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: Say This One Thing to STOP THE PANIC

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If you’d like to know how we autistic people think, first, let’s explain what we think.

For me, at the beginning of each day, deep in my subconscious, on a normal day, I’m thinking:

Here is how my day is going to go.

The meetings, the tasks, when the kids wake up, what I’ll have for breakfast/lunch.

I take comfort knowing that this is how my day will go.

Welcome to The Life Autistic, where our comfort is in predictability.

But our discomfort? Well…

Since I take some extreme solace in my day’s order, anything that could jeopardize that order really freaks me out. It just does.

I wish it weren’t the case, but even innocent questions like “When are you off?” or “What all do you have going on today?” or “How long do you think you’ll be in this meeting?” just send these tremors through me.

Like I fear my order will be wrecked, and the nice, cozy routine is about to be altered, shaking my foundation.

SO.

If you want to STOP THE PANIC.

It’s easy.

Start with WHY.

Just start with why!

My family has known me for a while, so they’ve gotten accustomed to it.

“Hey Hunter, since we may be having an uninvited guest show up this afternoon, were you planning on heading to The Cheese Shop this afternoon?”

“Hey Hunter, since Mo’s not feeling too well, what time will you be off today?”

“Hey, something came up over at Dad’s and I might need help – how many more meetings do you have left today?”

Folks, this helps us so much.

And frankly, it helps EVERYONE.

Start with why, stop the panic.

The Life Autistic: Stand and Deliver

This last week I had one of the most intense, searching, and revelatory experiences of my professional life.

EXECUTIVE PRESENTATION TRAINING

Even for you neurotpyical folks, this would have been a daunting ask. Getting each “uhm” clipped, every extra qualifier pounced upon.

For me, I knew what was coming.

I’ve polished my “presenting version” of Hunter Hansen down to where there’s only one thing left to refine.

Me.

I’ve cut out all the big words when I need to present to directors, leaders, etc.

I don’t ramble in circumlocutionary, concentric circles of narrative excess.

But eye contact?

Oh man, if I had a nickel for every time I was reminded to keep my eyes up, eyes down, eyes on the audience, I’d have a lot of nickels.

It’s so hard for me.

It’s like I need a BREAK, because I can only hold a gaze while speaking for so long.

And I almost need a stopping point to look away and “download more content.”

It’s a lot to process!

*But before any of you would cry foul here or think this is some attempt to change part of what makes Hunter, Hunter*

Here’s why I was given that advice.

I’m extremely expressive.

Apparently my face alone does so well to read, reflect, and react to an audience that it draws people in.

And it’s good enough to where I shouldn’t kick them out.

Imagine that. Young H2 would never have believed I was in any way captivating.

In fact, I was told I couldn’t Botox my forehead because of it.

In the end, I was happy. Exhausted, but happy.

The best piece of advice I got?

“Stop performing and just be you.”

Ok, I’ll be me.

You ready?

The Life Autistic: Hugs, Hugs, and more Hugs

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When I travel on business, there’s a lot of hugs.

“But H2, I thought you autistic folk didn’t like hugs!”

Some do, some don’t!

I know they’re going to happen, I plan well, I’ve mastered my distance, steps, duration, high-low-you-name it.

It’s part of meeting and greeting and I roll with it!

This past visit, I’ll share the encapsulation of the experience.

Across from me were three of my primary customers who I saw for the first time in person. As they came in line, I realized what was up.

This is going to be a conga line of HUGS.

YES.

I’m two folks in, and the third fellow asks “Wait, who is this and why are we hugging him?”

“Oh!” they exclaimed, “it’s H2!”

*SQUEE* MORE HUGS

To some of you, this is normal and 100% unremarkable.

To others, this may be a terror, in which your space feels violated and senses assaulted.

The Life Autistic is a spectrum, a complicated one, where even the simplest embraces might not be so simple.

I wish I could say I worked my way up from crippling anxiety here, but it was more just overcoming awkwardness step by step, hug by hug, embracing the embrace.

Of course, it’s easy when the hugs just go around.

Just don’t ask me what to do when a non-greeting situation calls for a hug, because I’m still figuring that one out! I’ll take tips, please and thank you. ^_^

 

The Life Autistic: Here in the Dark, Gone in the Light

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I fear this may be one thing I never conquer.

There is a peril of a thread that runs through The Life Autistic.

An ice-cool needle leads it through, unrepentant, coursing through the fabric of our lives and needling us at the intersections of thought, actions, emotions.

Logic. Reason. Frigid. Rigid.

In some ways we are too ordered for our own good.

And as such, we think the world should work in that order.

I remember being younger, more impetuous than I am now, thinking that I should have advanced further based on the strength of my skills, my accomplishments.

“Oh, that’s not how the world works,” I’d correctly surmise.

“That’s how it should work,” my autistic self would clap back.

He’s as wrong as he is right, but I’ve since convinced him to play the hand.

It’s not about the strength of your cards, but the strength of the player.

But this is a game I cannot play.

At my lowest, I face the conundrum value.

My own value, to my family, families, friends, acquaintances, and those beyond.

The ice-cold needle and perilous thread wrap and warp my mind away from the altruistic reasons that I fail to grasp, to comprehend.

So I ask:

If I no longer serve a purpose to those around me, what then?

Out of a heart and mind perhaps misguided, I seek to be of some benefit to others, whether for my family, friends, those I know.

Something tangible, brilliant.

A needed light in darkness.

What if the darkness fades, and there is no need for me in the light?

It’s a daring, haunting question.

It’s a frame of mind and feeling I’d rather take apart and rebuild into something better.

Perhaps I’m the accent to otherwise perfect interiors, the blazing comet to balanced galaxies, the shady cloud above compact forests.

“This is how your value should work,” my autistic self asserts.

But this is not the way it works, I continue to repeat, hoping to believe.

The Life Autistic: The Wrong Way to Fish for Empathy

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Over the span of three wintry weeks, I went from beloved teacher/saint Mrs. Wieler sobbing, hugging me before I left her third grade class in Fairfax, Virginia, to wandering the barren white halls of A. T. Mahan Elementary School in Keflavik, Iceland, and finding my new facilitator, Mrs. Baldwin, staring indifferent daggers back my way as I sneaked into her class for the first time.

She arched her head back just so, resigned to pausing her lesson to make a perfunctory introduction.

“Class, we have a new student – Hunter Hansen,” Mrs. Baldwin stated, as if announcing an upcoming maths test.

I paused. Everyone glanced my way.  That was it. Nothing more.

New class, teacher, school, home, and country.

Still 3rd grade, still awkward Hunter.

But let’s back up a couple of grades, because I’d discovered a way to help cope and win friends.

So I thought.

I’d stumbled on something that brought out an empathetic response in others when I encountered an awkward or embarrassing situation. I’d sigh and say:

“I’m stupid.”

Without knowing the emotional mechanics behind it, I found it brought out kinder, gentler, sympathetic responses from my peers, like fellow penguins who’d huddle closer when they knew I was cold.

Let’s skate back to Iceland then, for my first day at my second third grade of the year.

I forget which incident brought it about, but I went quick to my tried-and-true.

I’m stupid,” said I.

To which young Daniel Merman pointed and clapped back:

“Yeah, YOU ARE!”

….

Needless to say, that was the last time I tried that.

It wasn’t the best approach.

Since then, I’ve not tried fishing.

Instead, I try for honesty, vulnerability, transparency, and hope for the best. 

It’s hard, because it is a hope.

It is not an impossible hope.

If you’re still with me, I’ll share one such moment.

In the midst of a conversation, I tucked in a small-but-honest phrase about “not having the heart” to discuss something, then kept going in my talk.

As if a crimson flag was raised atop a snowbank, I was paused and asked:

Don’t have the heart? What’s going on?”

It is a long, slow lesson, but I’ve learned it isn’t so much about seeking and prying, but letting yourself be your truest self and letting that elicit the truest, best selves from others.

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