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: 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: Is This What it is to Be Human?

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I was once a colder man who cared far less.

Yet since I’ve thawed, I am still bewildered.

Now I’m less a robot than before. Whether by design, intent, or happy accident, I’m not quite sure; I now find things provoking responses in me that are more human.

To a normal life, it’s “being a person.”

But on The Life Autistic, it is discovery.

For example, I was on a conference call that went so far south, it crossed the equator and beyond the tropic of Capricorn.

One of my customers was put in an extremely difficult spot. The exchange was testy, awkward, and alarming. The palpable tension strung taut among the audience until it finally unspooled, detangling in a nervous mess.

Where the Hunter of years ago would have considered it bad, this time, it evoked a different feeling.

I felt bad.

Not just about the situation, but for the person.

Is this what empathy is? It was as if their discomfort and hurried resolve to save face echoed within me. I went from observation to seeking their consolation.

Mind you, I’m just support personnel. The Business Analyst. The data cruncher. The numbers guy.

I am the robot by role, by design.

But I care now.

The next day, I took a deep breath. My gut said “write a note, be encouraging, use your words and not just your data for support.”

It might have penned one hundred words tops, but it took me almost half an hour: 10 minutes to write, 20 minutes being all anxious about sending it.

And off it went.

It may sound trite, but for me and people like me – this is novel.

It gives me hope.

As the great sages of our age, Daft Punk, reminded me: maybe I am indeed human after all.

The Life Autistic: How I Survived School

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How did I manage through school?

Easy, I was homeschooled. Next question.

Ok, so there’s a little more to it than that.

Due to a variety of factors that included moving every 2.5 years, cost, flexibility, religious reasons, you name it — most of my schooling ended up being done from the comfort and constraints of my own home.

My parents hadn’t quite cracked the code on my autism yet, but they did find that I took to the setup of this ACE curriculum, something that suited my independence and autodidactic attributes all too well.

“You mean I can just rip through all of this at my own pace? I don’t have to slow down for anyone? SOLD!”

Oh, Hunter, if only you knew.

It explains a lot of where I mined out advantages and ran into disadvantages in The Life Autistic.

Sure, it freed me to flex my skills in almost unimpeded (even if narrow) learning.

But I had to navigate social skills elsewhere.

Would I recommend the experience for others on the spectrum?

It’s hard for me to say.

It would have been nice having friends, even if it meant maybe making enemies.

It’d have been good to learn how to adjust and adapt to others sooner, rather than later.

Perhaps I’d have hated the regular school experience more, but I’d have hit the obstacles then and not later. I might have had a shot at passing as “normal.”

But I didn’t.

I remember the day I finished my last test. I was 16.

That afternoon, I told my boss: “Hey, so I’m like, done with school? Can you flex me up to 40 hours now?”

I was a free man and ready for life.

So I thought.

 

The Life Autistic: “That Was Fun!”

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I don’t know what it is with my oldest daughter, but she finds new ways to amaze me.

We’re all at Cold Stone, about to leave, when she asks:

Can I go up and ask for a lid?”

I double-taked for a second, since, 1) she’s 3, and 2) she’s willingly volunteering to go talk to strangers.

That’s so foreign to me on The Life Autistic – wanting to talk to people.

It’s not that we hate it; it’s not that we can’t; but that’s definitely outside the scope of our wants — and if we can avoid it, we do.

There’s only so much in the tank that we can spare on a given day.

But oh, not my Mo, who’s somehow becoming an extrovert who gets energy from others.

She goes up and politely asks the workers for a “like it-sized lid,” and after they’re accordingly smitten, they oblige and hand one to her.

Mo runs back.

“That was fun!”

Fun, I thought.

I don’t know what it is with this kid. Maybe she’s not the normal one.

But she gives me hope, a jolt, and a new way of viewing interactions. They may not always feel fun to me, yet someone sees the fun in it. Perhaps my eyes can yet stretch to see it someday.