.

Without being able to figure out how to do cool, I couldn’t be cool. But I pretended. Fabricated. Dreamed. Even my WWF-fueled enthusiasms at the time shaped my imaginary character: King Cool — WWF Champion, who epitomized cool.

And I don’t even know what made him cool. He just was cool.

I didn’t know I was autistic then, but I knew I wasn’t cool.

I was more Screech Powers than Zack Morris, only less social. The wrong kind of different.

After retreating to and cultivating a niche set of tastes — some palpably bad (Gundam-emblazoned Hawaiian shirts), some presciently good (Dragon Ball Z, electronic ambient music), some just bizarrely dated or transient (game shows, Beanie Babies) — and having little else but to double down and just lean into the things that I enjoyed, I gave up on cool.

Until I thought about a legend of character: Senor Cardgage – a bizarre idol of a different kind of cool.

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That’s the best I feel I’m going to do in The Life Autistic, to obtain that different kind of cool.

To where I imagine I’m sitting at a table, languidly working down a water glass, and someone brings up a little-known yarn about me.

“Hey, so I you worked for the State Department when you were like, fourteen?”

And I’d set my glass down, sigh in a way where they’d know they’d uncovered a secret about me.

“I was fifteen, and it wasn’t quite the State Department, but —”

Or someone remembers the one time I emailed out a playlist of songs that overlapped with zero other peoples’ taste.

“Hunter, on what planet do you even find the genres for the stuff you listen to?”

And I’d chuckle.

“I was an old hand in the underground electronic scene, and I had to be dedicated, trying to get 9-minute drum’n’bass tracks off a shoddy dialup connection overnight.”

Through manifold enthusiasms, obsessions, growing up living life with a different mind, using big words that put me in different company, holing up to carve out my own interests and depths, navigating rough social sands before I even knew autism was a thing — I never became cool.

But I found the different kind of cool.

 

 

Making Difference Great for Once

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After barely a minute of social media scrolling over the weekend, I came to the realization that I’m probably the only person who doesn’t go to Halloween parties as an adult. 

Which, great, check another one for me in the ABNORMAL PERSON box. It’s a pretty full list at this point.

After a while, if you’re on The Life Autistic with me, you’re probably discouraged from time to time about difference. 

We want to be accepted and valued for our differences without having to “fit in” and lose our difference.

“But Hunter, you’re—”

No, lemme just stop ya there.

No one’s thinking “Oh, look at that dude opting out of parties like a cool guy, prioritizing his health, ensuring he’s not putting himself in a spot to look like an idiot” — no.

Or “Look at that girl’s radical and non-traditional interests; I wish I were different enough to not feel I need to follow a trend” — no.

No one sees my borderline odd routines and rituals (screaming early rising, mid-day workouts, unvaried eating habits, scheduled work blocks that have to start on the hour or half hour, etc) and thinks “Man, this guy practices the unlocked secret to efficiencies and gets it done!” — no.

If you’re considered weird and different, then your actions are weird and different. Welcome to The Life Autistic!

I could campaign around ‘Make Difference Great Again.’

To the fella who can’t be bothered to be dragged to a party, instead of  ‘lame,’ ‘anti-social,’ and ‘boring,’ why not ‘image-conscious,’ ‘selective about experiences,’ and ‘confident enough to value time alone?’

To the gal with the niche interests, maybe less of the ‘offbeat’ and ‘weird’ and more ‘unashamedly bold in taste’ and ‘an individual, only more so?’

Personally, I’d love hearing less of “inflexible” and “rigid” and more “efficient,” “diligent,” and “thoughtfully tuned,” but y’know, I can’t have everything.

Difference stands out, but does it stand tall?

 

 

 

Rituals Liberate Creativity: How Autism Enables Problem-Solving & Artistic Output

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A while back, one of my data scientist peers expressed how surprised she was at one of my satire ventures.

“How do you do that?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Come up with some many things to post — you do that so often, I wish I were that creative.”

I mulled on that for a while: am I really that creative? 

By my own reckoning, I might have a clever idea or two once in a blue moon-in-a-half. But others seem to think I can spin up a decent thought, piece of writing, not-so-dumb-solution, or whatever.

After reading Michael Hyatt’s Free to Focus, I was jolted by a concept he mentioned:  rituals liberate creativity.

In essence, the more of your day that you can delegate to ritual, the less of your brainpower you’ll need to use to “do your day.” And where can that brainpower go? Creativity.

It’s the same concept that gives you those great “shower thoughts” — you’ve put everything on hold and on auto-pilot, so your mind is loosed for more lateral thinking and moonshot ideas.

So what does this have to do with autism?

Our autism can lead to significant ritualistic behaviors, so there’s ample room for creativity.

Granted, it’s not the case for everyone — executive function and other challenges can end up be overwhelming.

But for others, our autistic attributes accelerate problem-solving and creative endeavors, like our efficiencies gained in rituals, hyper-acuity, perception, pattern-recognition, detail-obsessions, and more.

Temple Grandin is probably the best example, whose work in livestock and animal welfare is informed and accelerated by her unique and uniquely perceptive view of the world around her.

I’m hardly the world’s most creative person, but I still manage to run with ideas on this blog, visual design and branding at work, rural satire, photo composition, social media narratives for a non-profit, and given enough time, fiction(!). There’s a lot of output there!

So yeah, it’s weird that I can’t go back to work unless the bed is made or my sink is clear or after I’ve checked off a few key deliverables every morning, but there is not much that gets undone in my life on a day-to-day level — and those rituals free up my mind for its most creative. 

One Autistic Adult’s Advice to Parents of Autistic Children

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If you’re here because 1) you know me or of me, and 2) your kids have autism, then thank you. I appreciate whatever brought you this way.

But I’ll be honest about a major thing:

I’m not in your shoes.

If anything, I’d be reaching out to you for advice and guidance on parenting autistic children.

But you’re here, still.

Your wonderful kiddos are as unique as I am in our place on the autism spectrum. As the saying seems to go: when you’ve met one person with autism, then you have met one person with autism.

I want to relate, but I am a lot closer to the child you’re parenting, not a similar author.

The best I can do is articulate my own experience, one where your kids and I may overlap.

Here’s a little of that:

The tendency to hyper-focus and fixate is a lifelong thing; being pulled away from that groove still brings out an almost physically grating reaction from me. All I’ll say is pick your battles. We don’t exactly pick our obsessions.

The obsessions and enthusiasms just happen. Yeah, it can tend to be its own siloed information, but I hated being made to feel odd and different because I was the only one who was as engaged. The least you can do is engage and try to frame the enthusiasms in context, ask questions, and discuss some applicability (like Pokémon cards and sales).

Routines, routines, and routines. Our comfort is predicated on predictability. We just expect things to continue as is, and the more we can predict, the better we can adapt. But life ain’t all about that, so introduce those “timers and expectations” to help make routines for change and interruptions.

Affection ≠ “touchiness.” I do not care how difficult this one may be. Please don’t assume your kids don’t care, feel, or love, just because they keep out of touch. I didn’t get around to hugging people until I grew up, and even then, I put that on my own terms (and it’s still awkward, but important).

Kids grow up. I didn’t get a sense of being “legitimately different” until my late teen years, and that was after spending my miserable early teen years being told I acted more like an adult and feeling out of place with kids my age. Once that self-awareness kicks in, the active adaptation begins — like knowing others where may notice your stims, or that monologuing about interests loses the interests of others, etc.

You don’t grow out of autism; you grow better into handling it.