An Unnatural Natural: What People Get Wrong about Skills and the Spectrum

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I was chatting with Adam Mico the other day – a stellar pal, great dataviz enthusiast, connection catalyst, and a relatable soul here on The Life Autistic (and yes, that’s a hyperlink to his blog, go read it and come back – thanks).

I’d done a video series, and he asked how many takes I needed for my final product.

One,” I said.

I was neither joking, nor bragging, nor highlighting some incredible fortune. It honestly took one single take (with edits and cut, but no reshoots).

And just last week, I hosted three different virtual sessions—on camera—where afterward, the newest member of my team couldn’t believe I’d been nervous about presenting.

“You look like such a natural at it though!” she affirmed.

On The Life Autistic, some of our most ‘natural’ skills are 100% unnatural.

It’s no surprise that most acquired skills don’t always come naturally, no surprise there. Skills are developed among folks with different levels of aptitude: you get good artists and coders even among those who weren’t as innately artsy or mathy to begin with.

For those of us on the spectrum, I’m delighted to find we can and have overcome perceived deficits or areas of lesser strength (public speaking, coordination, creative use of language, socializing, etc).

The secret?

Making it normal makes it look natural.

“Hunter, that’s not a secret.”

You’re right, it’s not. It’s the truth.

For me, apparently people say I’m better than ok on camera. It’s affirming and surprising at the same time, because it’s not normal for most people, and it’s less normal for those of us on the spectrum, negotiating an extra level of looking normal.

But I work in a virtual environment, and I choose to get on camera an awful lot. It keeps me honest, it keeps others focused, and I work hard to cultivate connections and relatability because my job depends on it.

I’m on camera multiple times a day, presenting on camera often, talking to people, talking to groups, eking out every bit of earnestness on video as much as I can — I have to.

I’m hardly a natural, but it’s normal for me now. So now it seems natural.

You might expect, say, an autistic nurse to be colder and stilted compared to most, but he could be the warmest, most relatable person you ever have care for you. I wouldn’t put it past a hyper-aware person, practicing bedside manner and social patter, to not get good at it. Even if it’s not natural.

Or someone managing in crisis situations and chaos and keeping her head cool; you might suspect she’s a natural, but she could be living that spectrum life and managing a skill despite it being a one-time innate deficit.

Sometimes we are indeed naturals — savantism is a thing!

For the rest of us, sometimes we’re just unnatural naturals.

Does Failing Make you a Failure?: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 4

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This is the fourth of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances . . . sometimes.

I recall with fervent light the joys of being given a second chance.

To make things right.

To achieve after letdowns, make amends, rebuild, reforge, and try again.

I like to think that one day I’m going to “arrive” in my professional life and be flawless, always delivering above expectation, and balancing my autistic strengths and opportunities with mastery.

That day isn’t today.

I’ve endured a couple of recent failures where the second chances weren’t given. I was not afforded the opportunity to make it right. My actions weren’t enough. My talent, insufficient. My earned goodwill, depleted.

What do you do when you feel the problem is you?

It’s normal to make mistakes, sure.

But should the mistakes define you despite your achievements?

They shouldn’t, but when it’s achievements that often define us, we can scarce afford to fail.

This is why I have issues. It’s why many of us do.

We tie ourselves and worth into being able to achieve and overcome beyond our imagined capacity, to prove ourselves to ourselves and to others. To conquer without what we know we won’t conquer within — because it needs no conqueror.

Things have come a long way on the Life Autistic, but they have further yet to go.

We’re still fully in a world where we feel more often excused for our “oddities” because of our talents, where our “weirdness” feels tolerated only as long as we can deliver. 

But what happens when we can’t. Or don’t? 

I’m well aware that my autism doesn’t come into play at the forefront of my professional performance or lapses thereof. But it’s the backdrop of who I am as a person. It’s in the gaps that people can’t consciously explain but subconsciously detect. It’s a tingling sense of otherness that turns sour and prominent when people’s views turn critical.

I can articulate a point to an audience, until I don’t. Or deliver on multiple things, until I miss one. We don’t always get the benefit of the doubt for a miss. We cover over our background and myriad personal challenges with achievement, but as soon as an execution gap comes up — it feels ugly.

It exposes the worst.

So as I try and fail, at what point will the failing outpace the trying?

I know the answer’s probably more positive. Where the only true failures are those who fail to try.

But what about when you’re done, when you’ve failed enough and exhausted your tries?

The Life Autistic isn’t a narrative looking back with answers to all the questions. It’s still ongoing, where the bricks are still being laid, the paths still walked, and where the torn sails may lead this raft onward or prove too tattered to carry it forward.

 

 

 

 

Truth Be Told: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 3

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This is the third of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

If it were your:

  1. First business trip, and
  2. First time meeting all your peers in person, and
  3. First org-wide succession planning session, while being your
  4. First month after a major promotion into a leadership role

Then I’m sure you probably wouldn’t have done what I ended up doing: something that hushed the room, raised eyebrows, and quick-dry cemented my reputation in a way I never could undo.

I’d like to say that many of us with autism are more “truth crusaders,” but we’re more “defenders of fact.” We’re good at pattern recognition & anomaly detection, but we’re not the best at keeping quiet about it.

And that can get us into trouble. 

I was the second-newest of the thirty organizational leaders at a summit – a big step for me after many steps in my Apple journey. Midway through, we discussed who on each of our teams would be our best future leaders in the making.

Since those in question were all my peers just weeks ago, I knew well who’d be ready to make the next steps.

One of the leaders waxed enthusiastic and eloquent about one person, someone who’d launched some initiatives, conjured up some coaching tricks, and cobbled some half-decent results.

But I knew this person. They weren’t really altogether worthy of that billing.

As this narrative went unchallenged, I thought “I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

But what came out was, well—just that:

“I’m sorry, I just don’t see this from them.”

*crickets*

So what do you do with crickets? Make more noise?

I kept going, already committed to the flag I planted, articulating my disagreements, all the while trying to find some footing to recover and yank this tirade back into something that’ll pass for constructive feedback.

It didn’t work.

That quiet, awkward lull gripped the air for too long — thankfully, our business manager called for a break. As soon as he did, I saw my boss get up from his chair and start making his way toward me. Great.

“Hey Hunter, just a bit of feedback —”

The disappointing complexity of the situation seized my shoulders. Our culture was supposed to be “feedback fit.” I had a direct view into this person’s impact. I made a mess of conveying “perceived truth” vs. “perceived opportunity.”

Unlike times where I rushed to judgment, this time, I felt the truth of the matter could offset how I went about speaking the matter. 

I’d like to say I salvaged this situation and made nice — and I did: I spoke to the gentleman at dinner and was honest about my own learning opportunity in tactfully conveying my thoughts. Thankfully, he knew enough about my “impassioned” tendencies and was gracious enough in me coming around to apologize. We get on decently these days!

I’d also like to say that my reputation was reforged as more one thoughtful and graceful in truth — but it wasn’t.

This was not one of those easy fixes, despite the work.

These introspections into my autistic professional self, they’ve helped — even if it’s just highlighting where I know I can be hasty, where I need to work harder, and where my “numb spots” lie.

It’s hardest even when you know and feel you’re right.

But it’s not always about being right.

The idea of right/wrong & truth/untruth & good/better/best had long been my success criteria in The Life Autistic — until I ran aground in my hardest lesson: failure. 

 

Getting a Chance to Make it Right: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 2

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This is the second of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

When I was 15, I started working for a Department of Defense subsidiary.

No joke. True story. 100% real.

Yeah, it was for the Commissary on NAS Keflavik, but DoD subsidiary has a great ring 🙂

I’d love to tell the story of my first boss there: a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking, vulgar-joke-telling, meat-cutting, German-speaking Chicagoan guardian angel —but not today.

Or how I finally earned the respect from another boss: a tougher-than-nails Philippine grandmother, standing tall at 4’9″ and working endlessly and quietly until everyone else around her faltered — but not today.

No, today’s tale is about when I almost alienated Frank, the Winston Wolf of getting produce departments up to snuff, the one who was supposed to help us win the US Military’s Best Small Commissary of the Year award.

I toured him around the produce department, answering his questions matter-of-factly. Almost too matter-of-factly.

Me being autistic me, I leaned way too far into in my blunt, under-nuanced assessment of the situation.

When he asked why we had a towering stash of parsley boxes in the cooler, I said “Because we just order this stuff indiscriminately.”

He nodded.

Fast forward a day later, I get paged to the directors office.

“Hunter,” he said. “Do you remember what you said to Frank about our inventory?”

Oh God. Here we go. I could see myself being fired no matter what, because this was big, and there are no second chances to make things right, and—

But he didn’t fire me.

“Do you see how what you said might have misrepresented us?” 

This was the first major learning between my professional work and Life Autistic, where I just needed someone to help me see what I didn’t see at first.

I felt bad, but I felt better. We didn’t get the orders right, but it wasn’t because we were careless — we had a corrective opportunity to fix, which we did.

The director then went one step further, giving me a chance to make the situation right. 

This is big for us binary-thinking autistic folks, who thrive on wanting to restore balance by fixing things.

I went to Frank and apologized, knowing better where I could have been more tactful. Did we lapse and order too much parsley? Of course. But could I have better judged the situation more appropriately? Well, now I could.

Frank understood. He put out his hand, accepted my apology, and appreciated me being thoughtful enough to address this directly.

Later, I asked the director if I could take the judging day off.

“Why?”

“I don’t want to be here and risk mess things up.”

“No, Hunter,” he said. “You’re a part of this, win or lose. You helped make it happen.”

I got a chance to make it right and also not make it wrong.

And yeah, we won.

 

 

The Worst First Job: Autistic Professional Confessionals – Part 1

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This is the first of a four-part series of the significant episodes in my autistic working life, where I’ve endured failures and scraped by with second chances.

As a teenager, I loved coffee. Straight black.

So when the opportunity to start my first job at the Lava Java coffee shop opened up, I couldn’t be more thrilled. Or more nervous.

This was supposed to be my big step. My foray into doing “grown up things.”

That step faltered.

I clocked in at 6AM. Left sick by noon. Before the afternoon was up, the owner stormed to my front door, yanked my employee handbook from my hands in my own doorway and dismissed me on the spot before I could manage an apology for leaving.

Even as I reflected then and now, the horrid haze and blur was no less clear.

It made no sense.

I was crushed, rocked in tears, fearing it would be my last job ever. I was 14.

I didn’t understand my own Life Autistic then; I was ill-equipped & under-supported to handle my first job. 

The work expectations weren’t at all clear: instead of the owner showing up to train me for my first day as promised, two of her employees basically threw me to the register assuming I’d just “figure it out.”

Or when regulars would come in without so much as addressing me, placing heaps of quarters on the counter – like, “Oh, hi, would—ok, bye?” Apparently I should have known the usuals and their usual orders.

I wasn’t socially adept enough to navigate needing to pause, ask for help, or even ask the right questions, to be honest. At one time I asked what protocol we had in case someone came in with a gun. There’s that wonderful, tangential autistic curiosity at work.

After dozens of barely-managed orders, frictions from my odd patter, and growing illness and unease, I asked to leave for the day. Whether stress, early rising, or just a violent confluence of factors, I could barely stand up straight.

I thought I’d try again, get a second chance for when I need to come back.

That second chance never came. 

My Lava Java tenure lasted a full six hours. It wasn’t even a first day.

I look back at this through the lens of my older autistic self, wondering where I ruined it all that. I recall the odd questions, my awkwardness, but I can’t pry back open to find where I was knowingly abnormal, malicious, or otherwise undeserving of another go.

That’s the hard part of autism — it is our normal and we don’t always see where others find the abnormal. 

This first episode was terrible. My parents were worried, as was I. This felt like a judgment on my ability to function professionally. I knew I wasn’t normal, but now I felt like I couldn’t even do normal things. I was scared.

Lava Java never gave me a second chance.

But someone else did.

 

How Open is Too Open? — Autism & Oversharing

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As I caught myself referencing my children, by name, to a co-worker, rambling on about their ages, what they’re like, how they get along with each other, how they’ve fundamentally altered my work & life balance as a parent — it hit me.

I have this conversation with everyone. Everyone knows my kids. It’s all I talk about.

It comes and goes in cycles, where I open the shell and share what my life is about, its shimmering joys, vicissitudes of pain and progress, the random beats to my offbeat tastes:

Then I feel like closing it.

I think of the phrases. Oversharing. Too open. Personal. Talkative. Unguarded.

I remember how little I glean from others directly and how much it comes from hyperobsverational acuity. And I do shudder at that.

How I’ve laid myself and everything so open now.

How open is too open?

In The Life Autistic, I could assure you all on our behalf that we’re not always the most socially keen on limits.

Oh, of course we know not to stand too close. Refrain from certain questions. Pry too much. Monologue on niche topics.

But is this a byproduct of socially misreading and overshooting what’s acceptable?

*deep sigh*

I’ve worked hard to strip the machinery from my humanity. To feel OKAY about sharing more about my life, laying open the book without coming across as some distant riddle to be decoded.

You hear the stories of folks where, you ask how their day is going, and by the end of the conversation you know their life story.

Those tales aren’t told in the best lights.

And I worry whether that is the tale others tell of me.

“I know H2’s life story, and I only just met him five minutes ago.”

“I’ve seen more pics of Mo and Zo than I have my own kids; I don’t even know whether those are their real names.”

“If you happened to forget where Hunter grew up and what he majored in, don’t worry, he’ll bring it up every other conversation.”

It is hard for us to navigate what’s socially acceptable if it isn’t socially harmful.

I wish I had a better answer, a guide in which I know “ok this is too much” or “this is probably fine, but it’s a little more than a regular person should be sharing.”

The shades of sharing feel nigh-impossible.

Too little, and you’re distant and cold. Too much, and you’re inconsiderate – or worse, “lacking boundaries.”

Where is “just right?”

 

 

How and When to Interrupt Our Routines

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The short answer to this post’s premise is “Don’t interrupt or disrupt our routines.”

When you’re dealing with us autistic folks – help mind the routines.

We don’t build them or follow them to inconvenience anyone. That would create awkwardness. We hate that as much as you do.

We develop routines — consciously or subconsciously — to add a sense of structure to our lives, minimizing stress, fear, meltdowns, anxiety, and more.

Would you rather we just teeter on edge and act out, crumble, lash out for a lack of routine? No.

Would you prefer we just live carefree and “go with the flow?” Well, uh, that doesn’t just work.

Routines are a kind of coping mechanism, but we get that our routines cannot dictate the entirety or majority of your life as it does ours.

So how can you help gracefully interject and alter our routines (if and when needed) without us blowing up or melting down?

I gotchu, fam. 

Start with why, start with why, start. with. why. This one is just stupid easy: even if we don’t agree with the reason or the rationale, we at least know you’re being thoughtful about the interjection and will give us a chance to rationalize the need. Intentionality goes a long way.

Warn in advance. I’m not going to promise that we’re always going to like the events, but if you want to ensure the most civil outcome – get ahead of the surprise factor and just tell us ahead of time. Here’s a cheat: if you use early warnings as leverage to encourage us to deal with our reactions in the moment and during the event, we’ll play ball, ok?

Understand how routine disruption disrupts us. Sometimes our assessment of a day’s “goodness” or “badness” is predicated on predictability. And sometimes nothing more. The more you can help us navigate “the newly minted map,” the better. Expectations are hard to recalibrate, but not impossible.

Mitigate the impact. My work involves a lot of rocks and boulders of blocked time that, when shifted, make my day far less recoverable. Sometimes they just have to shift, and it’s incredibly irksome to my autistic core. They just are, and I can’t help that. Underneath the routine, though, there are goals: build dashboard X, present keynote Y — if there are other routines that can be altered or things made easier to help offset that disruption, we’re not going to turn take “making our lives easier.”

What do you find helpful when your routine has to budge, or when you have to budge a routine?