I Delivered my First Talk on Autism and Lived to Tell About It

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It’s the final day of Autism Acceptance & Appreciation Month, so I appreciate that I was able to speak about autism at work this week. While it was a welcome break from my normal talks about data visualization and analysis, it was definitely not a break.

But was it ever worthwhile and timely.

There’s a world of difference between venues offering perspective on autism vs. autistic perspectives. I’m grateful mine was the latter.

So what happened, and what went well?

For starters, the event organizer was a gift, and she helped hammer out the topics and themes well beforehand. I can handle surprises, but she made sure this talk would cater to not just the audience’s needs, but a comfortable style of exchange.

I also had the questions beforehand, where I could mull over the answers and think about where I could thoughtfully inform on autistic misconceptions, being an ally, autism at work, and supporting autistic people growing up, along with neurotypical parents of neurodivergent children.

There’s one caveat.

For every talk, anytime someone makes the mistake of giving me a platform, I’m very quick to outline a key point: I speak from an autistic perspective, but I’m uniquely autistic and my experience isn’t going to be 100% representative of all autistic people.

It seems like that would detract from the message, but it was good to reinforce that autistic people are all unique, and that our voices are stronger through diversity. I’m not an “autism expert,” but I am an expert in my “autistic experience” — that helped.

There were good questions and real needs.

While I can rail on the struggles, there are people who genuinely want to support us, irrespective of disclosures. It was good to explain the practical steps on how. And then the parents, with whom I wish I could empathize more directly, who want to better support their uniquely autistic children — there’s never been a better time to grow up autistic than now. Knowledge is power, and we have so much of both now.

This wasn’t without mishaps.

I made the mistake of getting fancy with a self-description on incongruous juxtapositions, slipping in ‘Shakespeare-quoting history-majoring data visualization designer.’

Oops.

The follow up question: “Oh, what’s your favorite Shakespeare quote?”

That’s the lesson, y’all — never mention what you can’t prove. I rattled off the first one that came to mind and stultified the minds of my enduring audience with half-baked literary criticism on the fly. My apologies.

(But not for using ‘stultifying’ – it was nice using big words freely in a talk for once!)

It went well, and it did well for the autistic acceptance and appreciation cause.

So: if you’re an employer, manager, ally, advocate at work — autism is the next and long-overdue step on your inclusion, diversity, and accessibility effort.

Bring in authentically autistic voices. We do want to share. And we can help.

Even if we have to come up with a Shakespeare quote on the fly 🙂

Let’s Go Bust Myths About Autism!

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THWACK!

Let’s go bust a few myths about autism today.

Myth: Autistic people don’t understand sarcasm or idioms. While I can probably dish sarcasm better than I can take it, that doesn’t mean we’re incapable of learning to process communication cues and context that would clue us in on idiomatic and sarcastic usage.

Myth: Autistic people are incapable of empathy. That’s flat out untrue, but I’ll admit that this myth didn’t come from the nothing. We might view some emotional circumstances far more concretely and detach ourselves from reacting as most would, but that’s not to say we can’t empathize at all.

Myth: Autistic people are savants with some kind of super ability. Some are! But that’s not generally the norm. It’s not like I can’t fold a shirt the right way yet can bust out Beethoven on piano with my eyes closed. No, I just can’t fold shirts.

Myth: You can’t be autistic if you’re independent. This is why I’m not a fan of functioning labels. Some autistic people have greater needs and dependence. Some don’t. And some phase between both at different times in life.

Myth: Girls and women can’t get autism. That…no. Just no. One of my own key discoveries in this journey was with how imbalanced the diagnostic story is with autism, skewing more male than it should. I’ve been more woke to autistic women and their voice, and you should be too.

Myth: You can cure autism. *spitting out bleach*  Uh, what’s there to cure?

Myth: An autism diagnosis is a death sentence for your child. It’s not. You’re more supported than ever. It might not be easy, but you’ll make a world of difference inappreciating them for their autism, not despite it.

Myth: Autistic people can’t make many friends or have meaningful relationships. I might not have many friend-friends, but I have a couple very good ones. I’m also married with three kids. I’m extremely fortunate. It has been a journey for us all, but at least that’s a journey that can be made.

Myth: People use autism as an excuse to be jerks. People think this. This is wrong. Please stop. When I’m a jerk, I’m a JERK because I’m a jerk, not because I’m autistic.

Myth: It’s difficult to hold a normal conversation with someone autistic (h/t Katie Wagner). Depends on your definition of ‘normal!’ If we’re talking ‘small talk,’ or otherwise run-of-the-mill, banally anodyne conversational fare, that’s painful for us too. We’re not always the most chatty, but sometimes we’re overly chatty – by no means are we going out of our way to make it difficult.

Myth: Autistic people are all introverted and can’t socialize. Whoa, yep, this here is a myth. There was one event where people claimed they missed me because of my flair and energy or something. Yeah, weird, right? It’s exhausting, but it’s by no means a natural inability. Some of us do enough to get by.

Any other myths we need to smash? Comment and lemme know.

 

 

 

 

Are We Ever Allowed to Fail?

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I am not allowed to fail. 

That sounds ridiculous, but think about how you react to the people that fail you and the things that fail you.

Usually, people may let you down, make a mistake, do something wrong. And what’s the normal reaction? Well, varying degrees of upset, but we’re all human people. And people get people: letdowns are forgiven, mistakes are corrected, and you empathize with their human failures.

What about when your things fail you?

Your car. Your appliances. Your tools. Your computer?

Are those so quickly forgiven? 

No.

Those things are supposed to work. All the time. Just like they always have. When they fail, there’s no empathy. That wouldn’t make sense. It’s easy to get mad, stay mad, call your object stupid, etc.

That is why we are not allowed to fail.

There’s a certain, unspoken expectation of autistic people, especially the independent ones of us, with limited needs, greater independence, and routinely consistent in doing things.

One of our generally agreed saving graces is routine, repetition. We’re creatures of habit, of expectation, and the functions we serve (whether broad or limited) are often consistent. I mean, shoot, this blog still runs after YEARS! It’s its own autistic habit, nigh unfailing.

But what happens when we fail?

I’ll tell you.

It’s like when your grandma, you know, gets a little older, but she’s still cooking, baking, what have you. The cookies might not be quite right. The meals maybe a little underdone. Or maybe it’s a cherished friend or loved one, and perhaps their biscuits needed some extra love in the oven.

Do you even mention it? Do you respond?

No, of course not. You smile, nod, mention that it tastes “fine” and take another globby bite of biscuit goo with a side of extra bacon, please and thank you.

But me, I’ve sworn off making one of my favorite recipes for people because I failed it once and never heard the end of it.

It’s not just that.

We leave one thing undone that we normally, routinely do? Panic. Something comes in late? Concern.

We can’t afford to be anything but brutally, precisely constant and consistent. Even emotionally, our outbursts find less tolerance, understanding, while our downward spells are less understood and more inexcusable.

The enemy of unwavering consistency is a break, an interruption, your car not starting, as you pound the steering wheel out of rage. The functions weren’t exceptional, but essential. Until they stopped. That’s when the ire begins.

To err is human; to forgive, divine.

We autistic people are human too.

Let us fail for once. 

 

 

 

Why Can’t All These Answers be True?

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As you read each of these, answer them for yourself as True or False.

1) My differences are seen in the most positive light possible.

2) I feel comfortable discussing my autism with others.

3) If people notice my neurodivergence, they are less “revolted” and more genuinely curious to learn more.

4) The way I offer different and ‘weird’ inputs is well-received and appreciated.

5) I feel more shaped and supported by my success than shamed and slighted for my failures.

6) Others are honest about where I am challenging, but more honest about helping.

7) People ask how they can adjust their misunderstandings and seek better understanding about autism.

8) Others thoughtfully accept my explanations of autistic attributes and adapt where sensible.

9) My mistakes, missteps, failures, and faults aren’t first assumed to be negative and malicious intent on my part.

10) I feel safe.

11) I don’t worry about someone finding out I’m autistic.

12) I feel like my life has meaning.

13) People appreciate me for me. 

14) I know people undoubtedly love me, differences and all, and that my differences don’t ever appear to jeopardize that.

15) The autistic experience feels like it will get better every day.

 

It’s Autism Appreciation Month.

If you’re autistic, I hope these are all true.

If you’re not, but you read this or otherwise support an autistic loved one, help us make more of these true. Please.

 

 

Being Ridiculous

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“Hunter, can you check outside and see if there’s a package?” asked my wife.

“Sure.”

I stepped outside our doorway into the chill and gentle flakes of springtime snow, and there I spied the familiar blue and white markings of an Amazon envelope.

“Yep. There’s a package,” I confirmed, stepping back inside and shutting the door behind me.

“Well, where is—wait, did you just LEAVE it out there?”

I smirked.

“You didn’t tell me to bring it in.”

For my many laments, jeremiads, diatribes, and other howling cries of support with autism, there are times I play the card. 

When I do, it’s usually a joker.

Sure, my autism makes many things an uphill battle, but I’ve found places where it rolls downhill instead. It is my neurodivergence after all; I can jest and make light of it where I see fit.

Growing up, I had a problem with stealing other people’s belongings; apparently, I do tend to take things literally. (Ok, that was worth a try.)

Hugs can be a touchy topic, but I’m OK turning it into a dumb joke about “having a hugs quota” or telling people that they’re getting “one of my five allowable hugs per day.”

More recently, I’ve parlayed my penchant for pedantry into hypercorrections. When people mention things like “We’ve had a lot less time to turn this around,” I’ll amend it and chat “you mean fewer.”

“Sorry, we’ve had a lot fewer time to—wait — Hunter, you ass.”

With great power comes great responsibility and even greater irresponsibility.

I once styled myself a serious man, in a hopeless attempt to appear brooding, austere, emanating this undefinable vapor of intrigue, commingled with refinement and a superior air, in the sense that my comportment would be of ‘top shelf’ quality – assured, distant, thoughtful, and unmoved by the whims of lessers.

Yeah, I was an idiot.

I’m a dad now. I have two daughters, both of whom have more joie de vivre in their pinkies than I have in my whole body. It’s rubbing off.

Though my autistically-hyperfocused tastes in music are esoteric, offbeat, and scarcely normal – the kiddos find a way to dance to some of it. And I join in.

I take two hits to my dancing abilities, being 1) a dad, and 2) autistic. I’m patently terrible. I know I’m terrible. I’m 100% confident in my maladroitness on the dancefloor.

But that’s the trick: I’m confident, and I dance like it. The kids love it.

I have learned some things about being autistic. About being ridiculous.

As long as I can be me.

The Next Step: Autism Appreciation

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I get that you’re autistic, and I know that some things are a challenge for you, but —

^ that.

That is where autism awareness gets us. Is that as far as we can go?

Once we’ve had another decade of Autism Awareness Months, I think by that time we’ll all be aware of autism.

But for all my love of routine and enjoyment of hyper fixations, I can bore of similarity, so maybe we need to take this great leap forward toward the better option sooner:

Autism appreciation.

We can’t just stop at awareness, and we can’t end at ‘acceptance.’ The destinations are understanding, empathy, empowerment, and appreciation.

If I were to sum it up, autism appreciation is less “maneuvering awareness of the ‘deficits’ we may have” and more empowering acknowledgment of the strengths we do have. 

For example, we’re not always the best at taking part in “brainstorm” meetings that lack for lucid lightning and drown in ambiguous deluges. Rather than seeing this as a need to accommodate, why not state and appreciate?

“I know these brainstorms get bogged down. But you’re direct, and you cut through a lot of the noise when you sense it’s getting unclear. I’ll back you, because we need your skills and strengths in this.”

Or even when it comes to social gatherings, I’d rather put in places where we can be useful.

“You’ve got a knack for tuning out the noise and doing stuff when you need to. If you’d rather take some anxiety off of having to mingle, what do you think we can do to get the best of both worlds here?”

Instead of seeing our hyperfocus as rude and standoffish, find where it comes in handy. Instead of bristling at a big word, see this as a way to learn something new without trying.

Rather than think less of someone with rigid routines, or of those who need a ritual for self-soothing, or toward those expressing themselves directly, or even detached from emotion — there may yet be a benefit you’re failing to appreciate.

So when you’re aware of someone’s autism, great — let’s look ahead to where acceptance and empowerment better inform appreciation, too.

 

 

 

Why We Don’t Just Outright Tell You We’re Autistic

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Know how most people discover I’m autistic?

“So I read your LinkedIn . . .”

“I came across your site the other day . . .”

“You have a certain set of mannerisms that, while well cloaked, seem to match criteria relating to . . .”

“A colleague shared your blog with me . . .”

Most people discover I’m autistic, because they have to discover. I don’t directly tell them.

Disclosure is DIFFICULT.  Even in the most inviting of circumstances, it’s a daunting revelation, and for as freely as I publicize it here, I’m reluctant, timid—scared—to bring it up.

While I imagine it has its degrees of difficulty for others, here why I’d imagine we’re not rushing to tell you we’re autistic:

There’s a stigma. It’s that uncanny valley effect that affects those with hidden disabilities and different abilities, especially those mentally. The revelation just doesn’t elicit the same kind of empathy and understanding; it’s challenging. People’s preconceived, embedded notions of autism haven’t been elevated enough to where I’m always comfortable disclosing in person.

The reactions are unpredictable. I have a hard enough time with people and unpredictable reactions anyway, so I’m guarded on that front even regularly. Have they been positive for me thus far? Thankfully, yes. That is, of those who choose to tell me.  Are others betrayed? Concerned? Doubting? Of the array of reactions we could expect, it’s burdensome to predict and account for all of them.

It raises questions. Right away, people take your disclosure or discovery and compare you to their understanding of autism. I’m not exactly like everyone else with autism, and they are not all like me. Sometimes people don’t know what to do with that info. It’s not that they ask more questions – it’s that they don’t. What do they think of me now? How did this affect how they treat me going forward? What have I done? It raises questions — from me! 

The environment isn’t always right. Do you know when people prefer to tell you things? It’s not always when the moment is right, but when the environment is right. It’s not just about a safe space: it’s a space secure, inviting.

This is where you can help. You can make more of these right environments.

Are you the type of person who invites open discussions? Appreciates the unique attributes people bring? Asks good, curious questions? Reinforces positives aspects of a person’s growth? Cares in challenges and challenges in care?

I’m not the only one with this ‘open secret.’

My hope is that others like me will find further fertile environments to be open, bringing their whole autistic selves out more openly, and making this less of a secret.