The Life Autistic: Why Your Skills Can Only Go So Far

IMG_1404.jpgEver feel like you’ve done everything right and still end up like it all went wrong?

Where you’ve mastered every facet of your work, acquired new skills, checked the boxes, and yet — failed?

When you look around and realize, while you may do everything better than everyone else, you are not the best?

This is a hard lesson in life, even harder in The Life Autistic.

“There should be logic to this,” we think. “The whole should consist entirely of the sum of its parts — that’s how it works!” we plead.

That’s not how it works.

Early in my career, I thought that mastering my current job would be the gateway to the next level up. Surely, being a top Advisor would open the doors for me to manage, right? (Don’t laugh.)

But it took a different set of skills (like coaching, motivation, leadership, organization) to progress.

“Ah, so that’s it — it’s all about the DIFFERENT skills!” we think.

As I picked up skills that helped me move beyond to organization leadership, I was motivated to “learn all the things” and fortify every deficiency for success.

Presenting? Check.

Forecasting and staffing? Check.

Employee engagement? Check.

Reporting? Check check check CHECK.

Hopefully your neurotypical minds figure out what took my autistic mind too long to discover, only after I’d stalled.

It’s not about the skills.

It’s about attributes.

Respect. Tact. Diplomacy. Patience. Approachability.

Not just what you do, but who you are.

I was dismayed. I’d done so much, and I thought I could solve it all by doing. But as it turns out, it’s about being. 

Your success must go beyond your skills.

In The Life Autistic, it’s so much easier to do, do, do. The idea of being is not impossible, but it’s tough! To practice things that would normally be just someone’s personality – that’s difficult.

It still doesn’t always make sense to me.

But I’m still making sense of the world. Making better sense of me and people like me to the world.

 

The Life Autistic: What’s with the Autistic Obsessions?

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You’ve heard the stories. You’ve ‘Liked’ the posts. You’ve seen the viral videos.

“Adorable Boy WOWS Captain with Encyclopaedic Knowledge of Boeing 787 – and You Won’t Believe What He Did Next!”

“This Five-Year-Old Genius Knows More About Trash Compactors Than you will Ever Know about Anything in your Entire Life.”

It’s a basic formula: young child, semi-arcane interest, staggering depth of subject knowledge. Yet while it’s a common thread in the tapestry of The Life Autistic, it’s still not the best understood.

Autistic people have a strong tendency to fixate on specific interests, at a level that’s typically dubbed an ‘obsession’ or ‘enthusiasm.’ While hobbies might be more about practical activities (like camping), obsessions are more components of the hobby (like tents or camping equipment).

How do you develop obsessions?

I’ve had a few (and will share them later), but it’s when interest and ‘attainability’ collide. I had a much bigger kick about cameras when I was younger, and the proliferation of camera and camera gear magazines only stoked that further.

Is it bad to have such focused obsessions?

Not always. Sometimes they’re utterly impractical, but their side benefits pay off. I was once immersed in (sigh) Who Wants to be a Millionaire, to where it was more than just appointment viewing for me. Was it really all that life-enriching? No – but I banked an immense amount of game show and trivia knowledge.

Why can’t I get my child to obsess over something profitable, like neurosurgery?

In my experience, it’s less skill-based and more ‘knowledge-accumulation.’ I’ll use my photography example from earlier: the components, brands, and formats of a camera interested me, but I had no interest in actually using them or learning how to compose photos.

Do you ever get over it?

Sometimes they pass, other times they wax and wane.

What doesn’t pass is the “obsessive” tendency — I’m in a bit of a lull on mine at the moment, but with enough time and space, who knows?


 

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The Life Autistic: Almost Thankful

IMG_3062.jpgLast Thanksgiving, I pulled off one of my best Thanksgivings ever.

Two days before the events (yes, because we end up doing multiple Thanksgivings because of reasons), I went in to have my remaining three wisdom teeth removed.

You did what?

Yes, I had my wisdom teeth yanked right before Thanksgiving.

It was the best.

I’m a bit of a diet stickler, so with my mouth in stitches, I couldn’t overeat.

Making small talk at the table? *mumbles something like ‘sorry, my mouth hurts, so I can’t talk’*

Awkward socializing? Didn’t have to, since my medication gave me very good reason to opt out and nap until everyone left.

Yeah, I know, I’m a scamp.

But Thanksgiving holidays are just hard. 

They can be hard for everyone, and they’re hard for us.

It’s a break in routine, an extreme amount of effort, and there’s very little getting around the social effort.

Even in a time and set of situations that make me almost thankful, I find comfort in the small things:

– Hosting always gives me the grief, but at least we make good hosts and serve up a good spread.

– There are weeks I get anxiety about something as simple as dinner each night, but after Thanksgiving, I at least have some idea what we’ll be eating next week. (Korean turkey burritos? OK THEN!)

– And for all the talk about people dreading political banter at the table, it never happens with me — I’ve gotten good at shutting down conversations when I need to!

If you’ve got one of those relatives like me: be nice, gracious, and quick to leave or understand why we want to leave the quickest (hah!).

We’re thankful for people who get us and make it easier for everyone. We do try.

I don’t have any more wisdom teeth to pull this year.

So I’m going to try to be more than almost thankful.

 

The Life Autistic: What the Heck is a Facts Curator?

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I was disappointed in my first online IQ test.

Not because it confirmed that I was ‘good with the words, dumb with the maths.’

No, it was in the disappointing “career recommendation.”

Apparently, this test assessed the strengths and weaknesses of my answers and offered me the kind of job I’d be good at.

‘Facts Curator’

Facts Curator? What the even is that?

I read further: a Facts Curator would be the type of person who knew a lot about a lot of things — dates, places, people, events.

The type of person who’d find themselves in a museum, or guiding tours, or whatever other paying job out there requires someone to act as a human wellspring of knowledge arcane and profane.

I didn’t like that.

I’ve no disrespect for those who’d choose the occupation of facts curation.

I very nearly went that route (!) in choosing a history major myself.

But the way they phrased it…

“Facts Curators can be useful.”

Some people enjoy learning interesting tidbits from a human encyclopedia”

“Not everyone wants to Google information.”

Needless to say, I fought my way into a different and fulfilling career, one that doesn’t play to what people think my strengths are, but what they came to be.

The Life Autistic might be naturally suited for roles, jobs, and careers that fit our different skill sets.

And that’s great.

But I didn’t let my autistic traits define my career.

That choice didn’t belong to my autism.

It belonged to me. 

The Life Autistic: The One Thing I Do Not Fear

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Uncle Ed was a kind man and a good Catholic.

He wasn’t my uncle, and I don’t think he was technically the uncle of the neighborhood family he lived with — it didn’t matter. He was Uncle Ed to everyone, I guess.

My mom got to talking with Uncle Ed one fall day, and while I didn’t manage to eavesdrop on the conversation, she passed along something he said. About me.

“He said you’re not afraid of work.”

Me being the well-adjusted, neurotypical self that I was, I immediately picked up on the figure of speech.

Oh, wait, that’s not me at all, so no I didn’t get it.

“What do you mean, not afraid of work?”

That was the first time I’d heard that in that way.

I’d signed up to rake Uncle Ed’s family’s lawn for twenty bucks. In 1999 dollars, that was about, uh, $20.

But this wasn’t any lawn. The lawns on NAS Jacksonville were like football fields. And the leaves must have flown in from out of state, such was the autumnal blanket: thick, imposing, infinite.

I was an idiot to sign up for a raking venture like this.

But at least I’m a stubborn idiot who keeps his word.

The whole process took a week. 6 days straight. 8am to dark.

I was homeschooled, so I did my schoolwork before breakfast. Then it was rake, rake, bag, rake, sweat, rake, drink from a hose or something, and rake again.

It’s a boring story for boring work.

But as I look back and look ahead, I’ve found that big boring work intimidates people, both normal and abnormal.

I was upset at times. I didn’t like my hands blistering. I knew that $20 for an entire week seemed less than worth it. I felt more miserable than happy.

But.

Amidst all my fears, anxieties, things that twang the dread-wound strings of my autistic self, I found in leaves the one thing I did not fear.

Work.

The Life Autistic: Working for a Boss on the Spectrum

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Having an autistic co-worker is one thing, and it’s probably a more common experience than you may think.

But what if it’s your boss?

I spent years of my Apple career in management. People management. Actual, living human people.

Not only that, but I went from managing employees directly to managing their managers, with a business unit of over 115 awesome front-line agents and six stellar team managers. I was a bona-fide organizational leader.

I found my footing in the role, and I feel I did well for my people and their people. Before you shake your head and wonder “What the heck was Apple thinking?” — mind you, I wasn’t bad at the gig!

But I was different. 

And if you have one of those “different” bosses like me, here’s a few things I’d like you to know:

1) We care, even if we have trouble showing it

Expression doesn’t always come naturally to us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I had to make reminders to thank my people and highlight their work – otherwise I’d get lost in observing work and fail to recognize the worker.

2) We’re cyborgs, not robots

Routine and ritual are our R&R – if we’re in management, it’s because we’ve likely made the best use of rigid actions and processes to get things done well. Don’t let that intimidate you – we’re just wired that way.

3) Bring a dictionary and a cushion for conversations

If your boss is anything like me, he or she may have affinity for labyrinthine conversations, extended analogies, prolix prosody, and extended stays in the forges of rhetorical wordsmithing. Apologies in advancewe’re honestly not trying to confuse you!

4) . . . or, get ready for blunt feedback

Mind you, we’re not talking “brutal” or “hurtful” – being direct and to-the-point isn’t because we’re malicious. We just don’t always catch the emotional impact of our words. Sometimes our tone is off, sometimes it’s a statement of fact in our minds and nothing more. I’m still working on handling it gracefully.

5) Find the positives

I wasn’t a perfect manager. Most aren’t.

If your manager is genuinely on the autism spectrum, they’re bringing a different mix of imperfections.

They may bring some commanding strengths, too.

Attention to detail. Intense focus. Unassailable determination. Unflinching support. A cool head. A keen eye on your work and ideas to make it better.

It’s a different experience.

And if it’s your experience – I do hope it’s the good kind of different.

 

The Life Autistic: When the Emotion Should be There

Visiting Grandma and Grandpa was a rare thing growing up. We lived in Iceland, so the trans-Atlantic flight from there to Virginia was an event, the highlight of the year.

After one of those annual trips, my folks called my grandparents and put me on the line. I’m no good on the phone now, and I wasn’t much better then.

I forget who asked or how it came up, but I recall saying something clunky:

“Well, I don’t miss you, but I do remember you.”

My parents laughed it off or something, as I remember them smoothing it over — they all knew I was an odd, hyperfactual duck.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it typifies all too well one of those fissures in The Life Autistic:

We don’t always feel the emotions that should be there.

It’s not that we don’t “get it” — we do, but we don’t, y’know, “get it.” Not like everyone else.

I’m not always sad when bad things happen to others. I relate, I’ve practiced the words, and I know I should feel more sorrow.

I rejoice with those who rejoice, but it’s not always as deep-seated in me to be indwelled with the same for people and situations.

I’m not some cold, robotic soul who has eroded all traces of human pathos from his system—no, I and many others know we don’t always possess the emotion where it should be. 

We see the gaps, and we adapt.

In time and in some cases, we do begin to feel. It’s growth, understanding, learning what is meant to fill the space. Nothing remains empty forever.

I do think back to those trips.

The long drives through the trees, how foreign they were compared to tundra.

The way the smoke clung to the wood and brick of their old house.

The ironclad hugs from Grandpa.

The two best weeks of the year.

I remember them less and miss them more.