The Life Autistic: Children are the Best Escape

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Here she is – my greatest little escape artist.

Not just on her own, but for my escapes too.

This is Zo, my youngest, most focused, fierce, determined little girl. Don’t let the eyes fool you: it’s a trick to sucker you into letting her get away with whatever she sees fit to do.

I’ve got musings and a half on my kids and on each of them, but for all of her strong-willed excursions and fate-tempting boundary stretches, Zo has been one of my biggest helps lately.

She gives me a focal point when I need an out

Zo’s still kind of a baby, sometimes the youngest in the room. Depending on the awkwardness of the context, I’ll volunteer to feed her or watch her or (try to) keep her from trouble. Otherwise, I’m stuck at a table making eye contact and small talk, and frankly, I’ll take my chances wandering around with the kiddo.

She runs away, so I don’t have to

Zo doesn’t mind being with people, but she’s way more intent to play with things of interest, like cats and playground equipment. On two days in a row, she sneaked away to both, and — hey, she needs adult supervision with cats, claws, slides, stairs, etc., so I can deftly slip away from the people milieu and engage her without needing to justify a people break

When she’s *done* — I can be done too

Sometimes it’s the best to bring Zo along. When she’s done, she is D-O-N-E. Me? I’m a little more subtle with the meltdowns, but Zo is a baby: she tires, gets cranky, decides to stop behaving. And there are days when I’ve just gassed out my social tank, but I know it’s going to be awkward to haul up and leave. But if the baby is hurling and chucking a tantrum? Well then, that’s the socially acceptable queue to get outta dodge.

I know Zo’s going to grow up, get a little more congenial and mingle for much longer than she does now. But I’m going to miss her at this stage, where she’s my perfect accomplice in escapes on The Life Autistic.

The Life Autistic: What Your Coworkers on the Spectrum Want You to Know

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If you work with people, some of them are going to be different. You’ll feel it, sense it, but you might not be able to put a finger on it. Autism doesn’t just scream the kind of difference that anyone would pick up, and chances are, we’re trying hard to mask it.

But we’re concerned about reactions like:

I can’t tell if he’s engaged or not; he’s barely looking at me when we talk.

She gets really frustrated during these brainstorm sessions, so I might have to stop inviting her. 

I don’t know why he feels the need to show off his impressive vocabulary.

We’re pleased with her work, but we don’t know how she’d handle stress like this.

Here’s what your coworkers with autism want you to know:

We love structure

Who doesn’t? If you ask me, people aren’t structured enough! Order is our comfort, so we’re going to feel better in work environments that are run clearly, transparently, where there are predictable cadences. If you throw us in a meeting that’s too long, lacks a clear agenda, and doesn’t have specific actions — we’re not going to enjoy that.

We hate surprises

I’ve told people that I wouldn’t attend my own surprise party, and that’s 100% true. Things happen by surprise, sure, but you can help. If you need to “speak with us” out of the blue, it helps to tell us why. (Don’t: “Hey, can I speak to you for a minute?” Do: “Hey, I wanted to offer you some feedback on that presentation. Can we talk for a minute?) If you’re in a spot to offer context and explain a why, please do!

We don’t hate people

Social interactions are a “high-spend activity” for us. I know — I KNOW — it’s hard to tell if we just “want a friend” to come up to us and save us the trouble of making social effort. Personally? I enjoy that, even if I can’t always summon the energy. Sometimes we can! We’re not sitting off to ourselves because we don’t like you — we’re just careful about our social energy, and it’s hard for us to expend that.

We don’t always see our quirks

Until someone told me that I run my hand through my hair a certain way before making a point, I’d have never known I do that. That’s pretty innocuous. But when it’s using oddly elevated vocabulary, not reacting to something that calls for emotion, or being abrupt in conversations — we’re not trying to be jerks; it might just be quirks.

We care about our work and others, in quiet, different ways

On my latest work trip, I realized that I’m going to be more well-respected than well-liked. That’s ok. It’s a downer, but it’s reality for many of us. We might not be the ones you can go drinking or late-night dining out or enjoy a lot of free time with. Work gives us a framework to show our qualities in a different way: by helping others, sharing our expertise, finding ways to solve problems, or even expressing timely gratitude and lightening tension.

 

 

 

The Life Autistic: Five Ways to Survive The Crowds

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Folks, I’ve got stories. This will be the first of many.

Last week, I traveled to Austin for work to attend and help with a mega-summit. It felt like hundreds of people, and many of them were those I’d finally be meeting in person vs. virtually for the first time ever.

I heard that even for regular folks that this was overwhelming.

What about in The Life Autistic?  Well, I survived, didn’t melt down, and I kinda enjoyed it.

But had it not been for these five things, I’d have been an utter wreck.

1) Plan your presence 

As soon as I knew the group would all be staying at one hotel, I booked mine at the opposite end of town, got my own car, and got a flight in a day earlier than everyone.

Why? While I put out the impression that I was pulling a ‘diva’ card, I needed to ensure I could limit my “passing by” time. To where I know I wouldn’t have an extra conversation in the hotel or nearby, or that I knew I could detox to music in my own rental to and fro.

By planning my where, I gave myself ample time to unwind, recover, and recharge.

2) Have something important to do

I’m going to thank my boss and my Senior Director for this one!

While I left enough work on my plate to keep me busy, I was blessed with an urgent request that took me almost a day and a half to turn around.

“Oh hey, H2, you sure look busy.”

“Yeah, sorry, I got this urgent item from [so-and-so].”

It made for the best reason to focus and be selectively social.

3) Opt in, not out

I was one of the first five people in the building for one reason: to find a corner seat.

That way, I could gauge the lay of the land, retreat as needed, and park while I reset before going out and socializing. Opt in, not out.

And don’t get me wrong, I’m “almost charming,” so I was happy to make some connections and chit chat.

I was open about telling folks, “I’ve got about five minutes of mingling before I peter out.”

4) Spend, but don’t overdraft

Sure, it would have been fun to attend one of the big karaoke nights they all planned.

But I know my limits. Fun is fun, but not when I’m done. 

After a busy day, and after stretching my limits with an entertaining dinner, I knew I wouldn’t be up for any activities after dark.

You can spend your energy just fine in The Life Autistic, but overdrafting is perilous. 

5) Escape

I have another post on this, but don’t be afraid to escape.

Don’t try toughing it out if you can’t. It’s not worth it. Awkward situations worsen. Find your exits. Eject yourself before you wreck yourself.

 

The Life Autistic: Please Don’t Ask Us to Do *This*

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I’m pretty decisive.

When it comes to things I want to do, for the most part, that decision tree grows from seed to sapling, to full-fledged tree pointing to one BIG option that says DO THIS.

And it’s done.

But decisions are both a perk and a peril on The Life Autistic.

Mrs. H2 collects these things called Calico Critters – they’re cute, it’s a thing, and there’s tons of them, varying by size, rarity, species, etc.

There are too many.

For me, the decision is easy: don’t buy them.

But what Mrs. H2 asks is something we autists dread:

Making someone else’s decisions for them.

It’s the worst.

If I wanted to ensure I’d do something wrong, it’d be “Dealer’s Choice.”

From time to time, whether I’m on a business trip or elsewhere, I’ll be asked to “pick up Critters” to bring home.

YEAH, BUT WHICH ONES — THIS IS NOT A DECISION I CAN MAKE.

Even with innocuous stuff, it’s a peril.

“Oh, just bring back whatever.”

But what do you mean whatever? What if it’s from somewhere you don’t really like? What if I get the wrong thing off the menu? What if you make a decision when I’ve already committed to—

Look.

Just don’t do that to us.

If you really don’t care, you make the call.

We can make our decisions.

Making yours is a bit much. 

The Life Autistic: A Thing or Two About ‘Masking’

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It still takes many people by surprise that I “function” normally.

That I “get sarcasm.” That my reactions are mostly normal. That I empathize, embrace people, and try to have a good time.

It begs a good question: “How can you be autistic without acting autistic?”

The better question: How do you think we pass as normal?

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There’s a good post I’d refer you to on Autistic Masking – our practiced art of adapting to what others would consider and judge to be normal situations.

You never really grow out of autism — you just learn better how to cope and adapt to where normal meets norms.

Things like practiced conversation, pre-rehearsing, active listening, walking in just the right spot in a group, “going with the flow,” leaving my glasses off to make better eye contact, making good exit points, asking lots of open-ended questions — these are almost survival skills I’ve had to practice over time so I can exist with others without warding them off.

I have a week-long business trip coming up, and I’m dreading it.

I’ll be meeting what I feel is like a hundred people for the first time, people I’ve known virtually for years. And they all like to party and have a good time.

And you know I’ll pop up here and there and be genuinely amiable, crack a quality joke or two, come across as halfway normal.

But that takes a lot of acting behind the mask.

Where I have to be excruciatingly intentional about the time I spend.

The group size and composition.

The proximity to my hotel.

The relative odds of certain groups of people staying out later relative to others.

Pushing off enough work projects to where I can exit gracefully on my own terms.

 

Folks, this is the reality of the many autists in your midst, us ducks paddling feverishly above the waters you deftly sail across.

Fine tuning and baking the clay of a polished mask to where we dare tread among good ol’ regular folks, because we want to try. In many ways we are far apart, but we want to play the part.

And it’s often our finest role – playing a normal version of ourselves.

 

The Life Autistic: I Choose to be Late to Meetings – Here’s Why

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I am a predictable machine, punctual to a fault.

Except in one scenario.

Where I toss my penchant for punctuality out the window and make a conscious decision to be late to meetings.

But why?

In my Life Autistic, I can barely stand committing to a task if I start it late.

If I dedicate 30 minutes to working out or to development work, I can’t do it in my right mind if I start it askew, like at 11:07AM. It just doesn’t work.

It must begin on time or it doesn’t begin at all.

Except meetings.

See that image above? It’s the impossible scenario for someone’s OCD.

I have a similar autistic problem with meetings.

If I’m getting there on time, I’m usually just a smidge early.

And that’s a problem, because sometimes it’s just me and very few others.

It forces my hand into making small talk when I’m not always prepared to do so.

If it’s me and the meeting host, then it can get awkward quick. I’d rather less, not more, of these instances in my life. I can hold my own, but I don’t like making a habit of that.

I’ve found it much better to show a minute or two later, where a group is already discussing items – maybe they’ll draw attention to me, even better if we get to business, but by then I can jump into a conversation. Or not! Sometimes it’s easy to listen and disengage for a bit.

Even if I’m late.

Some trials aren’t worth my punctuality ^_^

 

The Life Autistic: Somehow I Got Good at Team Building

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Ever end up looking back at a skill and wondering “How did I get good at this?”

After watching The Office for the grizzillionth time in a row, I’ve started to look for different layers within the show.

One of them is “Michael Scott managerial competencies” — you could argue that there aren’t many. But one skill stands out.

Good with names.

Like, unusually good. Names, details, ages, people — helpful in sales, helpful with people.

Sadly or unsadly, we share that similar skill.

When I got into organizational leadership, I tried my hardest to be relatable, to show that I cared about their details, about them. Because I did.

So after I got to know my team of supervisors, I learned more about them, their families, and all their kids and dogs. It became part of our common language, not just in my conversations with them, but with each other.

It got to where I could rattle off the names of:

—all 15 kids

—across six supervisors

—in descending order by age

That didn’t take too much effort with my *autistic superpowers* and all.

But getting names and details down led to something unexpected. So here’s a story:

We brought on a new team manager into the mix. She was a bit more reserved at first, but she soon picked up on our vibe. After a while, she felt more comfortable sharing a little bit more about the goings on in her life.

She’d say things like “Ok, taking my son off to wrestling” or “My oldest just won her cheer competition” — which was great, since she hadn’t really opened up to the team in our chat before.

Then, something changed.

Weeks later, she started changing the verbiage. Subtle, but substantial.

Instead of mentioning her kids generically, as she’d done for a while, she started using their names.

“Jimmy just won his latest match!” and “Amber’s feeling a lot better, thanks for asking.”

And me being me, I noticed.

In a later meeting, I brought it up with her. Turns out, it wasn’t accidental on her part.

And her reason was when I finally felt I got good at team building.

Because I wasn’t building a team.

She said: “Hunter, I feel like you’ve built a family here.”