How Open is Too Open? — Autism & Oversharing

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As I caught myself referencing my children, by name, to a co-worker, rambling on about their ages, what they’re like, how they get along with each other, how they’ve fundamentally altered my work & life balance as a parent — it hit me.

I have this conversation with everyone. Everyone knows my kids. It’s all I talk about.

It comes and goes in cycles, where I open the shell and share what my life is about, its shimmering joys, vicissitudes of pain and progress, the random beats to my offbeat tastes:

Then I feel like closing it.

I think of the phrases. Oversharing. Too open. Personal. Talkative. Unguarded.

I remember how little I glean from others directly and how much it comes from hyperobsverational acuity. And I do shudder at that.

How I’ve laid myself and everything so open now.

How open is too open?

In The Life Autistic, I could assure you all on our behalf that we’re not always the most socially keen on limits.

Oh, of course we know not to stand too close. Refrain from certain questions. Pry too much. Monologue on niche topics.

But is this a byproduct of socially misreading and overshooting what’s acceptable?

*deep sigh*

I’ve worked hard to strip the machinery from my humanity. To feel OKAY about sharing more about my life, laying open the book without coming across as some distant riddle to be decoded.

You hear the stories of folks where, you ask how their day is going, and by the end of the conversation you know their life story.

Those tales aren’t told in the best lights.

And I worry whether that is the tale others tell of me.

“I know H2’s life story, and I only just met him five minutes ago.”

“I’ve seen more pics of Mo and Zo than I have my own kids; I don’t even know whether those are their real names.”

“If you happened to forget where Hunter grew up and what he majored in, don’t worry, he’ll bring it up every other conversation.”

It is hard for us to navigate what’s socially acceptable if it isn’t socially harmful.

I wish I had a better answer, a guide in which I know “ok this is too much” or “this is probably fine, but it’s a little more than a regular person should be sharing.”

The shades of sharing feel nigh-impossible.

Too little, and you’re distant and cold. Too much, and you’re inconsiderate – or worse, “lacking boundaries.”

Where is “just right?”

 

 

How and When to Interrupt Our Routines

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The short answer to this post’s premise is “Don’t interrupt or disrupt our routines.”

When you’re dealing with us autistic folks – help mind the routines.

We don’t build them or follow them to inconvenience anyone. That would create awkwardness. We hate that as much as you do.

We develop routines — consciously or subconsciously — to add a sense of structure to our lives, minimizing stress, fear, meltdowns, anxiety, and more.

Would you rather we just teeter on edge and act out, crumble, lash out for a lack of routine? No.

Would you prefer we just live carefree and “go with the flow?” Well, uh, that doesn’t just work.

Routines are a kind of coping mechanism, but we get that our routines cannot dictate the entirety or majority of your life as it does ours.

So how can you help gracefully interject and alter our routines (if and when needed) without us blowing up or melting down?

I gotchu, fam. 

Start with why, start with why, start. with. why. This one is just stupid easy: even if we don’t agree with the reason or the rationale, we at least know you’re being thoughtful about the interjection and will give us a chance to rationalize the need. Intentionality goes a long way.

Warn in advance. I’m not going to promise that we’re always going to like the events, but if you want to ensure the most civil outcome – get ahead of the surprise factor and just tell us ahead of time. Here’s a cheat: if you use early warnings as leverage to encourage us to deal with our reactions in the moment and during the event, we’ll play ball, ok?

Understand how routine disruption disrupts us. Sometimes our assessment of a day’s “goodness” or “badness” is predicated on predictability. And sometimes nothing more. The more you can help us navigate “the newly minted map,” the better. Expectations are hard to recalibrate, but not impossible.

Mitigate the impact. My work involves a lot of rocks and boulders of blocked time that, when shifted, make my day far less recoverable. Sometimes they just have to shift, and it’s incredibly irksome to my autistic core. They just are, and I can’t help that. Underneath the routine, though, there are goals: build dashboard X, present keynote Y — if there are other routines that can be altered or things made easier to help offset that disruption, we’re not going to turn take “making our lives easier.”

What do you find helpful when your routine has to budge, or when you have to budge a routine?

How The Mandalorian’s Coolest Character NAILS The Autistic Experience

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Star Wars wasn’t supposed to make me feel this way, but I’ve never felt so giddily associated with the autistic experience than after watching The Mandalorian.

MAJOR Spoiler Warning: If you haven’t seen The Mandalorian on Disney+ yet, then you need turn away and come back to this one, k? It won’t make sense otherwise, and you’ll be glad you both watched that show, then read this post. Thanks!


 

Yeah, everyone says IG-11 — a bounty-hunting, gun-toting, torso-spinning assassin droid — is their new robot spirit animal. And I don’t blame them.

He’s a TANK, brutal, laconically comic, and fearless.

And as someone on The Life Autistic, my main thought: IG-11 is totally “us.”

We’re not all programmed to terminate bounties, nor will we ever have the shooting, twirling, lithe grace of IG machinery, but here’s where we relate:

Terseness. His economic responses are the kind that’d make Calvin Coolidge look loquacious in comparison — coldly judging options as “acceptable” or confirming simple veracities with “This is true.” I only wish I could be as succinct, but I need people thinking I’m less a robot, not more.

Facts first, assessment later. When IG-11 is hit, Mando asks if he’s ok. His response is almost classically autistic:

“Running a quick diagnostic. It has missed my central wiring harness.”

Mando: “Is that good?”

IG-11: “Yes.”

It’s the kind of thing we folks on the spectrum would say, assuming that the question would be answered by the facts we share.

Adherence to routine. In harm’s way? So what? Routine is routine.

Mando: “Now let’s regroup, out of harm’s way, and form a plan.”

IG-11: “I will of course receive the reputation merits associated with the mission.”

Mando: “Can we talk about this later?”

IG-11: “I require an answer if I am to proceed.”

We are often equally inflexible — even in the heat of the moment.

Fatalism. “Manufacturer’s Protocol dictates I cannot be captured. I must self-destruct.” Unlike IG-11, though, we sometimes just go ahead and do this without announcing it. We can’t be compromised, so we melt down, shut down, and sometimes just blow up given the wrong circumstances.

Redeeming ourselves. We are aware that we’re difficult. Prickly. Not always easy. But we have our merits, and we’ll prove it.

Mando: “You know, you’re not so bad. For a droid.”

IG-11: “Agreed.”

I’ve gone back and watched all IG-11’s scenes, and there are so many resonant little gems, like his clunky-graceful movements (that hip pivot when stepping over a dead alien!), retorts (“Species age differently.”), sheer bravado in taking on hordes of mercenaries, and pragmatic pivots to team up when necessary.

The Mandalorian wasn’t meant to deliver a ‘cool autistic character,’ but IG-11 is about the coolest and closest we’ll get.

 

 

Party of One: An Autistic Primer on Dining Alone

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It’s hard being an autistic lover of fine dining; finding a way to eat out with others is awkward, and eating alone is also awkward.

I’m married with kids, so this mostly moot for me nowadays. Except when it isn’t. 

Business trips, company outings, anything where the agenda spells out “DINNER ON YOUR OWN” — yeah, I’m liable to panic.

I try hovering within the periphery of others making plans to see if I can get roped in by happenstance — that’s OK, because I’m not inviting people myself, I can tag along, use up my reserve of small talk, enjoying a dining experience without resigning to take-out.

But I’m not always that fortunate, and sometimes I end up dining alone.

If you’re on The Life Autistic, then you might enjoy dining out in solitude — I only wish I had your self-assuredness!

But if you don’t enjoy it and can’t always get around it, here’s a few things that help:

Observe. I ate alone at college for my entire first year of college, probably averting that “Freshman 15” just out of the sheer joylessness in dining out — but I watched others, observed behavior, picked up on patterns, people, tucked away some learnings about the human condition. Find a window. Watch. Listen.

Smile. The best revenge against grief is a life well-lived. I took myself out for my birthdays while my fiancée was away; I was hungry, and I wanted to make at least something special of the day. As some kid looked over at me in my lonesome, I clapped back with a smile. In that moment I realized: I can still enjoy this. I can look 100% content if I have to.

—Play on your phone. Everyone else does this when they’re with others anyway. You don’t look as awkward as you think.

—Capture a memory. I’m not a frequent diner-outer-loner anymore, so it’s easier to do this now, to note the noteworthy. Maybe you overhear a great joke, or a server relays a memorable story, or, in my case pictured above, you’re served a steak with a pillar of salt on fire.

Sometimes those memories alone snowball into better ones together.

As I sat in my corner at a conference, I overheard my friends discussing dinner with their work peers, so I glanced their way with a courteous half-smile.

“Oh hey, H2,” they said, motioning me over. “You have GOT TO show these folks that thing you had at III Forks.”

Somehow, the ‘solitary element’ of the amazing loner steak dinner added this aura of intrigue, self-assured flair, and discriminating taste — enough to where, two days later, I went from “party of one” to “party of six” at III Forks because others wanted to enjoy that experience — even with me.

Dining alone can be a lonely affair, but it can be the key to your next great shared experience.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Autism and Irrational Confidence

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My uncle once told me that if you walk in somewhere and act like you own the place, people will think you do.

It’s a great bit of advice, though I don’t quite recommend waltzing into an Outback Steakhouse pretending to be “Paul Outback, Owner” and trying to get a line cook fired for messing up your Bloomin’ Onion.

But for all of my social foibles, autistic inhibitions, inability to read a room properly at all times, I’ve unlocked a small victory in The Life Autistic:

Act confident, and the confidence will follow.

On the surface, it feels SO irrational.

I can barely dial a pizza chain to place an order, nor can I get gas if there’s no pay-at-the-pump. I’m not a confident person.

So when I “pretend to be confident” – it’s like a switch goes off. My lack of confidence keeps me from coming off as overconfident (well, most of the time) and helps keep my most confident leaps forward from leaping overboard.

When I took phone calls as an agent, I was nervous to the point of nausea. For MONTHS on end. Couldn’t stomach breakfast. Shook. Twitched. Until I picked up the phone and slipped into “The Confident Advisor.” Once someone assumed I was confident, I had it, and that was that.

There’s sound, and there’s effort.

After a Tableau conference in 2018, I heard a very senior level person in our company present and use the word vignette. 

A ‘normal’ person wouldn’t notice.

A ‘different’ person might pick up that choice word and nod.

Me? No, I’m abnormal and different, so I email this person afterward and tell him how much that word caught my ear and how I enjoyed his preso.

He actually responds and opens his proverbial door for recurring talks — which we have every quarter. He’s a visionary with excellent mentor-level advice, and he’s generous to offer it to me — and I’m pretty much a level 1 rando.

“Wait, so YOU have a standing 1×1 meeting with [AWESOME EXEC]? How did you manage that?”

It is the most irrational kind of confidence, indeed.

Where the smallest, oblique signals turn into a confident action.

Where you foist myself into “acting confident” to offset all the awkwardness that floods at the beginning if you’re not.

Where you never imagined you’d walk in acting like you own the place and people assuming you do.

 

Sorry for Everything: Over-Apologizing to Survive with Autism

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If I could dispense advice to my younger self, I’d tell him:

“Bet all of your money on Leicester City winning the 2015-2016 Premier League title at 5,000-to-1 odds.”

Then I’d add:

“Get good at apologizing.”

Because if you’re on the autism spectrum, you’ve probably felt the need or pressure to apologize for everything.

You might contend that you don’t and you just “let people deal with it.” Ok, good on ya.

But if you’re not awash with friends or financiers or the kind of work acumen that would otherwise allow you to skate through and succeed in The Life Autistic 100% unapologetically, then you may be engaging in what I call “apologetic survivalism.”

Apologetic survivalism is saving face and preserving grace by being quick to apologize for the negative consequences of autism-driven circumstances — and I wish this didn’t have to be a thing.

I can remember on one hand the genuine apologies I’ve received as a result of others’ rudeness, shortness, ill-tempered outbursts, blatant insensitivity, disregard, etc.

The apologies I feel I’ve had to give on the same? Innumerable.

“I’m sorry for overreacting to this change in circumstance,”  I’ll begin. “It’s just that—no, I struggle sometimes with needing to adjust a routine really quickly, and I —” and by that point I feel stupid, regretful, and more vulnerable already.

But what else is there? Leaving a relationship strained? A bridge damaged? Do I just “turn off my autism switch” and negate where I’m prone to react to things that stir me innately?

I’ve tried; I’ve gotten better; I’ve vented in silence, holed up alone to send up a column of ire and flame through a silo.

It’s hard for us. We often don’t have the skill or social capital or charm to coast over our faults, and we can’t be expected to lock into a loop of apology for every unintentional transgression, aberration, misunderstood reaction.

To what extent should I apologize for shouting STOP in a din of argumentative chaos, knowing it’s going to trigger an untoward reaction from me? Or when I retreat from a group to ensure I don’t melt down and lose my bearings. Or step away from help under duress, knowing I’ll cause harm if I continue?

We can be sorry for when we’re doing wrong.

We shouldn’t be more sorry for who we are.

 

Autism: A Different Kind of Cool

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I misspent my youth pursuing a mythic swagger, the kind of 90’s aura that exuded confidence, often styled in baggy clothing, large sunglasses, maybe a mushroom haircut — the absolute zenith of what one could be:

Cool.

I sought cool — the intangible unobtainium — working with an earnest passion, but with a maladroit, inexpert approach. Cool was at once effortless, but effort-laden. You couldn’t pull off cool without putting it on.

Without being able to figure out how to do cool, I couldn’t be cool. But I pretended. Fabricated. Dreamed. Even my WWF-fueled enthusiasms at the time shaped my imaginary character: King Cool — WWF Champion, who epitomized cool.

And I don’t even know what made him cool. He just was cool.

I didn’t know I was autistic then, but I knew I wasn’t cool.

I was more Screech Powers than Zack Morris, only less social. The wrong kind of different.

After retreating to and cultivating a niche set of tastes — some palpably bad (Gundam-emblazoned Hawaiian shirts), some presciently good (Dragon Ball Z, electronic ambient music), some just bizarrely dated or transient (game shows, Beanie Babies) — and having little else but to double down and just lean into the things that I enjoyed, I gave up on cool.

Until I thought about a legend of character: Senor Cardgage – a bizarre idol of a different kind of cool.

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That’s the best I feel I’m going to do in The Life Autistic, to obtain that different kind of cool.

To where I imagine I’m sitting at a table, languidly working down a water glass, and someone brings up a little-known yarn about me.

“Hey, so I you worked for the State Department when you were like, fourteen?”

And I’d set my glass down, sigh in a way where they’d know they’d uncovered a secret about me.

“I was fifteen, and it wasn’t quite the State Department, but —”

Or someone remembers the one time I emailed out a playlist of songs that overlapped with zero other peoples’ taste.

“Hunter, on what planet do you even find the genres for the stuff you listen to?”

And I’d chuckle.

“I was an old hand in the underground electronic scene, and I had to be dedicated, trying to get 9-minute drum’n’bass tracks off a shoddy dialup connection overnight.”

Through manifold enthusiasms, obsessions, growing up living life with a different mind, using big words that put me in different company, holing up to carve out my own interests and depths, navigating rough social sands before I even knew autism was a thing — I never became cool.

But I found the different kind of cool.