The BIGGEST Problem with the “High Functioning” Autism Label

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Here lies Hunter, a “high functioning” autistic person.

This wasn’t just a photo op. This was me. During a workday. Vacant. Listless. Crushed.  Anything but “high functioning.”

I once used this label, but you can clearly see the problem here. While may seem like functioning labels help, they can’t capture the key challenges in The Life Autistic.

When most people hear “high functioning,” they think “well adjusted, independent, socially awkward, quirky, but overall highly focused, put together, maintains professional decorum, despite some weirdness.” 

And then the opposite, where people assume “lower functioning” in more dependent autistic people, the ones who “haven’t overcome their depression” and can’t hold steady job performance, remain prone to languorous spells, and can’t always be “on top of their stuff.”

Those people can be one and the same.

It’s embarrassing to admit that, despite my efforts, achievements, and relative professional success — I can’t always be 100%. Some days it’s embarrassingly close to 0%.

And I’m a family man — wife, three daughters, two dogs — I support a household!

You would expect that kind of person, husband, father, worker, data professional to have it mostly together and stay above the fray all of the time.

I don’t.

And we don’t.

The biggest problem with the “high functioning” autism label is that it assumes we can function highly all or most of the time. 

I don’t.

And we don’t.

I tried everything that day, and just nothing worked to kick me out of a mental, emotional, functional stupor. My only success was not canceling the meetings I had for the day, in a teeth-gritting effort to summon a smile and conduct some business over web chat. But for most the day, I sunk and stayed sunk in the danker parts of an autistic cave.

There’s no “tips” or “tricks” today.

Just truth.

Even among the “best” of us, even in doing our best, we are always one brush away from our worst—function be damned.

I do hope this helped offer some perspective on how we autistic people function day-to-day. Even when it’s “high” for some of us, it’s not always high. To discover more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic – or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks.

Changing Routines: The Autistic Survival Guide to Interruptions & Disruptions

As an autistic child, I had a hard time with interruptions to my daily routine. As an autistic adult, I still do.

Last Friday, Mrs. H2 cracked open my office door. In her hands, she held our infant, struggling with a midday fuss. Beyond that din, I heard my other two daughters in a tussle downstairs.

“You’re going to hate me for saying this,” she warned. “Can you just not work out today?”

The situational, emotional, and programmatic ingredients in me commingled to a quickening, caustic burn — searing tendrils ran up my shoulders, tensing me in paralyzed impossibility. 

No matter how we want to act, we cannot undo how we feel.

I kicked my rationalizing into high gear (situational needs, emotional pleas, upcoming parties, compressed timeframes) to try to beat back the blaze against my routine pillars (I always work out at this time, I’ve already eaten to work out, my new weights just arrived) — but it was hard.

It is hard to just “pivot” and go with the flow, even when you have to. Even when you need to. And I’m not talking to you and your autistic children here — I’m an extremely rational, hard-working, hyperintrospective, mostly unselfish, grown adult. And it’s still hard. And if this is the thing that seems small and trite to you, then welcome to The Life Autistic, folks!

If you need to make a routine zag happen when you’re 99.9% ready to zig, here’s the best I’ve got:

Brace for impact. I do have to give Mrs. H2 credit: she knows I’m going to react poorly to change. I wish it were easier for me, but at least I know it’s coming, and I can start downshifting those gears and grinding them midstream.

Work through the reaction. I’m reminded of a great New Testament parable that states this well. Nine times out of ten, I’m going to react with a “No.” But when the dust settles, and I can work through that reaction, it’s easier for me to get onto action. Please just be ready for that reactive, gut-instinct no and give us room to relent.

Give us room to navigate. If you want to know how my story played out:

  1. I reacted poorly.
  2. I felt bad.
  3. It was bad for a bit.
  4. I settled down and didn’t work out during my hour.
  5. I helped watch the kids and lull the baby to sleep.
  6. Mrs. H2 was freed up to get cakes made for a party.
  7. I worked out later in the day.
  8. The party turned out great.
  9. The end.

I just assumed it wasn’t “ok” to work out, rather than reframe it as “Is there something I can help with to where I can still adjust my routine without abandoning it entirely?” When I have the room and leeway and agency to adjust, I can manage. 

Did you know: I’m autistic, and I am still learning more about this every day. It’s not easy living it, but it’s a lot to learn from. To discover more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic – or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks!

 

 

 

 

Five Easy Ways to BEST Work with Autistic People

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The other day, I was in discussions about taking on a project, a talk going so swimmingly that I joked about ending 45 minutes early..

Then we came to an item where I wouldn’t budge. But neither would they.

*brakes screeching*

I’m either one of the easiest people you’ll work with, or I’m one of the most difficult. There is no in-between. But the good news?

You can choose the easy option.

You might have autistic co-workers or other autistic relations in your life. If you’ve ever thought “I wish it were easier to get along/work with/handle this person,” then the answers are:

  1. We wish that too.
  2. Don’t wish when you can understand and act.

So here are my five easy ways to best work with (not against) autistic people like me.

Don’t play to win on your terms. Remember Words with Friends? I was unbeatable, not because of my vocabulary. I played an impenetrable defensive strategy. Everyone lost when they tried to win their way. We autistic people are often more guarded and defensive; if you try to break that down, we’ll hunker down. But if you’re willing to let us be as guarded and defensive for you, then that’s our win, together.

Work harder on the setup. In my printing presswork, the majority of the effort was setup — if we got that right, we could crank out jobs seamlessly for hours. My autistic tendency is to bristle when too frequently interrupted, intruded, steered. If you approach work more up front and just let us run with things thereafter and remain focused, we’ll work great!

Be ready to be curious. We have probably thought out our “defense” more than you have your “offense.” We’re not trying to be difficult or intractable – we’re just reflexively protective of our comfort, capabilities, and competency. The people who get the most out of me are those who engage my curiosity, trick me into wanting to solve a problem, and give me the liberty to work in a way where I’m comfortable and not conflicted. (If you’re one of my stakeholders/customers, please don’t abuse this, LOL)

Resolve — don’t flatten — objections. As a teenager, I once pitched a fit because my mom shot down my request to go to a Thai place instead of her idea: The Cheesecake Factory. I thought they just served cheesecake, so I objected. While I was happy to discover I was kinda wrong, I’d have LOVED to have had this more thoughtfully solved, like “Hunter, you probably want spicy Asian food — the Cheesecake Factory has enormous portions, with deserts, and a substantial Asian food selection. I’ve been there, and none of us have been to Thai Cafe whatever – and I know what you like. We should go.”

Take our side first – trust me. Like FBI Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator Chris Voss would advise, get a “That’s right!” out of someone, not a “You’re right.” Like many other autistic people, if I need convincing, the “appeal to people” aspect often falls flat. But get us bought in on an idea, something we can internally acknowledge, assent, celebrate — and then incorporate — we might even defend your side of things better than you can! The hardest ones to face across the table are the ones you want most on your side.

We are definitely more different than we are difficult, and I hope these five steps help explain that difference. They help us. To learn more about autism from an autistic person’s perspective, follow & subscribe to The Life Autistic – or follow the more whimsical, spontaneous, and amusing content on Twitter / Instagram. Thanks!