You know me and how I feel about change. Sometimes it truly is the best thing in the world.
We were excited to welcome our third daughter into the world on Tuesday evening – baby, momma, and sisters are all doing wonderfully. On that note, I’ll be taking a short little pause from the blog and spending more waking and half-waking hours with our new addition and with the fam.
I’m eager to share more about this experience in time — while COVID-19 has definitely colored this event differently, it’s been helpful in light of some of the autistic-level challenges I’ve had to negotiate with everyone else’s excitement about a new baby.
For the longest time, I thought one of my more autistic working attributes was 100% detrimental.
Now it’s probably 95%, but I’ll take the win.
As a manager, I had a hard time with some of the meetings with other managers. We all got on fine, and while I was not often abrasive, I started showing my struggles it came to getting things started.
It might be a human thing, but I could tolerate the small talk and warming up the room only so much before feeling tension and getting short with everyone. Sometimes it felt like meeting to generate a spark of ideas and light a torch of actions, only neither of those things would happen.
With my more rigid, purposeful autistic attributes, it irritated me.
“We’re here to discuss X and take away Y, but fifteen minutes in, we’re still on ABC. Okaaaay…”
I can be fun and lighthearted when my mind says it’s time. But when it’s “business time,” a lot of that colored pencil gets sharpened to a point prepared to trace, draw, dot, and poke.
“But Hunter, this kinda sounds like a regular person thing. How does that—”
When you’re a focused, laterally thinking person, imagine how you’d feel when those attributes get shut out because people perceive you as ‘impatient’ and ‘short’ for being more routine and purpose-driven.
When a meeting is just to BS and have a good time, you better believe I can play along and fill that half-hour. Sorta. But when it’s getting in with ideas and getting out with action, I’m there for the reasons stated. It just locks into my mind, and it’s hard for me to pivot out and away from that.
That didn’t help.
Until last week.
I met to help coach a friend on some interview prep in a 30 minutes session. Within the first 30 seconds, I was onto my practice questions and scenarios. I figured he would appreciate my economy of time and purpose, even if I dove right into the thick of it.
What I didn’t expect was what he said afterward, more or less:
“Hunter, one of the things I appreciate about you is that you can get straight to business when it’s time to get straight to business. Thank you.”
I’ve never heard it put that way before.
Pretty much my whole career I thought that attribute was doing me more harm than good. In many ways, and in many less-than-fair blemishes on my reputation, it has.
But this time, it didn’t.
Maybe this is another time we need to embrace the hidden strengths of autistic attributes. Where that one person getting uneasy in a brainstorm isn’t being bored or otherwise unworkable. Where your creative thinker isn’t actually checked out.
We’re just ready and waiting for someone to say “Let’s get down to business.”
(So if you ever need to defeat the Huns, you’ll want us along with you.)
You’ve probably heard of these or similar terms to describe our autistic characteristic in burrowing into a singular obsession or obsessions, plural. The things that go beyond interest.
Experts on trains. Lovers of vacuums. Professors of sharks. Memorizers of countries. And that’s usually before pre-school.
So how do we choose these obsessions?
I wish we could. I’d have loved to have fixated on and explored things like analysis and data science — sure would have helped me these past few years!
My earliest forays were in countries, flags, and capitals, to where I had all of them memorized – before preschool. I don’t remember much of that, but my parents, uncles, grandparents all attested to that prodigious demonstration and lamented not being able to capitalize on that fame it could have brought us. Oh well.
But the rest spanned the practical to the bizarre: Z-Bots, LEGO bricks, Beanie Babies, camera equipment, game shows – particularly Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Dragon Ball Z, Star Wars, chess, basketball, BattleBots, ambient music, literary criticism, and watches.
That said, there’s a difference between interests and autistic enthusiasms.
And some of those definitely intersect. For me, I enjoyed collecting LEGOs and Z-Bots – what kid didn’t?
But for all my interest in cameras, I wasn’t drawn to photography as much as I was makers, specs, formats, cost. Same with chess, I was a terrible player, but to this day I could still name the lineage of World Champions, their playing styles, and pontificate on the historical and developmental aspects of the game.
Star Wars was an interesting one, where I cared less about Sith vs. Jedi and more about amassing intelligence on canon: naming every alien in the Mos Eisley Cantina, Jabba’s Palace, and researching the deep historical fictions behind every place, character, and prop.
It was more about the things themselves than the things themselves.
Still is, though to a lesser degree, with watches. I blame my dad and the Apple Watch for both biting me in this recent kick, where I’m apt to research and dive into the great and rich horological world within worlds.
Today, I have to hold myself back — interests are a gateway to obsessions and fixations that alter our executive function. I know my autistic self better, the perks and the perils.
In a way, it’s bittersweet: I’ve stopped downloading apps, games, and pursuing other ‘interesting’ things knowing that I could get sucked into an obsessive vortex and never emerge.I have to take great care in engaging a passion, unless it’s time-neutral and practical, like baking — I try not to dabble too much, just enough to try something out once in a great while.
If you’ve got kids with their autistic obsessions: embrace them both. Optima dies; prima fugit – the time to pursue an enthusiasm and enjoy it with childlike fervor is a fleeting thing.
This weekend, we enjoyed a small and adorable birthday celebration for my small and adorable nephew, who turned a whopping one years old.
There was a more sour time in my life where I questioned the necessity of having parties for kids (even my own) who won’t remember birthdays before age five, but I know better now. You can’t ruin it for kids at that age. They’ll love cake, toys, candles, whatever, and it really takes a lot of the long-term stress out. And if they don’t love it, they won’t remember.
I don’t remember my early birthday parties. And since I stopped having them after I turned eight, that doesn’t leave a lot of them to remember.
But these days, I get to lean into my clever autistic trick to where others enjoy their parties more while I enjoy less of the party.
I’m not always social, I’m pretty low energy, I don’t add to the chaos, and I’m unusually fastidious. That’s a great combo for me, especially because no one else has it.
Because of that, my party trick is disappearing and making things vanish.
When we host, I’m cleaning. Or I’m picking up dishes as soon as people finish with them. Half the time, I’m at the sink, because I don’t want to deal with the aftermath during the aftermath.
When things go awry, or dogs go wild, or kids go nuts, my number is the first called. I’m not essential, and I’m not the life of any party. Until you need someone to put out a fire, plug a leak, or otherwise tackle a problem. Then it’s at that point my autistic social detachment becomes super-practical attachment; the party can go on while I’m off either luring wild animals or wild children away with peanut butter so a photoshoot can go off without being intruded.
Of course, I might enjoy a gathering here or there on the rare occasion I’m unencumbered with other ancillary duties.
But more often than not, I’m the heat sink, the heat check, or otherwise the Winston Wolf of the party scene — not so much to enjoy it, but to get rid of the mess and let others enjoy it better.
My youngest daughter, Zo, just turned two. Coming from a household with talkative parents and a loquacious older sister, she’s been quick to getting the hang of sentences.
One of them is my new favorite:
“I love you, dada.”
The greater surprise isn’t that she says it. It’s when. She knows and senses exactly when I need to hear it. She just blurts it outright, often with a little toddler hug. I never ask.
We autistic people can’t just “ask for help.” We’ve long since learned that nature punishes the weak, and we don’t elicit the kind of natural empathetic response from others because we’re different.
But being creatures of machine and routine, we’re often more down than out. Though we’ll rarely ask for it, here’s how to help us up:
Be kind in response.We don’t choose to be down. We’re autistic, not emotionally masochistic. If we had a say in the degree to which things affected us or torpedoed our mood, we would avoid that, just like you.
Be patient. We’re routine driven, and bizarrely, most things clear up once we can bounce into routine. Personally, I have more bad days and very very few bad weeks. That’s not the case for all of us. There are events, times, and seasons – there are no quick fixes.
Take the straw off our back. Disappointment, depression, drawdowns: they are an additional cognitive and emotional burden. You probably can’t fix it. But you can fix other things. It won’t be quick, but it lightens the load on the road recovery. Shoot, even having my sink cleared and the table set for dinner — people doing things for me that I’d normally do — is a help while I cope.
Give space to engage and disengage. We are going to process negative emotion deeply and differently each time. Sometimes I just need to vacate my mind and not choose the words; I appreciate knowing that I am supported in disengaging. Sometimes I need to engage and untangle that ball of dour yarn. Choice is powerful in coping.
Don’t expect fixes; do accelerate healing. Some of the things that help me the most in a funk are meaningful adjustments to routine: walks to the park, dining out, low-effort little joys. But not if I have to be happy during the event or afterward. It’s like setting a bone: the break isn’t healed, but it’s in a place to heal. It will happen.
For my neurotypical audience: invisible differences, disabilities, and afflictions are hard enough on their own, and it’s hard for you to support us through them. I get that.
It might not “make sense” for us to go from incandescent one day to intractably dolorous the next. Or even hour to hour.
It’s like having a giant, decaying log of poison wood tied upon your back, sometimes suddenly: it’s heavy, and it’s toxic. While it might rot down eventually, it is dank and overbearing right this minute.
Sometimes we need you to bear the weight for a second. Or to bear it with us. Or to tell us to hang on and stay strong while you handle the things we can’t at the moment. Or to help us find a place to set it down while we rest. Or to acknowledge that this going to be awful for a while, but that we can do other things, despite the log. Or just mention that it looks bad, and heavy, but that you’re there, and you see how much it is to carry.
Or to share a taco or two. Tacos make everything better.
Most days are good when they start good and don’t deviate from that.
Some days are bad: rarely do they begin that way, but once wrecked, they are hard to un-wreck.
Our days are trains on tracks. They’re not dune buggies on sand. They’re not cars. They’re not bikes. They’re solid, sequential, massive, linear locomotives. They’re not nimble.
The good days on the Life Autistic are a matter of keeping the train on the tracks.
We generally derive a certain kind of functional health, anxiety reduction, and mental acuity from predictable routine, limited variation, actively reducing disorder through discipline, and healthy personal and emotional inputs.
“Ew, gross…routine, discipline, you’re SO BORING, Hunter!”
Just because you work to execute a plan doesn’t mean it’s boring. Try commanding a space mission. It’s incredibly regimented, but it’s far from boring. It’s just executing on one thing at a time.
But that’s where things can differ.
Moon missions, battle plans, football plays, whatever: there’s a procedure for when things go wrong. I can’t always have that procedure.
The bad days on the Life Autistic are when that train falls off the tracks.
Your car can veer off the road and climb back on. A dune buggy on sand needs only find the general path forward. But once a train is off rails, it’s going to stay off for a while.
And that’s what people struggle to understand with our autistic experiences.
Sure, we’d love to “shake it off” and keep moving and forget. But that kind of ‘resilient amnesia’ doesn’t always work. We’re reacting to new variables, trying to plan on the fly to compensate, to focus — it’s a crusher at times.
There are no magic tricks that work. Gratefulness, positivity, mind hacks — they’re often too emotionally inauthentic to add to our already difficult stance of maintaining some level of emotional and social masking anyway!
The worst bullets are the unhealthy emotional and relational inputs. We’re not robots. We have deep feelings. We don’t take kindly to abuse. I’m a grown man and I still get bullied by malicious, unrepentant people. It is hard to navigate these social roads, and it’s only harder when someone rams their spiteful vehicle into mine.
Despite the days going bad, there are things that make the next days better.
The next day.
I am fortunate in that I’m not as affected by longer term depression — other autistic people are, and this magnifies the challenge. That is an entirely different battle.
But for mine, each day is a new routine to be worked through and lived without derailing. More of those are good.
For our experiences, we benefit from how you help mitigate chaos, keep some order, and be kind enough in a way that will keep our train chugging along on the rails.
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.’
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 🙂