Catering to Autism

IMG_4545.JPG

For breakfast, I eat virtually the same thing every day: a scoop of vegan protein powder with up to a 1/3 cup of steel-cut oats, a half-tablespoon of peanut butter, all rendered porridgey with coffee as a base, then three eggs separately.

For lunch, that’s also the same deal: a smoothie made from a cup of kale, a banana, ice, water, and more scoops of protein powder.

Though dinner and snacks vary, I’m pretty routine about 66% of my meals during the day.

So imagine what happens if any of that is somehow altered.

It seems like it’d be hard to cater to autistic tastes.

Why?

Because you’re catering to routines, patterns, norms — and unless it’s the same things we’re eating for those designated meals, then it’s likely going to be a matter of pushing back.

Mrs. H2 is a pretty stellar cook, so her dinner options are never a miss.

But I get worried when there’s something on deck for breakfast or for lunch. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s good, and I already know I’m going to have to try to switch gears mentally to accommodate.

Maybe you’re in this boat, maybe you’re not — where you feel like you’re dealing with an autistically picky eater and it’s grinding your gears.

As one of those people, here’s my bullets of advice:

-It might not be about picky tastes, but picky routines 

-Get creative with the meals open to the most variety

Discover the root of what makes the ritual stick and appeal to that 

For me, I eat pretty compact and healthy so I don’t like feeling “fat” before and during work, and I like something warm most mornings and cool most afternoons. Portions weigh heavily for me, and I don’t like the feeling of eating too much in the morning.

That sounds normal, but it’s the routine and ritualistic devotion to its consistency that can be more autistic than the norm.

Others’ routines and rituals may vary — those are what you’re catering to. 

We Are Not So Easily Dismissed Anymore

Screen Shot 2019-09-25 at 5.30.21 AM.png

Super quick disclaimer: If you can pause your opinions on climate change to consider an important topic about autism – read on! If you can’t, check out my other posts instead. Thanks.

I’m going to assume you’re up to speed about Greta Thunberg: a 16-year-old girl from Sweden, the world’s most recognizable climate change activist at the moment, and William Hill’s odds-on favorite to win the next Nobel Peace Prize.

Greta has autism.

As someone on a similar spectrum, I can’t fathom how she’s managing this surge of popularity, constant public speaking, and sparring for her cause, which triggers people here in America. It’s incredible.

But it’s reared an irksome thing that we still have to deal with, an attribute that comes up when people can’t just disagree and choose to dismiss with things like this:

“Greta has autism.”

Have you ever felt invalidated based on who you are? 

It is disheartening to advocate for anything with passion, or react strongly, or try to argue something, only for people to try to shut you down with your own autism.

Are you the type of person who hears someone out and thinks “I don’t even have to engage here – she’s autistic, so I don’t even have to try showing her how she’s wrong.”? If you’re here, probably not.

Yet those people are out there. En masse. Prominent, even!

But I’m encouraged. Why?

Because people are closer to “getting it” about autism. When a pundit claimed (and yep, dismissed) Greta’s arguments weren’t really worth tackling due to her being “mental ill,” FOX NEWS apologized for his comments on their network and rescinded any future airtime for him — that’s a good start.

I’m nowhere near close to what Greta’s doing, or what she’s facing, as an autistic young woman — but I can empathize with the struggle of being someone with a special attribute that people misunderstand, one that people use against you to try shutting you down.

 

When People Discover I’m Autistic

IMG_7875.jpg

For starters, I’ll lay down two facts right away:

#1: This blog is about autism

#2: Yes, I’m autistic

/takes bow, backs off stage

Most people pick up on #1 right away, but I’ve found that #2 comes to many by surprise!

This weekend, I volunteered for a girls + data event — an absolutely inspirational delight and joy. During a small bit of downtime, I had a great conversation with one of our program managers who was stunned and delighted to discover that my autism narrative and advocacy were personal.

“I had no idea; I would never have guessed.”

And that’s a common reaction!

I wouldn’t blame anyone there for coming to the same conclusion: during the event, I engaged the campers, landed about 75% of my jokes, made just enough eye contact to pass as normal, and did my level best to help bring energy and enthusiasm to the room.

It was as amazing as it was exhausting; I’ve gotten good at masking the exhaustion.

For every burst of meet ‘n’ greet, I needed “sweet retreat” — where I could recharge at my desk in the back for many a moment.

For every conversation I had, I needed to keep a “getaway excuse” handy, so I wouldn’t start getting awkward or run out of things to say and feel embarrassed.

I was invited for lunch with the volunteers, and I was thankful I had some work to do, because the real reason was “I need a little bit of time to muster up some momentum to socialize and be close to people.”

And after the event was said and done, I was dang near catatonic, staring off into the distance and finding little alcoves to not be seen shutting down.

For the ride out and off to dinner, I said: “Please, I can sit in back – you all can catch up – I don’t mind!”

In my mind, I thought: “I just can’t sustain the conversational energy if I’m up front, and I’m going to unspool, and it’s going to be weird, and I don’t like being the awkward silence in the middle of a chat, and I kinda just wanna look at the hills of Santa Cruz and listen to other people talk and power down without being noticed.”

I am glad when people find it a surprise to learn that I’m autistic. It opens up the great door that comes next.

Where I can share that it’s work. That it’s hard work for many. It is for me.

And that others can support that kind of work — being mindful of when we need a break, or when we need something to focus on, or that little bit of reassurance when we’re firing on all cylinders for a greater good (like keeping happy campers happy!), or just a quick, knowing, “you doing ok?”

 

 

Usually Funny; Rarely Fun

IMG_2609 2.JPG

One of my college roommates over a summer once claimed that I was the funniest person he’d ever met.”

Without missing a beat, I quipped back: “You should try meeting more people.” 

And he laughed, again.

I’m not that funny.

I’ve just learned to fine tune humor as a coping mechanism to overcome social tension and stress. 

Isn’t that why everyone does it? Like, if I were on stage all of a sudden at a comedy club, I’d start telling jokes too to ease that awkward tension.

The problem though, is that some people think I’m fun. 

The Life Autistic is a weird amalgam of people perceiving your actions as your attributes, for better or for worse:

“Oh, you use big words – you must be an intelligent showoff.”

“Oh, you remember a lot of details, you must be incredibly smart.”

“Oh, you’re kind of blunt – you must be a mean, critical person.”

“Oh, you have a knack for making people laugh — you must be a fun guy to be around.”

Some of that could be true?

But you’ll find me out pretty quick, even through the jokes — Hunter is usually funny, but rarely fun.

I’m not the life of any party. I’m the last with any good suggestions for a night out, unless it’s “out cold and asleep.” Even on my bravest days I’ll suggest activities, trips, events, all while just taking it in a moment at a time, kinda quiet, hoping that others will bring the energy.

And many of us can be that way too.

Fun is a state of being and manner of expression; funny is a plotted thing, built on experience, tropes, observations, deployments of things we know a normal human would find funny after years of study.

Funny how that works.

Ugly Ducklings, Lonely Swans, and Why Autism Makes Our Difference Difficult

IMG_7292.jpg

We saw this swan by a fountain in Versailles.

Three thoughts came to mind:

1: “I should get a picture.”

2: “I shouldn’t get that close, because I remember reading about some rowing team in Ireland who completely aborted their run because of a swan – apparently they’re no joke.”

3: “It’s been too long since I’ve watched Hot Fuzz, and I’m overdue.”

A fourth thought came looking at this picture:

“What was The Ugly Duckling really about?”

I read a summary of the tale today and found this a relatable angle:

The ugly duckling, now having fully grown and matured, is unable to endure a life of solitude and hardship any more and decides to throw himself at the flock of swans deciding that it is better to be killed by such beautiful birds than to live a life of ugliness and misery.

Not many of us grow up fully knowing that 1) why we’re different, and 2) we’re autistic.

I remember weeping out of frustration in my younger days and wishing the most bizarre of things: to be normal. I couldn’t define why I was different; I only began to realize that I was — long after I felt it. The teasing, the slip ups, the profound loneliness and helplessness of not being able to connect to or with others.

Only recently do more kids and people get an idea early on about their difference being defined. But it can beg a sobering question:

If I’m different from ‘normal’ people, who am I not different from?

If I’m never going to be a duck, then where are the swans?

Thanks to the great and perilous internet, we’re finding each other, these pockets of tribes, the others out there who have long been the others of everyone else. Still:

There’s a human need for connection, but our most similar connections are among those who can find it hard to connect.

Almost like the swans in Andersen’s tale, we’ll be welcoming even if we’re awkward together; it’s not like everyone on the spectrum has some secret wavelength that allows us to be more at ease with each other.

In fact, sometimes it’s trickier — I’ve spent so much time adapting to neurotypical people that I almost have to think harder to adjust and be mindful when I’m interacting with others on the spectrum, as odd as that sounds.

So with swans, ducks, birds of every feather, we still often struggle as the odd, lonely birds, no matter which flock.

Executive Function – autism’s hidden struggle

Screen Shot 2019-09-11 at 12.12.29 PM.pngKnow that phrase “can’t walk and chew gum at the same time?” Welcome to the kind of autistic struggles we often don’t know we have.

My wife and I were walking, and I was navigating to a metro station while lugging a suitcase. She asked if I could look up whether a nearby bakery was closed. And I couldn’t.

“I can’t. I just . . . I just can’t. I’m pulling a heavy suitcase and trying to navigate, and I just . . . can’t look that up unless I stop — “

My poor wife. She puts up with a lot from me, with a lot of the autistic hurdles that I can’t always leap over. One of which is executive function.

I’m a different category of weird because I can and do articulate some of my autistic challenges, which not everyone on the spectrum can or will do. And not everyone faces the same struggles at similar levels.

For me, I can really struggle with executive function on task attention.

And it’s in silly, innocuous ways.

Sometimes it’s seamless: much to the annoyance of many others, I can easily be on my phone, process information, engage in conversation.

But if I’m carrying groceries while on a call, and for some reason I need to tack on an item like bringing in the paper, even if on the way — I just can’t suspend one of the tasks until one is done. I can’t really explain it, but my mind walls off my focus to ensure I finish what I’ve started before moving to something – even if urgent.

Just the other day, Mo asked if she could have a drink. And I did my best to reason with her.

“Honey, I have to finish emptying the dishwasher and put the dishes away so I can then empty the sink and load them into a clear dishwasher, at which point I’ll have an empty sink where I can get the pitcher out, stir up tea, get your clean cup, ice, and give it to you.”

It’s never easy.

My wife summed it to my 4-year-old best: “Daddy has trouble stopping what he’s doing to do something else, ok?”

So what helps?

— Knowing that we often approach tasks as 0 to 100% with little in-between

— Asking about our “availability” before asking for a favor or task

— Break things down into concrete sequences

— Take things off the plate before putting things on

 

My Autistic Advantage in Foreign Conversations

Screen Shot 2019-09-06 at 2.46.15 PM.png

There are two kinds of travelers: the ones who don’t care and enjoy their trips, and the ones who do care and enjoy their trips more.

If you’re in the “don’t care” bucket, I’m surprised you’re here, but hey, welcome anyway.

For you conscientious ones, not speaking the native language can be a foreboding, intimidating thing — it’s true in Paris, where you hardly have to be fluent in French, but it’s definitely worth your while to try.

And that scares a good few people.

Me? Eh, not so much.

Why?

I’m used to planning out and programming my conversations anyway.

I’m not socially savvy enough to just wing it, goodness no. Even in English and the US and A, I’m thinking ahead, observing patterns, deducing the right kind of transactional cadences to where I’m not going to work myself into an awkward spot.

So whilst in Paris, I found myself surprisingly at ease when needing to get by in French. Thank you, autism, for affording me the circumstance of practice.

For example:

I was waiting in line to buy a shirt. That was intentional — after letting people ahead of me go, I could listen to the conversations ahead of time. The sequence of what the cashier would ask. How the other customers would respond. What words I needed to listen for and how to answer (oui when asked “is that all?” and about “do you need a bag?”)

Just like I do in some unknowns in English, I planned what I needed to say, offered just enough up front to avert questions I wouldn’t understand — only this round, en française.

So yeah, maybe getting in a checkout line and skating through an order without the clerk deducing you were an American is a small thing, but I’m glad I’ve had enough practice being human to be human abroad.

Have you had a similar experience?