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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The Life Autistic: What the Heck is a Facts Curator?

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I was disappointed in my first online IQ test.

Not because it confirmed that I was ‘good with the words, dumb with the maths.’

No, it was in the disappointing “career recommendation.”

Apparently, this test assessed the strengths and weaknesses of my answers and offered me the kind of job I’d be good at.

‘Facts Curator’

Facts Curator? What the even is that?

I read further: a Facts Curator would be the type of person who knew a lot about a lot of things — dates, places, people, events.

The type of person who’d find themselves in a museum, or guiding tours, or whatever other paying job out there requires someone to act as a human wellspring of knowledge arcane and profane.

I didn’t like that.

I’ve no disrespect for those who’d choose the occupation of facts curation.

I very nearly went that route (!) in choosing a history major myself.

But the way they phrased it…

“Facts Curators can be useful.”

Some people enjoy learning interesting tidbits from a human encyclopedia”

“Not everyone wants to Google information.”

Needless to say, I fought my way into a different and fulfilling career, one that doesn’t play to what people think my strengths are, but what they came to be.

The Life Autistic might be naturally suited for roles, jobs, and careers that fit our different skill sets.

And that’s great.

But I didn’t let my autistic traits define my career.

That choice didn’t belong to my autism.

It belonged to me. 

The Life Autistic: The One Thing I Do Not Fear

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Uncle Ed was a kind man and a good Catholic.

He wasn’t my uncle, and I don’t think he was technically the uncle of the neighborhood family he lived with — it didn’t matter. He was Uncle Ed to everyone, I guess.

My mom got to talking with Uncle Ed one fall day, and while I didn’t manage to eavesdrop on the conversation, she passed along something he said. About me.

“He said you’re not afraid of work.”

Me being the well-adjusted, neurotypical self that I was, I immediately picked up on the figure of speech.

Oh, wait, that’s not me at all, so no I didn’t get it.

“What do you mean, not afraid of work?”

That was the first time I’d heard that in that way.

I’d signed up to rake Uncle Ed’s family’s lawn for twenty bucks. In 1999 dollars, that was about, uh, $20.

But this wasn’t any lawn. The lawns on NAS Jacksonville were like football fields. And the leaves must have flown in from out of state, such was the autumnal blanket: thick, imposing, infinite.

I was an idiot to sign up for a raking venture like this.

But at least I’m a stubborn idiot who keeps his word.

The whole process took a week. 6 days straight. 8am to dark.

I was homeschooled, so I did my schoolwork before breakfast. Then it was rake, rake, bag, rake, sweat, rake, drink from a hose or something, and rake again.

It’s a boring story for boring work.

But as I look back and look ahead, I’ve found that big boring work intimidates people, both normal and abnormal.

I was upset at times. I didn’t like my hands blistering. I knew that $20 for an entire week seemed less than worth it. I felt more miserable than happy.

But.

Amidst all my fears, anxieties, things that twang the dread-wound strings of my autistic self, I found in leaves the one thing I did not fear.

Work.

The Life Autistic: When the Emotion Should be There

Visiting Grandma and Grandpa was a rare thing growing up. We lived in Iceland, so the trans-Atlantic flight from there to Virginia was an event, the highlight of the year.

After one of those annual trips, my folks called my grandparents and put me on the line. I’m no good on the phone now, and I wasn’t much better then.

I forget who asked or how it came up, but I recall saying something clunky:

“Well, I don’t miss you, but I do remember you.”

My parents laughed it off or something, as I remember them smoothing it over — they all knew I was an odd, hyperfactual duck.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it typifies all too well one of those fissures in The Life Autistic:

We don’t always feel the emotions that should be there.

It’s not that we don’t “get it” — we do, but we don’t, y’know, “get it.” Not like everyone else.

I’m not always sad when bad things happen to others. I relate, I’ve practiced the words, and I know I should feel more sorrow.

I rejoice with those who rejoice, but it’s not always as deep-seated in me to be indwelled with the same for people and situations.

I’m not some cold, robotic soul who has eroded all traces of human pathos from his system—no, I and many others know we don’t always possess the emotion where it should be. 

We see the gaps, and we adapt.

In time and in some cases, we do begin to feel. It’s growth, understanding, learning what is meant to fill the space. Nothing remains empty forever.

I do think back to those trips.

The long drives through the trees, how foreign they were compared to tundra.

The way the smoke clung to the wood and brick of their old house.

The ironclad hugs from Grandpa.

The two best weeks of the year.

I remember them less and miss them more.

The Life Autistic: Communication – Step Up or Dumb Down?

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I think it was when the word ‘physical’ popped up in my mind.

And then the mental dialogue began and ended in an instant:

“No, try corporeal it’s so much richer, and it gets at the essence of the topic.”

So I weaved that into my answer, capping off what was probably a short (75-second) but pontifically mellifluent dialogue. It felt good to say, felt good to speak, and I ended knowing and feeling like I’d contributed something meaningful.

Until I got a note.

“They said they can’t understand you.”

Ah, to be me.

I said nothing for the remainder of the class.

I do wonder: at what point do we compromise?

First, let me propose a musical genre. Opera.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an opera fan. Maybe I should be. For some it’s more of an acquired taste.

But people acquire the taste for opera.

They work up to the refinements, the nuance, the subtleties, the appreciation of a finer art.

Where would we be if we insisted that every form of expression “above us” should be made more accessible?

Sometimes it should.

It’s not always about dumbing down, but making clearer.

But what of aspiration? That challenge to yourself that says, “I need to get better at understanding and appreciating this?”

Alas, that is not our burden.

It is hard to make it easy. 

The Life Autistic: Only I Could Have Gotten This One Word in a Performance Review

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When I saw the word, I laughed. Out loud. In the middle of my review.

“I’m sorry,” I told my boss. “I said I wouldn’t read ahead to the feedback. But this — it’s too true.”

I’m fortunate to get a performance review every year, which assesses my work and includes feedback from my peers, co-workers, and clients.

I say fortunate, because I’m optimistic; these past few years have been a bit tougher on me.

I made a career switch to something that would test me differently, leaving behind a decent run in middle management, where most everyone seemed to appreciate me, people respected my work, and leadership threw me a ton of money.

I gave that up because I needed a different challenge.

And it has been a challenge — a humbling one at that.

I pivoted to an area where I started from scratch, needing to build my skills, connections, and clout all over again.

Expertise and experience take work. My reviews from years back were like annual coronations of that effort, while now they’ve been more building blocks and stepping stones in my current career.

This year, though, amidst half-decent feedback and kind commentary, one phrase stood out:

“Hunter tends to be a bit obtuse in his analogies…”

OBTUSE!

Unlike the Warden in Shawshank, I got the connotation straight away. I wasn’t mad – that’s a brilliant word! That takes English dexterity, a connoisseur’s word, one that I appreciated.

Obtuse wasn’t just deliberate. It’s just me.

The rest of the comment was positive, but ‘obtuse’ rang as an unassailable attribute, something that typifies me as much as redheadedness.

It was my worst review in years, relatively speaking. It’s a newer gig to me.

But that’s ok.

I’m going to try harder things. I’m going to get good enough to have a chance to be bad at something even more difficult.

Though my stories, analogies, and communication might have obtuse angles, there’s one angle I hang onto that helps most of all:

Positive.