Executive Function – autism’s hidden struggle

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 12.12.29 PM.pngKnow that phrase “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?” Welcome to the kind of autistic struggles we often don’t know we have.

My wife and I were walking, and I was navigating to a metro station while lugging a suitcase. She asked if I could look up whether a nearby bakery was closed. And I couldn’t.

“I can’t. I just . . . I just can’t. I’m pulling a heavy suitcase and trying to navigate, and I just . . . can’t look that up unless I stop — “

My poor wife. She puts up with a lot from me, with a lot of the autistic hurdles that I can’t always leap over. One of which is executive function.

I’m a different category of weird because I can and do articulate some of my autistic challenges, which not everyone on the spectrum can or will do. And not everyone faces the same struggles at similar levels.

For me, I can really struggle with executive function on task attention.

And it’s in silly, innocuous ways.

Sometimes it’s seamless: much to the annoyance of many others, I can easily be on my phone, process information, engage in conversation.

But if I’m carrying groceries while on a call, and for some reason I need to tack on an item like bringing in the paper, even if on the way — I just can’t suspend one of the tasks until one is done. I can’t really explain it, but my mind walls off my focus to ensure I finish what I’ve started before moving to something – even if urgent.

Just the other day, Mo asked if she could have a drink. And I did my best to reason with her.

“Honey, I have to finish emptying the dishwasher and put the dishes away so I can then empty the sink and load them into a clear dishwasher, at which point I’ll have an empty sink where I can get the pitcher out, stir up tea, get your clean cup, ice, and give it to you.”

It’s never easy.

My wife summed it to my 4-year-old best: “Daddy has trouble stopping what he’s doing to do something else, ok?”

So what helps?

— Knowing that we often approach tasks as 0 to 100% with little in-between

— Asking about our “availability” before asking for a favor or task

— Break things down into concrete sequences

— Take things off the plate before putting things on

 

My Autistic Advantage in Foreign Conversations

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There are two kinds of travelers: the ones who don’t care and enjoy their trips, and the ones who do care and enjoy their trips more.

If you’re in the “don’t care” bucket, I’m surprised you’re here, but hey, welcome anyway.

For you conscientious ones, not speaking the native language can be a foreboding, intimidating thing — it’s true in Paris, where you hardly have to be fluent in French, but it’s definitely worth your while to try.

And that scares a good few people.

Me? Eh, not so much.

Why?

I’m used to planning out and programming my conversations anyway.

I’m not socially savvy enough to just wing it, goodness no. Even in English and the US and A, I’m thinking ahead, observing patterns, deducing the right kind of transactional cadences to where I’m not going to work myself into an awkward spot.

So whilst in Paris, I found myself surprisingly at ease when needing to get by in French. Thank you, autism, for affording me the circumstance of practice.

For example:

I was waiting in line to buy a shirt. That was intentional — after letting people ahead of me go, I could listen to the conversations ahead of time. The sequence of what the cashier would ask. How the other customers would respond. What words I needed to listen for and how to answer (oui when asked “is that all?” and about “do you need a bag?”)

Just like I do in some unknowns in English, I planned what I needed to say, offered just enough up front to avert questions I wouldn’t understand — only this round, en française.

So yeah, maybe getting in a checkout line and skating through an order without the clerk deducing you were an American is a small thing, but I’m glad I’ve had enough practice being human to be human abroad.

Have you had a similar experience?

The Life Autistic in Paris

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What do you do with your otherness when you’re a world away?

Hey folks.

Sorry for the long pause – just got back from a weeklong stay in Paris, where I disconnected from work, social media, and the general fervor of life. A much needed anniversary trip for me and the missus, but it’s good to be back.

As I took this detour on The Life Autistic, I collected a lot of narratives along the way.

I’m looking through the travelogue from a different spectrum, the first time I’ve been wholly aboard after embracing my whole self.

The week sowed seeds for so many stories:

Why autistic people would have it good in French culture. 

How to blend in as a more normal human.

Braving the need for eye contact.

Making a six-step plan for even the simplest conversations in French.

How I can’t navigate while walking with bags.

The autistic advantage of being a tourist.

Defiantly Unique, but blending in.

How you’ll find the best burger in Paris at Goku Asian Canteen.

Planning through lines and rivers.

And just . . . so much more.

As I share mine too, I’d love to hear of more of your autistic experiences abroad.

 

 

Routines: When to Bend, but not Break

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As Mrs. H2 and I have been working through an upcoming international trip, we’ve both run into an odd conclusion, one that doesn’t seem to fit me:

Hunter doesn’t always like making plans.

“But H2,” you’d wonder, “I thought you autistic folks needed routines, and structure, and—

Yes, yes we do.

Routine and repetition are our R&R, but at a certain point, even those of us on The Life Autistic know when it’s easier to bend routine, so that we don’t break completely.

Here’s where we find it better to bend:

In high-variable situations: I’ll be outta the country in a week, and much to Mrs. H2’s chagrin, I’m not keen at all on committing to too rigid a plan. Why? Because plans fail, and the more planning that doesn’t go right, the more corrosively I’m going to react. 

That’s not to say “don’t plan,” but it’s much easier for me to stick to ‘guidelines’ when I know I can’t control or predict all the variables. Guidelines are great for vacations, job switching, events, other temporary situations that will snap back to normal.

During catastrophe: My basement seems to love water, and every summer, it tricks some pipe into leaking. I hate when it happens, and I hate how the wreckage to my house and routine leaves me reeling, but in the moment? I’m usually OK.

It’s a kind of situation that, again, calls for a different systematic approach and has an end result in the distance. That “restorative” goal helps me cope with the jarring changes to routine.

When it’s small: I remember a serious debate over whether we would spend the afternoon at a kite festival, which would wreck the kids’ naps, FaceTime schedule, etc. We chose the kites, and it was the right call.

Did it throw our day out of whack? Well, not really — I felt it was easier to confine the wildness to just a few hours in the day, and after we’d had a routine start. It was small, and it followed a mostly normal day — that combination helped.

 

Now is The Best Time to Grow Up Autistic – Here’s Why

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My wife and I were talking about how Mo, our daughter, has never known a world without streaming video.

“I’m not sure I would have liked that,” she said. “We played outside all the time, and we did so much else besides gluing ourselves to a screen.”

Me? If I grew up with Netflix, I’d have loved that. I’ll explain why.

But really, the “good old days” is a tired take. You wouldn’t give up your conveniences today to be much better off in yesteryear, without mobile phones, 24/7 shopping, and tortilla chip options other than ‘Nacho.’

The Life Autistic today is better than yesterday, and here’s why.

Awareness — remember how “all of a sudden” we have gluten allergies now? “*elderly voice* In my day, all we had were peanut allergies and irritable bowel syndrome and we liked it that way.” — Yeah no. In the same people just “have autism” these days, we’ve gotten better at understanding the human conditions, and with awareness comes progress.

Technology — I might have had an unhealthy Dragon Ball Z obsession back in the day, so when I had to shut off the TV for dinner and miss Goku turning Super Saiyan for the first time ever on US broadcast television, I was, uh, not well. I’d have loved Netflix, YouTube, being able to pore over and pour into obsessions but at least on my own terms! And things as simple as noise canceling headphones – talk about better crowd coping! It definitely beats sticking cotton in your ears :/

Connection — To think, there were no “online friends” back in the day. If I didn’t have the luxury of texting people or chatting, I’d be exposed as a hopelessly awkward conversationalist even today. To be able to think before I put words down and use writing as my preferred method — that’s my style, and it’s everyone’s style now. Thank goodness.

Resources — There are literal groups and organizations dedicated to helping children adapt and understand their world in The Life Autistic now. Today you can go to a school where trained staff understand you better and help address your needs, rather than kick you out for being able to read when the other preschoolers can’t.

The Advice I’d Give Your Kids with Autism

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At some point or another, we’ve hashed out where we’d go back in time and counsel our younger selves.

For a while, my main wish was to tell younger H2 to buy a certain Beanie Baby at a store, because it’d have fetched about $600 during the Beanie heyday.

I mean, it’d have still been nice to pocket six yards as a younger teen, but I’ve evolved my life and financial advice a bit.

And I’ve realized: While I can’t go back to counsel my younger self, I can offer advice to my younger selves. The ones along my spectrum, beginning their own Life Autistic.

Here’s what I’d tell you:

– Hang onto your uniqueness

You might hate being different now, but you’ll appreciate how it differentiates you later.

– Find a hobby you can enjoy alone

It’s hard when you get into something that could involve people, so keep a few solitary, happy hobbies if at all possible.

– Hang on to the few friends you make

Most people can lose, like, three friends in a week and have dozens to spare. Not you. Make and keep a few good ones; you’re playing for quality, not quantity.

– Be a good listener through the awkwardness

It’s going to feel so stupid when you’re on the periphery of conversations and “there, but not there” with others. Study, listen, laugh when it seems appropriate, but use that time to absorb the social cadence.

– Navigate your difference

I wish I had know why I was different when I was younger. If you know now, develop some healthy introspection, talk out why you do what you do. Find ways to backtrace where and how you react the way you do, and even though it’s exhausting, have that map at the ready to navigate yourself and your actions & reactions daily.

– Be you, only better each day

Get ahead of wishing you were someone else. More importantly, there are aspects of you that don’t change, but they can be refined. You may never enjoy crowds or loud noises, but you can always increase your tolerance or creatively decrease your exposure. You’re still you, but you can be a better, smarter you about you.

“Don’t be afraid; stay strong and play the game”

This is just because I like this one Clarens song. Aside from that, think of it as losing a few rounds, but staying in the game. Make survivorship bias work in your favor.

– Lock down a good apology

Because it’s not going to be the world and others apologizing for how you’re treated. No, you’re going to screw up, people are going to get mad, and they’re going to hate how your apologies always sound robotic. Start working on this one now.

– Learn to suffer

People are wising up to autism, but that’s not going to fix everything. There are going to be hiccups, setbacks, misunderstandings, wrongdoings, and a whole lot more as you work through The Life Autistic. Your difference is hard for people to wrap their minds around. It’s unseen. And it’s beset with friction.

But it’s a human thing, and you are indeed human. Let suffering teach you empathy, bring you closer to a universal experience. Even if no one seems to know or care what you’re enduring, everyone endures something.

 

The Life Autistic: Three Things That Make us Angry (and Why)

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I used to blow up a lot.

I still do, but I used to, too.

This week has been corrosive; admittedly, I’ve been more hair-trigger, foul, grating, and abrasive. To my disappointment and shame, I let it creep in when getting feedback conveyed to me from my boss — after I felt my tone downshift into a snarl and put acid on the clicking consonants of biting words, I realized:

There are things that make me angry, and this is a problem.

There are universal angry triggers — I mean, I’m probably not going to react placidly after being cussed at, slapped in the face, or otherwise insulted.

But I had to step back and get a better angle on my Life Autistic and face why the things that drive our anger do so.

1) Intrusions to routine

For the record – I’ve gotten way more accustomed to my routine being wrecked! That’s OK in the grand scheme — life happens.

What drives me mad is when people disrupt the norm without warning. If you’re in a place in which you don’t belong in my routine, it’s going to fizzle me out and draw some ire — even if you mean well! 

The surprise intrusion just lights fuses that often smolder into generalized anger — it sucks, but it’s a fuse.

2) Being reminded of our “otherness”

I’m in a high-visibility role and judged on my ability to present and relate to business leaders. So I’m often working on two fronts: trying to be relatable as a human, then to my audience — there’s a lot of thought that goes into what I present to where they get a polished version of my professional, masked self.

So in the cases where I’m advised that my points didn’t land, or that my audience didn’t follow, I can struggle with taking that feedback!

As a serial overthinker, I default to my innate, autistic self: “But I thought I accounted for my quirks…I barely used monosyllabic words…I tried to be human, funny…this seemed like it went well?”

It isn’t the fault of the audience, so I sometimes blame the thing I know the best: myself.

It is an angry reckoning.

3) Re-arranging the pens in my bedroom

Not anymore, heh.

3) Being emotionally outnumbered

“You’re a jerk, Hunter.”

“Yeah, a real jerk.”

“That was an awful thing to say, which means you’re an awful person.”

I’ve never quite blown my lid at a person, but I’ve had moments where I’ve ERUPTED Pompeii style at people. 

My problem-solving (er, well, undoing my own idiotic actions) works better on the cold, logical, rational, individual level.

Facing a crowd isolates me back to a corner I’ve worked hard to come from.

I’m not perfect, and I’m very flawed — and even at my best, I already feel isolated in my own being.

So combining high-stress incidents, my own fault in likely causing it, with people-plural pressure that sticks me back into further defenseless isolation — that’s a trigger.