“Love, Hunter” – The One Tough Thing I learned from Valentine’s Day

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photo: handmade valentines from Mrs. H2, #craftymom

There’s always a point in my life where I can look back and say that “I didn’t know any better, and that’s what did me in.” Third grade was one such time.

I seem to recall that class experience as having been terrible, in general: I don’t adjust well to things, and plopping down mid-winter into cold-hearted, unwelcoming elementary group only exacerbated that more.

A month in or so, as things warmed up, I’d started to manage – kept my head down, clammed up more, gravitated toward the kids who were just less incorrigible and coarse, and learned the “game.”

Back then and at that age, Valentine’s Day was a mere functionary party-vehicle. We didn’t get into the “mushiness” of it — it was just baskets at the front of the desks, perhaps a bit of chocolate, with some added festive decor slapped to the bleak walls of the class in the form of a paper heart or two. Simple. Innocuous.

I should have known better.

My dad enjoyed a bit of bitmap art on MS Paint back in 1995, so he designed and printed Valentines for me to dish out. Pretty cool, I thought. At least it’d be unique, and the pixelated renderings had a certain robotic quality that appealed to me.

I passed out and slipped in each printed, cut Valentine – deft, light, bespoke. Sure, some of the kids sneered, but that’s what they did, as I’d long made peace with the fact that I’d just not be liked, or that their souls would rot in Hell — whatever comforted me at the time.

As we lined up to leave after the “event,” one of my classmates had their sheaf of valentines on hand, rifling through them. Then I heard her read mine aloud, in hilarious disbelief:

“Happy Valentine’s Day! LOVE, Hunter. LOVE?!?!”

I don’t recall where I was in line, but they all turned to find where I was and laugh. Scorningly, blisteringly laugh me to shreds. I don’t know if one can be the butthole of a joke, but I was right then.

In the din of chuckles, giggles, bellows, asinine guffaws, I flooded in tears, my face red hot, my mind racing to backtrace and think of how I could have stopped this. “What was I supposed to do? It’s Valentine’s Day. Of all days, surely this would be the one where—”

I should have known better.

Little autistic H2 didn’t have the frame of reference and self awareness to stop and tell dad, “No, PLEASE, just say “From, Hunter.” Trust me, it’ll spare me an episode.”

I came home miserable, my dad felt awful after I shared the story, and I learned a bit more about self-awareness, perception, and how I was so underequipped to handle this stuff.


 

At Christmastime, I take out a box of tags – for presents. For my lovely wife of ten years. For my daughters, brilliant and delightful, cheerful girls. There, on each tag, I see two fields.

To:

From:

I still remember this Valentine’s Day from 3rd grade. I think about the one word. The wave of shame. The juvenile idiocy. Not having enough to know to make one key change.

But I know better now.

I cross out From: and write LOVE.

 

 

Autistic People Can Relate, but Only Up to These Points

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It’s not you, it’s me. But it’s you, too.

In my years on The Life Autistic, I’ve gotten good at social adaptions, situational perils, and the conversational/relational equivalents of being dropped into the wilderness with little else but a match, twine, a dull knife, and a modicum of survival skills.

But I can’t do this with everyone. I just cannot.

If that’s you, it’s not personal. I’m not as malicious, standoffish, or unapproachable as people seem to think.

It’s human to get along with some people better than others, just by dint of emotional intelligence, relatability, and conversational fluency — but when I can’t latch on to a few key elements, I’ve got nothing. 

And it gets awkward. 

Here’s some of those areas where my ability to relate, converse, and be an openly genial autistic human dwindle and winnow away:

No overlapping interests. My guard goes up when someone asks “So, Hunter — do you like to hunt?” Once they deduce that I don’t live up to that part of my namesake, nor do I fish, or do other woodspersony things, I’m basically scrambling at that point, hoping they like sports other than baseball and NASCAR. Sometimes I get lucky, and they’ll talk football. If not, I hope they just start telling fishing and hunting stories; I can listen, nod, follow along, smile, and say nary a word. Safe. 

People who aren’t talkative. I can make it through most any conversation as long as I’m not doing the talking. When people talk, they give me strands, ropes, threads that I can use to string together another topic and keep things threaded. But with a more laconic person, I’m not the best at teasing out words. That’s awkward. 

Unpredictability. I don’t drink, so my company among people drinking tends to be limited. But golly does it stress me out, not from any sort of violence or inappropriate behavior, but the unpredictability. For the most part, I can map a person’s range of mood, conversations, but when they are losing the ability to maintain course — I gotta abort. 

Concretely-mired thinkers. But I thought autistics couldn’t think abstractly.” It might just be me, but I can dig a good hypothetical deep thinker. You might not have an answer to what your dream job would be, or what you’d do with a million dollars and a time machine, but if the answer is no answer, then that’s just not fun. Creativity isn’t a spectrum/non-spectrum thing.

will try and do try — so bear with me! Sometimes, with some people, it is just hard.

How your Autism can HELP your job interview

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See what I did there?

That’s step one: don’t look at it as a handicap. You have a balance of skills that are at least getting you to interviews. You’re not alone. You’re not the first. Wherever you find yourself challenged in your autistic experience, you’re also finding it easier in other places too: pattern recognition, hyperfocus, lateral thinking — the strengths will help.

But I’ll back up for context here.

I’m autistic.

I’ve been interviewed dozens of times for several roles. I have interviewed others scores of times for dozens of roles.

I’ve been on both sides of the table. I’ve been good at both. I still am.

So I’m going to share a 360º, holistic view of the autistic interview experience and where you may find it helps your next job interview.

You know youThat’s the one thing I looked for in interviewers: How much can I learn about this person? I wanted to answer as many unknowns as possible, the key one being “Who is this person?” If you feel you have a tendency to overshare, set guardrails ahead of time, and practice sharing within the confines of the questions.

Interviewing can be your new enthusiasm. You know that interviewing is practically its own field of study at this point, right? It’s hard to “hack” your autism, but you’ve probably had some instances and obsessions about other subject matter — research, study, watch people, and practice like it’s your new domain of expertise.

You can surprise your interviewer. I was always impressed when candidates did their proverbial homework. That takes effort, focus, dedication, and a lot of predictive thinking. It’s not 100% going to get you there, but you may find yourself enjoying learning about your role, and if that’s enough to help your eagerness, it’ll ease tension and exude confidence in the interview.

You may have a helpful communication style. You may be autistic and loquacious or autistic and verbose: if you know which side you’re on, that’s half the battle there. The other half is practice. If you’re blunt, terse, then practice your storytelling, Ernest Hemingway-style. He was one of the best, and he didn’t use two words when one would do. If you’re verbose, practice trimming those florid buds into shorter soundbites. Tolstoy wrote brilliant short stories too!

You can brute force the process. It’s still one of my best helps, and I can’t encourage it enough.

You know, your interviewer is nervous too. Yeah, it’s true. I was probably more nervous when interviewing people, because I needed to make the right decision in a very short window. You’re honestly not alone.

You can be 100% yourself. You need to be. You want to work for someone who’s going to want you for what and who you are, not who you can project to be. We all polish up before an interview, get our stories straight, find ways to endure a little small talk, but be you. If someone takes you for you, then that’s who you want to end up working for.

“Oh, You Just Showered” – The One Thing You’ve Gotta Know on the Autism Spectrum

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It takes one to know one.

Being on and in The Life Autistic, I can pin down others on this similar spectrum. We know the quirks, the masking, the characteristics, the tells. You can fool others, but you can’t fool us.

But can you fool yourself?

I study and observe quite a lot, actively and passively. Since I can’t always muster the energy to interact, I just turn on the radar, watch, observe, make inference, and learn.

One day in a class on Sunday, I noticed another attendee who’s definitely like me. Much bigger heart. Tries a lot harder to socialize.

But he’s like me. It’s a little awkward.

There’s one key difference.

I know I’m different. 

And it may be a Plato’s cave thing or some other such pre-enlightenment state, but not everyone on the autism spectrum knows they’re different.

It’s not a good or bad thing. It’s just difference.

And when it comes to autism: knowing is half the battle.

As I “pick my spots” a lot more strategically during this class, I do a lot more watching. So I noticed this fellow; he came up to another lady in class, empathizing and apologizing for her loss. She’d miscarried a long while ago, and he’d just learned of it.

I knew too, but I could see him put the pieces together without really giving it much of a thought.

That’s bold, I thought. I’ve calculated every scenario in which I could express some kind of heartfelt sympathy, condolences, and there were no optimal outcomes that wouldn’t come across awkward. It was too distant. It wasn’t naturally in the convo.

This is one of those processes I’ve learned over time, and it’s why I don’t say half of what I’m thinking. There’s just no good way about it.

He then hugged her.

Ok, I thought. That’s really sweet. Again, not something I could pull off, but I know me.

And then his next comment:

“Oh, you just showered.”

Yep, that observation was 100% accurate, I noted. And this is why I don’t talk to anyone, ever, about anything.

Clenching my jaw to keep my smile confined only to the corners of my mouth, I realized that I’ve avoided a myriad of odd pitfalls with one crucial bit of knowledge.

I am different. 

I notice an insane amount of detail. My recall about people and the things they do, demonstrate, say, or don’t do and say is unnerving (to them.) I know these things.

But I know I’m different. So I know to do less with them.


 

That said, this fella — he might not know he’s different, even if I can spot it a mile away, and others maybe a few yards away.

But he’s kind, congenial, and everyone knows so.

Knowing is half the battle with autism. I’m still working on that other half.

 

 

We’re Done with Functioning Labels

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You may have heard the term “high-functioning,” or “low-functioning,” or “conjunction-junction-functioning” or whatever label associated with ‘autistic.’

And as of last week, I, too, had myself listed as “high-functioning autistic” here in my bio and About pages.

Not any longer.

This isn’t The High Functioning Life Autistic, it’s The Life Autistic.

Here’s why we’re due for a move away from these labels:

Their meaning is too ambiguous. Who decided at what point someone becomes high or low functioning? Moving out and living independently? Getting a job? Verbal ability? Social skills? There’s too broad of a spectrum within a spectrum to make this meaningful.

They diminish skills. I do feel for those of us on the spectrum, who unjustly and inevitably are binned away in the “low-functioning side,” as if that’s the totality of their being. It ignores the many savants or countless others who display plenty of function, even if it’s not “normal, societal” function.

They mask struggles. Just because people would consider some of us “high-functioning” doesn’t mean we don’t face considerable challenges and struggles that have helped us with this function. We don’t have Autism Lite™ — we are autistic, and not less so, just different.

They don’t account for functional changes. I’ve found the “high-function” label to be burdensome, because people except normality and adaptation 100% of the time. Folks, that just ain’t gonna happen. I’m still prone to shutting down, melting down, and stumbling in whatever functionality I can muster — and others more so. Functionality can have seasonality that goes far beyond the label.

They misrepresent the autism experience. “Oh, they’re one of those ‘high-functional’ types, so their experience doesn’t represent the general—” Whoa, hold up, no, negatron. We may have a greater or lesser experience within the spectrum than others might, but function isn’t negation.

Autistic is autistic.

I don’t need the extra labels.

If you want to learn more about “yeah, well, what kind of autism? Is it the kind where you remember the weather of every date but can’t button your shirt?” then you should just learn more about me.

About each of us.

 

Two Words I’ll Never Use Again

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I remember trying to be thoughtful, earnest, and specific as a boy.

That got laughed out of me quick. 

Regrettably, I endured a long two-and-a-half years in Jacksonville, FL. Your experience may well vary, and you’re free to elaborate on your own blog. Mine was terrible. There was no more salient time in my life where I felt my otherness, difference, and loneliness more terribly than I did then.

One Sunday School morning, I remember sitting in class as the usual retinue of prayer requests were offered: personal health, family health, and travel.

There was this broad prayer they would offer for those traveling, neatly summed up in “traveling mercies” – a compact, vague, throwaway potency seemingly imparted from the prayers of church elders before to those beneath, until the nuances of its meaning had long dissipated, leaving only the faded ink of a stamp to one’s prayer toward someone and anyone traveling.

I was 11.

It came to be my turn to pray this instance, so I did my best to adopt this country vernacular while still being at least specific and thoughtful. Not being a stranger to polysyllabic words and expressions, I figured I could work with a few.

Never have I been more wrong.

As it came time to pray for “Ian’s family, for traveling mercies . . .”  – another couplet of words sharpened into view.

I recalled a billboard from a law firm, offering various services for all manner of unexpected woes, one of which was vehicular. There was a clumsy way I could have expressed my next thought, sure, but this phrase would tie off the bow more neatly, crisp.

“Lord, I pray for Ian’s family, for traveling mercies, that there won’t be any Auto Fatalities . . .”

Before I could finish my supplication to The Most High, a murmur of snickering interrupted the reverence, followed soon by outright laughing, both my peers and teacher alike. I don’t remember how I finished. I probably did, but I wasn’t privy to what was all that funny.

Auto fatalities.

This is where The Life Autistic is funny, but only in retrospect. It wasn’t then. There’s no one out there who taps your shoulder and says “This diction is inappropriately elevated to your audience’s intellect and education, thus, the result is predictably unfavorable. Just stick with the traveling mercies and call it a day.” At least not at age 11.

That one followed me. To what extent I was asked, I was reminded to ensure we had prayed against auto fatalities. 

Thankfully, Ian’s family made it safe and back.

I don’t recall praying in Sunday School there again.

The Last Bright Lights

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I’ve discovered that I have an audience among neurotypical people who have autistic children, nephews, and nieces — and I’m grateful for you, even if my experience and perspective as an autistic dad with neurotypical children is somewhat inverted to (most of) yours! So thanks for following along; I do appreciate it.

I once feared the prospect of fatherhood. I now love it, and my daughters have been twin wellsprings of unending, surprising joys, laughs, amusement, and chaos.

They’re already ahead of the curve on their perceptions. Mo, my oldest, points out when I’m stimming, or zoned out to another planet, or otherwise intractably focused and obsessed. Zo will probably pick up on those expressions in short order.

But they’re thoughtful and reflective now, and soon they’re going to realize: dad is different. 

On my worst days, I like to peer into the future, lay out the pieces on the chessboard in the endgame. And in that stage, I’m no longer there. The game is dire, the board bereft of pieces, the position tenuous.

It’s just as possible as not that I’m not going to do any justice for autism, for The Life Autistic, and for me. That I’ll screw it all up, go down unredeemed, and that less of a dent will be made to where I and others on the spectrum are better understood, valued, and celebrated.

But I’m hopeful.

Where I may fail, I have two bright lights that may yet prevail.

Who will both remember a loving, even if odd, father.

Who may tell a different story of The Life Autistic: “Yeah, my dad was autistic – but he was great, and here’s what we learned about him and people who are like him.”

Whose retelling of the tale could go far beyond mine, to where they’d make even better—and probably more likable—advocates too.

They are a constant reminder: there’s what we do, and what we do for others.

And they will be the light that shines beyond us.