Getting a Chance to Make it Right: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 2

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This is the second of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

When I was 15, I started working for a Department of Defense subsidiary.

No joke. True story. 100% real.

Yeah, it was for the Commissary on NAS Keflavik, but DoD subsidiary has a great ring 🙂

I’d love to tell the story of my first boss there: a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, vulgar-joke-telling, meat-cutting, German-speaking Chicagoan guardian angel —but not today.

Or how I finally earned the respect from another boss: a tougher-than-nails Philippine grandmother, standing tall at 4’9″ and working endlessly and quietly until everyone else around her faltered — but not today.

No, today’s tale is about when I almost alienated Frank, the Winston Wolf of getting produce departments up to snuff, the one who was supposed to help us win the US Military’s Best Small Commissary of the Year award.

I toured him around the produce department, answering his questions matter-of-factly. Almost too matter-of-factly.

Me being autistic me, I leaned way too far into in my blunt, under-nuanced assessment of the situation.

When he asked why we had a towering stash of parsley boxes in the cooler, I said “Because we just order this stuff indiscriminately.”

He nodded.

Fast forward a day later, I get paged to the directors office.

“Hunter,” he said. “Do you remember what you said to Frank about our inventory?”

Oh God. Here we go. I could see myself being fired no matter what, because this was big, and there are no second chances to make things right, and—

But he didn’t fire me.

“Do you see how what you said might have misrepresented us?” 

This was the first major learning between my professional work and Life Autistic, where I just needed someone to help me see what I didn’t see at first.

I felt bad, but I felt better. We didn’t get the orders right, but it wasn’t because we were careless — we had a corrective opportunity to fix, which we did.

The director then went one step further, giving me a chance to make the situation right. 

This is big for us binary-thinking autistic folks, who thrive on wanting to restore balance by fixing things.

I went to Frank and apologized, knowing better where I could have been more tactful. Did we lapse and order too much parsley? Of course. But could I have better judged the situation more appropriately? Well, now I could.

Frank understood. He put out his hand, accepted my apology, and appreciated me being thoughtful enough to address this directly.

Later, I asked the director if I could take the judging day off.

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be here and risk mess things up.”

“No, Hunter,” he said. “You’re a part of this, win or lose. You helped make it happen.”

I got a chance to make it right and also not make it wrong.

And yeah, we won.

 

 

The Worst First Job: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 1

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This is the first of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

As a teenager, I loved coffee. Straight black.

So when the opportunity to start my first job at the Lava Java coffee shop opened up, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Or more nervous.

This was supposed to be my big step. My foray into doing “grown up things.”

That step faltered.

I clocked in at 6AM. Left sick by noon. Before the afternoon was up, the owner stormed to my front door, yanked my employee handbook from my hands in my own doorway and dismissed me on the spot before I could manage an apology for leaving.

Even as I reflected then and now, the horrid haze and blur was no less clear.

It made no sense.

I was crushed, rocked in tears, fearing it would be my last job ever. I was 14.

I didn’t understand my own Life Autistic then; I was ill-equipped & under-supported to handle my first job. 

The work expectations weren’t at all clear: instead of the owner showing up to train me for my first day as promised, two of her employees basically threw me to the register assuming I’d just “figure it out.”

Or when regulars would come in without so much as addressing me, placing heaps of quarters on the counter – like, “Oh, hi, would—ok, bye?” Apparently I should have known the usuals and their usual orders.

I wasn’t socially adept enough to navigate needing to pause, ask for help, or even ask the right questions, to be honest. At one time I asked what protocol we had in case someone came in with a gun. There’s that wonderful, tangential autistic curiosity at work.

After dozens of barely-managed orders, frictions from my odd patter, and growing illness and unease, I asked to leave for the day. Whether stress, early rising, or just a violent confluence of factors, I could barely stand up straight.

I thought I’d try again, get a second chance for when I need to come back.

That second chance never came. 

My Lava Java tenure lasted a full six hours. It wasn’t even a first day.

I look back at this through the lens of my older autistic self, wondering where I ruined it all that. I recall the odd questions, my awkwardness, but I can’t pry back open to find where I was knowingly abnormal, malicious, or otherwise undeserving of another go.

That’s the hard part of autism — it is our normal and we don’t always see where others find the abnormal. 

This first episode was terrible. My parents were worried, as was I. This felt like a judgment on my ability to function professionally. I knew I wasn’t normal, but now I felt like I couldn’t even do normal things. I was scared.

Lava Java never gave me a second chance.

But someone else did.

 

How Open is Too Open? — Autism & Oversharing

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As I caught myself referencing my children, by name, to a co-worker, rambling on about their ages, what they’re like, how they get along with each other, how they’ve fundamentally altered my work & life balance as a parent — it hit me.

I have this conversation with everyone. Everyone knows my kids. It’s all I talk about.

It comes and goes in cycles, where I open the shell and share what my life is about, its shimmering joys, vicissitudes of pain and progress, the random beats to my offbeat tastes:

Then I feel like closing it.

I think of the phrases. Oversharing. Too open. Personal. Talkative. Unguarded.

I remember how little I glean from others directly and how much it comes from hyperobsverational acuity. And I do shudder at that.

How I’ve laid myself and everything so open now.

How open is too open?

In The Life Autistic, I could assure you all on our behalf that we’re not always the most socially keen on limits.

Oh, of course we know not to stand too close. Refrain from certain questions. Pry too much. Monologue on niche topics.

But is this a byproduct of socially misreading and overshooting what’s acceptable?

*deep sigh*

I’ve worked hard to strip the machinery from my humanity. To feel OKAY about sharing more about my life, laying open the book without coming across as some distant riddle to be decoded.

You hear the stories of folks where, you ask how their day is going, and by the end of the conversation you know their life story.

Those tales aren’t told in the best lights.

And I worry whether that is the tale others tell of me.

“I know H2’s life story, and I only just met him five minutes ago.”

“I’ve seen more pics of Mo and Zo than I have my own kids; I don’t even know whether those are their real names.”

“If you happened to forget where Hunter grew up and what he majored in, don’t worry, he’ll bring it up every other conversation.”

It is hard for us to navigate what’s socially acceptable if it isn’t socially harmful.

I wish I had a better answer, a guide in which I know “ok this is too much” or “this is probably fine, but it’s a little more than a regular person should be sharing.”

The shades of sharing feel nigh-impossible.

Too little, and you’re distant and cold. Too much, and you’re inconsiderate – or worse, “lacking boundaries.”

Where is “just right?”

 

 

How and When to Interrupt Our Routines

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The short answer to this post’s premise is “Don’t interrupt or disrupt our routines.”

When you’re dealing with us autistic folks – help mind the routines.

We don’t build them or follow them to inconvenience anyone. That would create awkwardness. We hate that as much as you do.

We develop routines — consciously or subconsciously — to add a sense of structure to our lives, minimizing stress, fear, meltdowns, anxiety, and more.

Would you rather we just teeter on edge and act out, crumble, lash out for a lack of routine? No.

Would you prefer we just live carefree and “go with the flow?” Well, uh, that doesn’t just work.

Routines are a kind of coping mechanism, but we get that our routines cannot dictate the entirety or majority of your life as it does ours.

So how can you help gracefully interject and alter our routines (if and when needed) without us blowing up or melting down?

I gotchu, fam. 

Start with why, start with why, start. with. why. This one is just stupid easy: even if we don’t agree with the reason or the rationale, we at least know you’re being thoughtful about the interjection and will give us a chance to rationalize the need. Intentionality goes a long way.

Warn in advance. I’m not going to promise that we’re always going to like the events, but if you want to ensure the most civil outcome – get ahead of the surprise factor and just tell us ahead of time. Here’s a cheat: if you use early warnings as leverage to encourage us to deal with our reactions in the moment and during the event, we’ll play ball, ok?

Understand how routine disruption disrupts us. Sometimes our assessment of a day’s “goodness” or “badness” is predicated on predictability. And sometimes nothing more. The more you can help us navigate “the newly minted map,” the better. Expectations are hard to recalibrate, but not impossible.

Mitigate the impact. My work involves a lot of rocks and boulders of blocked time that, when shifted, make my day far less recoverable. Sometimes they just have to shift, and it’s incredibly irksome to my autistic core. They just are, and I can’t help that. Underneath the routine, though, there are goals: build dashboard X, present keynote Y — if there are other routines that can be altered or things made easier to help offset that disruption, we’re not going to turn take “making our lives easier.”

What do you find helpful when your routine has to budge, or when you have to budge a routine?

How The Mandalorian’s Coolest Character NAILS The Autistic Experience

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Star Wars wasn’t supposed to make me feel this way, but I’ve never felt so giddily associated with the autistic experience than after watching The Mandalorian.

MAJOR Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen The Mandalorian on Disney+ yet, then you need turn away and come back to this one, k? It won’t make sense otherwise, and you’ll be glad you both watched that show, then read this post. Thanks!


 

Yeah, everyone says IG-11 — a bounty-hunting, gun-toting, torso-spinning assassin droid — is their new robot spirit animal. And I don’t blame them.

He’s a TANK, brutal, laconically comic, and fearless.

And as someone on The Life Autistic, my main thought: IG-11 is totally “us.”

We’re not all programmed to terminate bounties, nor will we ever have the shooting, twirling, lithe grace of IG machinery, but here’s where we relate:

Terseness. His economic responses are the kind that’d make Calvin Coolidge look loquacious in comparison — coldly judging options as “acceptable” or confirming simple veracities with “This is true.” I only wish I could be as succinct, but I need people thinking I’m less a robot, not more.

Facts first, assessment later. When IG-11 is hit, Mando asks if he’s ok. His response is almost classically autistic:

“Running a quick diagnostic. It has missed my central wiring harness.”

Mando: “Is that good?”

IG-11: “Yes.”

It’s the kind of thing we folks on the spectrum would say, assuming that the question would be answered by the facts we share.

Adherence to routine. In harm’s way? So what? Routine is routine.

Mando: “Now let’s regroup, out of harm’s way, and form a plan.”

IG-11: “I will of course receive the reputation merits associated with the mission.”

Mando: “Can we talk about this later?”

IG-11: “I require an answer if I am to proceed.”

We are often equally inflexible — even in the heat of the moment.

Fatalism. “Manufacturer’s Protocol dictates I cannot be captured. I must self-destruct.” Unlike IG-11, though, we sometimes just go ahead and do this without announcing it. We can’t be compromised, so we melt down, shut down, and sometimes just blow up given the wrong circumstances.

Redeeming ourselves. We are aware that we’re difficult. Prickly. Not always easy. But we have our merits, and we’ll prove it.

Mando: “You know, you’re not so bad. For a droid.”

IG-11: “Agreed.”

I’ve gone back and watched all IG-11’s scenes, and there are so many resonant little gems, like his clunky-graceful movements (that hip pivot when stepping over a dead alien!), retorts (“Species age differently.”), sheer bravado in taking on hordes of mercenaries, and pragmatic pivots to team up when necessary.

The Mandalorian wasn’t meant to deliver a ‘cool autistic character,’ but IG-11 is about the coolest and closest we’ll get.

 

 

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.