The Life Autistic: I Walk Through the Uncanny Valley

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Ok, if you’re not familiar with the phrase and concept of ‘uncanny valley,’ go read up.

Back? Cool.

Being autistic is like being living in an uncanny valley.

Why?

We humans are most comfortable with humans who act like humans and robots who act like robots. Mixing the two together creates an eerie revulsion that jars our expectations and freaks us out.

And of course, how do people describe us higher-functioning autistics? Monotone. Focused. Cold. Rational. Unemotional. 

Robotic.

Instead of thinking it was always personal, or that it was my weight, acne, whatever, I should have just rationalized it as “Oh, duh, these people have a reflexive avulsion to humans with robotic tendencies!”

If only.

We’re not robots. We’re just different.

Where many would become derailed by emotion, we won’t. Where others make poor decisions based on anger, spite, and hate, we don’t. Where some bask in the warmth of others and feel the benefit of feelings, well, sometimes we can’t.

We’re no less human. I’m no less human.

I might not look you in the eye. I might flap and jitter while walking and waiting. I probably won’t get worked up about hot-button, emotional topics. And my elevated prosody isn’t your computer’s dictionary talking.

I can’t help that you’re revolted. And I also cannot pretend to be a normal human the way normal humans don’t have to pretend.

If you can, try to see beyond the uncanny valley. 

The Life Autistic: So I Wouldn’t Make It in the Air Force?

IMG_7770.JPGMy wife is fond of joking, “Hunter was a Navy brat. Now he’s just a brat.” I don’t object, as it’s quite true.

As is the case with many military kids, we often consider joining the service ourselves.

But apparently, that would have been a bad fit for me.

Could I make it through basic? Eh, probably not. Could I survive wearing those big goofy glasses? Not likely.

Beyond that, there was something more fundamental and situational.

I remember frustrating my dad to no end growing up. He was quick to point out my skills, but I tended to get in the way of my own potential.

“Hunter,” he said, “you could be just about anything you want! A lawyer, a doctor, an anesthesiologist! But — not an Air Force pilot.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because you always have to ask why.”

He clarified:

“When you’re flying your jet, and you get that order to EJECT, EJECT — you’re not going to have time to say ‘Gee officer, why do I have to eject?’ There’s nothing wr—’ and then BOOM!” he exclaimed, “you’re hit by a missile.” 

It’d be some sweet irony to write this and say, “Well, hah — I’m a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force with over 200 sorties flown—”

No.

It’s always mine to question why.

That mindset doesn’t always fit everywhere.

I’m far from a rebel – I mean, I survived four years of Pensacola Christian College of all places. But I’m not always a rule-follower either.

I’d like to say I’m just unnaturally curious, but I’m too lazy for that.

There’s a different sort of autistic slant.

We’re quick to question logic — we need things to make sense.

I know that’s not the way the world, society, people always work. But the autistic mind rests in understanding, putting pieces together — if they fit, then that helps dispel so much objection, reaction, and question.

There’s a world of difference between “I’m not sold, but I see the logic,” vs. “I don’t even understand the intent here.”

I’m always one to make reply,
And never cease to reason why,
Theirs but to do and (try not to) die (if I don’t have to)

And for what it’s worth, I could always fly commercial airliners. Not like I’d need to rationalize ejecting out of one of those . . .

The Life Autistic: How to Get Expelled from Preschool

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Yes, I was expelled from preschool, of all places.

On what grounds? Embezzlement? Racketeering? Insider trading? I only wish I were that cool.

People like me don’t exactly “fit in.”

By age 3, I’d learned all the countries, capitals, and flags of the world (not an exaggeration, apparently), so that left me little time or space to learn a thing or two about interacting with others. Sharing. Sitting. Cooperating. Conforming to norms. Slowing things down. Listening.

Structured spaces, homogenous places, new faces – those were all well and good, I suppose. But it was a far more subtle thing that did me in.

My problem – I looked normal.

Hear me out:

Let’s say a pre-school classmate rolls in on a wheelchair. Without thinking, you’ll hold a door longer, you’ll be conscious of standing when speaking to him, and you’ll be considerate of his difference. It’s human nature.

It’s an “accommodating reaction.”

But say this kid looks like he could be your able-bodied sibling.

Only she . . . never looks at you when speaking.

Or he won’t pay attention to you unless he arranges his desk objects —just so—-and only then do you enter the picture.

I’m not out to blame anyone, so I definitely don’t blame that preschool for having almost no clue about a regular-looking dude like me.

I slipped in under any accommodating reaction because it’s hard to “see” autism.

I didn’t sit as still as the others, if I sat at all. I wasn’t much for listening when people called for me; can’t say I’d learned to crawl out of my little world yet.

I was bored. Bored. Unchallenged. Agitated.

While they were teaching colors and shapes, I was reading. Reading words in books. I couldn’t bring myself to sandbag myself to get to everyone else’s level.

That wasn’t what a normal-looking kid was supposed to act like.

It’s hard to slow myself down.

To this day, I still struggle to behave in similar situations. It’s bitten me more times than I can count, and I’m only slowly getting experience in chilling out and saving the rocket fuel for later instead of getting frustrated about not using it.

Nowadays, the preschool kickout makes for a funny anecdote. Looking back, it’s a bit ridiculous.

But it was my first foray into an important life lesson: you’re either playing along, or you’re playing elsewhere.

The Life Autistic: Using the F-Word

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By age 20, I’d reached the apex of my swearing potential.

Blame a combination of salty YouTube videos, blue comedy, and hair-trigger temper points, but either way: after lambasting my brother in a ten-minute, breathless, cussive screed in which I machined expletive combinations unique enough to be patented, I realized “Wow, I’ve gotten foul. I don’t think I’ll ever top this.” 

But even in that maelstrom of profane malevolence, in which I found all manner of expression boundless, there’s been one word I’ve never mustered up the comfort to say:

Friend.

We autistic folk, we’re so literal.

We are as literal as we are not social.

So when it comes to relationships, social stuff, there’s this extra layer of ambiguity and awkwardness mixed in with extreme precision.

And golly is it embarrassing sometimes.

It is hard for us to define, much less make friends.

Are friends people you talk to each day? Are they those with whom you have a good, stirring conversation every now and then? Is it someone you know where share some mutual, intentional enjoyment? Is it different from buddy, pal, dude?

It’s always been hard for me to connect with people beyond just the surface. I feel like many who’d be a friend to others would just be an acquaintance to me.

But it’s not you. It’s me.

I don’t navigate this well, and I’m afraid to call people friends, thinking that I should be committing more, being more involved, closer.

It’s part of The Life Autistic – we do genuinely appreciate the people in our lives, those more invested, and in those whom we enjoy the more everyday banter and passing conversation. To be an acquaintance, pal, bud — that’s really good for us.

For all the words we use, good and bad, the F-word is one of the toughest to say.

The Life Autistic: What a Barefoot Irish Sage Taught Me about Change

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Here at Apple, I once worked for a boss who was more myth than man. He was based in Ireland, and he ran a team that stretched the globe.

He was a tour-de-force of culture-building aphorisms, folksy-wisdom, and cogent industry insights. He strode through offices barefoot. He’d visit sites the world over and dance an authentic Irish jig if they hit performance targets. And his countryside abode was rumored to be so prominent that it didn’t have an address – but a namelike Xanadu or something.

For our bi-weekly meetings, I’d drag myself into the office at 6AM my time to catch him midday in GMT. He usually hosted over the phone, whilst driving, unspooling yarns and helping cast vision for a future I needed to help spearhead.

While I remember more of his accent and cadence as he said this, there were two words that resonated the most:

“Change Management.”

Me being me, I liked saying “management” the way he did, with an airy Irish lilt to render it “MAH-nedge-ment.”

Me being me, I liked the sound of change far more than the concept. I’m not good with change, at my core. It’s one of those autistic elements; comfort comes from routine, predictability, not shaking everything up.

But in the coming weeks, as my boss elaborated on the c-word, my worry began to ease, and I got more excited about the idea of change as a whole. Why?

‘Normal’ people can be just as apprehensive about change as autistic people.

The advanced notice surely helped, but there was another powerful notion at work:

I go out of my way to embrace being different. This was the perfect chance to do so.

To stand out in a good way. To embrace the porcupine of change. To stand tall where others would wither. To make change the challenge, because I do like a good challenge.

In my time with my barefoot, jig-dancing, sage of a boss, I feel like I made a step up.

Where an internal difficulty became an inspired directive.

Where change didn’t have to be my antagonist forever.

Where the anxiety could be better channeled into adrenaline.

If resisting change was going to be normal, then I’d be something I’d have no trouble being: abnormal

photo credit: Joe.ie