Understanding the Everyday Obstacles of Autism

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In a way, I’m very fortunate to be stashed away in remote work.

When I work onsite, I have such a hard time when I see people I know walking toward me that I:

  1. Keep my glasses off so I have some plausible deniability in noticing them
  2. Keep my AirPods in, even without playing, so they think I’m on a call

The small-talk, wave-or-nod, quick-smile, acknowledgement decision tree gets wearisome after a while — it tires my brain, and I’m pooped after all the micro-decisions going on — because it’s not as natural, and we have to think about it.

It’s one of the most negative positives.

People come up to me because of Mo and Zo (because they’re cute, and people do this). So I’ve had to keep a short list of convo topics always on hand and pray that Mo can do most of the entertaining so I don’t have to, because I didn’t opt into the convo and can’t always plan beforehand.

Even when people book me for meetings without noting an agenda, it’s almost this *gasp* microaggression against my innate autistic sensibilities.

Every little thing.

Some would say, “just act normal,” like there’s a certain norm that I’d know enough to act through — but have you tried acting and staying in character for most of your life?

And then “be yourself,” where, I love the advice, but I also hate how gratingly awkward it gets when someone’s able to rattle off “Hey Hunter, how ya doing?” and say, “Hey, I’m good” and think I catch them slowing down thinking there’s more to the conversation, but there’s not, and then I feel bad if I don’t ask “and you?” so I want to slow down for that, but I have somewhere to be, and I don’t want to be rude —

The easy answer would be ‘just leave us alone,’ but then I get lonely, isolated, worse, and —

But just because we have obstacles doesn’t mean we don’t get better.

Sometimes I’ll keep the glasses on and tuck my AirPods in my pocket and smile.

Sometimes I’ll be the one to notice someone before they notice me.

Sometimes I’ll kick off the convo, giving myself time to where it can be done just enough in passing:

“Chriiiiis Robinson — how ya been?”

“Oh hey Hunter, doing alright – you?”

“Not too bad, just getting lunch — I’ll catch ya ’round.”

“Cool, see ya.”

And then done.

To anyone else, it’s normal.

To me, it’s an obstacle conquered.

 

We Aren’t Normal, but There’s a Next Best Thing

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It just happened.

Sophia, a team lead, picked up the sign-up sheet, looked it over, smirked, and said “Thanks, H2.” 

That was how I initialed things, purely for the novelty of it (because I kinda-sorta cribbed it from this album)

And then the hair — I’m too frugal for frequent haircuts, and I didn’t know it’d get curly and wild when I grew it out. I left it that way and it became a thing.

When I’d visit work sites or show up places, people noticed the hair.

Lately, I’ve bought into the Memoji craze, which generated the very accurate image seen above — and I can’t log into a virtual meeting nowadays without someone making comment about it.

Even on my worst day, for all of my other differences, I can at least be memorable.

Some of those memorable differences aren’t always great, like using big words at inopportune times, deploying obtuse analogies, or otherwise slinking away as the most awkward in a group.

But while The Life Autistic is a different and not-so-normal life, it sticks out in terms of memorability.

For all my follies and failures, I can at least take solace in barely being forgotten.

I’m sure many of us can relate, whether from a speech pattern, stim, or otherwise different way of wading the waters around us — people can tell, and people remember difference. It is ingrained within us to make note of notable change.

Some of the differences are cool, and I like that. I am defined by feeling and acting unique, and it stands out in many good ways.

For those of you who struggle with your neurological difference and diversity, I’m going to step outside myself to say it’s ok.

Fitting in isn’t always the goal, even if it’d be the easy way.

Difference stands out. It’s memorable.

It’s literally outstanding. 

 

Are You Sure You Want Our Opinion?

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If there’s one thing I’ll bet many of my fellow folks on the spectrum have learned — we have gotten to be careful with our opinions. 

Not everyone, and not always, but for many of us who share the same hyper-analytical and super-introspective capacity, it feels like there’s a reinforced behavior: don’t be too divergent; it only makes life more difficult.

Why?

We already deal with our difference 100% of the time just by being different.

It gets exhausting.

And people know I’m definitely not a normal dude.

So when it comes time to debating and deciding ideas, I let out a sigh inside. I know most people embrace different kinds of thoughts and will value diversity, but it’s hard when you are the different one volunteering one different opinion. 

It calls attention. Exposure. Brings the focus to you. I can’t always take that. I don’t always enjoy that.

And then when we’re wrong, oh look out — see, it’s not just “oh, Hunter had kind of a lame idea,” no, it ties back with the perception — “he’s an odd duck and odd ducks lay odd eggs.”

Am I being too harsh on myself?

When you already know you don’t fit in, and you’re being asked to contribute ideas, do you really think we want to lean a lot harder into not fitting in with our ideas too?

Difference is good. But it’s not easy.

So how do you make it easy? Here’s what helps me (and might help some of us too):

—Ask for something very different by design. I love when someone opens up the floor to where “wild ideas” are sought; we feel better about contributing to something that can be off-the-wall, if that’s the game.

Ask us directly, and appeal to what you value about our opinion. The ones who know me get a good response out of me. “Hunter, you usually see a different side of this. I’m curious what your gut is telling you.” 

Ask for something other than absolutes. Sometimes it’s hard for us to volunteer a radical thought if we feel it’s definitive. We’re always debating how to act and how to interact – invite us to give both sides of our opinions and build out a wiggle room.

 

We Don’t Always Take ‘Statements’ as ‘Requests’

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Here is my autistic brain at work:

“Hunter, it’s cold in this house.”

Ok.

I’ve just been given someone else’s perception of the temperature. For me, it’s only cold when someone else is freezing. Then I might put on a fleece.

“Hunter, it’s too cold in this house.”

Ok.

So that’s a little different. I’m getting more of someone’s judgment on the ambient temperature. That’s an opinion of degree, literally. When it comes to opinions, either I have none, will agree, or will disagree. Not too hard. In this case, my opinion differs, but not too much. It is cold, but not too cold. I put on a fleece.

“Hunter, it’s too cold in this house. What’s the thermostat set at?”

Ok.

Still dealing with an opinion here, so I’m processing that, seeing whether it’s something that checks out or relates more to subjectivity or objectivity. I peek around the corner at the thermostat. It’s at 65º. I relay that fact and answer the question — it’s at 65 degrees — and I walk away.

“Hunter, it’s too cold in this house. What’s the thermostat set at? If it’s any lower than 65º, can you turn it up a little?”

Ok.

Opinion, check. Need to get a fact about the thermostat, check. Oh, it’s at 65º. So if — she said if — it’s lower than 65º, then I need to turn it up. A little. But it’s 65º on the º — and I don’t feel too cold; I’m in a fleece. Maybe I can just turn it up. A little. Like 66º.

Ok.

So if I turn it up a little, it might not be enough. If it’s too much, them I’m going to get uncomfortable and break my own flow. What if it gets turned up to 70º because I didn’t turn it up enough beforehand. Then it’s going to be hot. Too hot. When I heat up, I can’t cool down. I like the way this fleece looks. I should just do 68º and say I turned it up to 68º – but she asked what the temp was, so I need to start with that. But because of anchoring she might want it way higher. No, that’s not how it works. Then she’ll wonder why it was at 65º — I don’t remember. It was comfortable. Maybe I just agree with the assessment, people like when you validate their belief. But then, what if—

People on the autism spectrum can have a difficult time translating facts, observations, hints, and opinions into requests

We’re not insensitive.

We’re not unintuitive.

We’re not dismissive.

Help us out.

If you want to share your opinion, observation, statements, feel free.

If you want us to do something in relation to that, don’t be afraid to ask.

Thank you!

 

When You Don’t Become What You Wish You Were

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I remember devouring literary criticism, volumes of Harold Bloom, and poetic commentary, giddy with the thought of becoming an English professor after college. Knowing lit crit, unlocking texts, all the things that would enlighten readers with this Gnostic depth and metatextual undercurrent of Western works, I thought I could be a contender.

Instead, my teaching career began and ended with a mucky thud of a dud year. My start in 6th grade was little more than a disservice, a far cry from the pontifications I had in mind.

So too it was, thinking I could be somewhat of an asset at a new church, with some keen theological insights and knowledge acquired from Bible college, where I’d be of some value to eager learners, seekers of the Word.

That, too, came nary to pass: my most eager church audiences this decade have since been preschoolers, who at least laugh at my silly jokes, juggling routines, and how I can jump and touch the ceiling at the end of one of our songs.

And then my career, where I thought I’d be a good supervisor, manager, and leader, by guiding others to do the job as well as I’d done it, only to find it was far more political and people-based than raw knowledge and skill would ever get me.

What does this have to do with autism?

My Life Autistic led me to pick up a great depth of knowledge without realizing I could be terrible at applying it. 

For all I knew about English, writing, and literature, I ended up a terrible teacher of all three.

My Biblical exegesis and theology was a non-starter, coming only in handy for things like adding creative color to David & Goliath tales for 4-year-olds who can only stay seated for 10 second bursts.

Knowing the routines, process, and ways to manage teams didn’t help me the way I thought it would in leadership: it just reinforced that “yeah, I was a good player, but that doesn’t make a great coach or people developer.”

It’s a hard thing for people like us, where we can be so quick on the knowledge and slow on the nuance. When the glory often rests in the “force multipliers” of the world, and all we have is the “force” just collected unto ourselves.

I never became an English professor, Bible teacher, or Senior Organizational Leader.

But I hope I’ve become a better version of myself. 

 

Many Struggles; Less Sympathy — Why The Kindness Seems Harder to Come By

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I take notes on all my major presentations. One day I found among them a small note of encouragement from my sister, who’s had the unfortunate privilege of knowing me her entire life and can spot when I’m having a day more down than up.

This was a rare thing for me to receive.

You can’t go a day on Facebook, Twitter, Insta, TikTok, or anything without seeing someone’s post overflowing with comments, likes, shares, virality about how they were having some sort of rough situation or day, only to be showered or otherwise picked up by an act of kindness, whether great or small.

It’s nice, and I can’t exactly not like that kind of response.

But it’s a rare thing for us.

When your struggles are compounded by autism, it is much harder for regular folks to relate.

If you’re working with or otherwise around “happy, normal people,” you can mostly relate to happiness and normalcy.

So when those folks hit a rut, have a bad day, or otherwise run into a rough patch, there’s almost no effort that would ever go into trying to understand. “Oh, you’re normal, but now you’re sad and I understand why” — that’s instant, and you can pivot your energy to making that person feel better.

For us?

“Oh, she’s … uh … different.” — and people already have to contend with understanding first. Sure, there are those who can immediately understand “sad” and “hurt,” but autism often adds a hurdle that many people won’t jump over.

And that’s a hurdle many can’t clear.

And yes, folks, we know it.

Any barrier to understanding us as people drastically diminishes one’s outputs of sympathy.

But it’s not everyone. Those on the spectrum, we get it. Many who bypass their hurdles of understanding and just work right to the sadness, the hurt — they get it too.

It takes uncommon people to help sympathize with other uncommon people, even about uncommon things.

For those of you who do try, thank you.

Even if you don’t “get us,” you got us when we need help.

 

Catering to Autism

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For breakfast, I eat virtually the same thing every day: a scoop of vegan protein powder with up to a 1/3 cup of steel-cut oats, a half-tablespoon of peanut butter, all rendered porridgey with coffee as a base, then three eggs separately.

For lunch, that’s also the same deal: a smoothie made from a cup of kale, a banana, ice, water, and more scoops of protein powder.

Though dinner and snacks vary, I’m pretty routine about 66% of my meals during the day.

So imagine what happens if any of that is somehow altered.

It seems like it’d be hard to cater to autistic tastes.

Why?

Because you’re catering to routines, patterns, norms — and unless it’s the same things we’re eating for those designated meals, then it’s likely going to be a matter of pushing back.

Mrs. H2 is a pretty stellar cook, so her dinner options are never a miss.

But I get worried when there’s something on deck for breakfast or for lunch. Not because it’s bad, but because it’s good, and I already know I’m going to have to try to switch gears mentally to accommodate.

Maybe you’re in this boat, maybe you’re not — where you feel like you’re dealing with an autistically picky eater and it’s grinding your gears.

As one of those people, here’s my bullets of advice:

-It might not be about picky tastes, but picky routines 

-Get creative with the meals open to the most variety

Discover the root of what makes the ritual stick and appeal to that 

For me, I eat pretty compact and healthy so I don’t like feeling “fat” before and during work, and I like something warm most mornings and cool most afternoons. Portions weigh heavily for me, and I don’t like the feeling of eating too much in the morning.

That sounds normal, but it’s the routine and ritualistic devotion to its consistency that can be more autistic than the norm.

Others’ routines and rituals may vary — those are what you’re catering to.