The Life Autistic: It’s Not Just Introversion

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It can’t be possible that everyone is an introvert.

But it sure seems that way, based on the amount of folks I meet (who are genuinely otherwise genial and social) who confess that, despite their apparent gregariousness and yen for social activities, they are introverts at their core.

So there are times I have to reckon with The Life Autistic: am I not just a different variety of introvert? Or conversely, aren’t introverts in some way “a little bit autistic?”

No.

Autism encompasses a range of characteristics. Even though it may make sense that a “bookish, awkward, comic-book loving math savant introvert” would be your typical autistic example, it’s just as likely that it’s actually going to be your “focused, clumsy, exuberant, trouble-with-eye-contact-and-boundaries camera-parts-loving extrovert.”

Really? Really.

Introversion and extroversion are basically just matters of “social energy,” as I’ll call it. Extroverts gain it, introverts drain it.

And it has nothing to do with whether you like people or not. You could be an antisocial extrovert, or a sociable introvert — it happens.

That’s where people can get confused about autism.

I’ll admit that I’ve worked to a place where I can turn on the jets, flip a few switches, and almost be fun at gatherings, events, parties, you name it.

Would I rather be back at my house reading a book? Or out doing my own thing alone? Uh, not always.

Sometimes I enjoy the thrill of company, where it changes the pace in my day, and I know I’m going to have a good time — who wouldn’t?

The introverted side of me has to recharge after a load of people and events.

The autistic side of me needs to recharge before I melt down and lose my emotional bearings.

And no matter how much socializing I do or don’t do, I’m still an overly literal thinker, have trouble summoning the right empathetic responses, dig into fixations and enthusiasms, and stim oddly in my own house.

I have autism, and I just happen to be an introvert.

The Life Autistic: Value Diversity? Promote Remote Work.

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I owe much of my career longevity and relative success to Apple allowing me to work almost entirely remote.

Working remotely is not just a matter of convenience in The Life Autistic; it’s a way to embrace and promote diversity for us.

All too often workplaces get bogged down in remote work debates (or justifications!) from a convenience, creative, or productivity standpoint. Those are all well and good, but they fail to account for a more inclusive, important factor: people.

We’re in a “bring your whole person” to work era — even if that means you’re bringing in remotely.

So how does remote work promote diversity and neurodiversity?

Remote work minimizes our social burnout 

I travel to our sites every so often, and atop an already demanding role, I’m smoked by the sheer number of interactions and meetups that pile on. While I’ve tried to be less popular (hah), it gets tough to save energy for my work when it’s being spent on social capital and interaction.

Remote work allows focus on our terms

Ok, autism-friendly workspace, it’s nice that you let me wear big headphones at my cube in your open office — but that’s only going to help so much. We value our space, place, unperturbed arrangements in a way where we don’t have to drown everything else out, but can make a more focused place to begin with.

Remote work lets us opt in to the essentials 

I’ll write about this later! But being able to select my spots for meetings, collaborations, and partnerships has helped my mental well-being, even if I don’t get as much of that organically. And if want to do that, I travel. Win-win.

Remote work allows for our, uh, expression without awkwardness

Are you familiar with stimming? No? Well, it’s a thing — and it’s very noticeable if you watch me for too long at home. In public, I can shut it down, but that takes work. We’re way more free as people when we can segue into stimming without co-workers or colleagues thinking we’re weirder than we already are.

 

But here is the kicker:

Don’t just offer and tolerate remote options.

Embrace and promote not just the work, but the worker finding their best in it.

Are you actively embracing the growth and benefit it can afford your people? Is it just an option to offer so you can check a box?

Are the opportunities of remote career growth appealing, or are they at a lower tier “because it’s too hard to make it work?”

Are you valuing and finding ways that your neurodiverse remote employees can grow and do more?

 

 

 

The Life Autistic: Children are the Best Escape

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Here she is – my greatest little escape artist.

Not just on her own, but for my escapes too.

This is Zo, my youngest, most focused, fierce, determined little girl. Don’t let the eyes fool you: it’s a trick to sucker you into letting her get away with whatever she sees fit to do.

I’ve got musings and a half on my kids and on each of them, but for all of her strong-willed excursions and fate-tempting boundary stretches, Zo has been one of my biggest helps lately.

She gives me a focal point when I need an out

Zo’s still kind of a baby, sometimes the youngest in the room. Depending on the awkwardness of the context, I’ll volunteer to feed her or watch her or (try to) keep her from trouble. Otherwise, I’m stuck at a table making eye contact and small talk, and frankly, I’ll take my chances wandering around with the kiddo.

She runs away, so I don’t have to

Zo doesn’t mind being with people, but she’s way more intent to play with things of interest, like cats and playground equipment. On two days in a row, she sneaked away to both, and — hey, she needs adult supervision with cats, claws, slides, stairs, etc., so I can deftly slip away from the people milieu and engage her without needing to justify a people break

When she’s *done* — I can be done too

Sometimes it’s the best to bring Zo along. When she’s done, she is D-O-N-E. Me? I’m a little more subtle with the meltdowns, but Zo is a baby: she tires, gets cranky, decides to stop behaving. And there are days when I’ve just gassed out my social tank, but I know it’s going to be awkward to haul up and leave. But if the baby is hurling and chucking a tantrum? Well then, that’s the socially acceptable queue to get outta dodge.

I know Zo’s going to grow up, get a little more congenial and mingle for much longer than she does now. But I’m going to miss her at this stage, where she’s my perfect accomplice in escapes on The Life Autistic.

The Life Autistic: What Your Coworkers on the Spectrum Want You to Know

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If you work with people, some of them are going to be different. You’ll feel it, sense it, but you might not be able to put a finger on it. Autism doesn’t just scream the kind of difference that anyone would pick up, and chances are, we’re trying hard to mask it.

But we’re concerned about reactions like:

I can’t tell if he’s engaged or not; he’s barely looking at me when we talk.

She gets really frustrated during these brainstorm sessions, so I might have to stop inviting her. 

I don’t know why he feels the need to show off his impressive vocabulary.

We’re pleased with her work, but we don’t know how she’d handle stress like this.

Here’s what your coworkers with autism want you to know:

We love structure

Who doesn’t? If you ask me, people aren’t structured enough! Order is our comfort, so we’re going to feel better in work environments that are run clearly, transparently, where there are predictable cadences. If you throw us in a meeting that’s too long, lacks a clear agenda, and doesn’t have specific actions — we’re not going to enjoy that.

We hate surprises

I’ve told people that I wouldn’t attend my own surprise party, and that’s 100% true. Things happen by surprise, sure, but you can help. If you need to “speak with us” out of the blue, it helps to tell us why. (Don’t: “Hey, can I speak to you for a minute?” Do: “Hey, I wanted to offer you some feedback on that presentation. Can we talk for a minute?) If you’re in a spot to offer context and explain a why, please do!

We don’t hate people

Social interactions are a “high-spend activity” for us. I know — I KNOW — it’s hard to tell if we just “want a friend” to come up to us and save us the trouble of making social effort. Personally? I enjoy that, even if I can’t always summon the energy. Sometimes we can! We’re not sitting off to ourselves because we don’t like you — we’re just careful about our social energy, and it’s hard for us to expend that.

We don’t always see our quirks

Until someone told me that I run my hand through my hair a certain way before making a point, I’d have never known I do that. That’s pretty innocuous. But when it’s using oddly elevated vocabulary, not reacting to something that calls for emotion, or being abrupt in conversations — we’re not trying to be jerks; it might just be quirks.

We care about our work and others, in quiet, different ways

On my latest work trip, I realized that I’m going to be more well-respected than well-liked. That’s ok. It’s a downer, but it’s reality for many of us. We might not be the ones you can go drinking or late-night dining out or enjoy a lot of free time with. Work gives us a framework to show our qualities in a different way: by helping others, sharing our expertise, finding ways to solve problems, or even expressing timely gratitude and lightening tension.

 

 

 

The Life Autistic: Five Ways to Survive The Crowds

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Folks, I’ve got stories. This will be the first of many.

Last week, I traveled to Austin for work to attend and help with a mega-summit. It felt like hundreds of people, and many of them were those I’d finally be meeting in person vs. virtually for the first time ever.

I heard that even for regular folks that this was overwhelming.

What about in The Life Autistic?  Well, I survived, didn’t melt down, and I kinda enjoyed it.

But had it not been for these five things, I’d have been an utter wreck.

1) Plan your presence 

As soon as I knew the group would all be staying at one hotel, I booked mine at the opposite end of town, got my own car, and got a flight in a day earlier than everyone.

Why? While I put out the impression that I was pulling a ‘diva’ card, I needed to ensure I could limit my “passing by” time. To where I know I wouldn’t have an extra conversation in the hotel or nearby, or that I knew I could detox to music in my own rental to and fro.

By planning my where, I gave myself ample time to unwind, recover, and recharge.

2) Have something important to do

I’m going to thank my boss and my Senior Director for this one!

While I left enough work on my plate to keep me busy, I was blessed with an urgent request that took me almost a day and a half to turn around.

“Oh hey, H2, you sure look busy.”

“Yeah, sorry, I got this urgent item from [so-and-so].”

It made for the best reason to focus and be selectively social.

3) Opt in, not out

I was one of the first five people in the building for one reason: to find a corner seat.

That way, I could gauge the lay of the land, retreat as needed, and park while I reset before going out and socializing. Opt in, not out.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m “almost charming,” so I was happy to make some connections and chit chat.

I was open about telling folks, “I’ve got about five minutes of mingling before I peter out.”

4) Spend, but don’t overdraft

Sure, it would have been fun to attend one of the big karaoke nights they all planned.

But I know my limits. Fun is fun, but not when I’m done. 

After a busy day, and after stretching my limits with an entertaining dinner, I knew I wouldn’t be up for any activities after dark.

You can spend your energy just fine in The Life Autistic, but overdrafting is perilous. 

5) Escape

I have another post on this, but don’t be afraid to escape.

Don’t try toughing it out if you can’t. It’s not worth it. Awkward situations worsen. Find your exits. Eject yourself before you wreck yourself.

 

The Life Autistic: Please Don’t Ask Us to Do *This*

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I’m pretty decisive.

When it comes to things I want to do, for the most part, that decision tree grows from seed to sapling, to full-fledged tree pointing to one BIG option that says DO THIS.

And it’s done.

But decisions are both a perk and a peril on The Life Autistic.

Mrs. H2 collects these things called Calico Critters – they’re cute, it’s a thing, and there’s tons of them, varying by size, rarity, species, etc.

There are too many.

For me, the decision is easy: don’t buy them.

But what Mrs. H2 asks is something we autists dread:

Making someone else’s decisions for them.

It’s the worst.

If I wanted to ensure I’d do something wrong, it’d be “Dealer’s Choice.”

From time to time, whether I’m on a business trip or elsewhere, I’ll be asked to “pick up Critters” to bring home.

YEAH, BUT WHICH ONES — THIS IS NOT A DECISION I CAN MAKE.

Even with innocuous stuff, it’s a peril.

“Oh, just bring back whatever.”

But what do you mean whatever? What if it’s from somewhere you don’t really like? What if I get the wrong thing off the menu? What if you make a decision when I’ve already committed to—

Look.

Just don’t do that to us.

If you really don’t care, you make the call.

We can make our decisions.

Making yours is a bit much.