The Autistic Holiday Survival Guide

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Ever read a survival guide from someone who didn’t survive?

Exactly. That’s why I waited.

The holiday season is tough on people, and it feels that much tougher on The Life Autistic. 

But I made it without anything or anyone blowing up, and I hope you did too. In fact, Mrs. H2 noted that it was one of our least stressful Christmases ever. What a gift.

Here’s what worked for me (and us) this season.

Don’t overcommit. This year we didn’t travel, didn’t promise to see too many different family members, and kept our two family visits (a record low) pretty short and sweet. It was amazing. Anytime we try to make too many visits to too many people to keep them happy, it’s almost a surefire way to make me unhappy. Social fatigue sucks – it’s just better to say no until you can say ‘yes’ with your best self.

Aim small. Secret Santas, big ticket items, no Christmas Cards, pre-arranged deals, no big holiday meals — doing a “smaller number of things” was a major stress reducer this holiday. I was glad to get maybe a half-dozen gifts, if only because I didn’t feel pressured to procure a multitude of things in return.

Stay ahead of the chaos. We opened gifts slowly enough to where I could trash the wrapping paper, stash the bows, and pretty much sweep up all the holiday residue the moment it was created. Ahhhhh. 

Steer away from stressors. Know what stresses me out? Wrapping presents? Know what Amazon sells? Pre-wrapped presents. Shortness of time is a stressor, and while it added up to an extra $50 — at most — it probably bought me back hours upon hours of time. WORTH IT.

Fight for peace, then enjoy it. It is indeed poignant to grasp and reflect on the ‘peace on Earth, good will toward men’ and the true meaning of Christmas, but I did something else that sealed the deal for me. I was aggressive enough to keep our den clean after Christmas, so I decided to dump out a box of blocks and play with Mo for a while. It was a perfect little moment, one unencumbered by late-breaking events, wreckage to clean, or obligations to meet. Sometimes peace is hard-fought and hard-won, but rarely enjoyed with the same vigor by which it was gained. This time, I enjoyed it.

 

 

Mishaps in Masking: How Autism’s Double Life Gets Confusing

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There’s someone at work who is just “insanely learned and brilliant” — they’re also my kind of person: quick-witted, uses big words, laughs at my jokes, keenly perceptive.

For example, when I told her I majored in English, she was probably the only one to ever ask what my concentration was, where I went to for undergrad, along with a host of other “second gear” questions that go beyond the typical “oh, that makes sense.”

But she said something last week that short-circuited me for a solid minute.

But first, let’s talk about masking. It’s kind of a thing among those of us who’ve cultivated or patterned a persona or other modeled behaviors that obfuscate (mask) our more ‘obvious’ autistic traits — whether out of fear, reprisal, concern, or a whole host of things.

For me? I’ve a more gregarious, outgoing front, enough of one to where people assume I’m far more of a socially-adept entertainer than I am. I don’t do well with silence and quiet awkwardness, so it’s easier for me to slither into a more humorous skin and ease tensions with light comedic touches and get others talking and energetic. It’s just easier.

But that’s not quite me. 

Me and my team try attend this person’s lectures and workshops as much as possible, because she’s cool, brilliant, and perceptive. She asked how we were all doing.

Small pause.

I hopped on camera to break the ice with wry comment.

“I’m here,” I groaned, in mock moroseness.

“Oh, I’m glad you came on camera,” she remarked. “I know how much of a quiet wallflower you are in general.”

I stopped, brow furrowing, trying to reconcile within a fraction of a moment what she meant.

While I can speak sarcasm fluently, I’m far from proficient in reading it. And this definitely sounded like sarcasm, even if I knew (for myself) that what she said was more patently true than it wasn’t. My brain was about to crater and splatter matter on my camera, so I had to intervene

“Oh, you DO know that H2 is the social persona here. Hunter’s definitely less so.”

We all laughed, and in my case, nervously; I’d barely managed to avert a crisis while still deftly papering over the interruption in my understanding.

In the moment I couldn’t tell whether she was using her super-perception to bring out a more true aspect of myself or whether she made a well-meaning and funny joke about the ‘me’ that most people interact with. I got a good laugh out of it, so all’s fine!

/takes mask off

The Lives Autistic are hard and often confusing, especially when people mistake you for who you really are.

An Unnatural Natural: What People Get Wrong about Skills and the Spectrum

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I was chatting with Adam Mico the other day – a stellar pal, great dataviz enthusiast, connection catalyst, and a relatable soul here on The Life Autistic (and yes, that’s a hyperlink to his blog, go read it and come back – thanks).

I’d done a video series, and he asked how many takes I needed for my final product.

One,” I said.

I was neither joking, nor bragging, nor highlighting some incredible fortune. It honestly took one single take (with edits and cut, but no reshoots).

And just last week, I hosted three different virtual sessions—on camera—where afterward, the newest member of my team couldn’t believe I’d been nervous about presenting.

“You look like such a natural at it though!” she affirmed.

On The Life Autistic, some of our most ‘natural’ skills are 100% unnatural.

It’s no surprise that most acquired skills don’t always come naturally, no surprise there. Skills are developed among folks with different levels of aptitude: you get good artists and coders even among those who weren’t as innately artsy or mathy to begin with.

For those of us on the spectrum, I’m delighted to find we can and have overcome perceived deficits or areas of lesser strength (public speaking, coordination, creative use of language, socializing, etc).

The secret?

Making it normal makes it look natural.

“Hunter, that’s not a secret.”

You’re right, it’s not. It’s the truth.

For me, apparently people say I’m better than ok on camera. It’s affirming and surprising at the same time, because it’s not normal for most people, and it’s less normal for those of us on the spectrum, negotiating an extra level of looking normal.

But I work in a virtual environment, and I choose to get on camera an awful lot. It keeps me honest, it keeps others focused, and I work hard to cultivate connections and relatability because my job depends on it.

I’m on camera multiple times a day, presenting on camera often, talking to people, talking to groups, eking out every bit of earnestness on video as much as I can — I have to.

I’m hardly a natural, but it’s normal for me now. So now it seems natural.

You might expect, say, an autistic nurse to be colder and stilted compared to most, but he could be the warmest, most relatable person you ever have care for you. I wouldn’t put it past a hyper-aware person, practicing bedside manner and social patter, to not get good at it. Even if it’s not natural.

Or someone managing in crisis situations and chaos and keeping her head cool; you might suspect she’s a natural, but she could be living that spectrum life and managing a skill despite it being a one-time innate deficit.

Sometimes we are indeed naturals — savantism is a thing!

For the rest of us, sometimes we’re just unnatural naturals.

Does Failing Make you a Failure?: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 4

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This is the fourth of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances . . . sometimes.

I recall with fervent light the joys of being given a second chance.

To make things right.

To achieve after letdowns, make amends, rebuild, reforge, and try again.

I like to think that one day I’m going to “arrive” in my professional life and be flawless, always delivering above expectation, and balancing my autistic strengths and opportunities with mastery.

That day isn’t today.

I’ve endured a couple of recent failures where the second chances weren’t given. I was not afforded the opportunity to make it right. My actions weren’t enough. My talent, insufficient. My earned goodwill, depleted.

What do you do when you feel the problem is you?

It’s normal to make mistakes, sure.

But should the mistakes define you despite your achievements?

They shouldn’t, but when it’s achievements that often define us, we can scarce afford to fail.

This is why I have issues. It’s why many of us do.

We tie ourselves and worth into being able to achieve and overcome beyond our imagined capacity, to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others. To conquer without what we know we won’t conquer within — because it needs no conqueror.

Things have come a long way on the Life Autistic, but they have further yet to go.

We’re still fully in a world where we feel more often excused for our “oddities” because of our talents, where our “weirdness” feels tolerated only as long as we can deliver. 

But what happens when we can’t. Or don’t? 

I’m well aware that my autism doesn’t come into play at the forefront of my professional performance or lapses thereof. But it’s the backdrop of who I am as a person. It’s in the gaps that people can’t consciously explain but subconsciously detect. It’s a tingling sense of otherness that turns sour and prominent when people’s views turn critical.

I can articulate a point to an audience, until I don’t. Or deliver on multiple things, until I miss one. We don’t always get the benefit of the doubt for a miss. We cover over our background and myriad personal challenges with achievement, but as soon as an execution gap comes up — it feels ugly.

It exposes the worst.

So as I try and fail, at what point will the failing outpace the trying?

I know the answer’s probably more positive. Where the only true failures are those who fail to try.

But what about when you’re done, when you’ve failed enough and exhausted your tries?

The Life Autistic isn’t a narrative looking back with answers to all the questions. It’s still ongoing, where the bricks are still being laid, the paths still walked, and where the torn sails may lead this raft onward or prove too tattered to carry it forward.

 

 

 

 

Truth Be Told: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 3

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This is the third of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

If it were your:

  1. First business trip, and
  2. First time meeting all your peers in person, and
  3. First org-wide succession planning session, while being your
  4. First month after a major promotion into a leadership role

Then I’m sure you probably wouldn’t have done what I ended up doing: something that hushed the room, raised eyebrows, and quick-dry cemented my reputation in a way I never could undo.

I’d like to say that many of us with autism are more “truth crusaders,” but we’re more “defenders of fact.” We’re good at pattern recognition & anomaly detection, but we’re not the best at keeping quiet about it.

And that can get us into trouble. 

I was the second-newest of the thirty organizational leaders at a summit – a big step for me after many steps in my Apple journey. Midway through, we discussed who on each of our teams would be our best future leaders in the making.

Since those in question were all my peers just weeks ago, I knew well who’d be ready to make the next steps.

One of the leaders waxed enthusiastic and eloquent about one person, someone who’d launched some initiatives, conjured up some coaching tricks, and cobbled some half-decent results.

But I knew this person. They weren’t really altogether worthy of that billing.

As this narrative went unchallenged, I thought “I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

But what came out was, well—just that:

“I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

*crickets*

So what do you do with crickets? Make more noise?

I kept going, already committed to the flag I planted, articulating my disagreements, all the while trying to find some footing to recover and yank this tirade back into something that’ll pass for constructive feedback.

It didn’t work.

That quiet, awkward lull gripped the air for too long — thankfully, our business manager called for a break. As soon as he did, I saw my boss get up from his chair and start making his way toward me. Great.

“Hey Hunter, just a bit of feedback —”

The disappointing complexity of the situation seized my shoulders. Our culture was supposed to be “feedback fit.” I had a direct view into this person’s impact. I made a mess of conveying “perceived truth” vs. “perceived opportunity.”

Unlike times where I rushed to judgment, this time, I felt the truth of the matter could offset how I went about speaking the matter. 

I’d like to say I salvaged this situation and made nice — and I did: I spoke to the gentleman at dinner and was honest about my own learning opportunity in tactfully conveying my thoughts. Thankfully, he knew enough about my “impassioned” tendencies and was gracious enough in me coming around to apologize. We get on decently these days!

I’d also like to say that my reputation was reforged as more one thoughtful and graceful in truth — but it wasn’t.

This was not one of those easy fixes, despite the work.

These introspections into my autistic professional self, they’ve helped — even if it’s just highlighting where I know I can be hasty, where I need to work harder, and where my “numb spots” lie.

It’s hardest even when you know and feel you’re right.

But it’s not always about being right.

The idea of right/wrong & truth/untruth & good/better/best had long been my success criteria in The Life Autistic — until I ran aground in my hardest lesson: failure. 

 

Getting a Chance to Make it Right: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 2

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This is the second of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

When I was 15, I started working for a Department of Defense subsidiary.

No joke. True story. 100% real.

Yeah, it was for the Commissary on NAS Keflavik, but DoD subsidiary has a great ring 🙂

I’d love to tell the story of my first boss there: a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, vulgar-joke-telling, meat-cutting, German-speaking Chicagoan guardian angel —but not today.

Or how I finally earned the respect from another boss: a tougher-than-nails Philippine grandmother, standing tall at 4’9″ and working endlessly and quietly until everyone else around her faltered — but not today.

No, today’s tale is about when I almost alienated Frank, the Winston Wolf of getting produce departments up to snuff, the one who was supposed to help us win the US Military’s Best Small Commissary of the Year award.

I toured him around the produce department, answering his questions matter-of-factly. Almost too matter-of-factly.

Me being autistic me, I leaned way too far into in my blunt, under-nuanced assessment of the situation.

When he asked why we had a towering stash of parsley boxes in the cooler, I said “Because we just order this stuff indiscriminately.”

He nodded.

Fast forward a day later, I get paged to the directors office.

“Hunter,” he said. “Do you remember what you said to Frank about our inventory?”

Oh God. Here we go. I could see myself being fired no matter what, because this was big, and there are no second chances to make things right, and—

But he didn’t fire me.

“Do you see how what you said might have misrepresented us?” 

This was the first major learning between my professional work and Life Autistic, where I just needed someone to help me see what I didn’t see at first.

I felt bad, but I felt better. We didn’t get the orders right, but it wasn’t because we were careless — we had a corrective opportunity to fix, which we did.

The director then went one step further, giving me a chance to make the situation right. 

This is big for us binary-thinking autistic folks, who thrive on wanting to restore balance by fixing things.

I went to Frank and apologized, knowing better where I could have been more tactful. Did we lapse and order too much parsley? Of course. But could I have better judged the situation more appropriately? Well, now I could.

Frank understood. He put out his hand, accepted my apology, and appreciated me being thoughtful enough to address this directly.

Later, I asked the director if I could take the judging day off.

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be here and risk mess things up.”

“No, Hunter,” he said. “You’re a part of this, win or lose. You helped make it happen.”

I got a chance to make it right and also not make it wrong.

And yeah, we won.

 

 

The Worst First Job: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 1

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This is the first of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

As a teenager, I loved coffee. Straight black.

So when the opportunity to start my first job at the Lava Java coffee shop opened up, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Or more nervous.

This was supposed to be my big step. My foray into doing “grown up things.”

That step faltered.

I clocked in at 6AM. Left sick by noon. Before the afternoon was up, the owner stormed to my front door, yanked my employee handbook from my hands in my own doorway and dismissed me on the spot before I could manage an apology for leaving.

Even as I reflected then and now, the horrid haze and blur was no less clear.

It made no sense.

I was crushed, rocked in tears, fearing it would be my last job ever. I was 14.

I didn’t understand my own Life Autistic then; I was ill-equipped & under-supported to handle my first job. 

The work expectations weren’t at all clear: instead of the owner showing up to train me for my first day as promised, two of her employees basically threw me to the register assuming I’d just “figure it out.”

Or when regulars would come in without so much as addressing me, placing heaps of quarters on the counter – like, “Oh, hi, would—ok, bye?” Apparently I should have known the usuals and their usual orders.

I wasn’t socially adept enough to navigate needing to pause, ask for help, or even ask the right questions, to be honest. At one time I asked what protocol we had in case someone came in with a gun. There’s that wonderful, tangential autistic curiosity at work.

After dozens of barely-managed orders, frictions from my odd patter, and growing illness and unease, I asked to leave for the day. Whether stress, early rising, or just a violent confluence of factors, I could barely stand up straight.

I thought I’d try again, get a second chance for when I need to come back.

That second chance never came. 

My Lava Java tenure lasted a full six hours. It wasn’t even a first day.

I look back at this through the lens of my older autistic self, wondering where I ruined it all that. I recall the odd questions, my awkwardness, but I can’t pry back open to find where I was knowingly abnormal, malicious, or otherwise undeserving of another go.

That’s the hard part of autism — it is our normal and we don’t always see where others find the abnormal. 

This first episode was terrible. My parents were worried, as was I. This felt like a judgment on my ability to function professionally. I knew I wasn’t normal, but now I felt like I couldn’t even do normal things. I was scared.

Lava Java never gave me a second chance.

But someone else did.