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.