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: Bridge Building & Lessons in Risk

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In my short elementary school years at A.T. Mahan in Keflavik, Iceland, I was ‘selected’ for their Talented & Gifted class. I don’t know how they came to their selections, but given my entry, they must have been pretty lax that year.

One of the class projects stood out: Bridge Building

We were given our raw materials (toothpicks, glue, paint), budget, and some architectural guidance (“Use lots of triangles!”). After we were finished, our bridges would be judged on their design, fiscal discipline, and strength.

I constructed mine with meticulous, exacting care, decking it in red and blue as if it were some causeway of American patriotism. Across the table was another team, lamenting their need to rebuild a section of their bridge.

It was then that our teacher, Mr. Feige, dispensed an important anecdote:

“We once had a team who had to rebuild their entire bridge. And even though it went over budget, it was the strongest bridge we’ve ever tested!”

Did you catch all the important lessons there?

I sure didn’t.

Judgement Day arrived, and all our bridges were up for judging – and of course, the fun part, seeing how much weight they’d support.

The other teams tested their bridges to the absolute maximum, wrecking them in spectacular fashion.

When it came to my bridge, it held about 5 pounds, buckling quickly.

I stopped there.

I could have kept going. Could have risked a little more. But I didn’t.

In the end, my bridge didn’t win a prize for being the best looking, or the most fiscally sound, or the strongest. But I did have one takeaway the others didn’t.

I took my bridge home, intact.

So, what’s the lesson?

In my life autistic, I’ve learned that I toe a fine line between confidence and caution. Even recently, I found myself plugging in directions, even though I’ve done the drives dozens of times. I’m not as quick to get places, but I’m also not getting lost.

Sure, I could have out-designed and budgeted better to at least win the “smart” way, or I could have wrecked my bridge and set a new strength record.

But I know myself: rarely first, rarely worst. My bridges don’t win contests, but they do stay standing in the end.