We’re Done with Functioning Labels

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You may have heard the term “high-functioning,” or “low-functioning,” or “conjunction-junction-functioning” or whatever label associated with ‘autistic.’

And as of last week, I, too, had myself listed as “high-functioning autistic” here in my bio and About pages.

Not any longer.

This isn’t The High Functioning Life Autistic, it’s The Life Autistic.

Here’s why we’re due for a move away from these labels:

Their meaning is too ambiguous. Who decided at what point someone becomes high or low functioning? Moving out and living independently? Getting a job? Verbal ability? Social skills? There’s too broad of a spectrum within a spectrum to make this meaningful.

They diminish skills. I do feel for those of us on the spectrum, who unjustly and inevitably are binned away in the “low-functioning side,” as if that’s the totality of their being. It ignores the many savants or countless others who display plenty of function, even if it’s not “normal, societal” function.

They mask struggles. Just because people would consider some of us “high-functioning” doesn’t mean we don’t face considerable challenges and struggles that have helped us with this function. We don’t have Autism Lite™ — we are autistic, and not less so, just different.

They don’t account for functional changes. I’ve found the “high-function” label to be burdensome, because people except normality and adaptation 100% of the time. Folks, that just ain’t gonna happen. I’m still prone to shutting down, melting down, and stumbling in whatever functionality I can muster — and others more so. Functionality can have seasonality that goes far beyond the label.

They misrepresent the autism experience. “Oh, they’re one of those ‘high-functional’ types, so their experience doesn’t represent the general—” Whoa, hold up, no, negatron. We may have a greater or lesser experience within the spectrum than others might, but function isn’t negation.

Autistic is autistic.

I don’t need the extra labels.

If you want to learn more about “yeah, well, what kind of autism? Is it the kind where you remember the weather of every date but can’t button your shirt?” then you should just learn more about me.

About each of us.

 

Two Words I’ll Never Use Again

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I remember trying to be thoughtful, earnest, and specific as a boy.

That got laughed out of me quick. 

Regrettably, I endured a long two-and-a-half years in Jacksonville, FL. Your experience may well vary, and you’re free to elaborate on your own blog. Mine was terrible. There was no more salient time in my life where I felt my otherness, difference, and loneliness more terribly than I did then.

One Sunday School morning, I remember sitting in class as the usual retinue of prayer requests were offered: personal health, family health, and travel.

There was this broad prayer they would offer for those traveling, neatly summed up in “traveling mercies” – a compact, vague, throwaway potency seemingly imparted from the prayers of church elders before to those beneath, until the nuances of its meaning had long dissipated, leaving only the faded ink of a stamp to one’s prayer toward someone and anyone traveling.

I was 11.

It came to be my turn to pray this instance, so I did my best to adopt this country vernacular while still being at least specific and thoughtful. Not being a stranger to polysyllabic words and expressions, I figured I could work with a few.

Never have I been more wrong.

As it came time to pray for “Ian’s family, for traveling mercies . . .”  – another couplet of words sharpened into view.

I recalled a billboard from a law firm, offering various services for all manner of unexpected woes, one of which was vehicular. There was a clumsy way I could have expressed my next thought, sure, but this phrase would tie off the bow more neatly, crisp.

“Lord, I pray for Ian’s family, for traveling mercies, that there won’t be any Auto Fatalities . . .”

Before I could finish my supplication to The Most High, a murmur of snickering interrupted the reverence, followed soon by outright laughing, both my peers and teacher alike. I don’t remember how I finished. I probably did, but I wasn’t privy to what was all that funny.

Auto fatalities.

This is where The Life Autistic is funny, but only in retrospect. It wasn’t then. There’s no one out there who taps your shoulder and says “This diction is inappropriately elevated to your audience’s intellect and education, thus, the result is predictably unfavorable. Just stick with the traveling mercies and call it a day.” At least not at age 11.

That one followed me. To what extent I was asked, I was reminded to ensure we had prayed against auto fatalities. 

Thankfully, Ian’s family made it safe and back.

I don’t recall praying in Sunday School there again.

The Last Bright Lights

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I’ve discovered that I have an audience among neurotypical people who have autistic children, nephews, and nieces — and I’m grateful for you, even if my experience and perspective as an autistic dad with neurotypical children is somewhat inverted to (most of) yours! So thanks for following along; I do appreciate it.

I once feared the prospect of fatherhood. I now love it, and my daughters have been twin wellsprings of unending, surprising joys, laughs, amusement, and chaos.

They’re already ahead of the curve on their perceptions. Mo, my oldest, points out when I’m stimming, or zoned out to another planet, or otherwise intractably focused and obsessed. Zo will probably pick up on those expressions in short order.

But they’re thoughtful and reflective now, and soon they’re going to realize: dad is different. 

On my worst days, I like to peer into the future, lay out the pieces on the chessboard in the endgame. And in that stage, I’m no longer there. The game is dire, the board bereft of pieces, the position tenuous.

It’s just as possible as not that I’m not going to do any justice for autism, for The Life Autistic, and for me. That I’ll screw it all up, go down unredeemed, and that less of a dent will be made to where I and others on the spectrum are better understood, valued, and celebrated.

But I’m hopeful.

Where I may fail, I have two bright lights that may yet prevail.

Who will both remember a loving, even if odd, father.

Who may tell a different story of The Life Autistic: “Yeah, my dad was autistic – but he was great, and here’s what we learned about him and people who are like him.”

Whose retelling of the tale could go far beyond mine, to where they’d make even better—and probably more likable—advocates too.

They are a constant reminder: there’s what we do, and what we do for others.

And they will be the light that shines beyond us.

 

 

Where Even Our Presidents Agree on Autism, Nuance, and Judgments

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Consider these two different quotes from two different Presidents with two different personalities:

“I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”

— President Donald Trump

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically ‘woke’ and all that stuff – you should get over that quickly. The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.”

— Former President Barack Obama

Beneath the obvious veneers, they’re saying the same thing. I’ll explain why.

As I reflect on The Life Autistic, it’s made me all the more aware that people are nuanced.

Nuance is a difficult thing: it’s hard to take the sum of a person’s attributes, characteristics, flaws, and strengths and find a way to balance them into a holistic sum.

Sadly, because it’s difficult — people take shortcuts. You’re either ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’ and when it comes to brushstrokes, people would rather paint broadly, sloppily. And that kind of lazy, maladroit painting is why we’re getting into such emotionally charged furors these days. Without getting into the zeitgeist, it’s become way more dangerous and consequential to put people on pedestals or in the trashcan and cast the nuances aside.

Ignoring this nuance is one of the most difficult things autistic people face.

We’re can be very logical, black & white, binary, whatever, but we’re also that way with inputs too. It’s unfair for us to be expected to deem (most) people as A/B, good/bad — and it’s jarring when we see others do the same, as if they’re ignoring or overriding their respective faults, strengths, and more.

That’s my first plea: it’s not that we disagree with you about people judgments just to be contentious. If you’re too positive, you’re missing negatives. If you’re too critical, you’re likely ignoring strengths. We know that there’s more to people.

How?

Because we often suffer from the same kinds of broad brushstrokes from others.

Just because we can be socially awkward doesn’t mean we’re always so.

Just because we’re sometimes incredibly cold toward some people and circumstances doesn’t mean we’re heartless.

Just because we don’t often pick up on unstated hints doesn’t mean we’re dense.

Just because we’re good at some tasks some of the time doesn’t even mean we’re always good at the same all of the time — function is a fluid thing!

It’s easy to say that autistic people are robotic, struggle with social situations, tune people out, don’t understand idioms, or can’t determine boundaries.

But that’s missing the nuance: where many of us are incredibly human, socially adept, and idiomatically proficient.

So please, don’t insist we paint with one of two colors.

And in kind, don’t reach out for one brush and one color for us either.

 

 

 

 

What not to make Right or Wrong about Autism

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I’m not ignoring you. 

I’m just focused.

My focus doesn’t pivot to you right away; I’m not trying to ignore you.

It’s not wrong.

It’s hard to explain, but when my interest points get touched off in a certain way, we sort of bury ourselves in it. It’s a drill that bores into the earth and bedrock of curiosity, soothing our minds, its own stim, a certain kind of indulgent itch that isn’t scratched because we don’t care about—

You get it. At least we hope you do.

There are many autistic things that autistic people do that aren’t a matter of right and wrong. 

My friend Josh has an autistic son. When I visit, he’s usually pretty focused on something, whether a game, task, or enjoying console game speedruns on YouTube.

I’ll say “Hey Michael” and leave it at that. Since I’m not a thoughtless boor, I don’t insist he reply or acknowledge me. If I pulled the “Son, you answer a grown-up when he’s talking at ya” card, Josh would rightly clock me in the jaw.

He’s not being rude.

He’s just focused.

He’s not trying to be rude.

He’s not wrong.

You can go back to that four sentence sequence and fill it in with your behavior and response. Unless you know someone who is autistic and malicious, we’re probably not being malicious, mean, standoffish, rude, whatever. 

These four-sentence sequences will help you help us tremendously.

Try them out:

She’s not standoffish. She just doesn’t relate to the conversational topics at hand and won’t make it awkward. She’s not trying to be antisocial. She’s not wrong.

They’re not defiant. They just struggle to focus on sitting still while focusing on your lesson. They’re not always trying to disobey. They’re not wrong. 

He’s not a jerk. He just relays feedback in an economical way that’s stripped down to its essence. He’s not trying to make you feel terrible. He’s not wrong. 

They’re not insensitive. They’re just locked into their routine of clearing the table at this time. They didn’t throw away your papers because they hate you. They’re not wrong.

It’s not that we need a pass for everything. We work hard to figure a lot of the faux pas, awkward traps, and insensitivity pitfalls.

As we do that work, we may not always be right. We’re not always wrong either.

 

 

Impostor Syndrome & Autism: The One Hope in this No-Win Scenario

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I’ve been fortunate to work toward a half-decent level of professional success, but the further I go, the more accomplished the audience, the more I feel that onset of impostor syndrome.

At this point, I’m not so much concerned that people are going to unravel my disguise. I feel I’m donning fake glasses and comical mustache combo, wondering why no one has figured out my identity yet.

It’s hard for normal people, and harder for us on the spectrum.

Due to spectrum superpowers, I read quickly, retain a massive wealth of information, and recall most of it in a flash — people assume I’m smart, and that’s the peril.

It follows you.

So when I struggle to understand an abstract concept, or find myself flailing on simple maths that I’d need a calculator for, I am doomed by the “smart” label.

I remember my parents calling me into the kitchen, the concern traced across their brow.

“Hunter, what happened on this geometry test? Are you OK?” 

I’d missed four questions and gotten a 60. They’d never seen that, and it was unfathomable to them that I could actually be bad at geometry.

Or when my college classmates were shocked at me getting a D+ on a presentation, as if they’d sooner believe I’d murder someone in cold blood.

It follows you.

Despite the achievements and efforts I’ve made in my analysis career, I always feel I’m a mortal among the titans, the lone human among Mount Olympus, one failure away from being reduced to a mere pretender. 

It’s so much harder through the fabric of autism, too.

I’m an odd, strange, offbeat, oversharing person, more funny than fun, more social over a video chat, yet I maintain a reputation I enjoy and benefit from, one in which I almost feel like another person: social, “almost charming,” and energetic. Those attributes aren’t furtive, but they feel summoned from an aether of otherness.

No one could really like Hunter, I surmise. And thus, who they like must be an impostor.

It feels like a no-win scenario, where I’m working through a persona who doubts both the self of himself and the accomplishment.

But there’s hope.

If you’re familiar with Star Trek and/or no-win scenarios, you know of the Kobyashi Maru. Where Captain Kirk won through circumvention and cunning. But a win’s a win, right?

Yeah, we’re not that clever.

But we are resilient. 

Like Scotty, the Enterprise’s Chief Engineer who also took the test – setting an unlikely record in the process.

He didn’t win, but he lasted longer than anyone else: using every kind of arcane, profound, and experimental engineering construct, maneuver, hack, you name it — Scotty took out wave after wave of enemy ships until he was kicked out of the test for using methods that’d only work in theory, but not practice.

But he lasted.

That’s the hope. 

Digging into where talent fails and work prevails. Where some lateral thinking helps scale upward. Where we try everything in the book and beyond the margins just to last a little bit longer.

 

My One Weird Autistic Interview Trick

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I’m not a quick thinker. But I am a slow thinker.

Yet I’ve found that the quickest thinking in the moment comes from the slowest thinking over many moments.

In college, PL 304 American Government loomed large in the minds of many History and Political Science majors because of a daunting assignment: the independent study. 

It wasn’t just a study; it was an event. When the day arrived, you had to produce what amounted to an entire novella written from scratch, in class, off the cuff — like writing an entire research paper from start to finish within 45 minutes.

This wasn’t something I’d be able to do well within the confines of the class. So I used the one thing I knew I could do to produce this independent study essay.

Brute force.

In the weeks preceding the “event,” I wrote the entire essay beforehand. All 45 minutes worth. Six times.

After six times, I’d pretty much memorized—via brain, manuscript, and muscle—the entire paper that I’d be asked to produce.

So when the time came, I didn’t have to think on my feet to write out a A-worthy essay. I just used all that slow, laborious thinking and action to recall it on the spot.

That is my interview trick.

I know I’m terrible at interview scenarios. It’s a process not geared for those of us on The Life Autistic. Instant recall of narratives, scenarios, needing to act personable and often formidable in the slices of instants of moments. There are unknowns within unknowns.

It’s hard!

So I prep like a prognosticating, predictive madman, on par with Borgesian characters whose memories would construct entire plays within frozen moments or the turns of leaves on the trees throughout the day.

People love to ask “Tell me about a time when . . .” 

So I write down and speak to all the possible, nigh-infinite times when . . . anything would have happened. All the conversations, failures, learning opportunities, actions, strategies, emergencies.

Anything.

It’s an exhaustive and sometimes exhausting strategy.

But it works.

Even when it comes to the hypotheticals, the “what would you do for . . .”  — that’s all a matter of planning, plotting, speaking to all the scenarios: change management, steering a ship, unfurling a business plan, and then some.

Exhaustive. Exhausting.

Know what else is exhausting for us though?

The quick thinking. The stress. The answers on the fly. Eye contact. Not using big words.

I’ll take the exhaustive approach any day.

I don’t always get every position I interview for. Yet apparently, I do much better than expected? More often than not, I’m getting further than I should be – like a super middleweight somehow holding his own against heavyweights.

And in fact, I just missed a position – where it came down to the final two people out of four hundred people. That’s not a bad achievement!

I brute forced it the best I could. 🙂