Making Difference Great for Once

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After barely a minute of social media scrolling over the weekend, I came to the realization that I’m probably the only person who doesn’t go to Halloween parties as an adult. 

Which, great, check another one for me in the ABNORMAL PERSON box. It’s a pretty full list at this point.

After a while, if you’re on The Life Autistic with me, you’re probably discouraged from time to time about difference. 

We want to be accepted and valued for our differences without having to “fit in” and lose our difference.

“But Hunter, you’re—”

No, lemme just stop ya there.

No one’s thinking “Oh, look at that dude opting out of parties like a cool guy, prioritizing his health, ensuring he’s not putting himself in a spot to look like an idiot” — no.

Or “Look at that girl’s radical and non-traditional interests; I wish I were different enough to not feel I need to follow a trend” — no.

No one sees my borderline odd routines and rituals (screaming early rising, mid-day workouts, unvaried eating habits, scheduled work blocks that have to start on the hour or half hour, etc) and thinks “Man, this guy practices the unlocked secret to efficiencies and gets it done!” — no.

If you’re considered weird and different, then your actions are weird and different. Welcome to The Life Autistic!

I could campaign around ‘Make Difference Great Again.’

To the fella who can’t be bothered to be dragged to a party, instead of  ‘lame,’ ‘anti-social,’ and ‘boring,’ why not ‘image-conscious,’ ‘selective about experiences,’ and ‘confident enough to value time alone?’

To the gal with the niche interests, maybe less of the ‘offbeat’ and ‘weird’ and more ‘unashamedly bold in taste’ and ‘an individual, only more so?’

Personally, I’d love hearing less of “inflexible” and “rigid” and more “efficient,” “diligent,” and “thoughtfully tuned,” but y’know, I can’t have everything.

Difference stands out, but does it stand tall?

 

 

 

Rituals Liberate Creativity: How Autism Enables Problem-Solving & Artistic Output

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A while back, one of my data scientist peers expressed how surprised she was at one of my satire ventures.

“How do you do that?” she asked.

“Do what?”

“Come up with some many things to post — you do that so often, I wish I were that creative.”

I mulled on that for a while: am I really that creative? 

By my own reckoning, I might have a clever idea or two once in a blue moon-in-a-half. But others seem to think I can spin up a decent thought, piece of writing, not-so-dumb-solution, or whatever.

After reading Michael Hyatt’s Free to Focus, I was jolted by a concept he mentioned:  rituals liberate creativity.

In essence, the more of your day that you can delegate to ritual, the less of your brainpower you’ll need to use to “do your day.” And where can that brainpower go? Creativity.

It’s the same concept that gives you those great “shower thoughts” — you’ve put everything on hold and on auto-pilot, so your mind is loosed for more lateral thinking and moonshot ideas.

So what does this have to do with autism?

Our autism can lead to significant ritualistic behaviors, so there’s ample room for creativity.

Granted, it’s not the case for everyone — executive function and other challenges can end up be overwhelming.

But for others, our autistic attributes accelerate problem-solving and creative endeavors, like our efficiencies gained in rituals, hyper-acuity, perception, pattern-recognition, detail-obsessions, and more.

Temple Grandin is probably the best example, whose work in livestock and animal welfare is informed and accelerated by her unique and uniquely perceptive view of the world around her.

I’m hardly the world’s most creative person, but I still manage to run with ideas on this blog, visual design and branding at work, rural satire, photo composition, social media narratives for a non-profit, and given enough time, fiction(!). There’s a lot of output there!

So yeah, it’s weird that I can’t go back to work unless the bed is made or my sink is clear or after I’ve checked off a few key deliverables every morning, but there is not much that gets undone in my life on a day-to-day level — and those rituals free up my mind for its most creative. 

One Autistic Adult’s Advice to Parents of Autistic Children

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If you’re here because 1) you know me or of me, and 2) your kids have autism, then thank you. I appreciate whatever brought you this way.

But I’ll be honest about a major thing:

I’m not in your shoes.

If anything, I’d be reaching out to you for advice and guidance on parenting autistic children.

But you’re here, still.

Your wonderful kiddos are as unique as I am in our place on the autism spectrum. As the saying seems to go: when you’ve met one person with autism, then you have met one person with autism.

I want to relate, but I am a lot closer to the child you’re parenting, not a similar author.

The best I can do is articulate my own experience, one where your kids and I may overlap.

Here’s a little of that:

The tendency to hyper-focus and fixate is a lifelong thing; being pulled away from that groove still brings out an almost physically grating reaction from me. All I’ll say is pick your battles. We don’t exactly pick our obsessions.

The obsessions and enthusiasms just happen. Yeah, it can tend to be its own siloed information, but I hated being made to feel odd and different because I was the only one who was as engaged. The least you can do is engage and try to frame the enthusiasms in context, ask questions, and discuss some applicability (like Pokémon cards and sales).

Routines, routines, and routines. Our comfort is predicated on predictability. We just expect things to continue as is, and the more we can predict, the better we can adapt. But life ain’t all about that, so introduce those “timers and expectations” to help make routines for change and interruptions.

Affection ≠ “touchiness.” I do not care how difficult this one may be. Please don’t assume your kids don’t care, feel, or love, just because they keep out of touch. I didn’t get around to hugging people until I grew up, and even then, I put that on my own terms (and it’s still awkward, but important).

Kids grow up. I didn’t get a sense of being “legitimately different” until my late teen years, and that was after spending my miserable early teen years being told I acted more like an adult and feeling out of place with kids my age. Once that self-awareness kicks in, the active adaptation begins — like knowing others where may notice your stims, or that monologuing about interests loses the interests of others, etc.

You don’t grow out of autism; you grow better into handling it.

 

Understanding the Everyday Obstacles of Autism

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In a way, I’m very fortunate to be stashed away in remote work.

When I work onsite, I have such a hard time when I see people I know walking toward me that I:

  1. Keep my glasses off so I have some plausible deniability in noticing them
  2. Keep my AirPods in, even without playing, so they think I’m on a call

The small-talk, wave-or-nod, quick-smile, acknowledgement decision tree gets wearisome after a while — it tires my brain, and I’m pooped after all the micro-decisions going on — because it’s not as natural, and we have to think about it.

It’s one of the most negative positives.

People come up to me because of Mo and Zo (because they’re cute, and people do this). So I’ve had to keep a short list of convo topics always on hand and pray that Mo can do most of the entertaining so I don’t have to, because I didn’t opt into the convo and can’t always plan beforehand.

Even when people book me for meetings without noting an agenda, it’s almost this *gasp* microaggression against my innate autistic sensibilities.

Every little thing.

Some would say, “just act normal,” like there’s a certain norm that I’d know enough to act through — but have you tried acting and staying in character for most of your life?

And then “be yourself,” where, I love the advice, but I also hate how gratingly awkward it gets when someone’s able to rattle off “Hey Hunter, how ya doing?” and say, “Hey, I’m good” and think I catch them slowing down thinking there’s more to the conversation, but there’s not, and then I feel bad if I don’t ask “and you?” so I want to slow down for that, but I have somewhere to be, and I don’t want to be rude —

The easy answer would be ‘just leave us alone,’ but then I get lonely, isolated, worse, and —

But just because we have obstacles doesn’t mean we don’t get better.

Sometimes I’ll keep the glasses on and tuck my AirPods in my pocket and smile.

Sometimes I’ll be the one to notice someone before they notice me.

Sometimes I’ll kick off the convo, giving myself time to where it can be done just enough in passing:

“Chriiiiis Robinson — how ya been?”

“Oh hey Hunter, doing alright – you?”

“Not too bad, just getting lunch — I’ll catch ya ’round.”

“Cool, see ya.”

And then done.

To anyone else, it’s normal.

To me, it’s an obstacle conquered.

 

We Aren’t Normal, but There’s a Next Best Thing

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It just happened.

Sophia, a team lead, picked up the sign-up sheet, looked it over, smirked, and said “Thanks, H2.” 

That was how I initialed things, purely for the novelty of it (because I kinda-sorta cribbed it from this album)

And then the hair — I’m too frugal for frequent haircuts, and I didn’t know it’d get curly and wild when I grew it out. I left it that way and it became a thing.

When I’d visit work sites or show up places, people noticed the hair.

Lately, I’ve bought into the Memoji craze, which generated the very accurate image seen above — and I can’t log into a virtual meeting nowadays without someone making comment about it.

Even on my worst day, for all of my other differences, I can at least be memorable.

Some of those memorable differences aren’t always great, like using big words at inopportune times, deploying obtuse analogies, or otherwise slinking away as the most awkward in a group.

But while The Life Autistic is a different and not-so-normal life, it sticks out in terms of memorability.

For all my follies and failures, I can at least take solace in barely being forgotten.

I’m sure many of us can relate, whether from a speech pattern, stim, or otherwise different way of wading the waters around us — people can tell, and people remember difference. It is ingrained within us to make note of notable change.

Some of the differences are cool, and I like that. I am defined by feeling and acting unique, and it stands out in many good ways.

For those of you who struggle with your neurological difference and diversity, I’m going to step outside myself to say it’s ok.

Fitting in isn’t always the goal, even if it’d be the easy way.

Difference stands out. It’s memorable.

It’s literally outstanding. 

 

Are You Sure You Want Our Opinion?

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If there’s one thing I’ll bet many of my fellow folks on the spectrum have learned — we have gotten to be careful with our opinions. 

Not everyone, and not always, but for many of us who share the same hyper-analytical and super-introspective capacity, it feels like there’s a reinforced behavior: don’t be too divergent; it only makes life more difficult.

Why?

We already deal with our difference 100% of the time just by being different.

It gets exhausting.

And people know I’m definitely not a normal dude.

So when it comes time to debating and deciding ideas, I let out a sigh inside. I know most people embrace different kinds of thoughts and will value diversity, but it’s hard when you are the different one volunteering one different opinion. 

It calls attention. Exposure. Brings the focus to you. I can’t always take that. I don’t always enjoy that.

And then when we’re wrong, oh look out — see, it’s not just “oh, Hunter had kind of a lame idea,” no, it ties back with the perception — “he’s an odd duck and odd ducks lay odd eggs.”

Am I being too harsh on myself?

When you already know you don’t fit in, and you’re being asked to contribute ideas, do you really think we want to lean a lot harder into not fitting in with our ideas too?

Difference is good. But it’s not easy.

So how do you make it easy? Here’s what helps me (and might help some of us too):

—Ask for something very different by design. I love when someone opens up the floor to where “wild ideas” are sought; we feel better about contributing to something that can be off-the-wall, if that’s the game.

Ask us directly, and appeal to what you value about our opinion. The ones who know me get a good response out of me. “Hunter, you usually see a different side of this. I’m curious what your gut is telling you.” 

Ask for something other than absolutes. Sometimes it’s hard for us to volunteer a radical thought if we feel it’s definitive. We’re always debating how to act and how to interact – invite us to give both sides of our opinions and build out a wiggle room.

 

We Don’t Always Take ‘Statements’ as ‘Requests’

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Here is my autistic brain at work:

“Hunter, it’s cold in this house.”

Ok.

I’ve just been given someone else’s perception of the temperature. For me, it’s only cold when someone else is freezing. Then I might put on a fleece.

“Hunter, it’s too cold in this house.”

Ok.

So that’s a little different. I’m getting more of someone’s judgment on the ambient temperature. That’s an opinion of degree, literally. When it comes to opinions, either I have none, will agree, or will disagree. Not too hard. In this case, my opinion differs, but not too much. It is cold, but not too cold. I put on a fleece.

“Hunter, it’s too cold in this house. What’s the thermostat set at?”

Ok.

Still dealing with an opinion here, so I’m processing that, seeing whether it’s something that checks out or relates more to subjectivity or objectivity. I peek around the corner at the thermostat. It’s at 65º. I relay that fact and answer the question — it’s at 65 degrees — and I walk away.

“Hunter, it’s too cold in this house. What’s the thermostat set at? If it’s any lower than 65º, can you turn it up a little?”

Ok.

Opinion, check. Need to get a fact about the thermostat, check. Oh, it’s at 65º. So if — she said if — it’s lower than 65º, then I need to turn it up. A little. But it’s 65º on the º — and I don’t feel too cold; I’m in a fleece. Maybe I can just turn it up. A little. Like 66º.

Ok.

So if I turn it up a little, it might not be enough. If it’s too much, them I’m going to get uncomfortable and break my own flow. What if it gets turned up to 70º because I didn’t turn it up enough beforehand. Then it’s going to be hot. Too hot. When I heat up, I can’t cool down. I like the way this fleece looks. I should just do 68º and say I turned it up to 68º – but she asked what the temp was, so I need to start with that. But because of anchoring she might want it way higher. No, that’s not how it works. Then she’ll wonder why it was at 65º — I don’t remember. It was comfortable. Maybe I just agree with the assessment, people like when you validate their belief. But then, what if—

People on the autism spectrum can have a difficult time translating facts, observations, hints, and opinions into requests

We’re not insensitive.

We’re not unintuitive.

We’re not dismissive.

Help us out.

If you want to share your opinion, observation, statements, feel free.

If you want us to do something in relation to that, don’t be afraid to ask.

Thank you!