The Life Autistic: Living with Obsessions and Enthusiasms

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I used to be a strange boy with strange obsessions.

I still am, but I used to be, too.

It can’t be helped. It’s one of those markers of The Life Autistic, where you just hyper-obsess over something arcane, mundane, maybe a little odd.

For me, it was many things.

Cameras. LEGO sets. Beanie Babies. Watches. Chess. Left Behind books. Countries.

But the strangest of all: Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

I don’t know why. I never know why.

But back in WWTBAM heyday, I delved into the minutae of game shows, contestants, record winnings, facts about the show.

Rarely the trivia though.

That’s kind of the thing: back during my camera fix, I didn’t care much about photography, but rather makes and models and variants and formats of camera.

And for Who Wants to be a Millionaire, I picked up some good trivia skills, but only as they related to things like “One-Day Money Records on Jeopardy,” or “Answers Worth Over a Million Dollars on Game Shows.”

I had hopes, too, that I’d be the first winner on Kid Millionaire, a show that didn’t exist.

So what are the autistic obsessions and enthusiasms like?

Imagine being compelled to learn every single thing, every detailencyclopedically broad, expertly deep on the most impractical aspect of a subject.

Say it’s math. 

But not, like, “doing math,” but learning about its history, functions, luminaries, formulae, theory — and then stumbling when it comes to working out a differential equation.

It’s as silly and unhelpful as it gets when it comes to a functional subject.

That’s The Life Autistic.

So yeah, I can tell you that Dan Blonsky was the 2nd winner of Millionaire, or that Rahim Oberholtzer was one of the youngest game show millionaires, which he won on a short lived revival of Twenty One.

But throw me in a quiz bowl and I’ll probably drown. Unless the topic is Game Show Facts, Trivial and Arcane

Oh yeah, that’s a signed copy of TV Guide from Regis Philbin himself.

The Life Autistic: We’re Great at Anomaly Detection (but that’s Terrible)


If you thought anomaly detection was just a data science thing, then you need to meet more autistic people.

We’re great at it.

And it’s TERRIBLE.

I hate it. Hate. Hate. Hate.

But why?

So, we autistic folks are precociously good with patterns, routines, repetition — if it’s something predictable, recurring, then we bake it into the landscape as if to help us answer: “This is what normal looks and feels like. These are my signposts. This is how I know.”

Oh, I’m sure you’d love the power.

The ability to step into a day and notice that something’s . . . different. Off. Abnormal. Anomalous.

Like the one hero in the bunch who smells that something fishy, almost like a preternatural power.

Sorry folks, but that strength doesn’t get us the cool looks from others with us.

Not even close.

Here’s why it’s a terrible skill.



Just that.


Why is this different? Why does this atmosphere feel so off? Why is this person different today? This week? Why did today seem so awkward.

We know something’s up.

We can sense it.

The peril is rarely knowing why.

People don’t tell us. Or worse, won’t tell us.

Situations don’t unravel.

Not every pattern deviates with purpose.

The anomalies in our environment are cruel: obvious but unrevealing.

Ignorance is a bliss, humming from day to day, interaction to interaction gleefully unaware.

Not in The Life Autistic.

Where we sense the changes, pick up the imperceptible, detect the anomalies.

And get no answers why.

The Life Autistic: Understanding Boundaries and Barriers

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The Life Autistic is a terrible paradox.

We have a hard enough time dealing with it.

I want to be in my own little world, but not alone.

I don’t always feel like talking, but I want people to try talking to me.

I burn out quick at events, but I hate the feeling of missing out.

We’re not always loners; we just need that alone time to recharge.

We have to have the time to ourselves to make the time for others.

We are guarded about who we are, even if we’d love to open up.

I go quiet and distant when I want others to speak up and come close.

I’m not antisocial; I just can’t stay exposed to the elements for so long.

I need to be able to disappear, but I want to be missed when I go.

I don’t mind company; I do mind not having an escape hatch.


Our barriers are fences, not always defenses.

We don’t do well with intrusions.

We don’t want everyone away forever.

We can’t always be brave enough to be inviting.

So we hope you can be that brave for us.

The Life Autistic: You Can’t Make these Quirks Up

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If you haven’t seen Captain Marvel, go see that first, then come back.


Ok, since you’re squared up on that:

Early on, Carol quizzes Nick Fury about a personal quirk so obscure that it would be impossible to fabricate.

And this “autistic-flavored” quirk came to mind.

Which is rare, because so many other regular ones do.

I only use travel-sized toothpastes for brushing my teeth.

I drink water from a mason jar and milk from a coffee mug.

I literally shudder/cringe at someone rubbing bare skin on carpet

but none top this whopper:

I’ll itch and sniff my hair because it smells like Korean Ramen noodles

If that ain’t the most embarrassing thing ever.

But it’s become so common, leading to exchanges like:

Mo: Daddy, why do you itch and smell your hair?

Me: I —

My wife: Because it smells like ramen.

Mo: Does that smell good?

Me: OK, I — well, yeah, but I —

My sister took note of it once, saying that it’s actually some autistic soothing and smell fixation thing.

And with my poor sense of smell, look, I like when they stand out.

So yeah, it’s part-stim, part-soothe, part-fixation – whatever: I do have the hair to spare!

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to boil some ramen ^_^




The Life Autistic: Why People Don’t Love the Machines


I had a compelling discussion with a data scientist on my team, where we touched upon things like chess notation, text analytics, and how we’re basically inventing things that will replace us one day.

“I’m trying to take the machine side now. So when they take over, maybe they’ll be nice to me.”

I believe that.

I think they’ll come to me and realize I’m not quite like the other humans.

Rigid. Inviolate. Predictable. Rote.

Just like them.

In The Life Autistic, I’ve discovered a thing or two about being a machine.

It’s too late for me now, but I hope discoveries are not too late for you. Or for your kids. Or for whoever you care about who’s living their own life autistic.

People don’t love the machines.

No one starts their car and thinks: “Wow, I love the fact that you started today. And pretty much every day. Almost without fail.”

Same with their iPhones, televisions, blenders, whatever.

Function without fail is not endearing.

It took me years upon years, decade upon decade – realizing just recently:

My unshakeable ability to remember things for people.

To drive things to a finish.

Never forgetting commitments. 

Always saying hello in our work chats.

And all else: the little chores, the steadfast deliveries, the items never failed.

They are not endearing traits.

They are machinery. 


The emptiness hit me a while back and quite recently.

“Why don’t people appreciate these things, these unfailing traits about me?”

And as I pressed the BREW button on Mr. Coffee, I almost heard him answer back:

“It’s the same reason you don’t love me, Hunter.

I am but a machine.

I do what is expected of machinery.

And there is nothing more.”












The Life Autistic: Puzzle Pieces?

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Google “autism puzzle piece”

I’ll wait.

That branding is EVERYWHERE?

How’d it get to be that way?

We’re talking about Autism Awareness Month – there’s a lot of work to do here.

One thing that will help.

Let’s do away with this whole ‘puzzle piece’ mentality.

We’re not incomplete.

We’re not missing anything.

We’re not something to be solved.

We don’t look any better when put together.

Of course we want to understand ourselves better, but we’re asking you to understand us!

We’re not puzzling; we’re different.

This round, let’s put down the puzzle pieces. The icons. The ribbons.

We get that it’s still common, and fine, we can work off that common ground.

We’re not something to ‘put together.’

We just want to work together.


The Life Autistic: The Right Kind of Autism Awareness


Why is there pizza here? 

I was working on this post, and Mo came up and asked “Are you finding something for us to eat tonight?” Maybe that’s not a bad idea.

Before we get to pizza, let’s get to the context: we’ve been highlighting National Autism Awareness Month — a good start in need of a great finish.

People are already aware of autism and autistic people.

And I worry that their awareness isn’t always calibrated.

The other day, I heard about some lady commenting on someone else’s ‘attributes,’ saying that “they must be on the spectrum or something.”


Because they took things literally and didn’t always get jokes.

Is that the kind of awareness we need?

That if you don’t get jokes, you might be “an autistic?”

That if you have trouble with figures of speech, you might be “an autistic?”

Or if you have trouble empathizing? Or latch onto routines as more rigidly than a robot?

We are not all autistic in the same ways. 

We may share similar experiences, and neurotypical people may be similar to us too.

But it’s a spectrum.

Be aware of this, at least: we’re all different and autistic each in our own special ways.


The friend who relayed this story ended it by telling me something along the lines of:

“She seemed to make a lot of generalizations about autistic people; how they’re really literal, that they don’t always get jokes, and that they all have the same favorite pizza.”

“Wait, what — we have a favorite pizza?”