The Autistic Holiday Survival Guide


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


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

Photo on 12-14-19 at 2.17 PM #3.jpg

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.