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. 🙂

 

Don’t Assume, Do Specify – Breakfast with Autism

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When my mom orders a dozen of something through a drive-thru, she’ll say “a dozen [whatevers] . . . TWELVE.” 

That’s all because of one order a long while ago, when my parents ordered a dozen biscuits from a Hardee’s. The cashier paused for a second too long, then asked:

“How many is that?” 

We all laugh. Then I remember.

People kinda have to do similar with me. 

Just the other day, Mrs. H2 asked for

  1. two slices of toast
  2. with homemade jam
  3. that we just got as a gift

Ok, that’s easy. So I

  1. toasted two slices of bread
  2. applied the homemade jam
  3. that we got as a gift

I bring it over. She asks: did you butter this?

Let’s look over items 1, 2, and 3 again.

Toast. Jam. Specifically, the gifted jam. There’s no butter.

“No, I didn’t butter it?”

My best (also breakfast-related mishap) was when I was sent to get “plain old Maple syrup” — here were my options:

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Did I pick the wrong “plain old Maple syrup?”

Of course I did.

This is why The Life Autistic is just hard. There are so many assumed, unspoken specifics we just miss. 

We can try. It’s a learning process, bizarre as it sounds. But in the meantime:

Don’t assume; do specify!

We’re working on this, and it’s ok for y’all to be specific, spelling things out, and making sure you’re coming across as unambiguous. It’ll help!

 

The Next Decade in Autism

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I came across a ranking of someone’s best albums of the decade and realized “Wow, decades are long, and there’s no way I remember all of this.”

It’s the frame with which I’m going into these new Roaring Twenties: If I can barely recall the events of the last ten years, I’m probably not going to predict the next ten years any better.

Ten years ago I’d have guessed I’d be in management, living in a modest home, likely sans kiddos, and writing fiction books.

End of decade: I’m in data (which would SHOCK my math-averse younger self), with two lovely gals and a third kiddo en route, in a home I’ve come to love, and not writing fiction at all (unless you count my wild rural satire ventures).

Guessing and predicting are fools errands — but there’s a better way to play the long game. 

What helped me most the last decade was growth. Growing in skills, understanding, kindness, advocacy, introspection, and transparency. The challenges also grew, but I felt I grew in ways to meet them better.

This next decade, I’m hopeful that The Life Autistic will get better. Not just mine, but those of others.

Not many years ago, an autism diagnosis was considered a death sentence. A grim judgment. A daunting challenge.

I remember a random church visit, meeting a mom who introduced her son, worryingly adding that he had “Asperger’s syndrome.” He must have been five. I could just tell it was at the forefront of her mind, like she needed that out in the open to justify and help explain whatever behaviors he might demonstrate.

I wanted to talk to her, reassure her somehow, assuage that lingering fear that she aired so openly. I didn’t. And I wonder what became of that boy, who seemed nothing but curious and focused and perfectly fine. 

There’s still a long way to go, but kids with autism today have it much better. There’s “awareness” now, so at least it’s in the aether. Organizations offer support. The ripples of empathy have emanated further into the pond of understanding. We’re getting there. 

It’d be awesome for the rest of us—the ones well cloaked, adapted and masked to the rest of the world—to enter and exit this next decade supported, understood, and appreciated even better.

Where our need to decouple isn’t seen as aloof.

Where we can use a big word without being deemed snooty.

Where our occasional directness won’t erase goodwill or be seen as rude.

Where our sensory needs and preferences aren’t onerous to others or detrimental to us.

Where we can stim, flex, and warp in and our of normal and be welcomed back.

Where our difference goes beyond tolerated to celebrated.

Where we can be us, only more so. 

Here’s to where we end up by 2030.

 

 

The Autistic Holiday Survival Guide

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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

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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.