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.