The Life Autistic: Why I Don’t Answer the Phone

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“I’m not too good on the phone.” — Leonard Shelby, Memento 

If I were braver and more foolish, I’d post my number here and invite you to dial me.

Go ahead.

I can already tell you what’s going to happen. It’s going to voicemail, where you’ll hear my recorded snippet cut to the chase: Text me instead. 

Why?

Conversations are hard for us autistic folk.

Do I want to hear from people? Sure.

Don’t I want to talk to others for important things? Of course.

Am I just being an unreachable jerk? Hardly.

The less I can predict where a conversation could go, the more anxious I get.

Phone conversations have variables, tonal shifts, no body language, and few clear exit points. That’s just “talking” for neurotypical people.

Not for me.

I need a better idea of what I’m getting into. What the conversation’s going to be about. Time to plan. Time to think. Time to get the words in order. Space to process. Drafts to draft. Ways to frame what I want to say with a minimal risk of what I write being taken out of context.

Social navigation in The Life Autistic takes extra work. We can’t drive through all conversational turf the way you’d speed around somewhere where you’re most familiar.

So call me maybe.

I probably won’t answer.

But I’m here.

Help me draw the map of conversation and text instead.

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The Life Autistic: How to Get Expelled from Preschool

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Yes, I was expelled from preschool, of all places.

On what grounds? Embezzlement? Racketeering? Insider trading? I only wish I were that cool.

People like me don’t exactly “fit in.”

By age 3, I’d learned all the countries, capitals, and flags of the world (not an exaggeration, apparently), so that left me little time or space to learn a thing or two about interacting with others. Sharing. Sitting. Cooperating. Conforming to norms. Slowing things down. Listening.

Structured spaces, homogenous places, new faces – those were all well and good, I suppose. But it was a far more subtle thing that did me in.

My problem – I looked normal.

Hear me out:

Let’s say a pre-school classmate rolls in on a wheelchair. Without thinking, you’ll hold a door longer, you’ll be conscious of standing when speaking to him, and you’ll be considerate of his difference. It’s human nature.

It’s an “accommodating reaction.”

But say this kid looks like he could be your able-bodied sibling.

Only she . . . never looks at you when speaking.

Or he won’t pay attention to you unless he arranges his desk objects —just so—-and only then do you enter the picture.

I’m not out to blame anyone, so I definitely don’t blame that preschool for having almost no clue about a regular-looking dude like me.

I slipped in under any accommodating reaction because it’s hard to “see” autism.

I didn’t sit as still as the others, if I sat at all. I wasn’t much for listening when people called for me; can’t say I’d learned to crawl out of my little world yet.

I was bored. Bored. Unchallenged. Agitated.

While they were teaching colors and shapes, I was reading. Reading words in books. I couldn’t bring myself to sandbag myself to get to everyone else’s level.

That wasn’t what a normal-looking kid was supposed to act like.

It’s hard to slow myself down.

To this day, I still struggle to behave in similar situations. It’s bitten me more times than I can count, and I’m only slowly getting experience in chilling out and saving the rocket fuel for later instead of getting frustrated about not using it.

Nowadays, the preschool kickout makes for a funny anecdote. Looking back, it’s a bit ridiculous.

But it was my first foray into an important life lesson: you’re either playing along, or you’re playing elsewhere.

The Life Autistic: Using the F-Word

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By age 20, I’d reached the apex of my swearing potential.

Blame a combination of salty YouTube videos, blue comedy, and hair-trigger temper points, but either way: after lambasting my brother in a ten-minute, breathless, cussive screed in which I machined expletive combinations unique enough to be patented, I realized “Wow, I’ve gotten foul. I don’t think I’ll ever top this.” 

But even in that maelstrom of profane malevolence, in which I found all manner of expression boundless, there’s been one word I’ve never mustered up the comfort to say:

Friend.

We autistic folk, we’re so literal.

We are as literal as we are not social.

So when it comes to relationships, social stuff, there’s this extra layer of ambiguity and awkwardness mixed in with extreme precision.

And golly is it embarrassing sometimes.

It is hard for us to define, much less make friends.

Are friends people you talk to each day? Are they those with whom you have a good, stirring conversation every now and then? Is it someone you know where share some mutual, intentional enjoyment? Is it different from buddy, pal, dude?

It’s always been hard for me to connect with people beyond just the surface. I feel like many who’d be a friend to others would just be an acquaintance to me.

But it’s not you. It’s me.

I don’t navigate this well, and I’m afraid to call people friends, thinking that I should be committing more, being more involved, closer.

It’s part of The Life Autistic – we do genuinely appreciate the people in our lives, those more invested, and in those whom we enjoy the more everyday banter and passing conversation. To be an acquaintance, pal, bud — that’s really good for us.

For all the words we use, good and bad, the F-word is one of the toughest to say.

The Life Autistic: What a Barefoot Irish Sage Taught Me about Change

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Here at Apple, I once worked for a boss who was more myth than man. He was based in Ireland, and he ran a team that stretched the globe.

He was a tour-de-force of culture-building aphorisms, folksy-wisdom, and cogent industry insights. He strode through offices barefoot. He’d visit sites the world over and dance an authentic Irish jig if they hit performance targets. And his countryside abode was rumored to be so prominent that it didn’t have an address – but a namelike Xanadu or something.

For our bi-weekly meetings, I’d drag myself into the office at 6AM my time to catch him midday in GMT. He usually hosted over the phone, whilst driving, unspooling yarns and helping cast vision for a future I needed to help spearhead.

While I remember more of his accent and cadence as he said this, there were two words that resonated the most:

“Change Management.”

Me being me, I liked saying “management” the way he did, with an airy Irish lilt to render it “MAH-nedge-ment.”

Me being me, I liked the sound of change far more than the concept. I’m not good with change, at my core. It’s one of those autistic elements; comfort comes from routine, predictability, not shaking everything up.

But in the coming weeks, as my boss elaborated on the c-word, my worry began to ease, and I got more excited about the idea of change as a whole. Why?

‘Normal’ people can be just as apprehensive about change as autistic people.

The advanced notice surely helped, but there was another powerful notion at work:

I go out of my way to embrace being different. This was the perfect chance to do so.

To stand out in a good way. To embrace the porcupine of change. To stand tall where others would wither. To make change the challenge, because I do like a good challenge.

In my time with my barefoot, jig-dancing, sage of a boss, I feel like I made a step up.

Where an internal difficulty became an inspired directive.

Where change didn’t have to be my antagonist forever.

Where the anxiety could be better channeled into adrenaline.

If resisting change was going to be normal, then I’d be something I’d have no trouble being: abnormal

photo credit: Joe.ie

The Life Autistic: What Juggernaut and Autism Have in Common

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Yes, you’re reading that right. I’m comparing people on the autism spectrum to an ominous, imposing Marvel character and Deadpool 2 star: Juggernaut. 

I mean, just look at ol’ Cain Marko here – you can’t help but notice the similarities between people like us and a force like him. Muscular physique, Hulk-like strength, metal headgear — ok, maybe wishful thinking here.

Since it isn’t that cool stuff, let’s check the real comparison:

The Juggernaut is described as physically unstoppable once in motion, does not tire from physical activity, and is able to survive without food, water, or oxygen.

While I wish I could say that autistic people could run without stopping and without tiring, I can personally attest, within a quarter-mile, that is not the case.

So what is it then?

Routines.

Routines are near-unstoppable, difficult to shift, and tough to interrupt while ongoing for autistic people.

Dr. Hume puts it mildly when she writes (emphasis mine):

Whether at home, school, or in the workplace, transitions naturally occur frequently and require individuals to stop an activity, move from one location to another, and begin something new. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may have greater difficulty in shifting attention from one task to another or in changes of routine.

Trust me, this sucks. And I’m a grown-dang man, too.

One of my kids can be whining about something or, well, actually need help. But God help me, if I don’t finish washing dishes first, or make the bed, or fold this last stack of laundry and put it away — FIRST. And those are mundane things!

A mundane routine or task can be the most important thing right now for us, even at the expense and detriment of truly important things.

Once you get Juggernaut going on something mission critical, like pulling weeds, or preparing coffee, the motion feels like it needs a cosmic force to be diverted or interrupted.

But there’s good news.

You don’t need the Hulk or Mjolnir to divert an autistic routine.

If you’ve got kids or people like this, read about transition time strategies for managing micro-changes to tasks, actions, and routines.

Don’t always try stopping Juggernauts in motion.

Motion is good – just understand that it’s a difficult force for us to suppress, and unlike the actual superhuman, it’s something that can be diverted, transitioned, even made positive.

The Life Autistic: Crowds are Terrible (but not Impossible!)

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“Hunter,” said my mom, “you would have hated this.”

We were trekking through the Denver Zoo a few weeks back; I’d taken my parents and Mo (my oldest) for a morning excursion – t’was a gorgeous day that needed a zoological touch.

Since my dad’s into reptiles, snakes, all the fun animals – we made a beeline to the Tropical Discovery exhibit, a cavernous building replete with tunnels and dankness.

This exhibit’s attraction was also its detraction: with it right by the entrance, it was subjected to bus load after bus load of elementary schoolers that day, class within class, children of all walk and ilk cramming, compressing into the exhibit, packing the floor and the walls full of scamper and cacophonous voice, echoes, agitations, exclamations —

Loud place, tight space. Uh oh.

The parents of autistic kids are nodding right now. Classic meltdown recipe here: overstimulation plus lack of release valve = explosion or implosion (or both)!

Hence, Mom said I would have hated this.

Would have.

I looked at her, managed a small smile, coaxed out a polite laugh.

“I’m good.”

/record scratch

/freeze frame

Yeah, folks – you read that right: crowds were a challenge for me. My mom remembers me devolving into a miniaturized, stroller-bound fire engine wailing at emergency levels when I was forced to endure a trip to a shopping mall (a lost artifact of the 80s and 90s).

Now?

I have mastered crowd control.

How?

Acclimation. There’s still a bit of latent anxiety, but I’ve done crowds and chaos so many times that I’ve just learned to roll with it. Try, try, and try some more.

Predictability. If you know you’re going to get wet in water, so to say, then it takes the shock out of it. That’s key! It’s also why I’ve gotten along well with whitewater rafting – I know I don’t go to stay dry.

Enticement. I like the zoo. I like concerts. I like events where there’s a thing. I like things I like, irrespective of crowd. Now, if I’m getting dragged through a TJ Maxx stuffed to the gills with fervid bargain hunters, then yeah, I mightn’t be the best there.

Crowds took work and take work, but now they do work.

Of course, they’re still terrible, even if tolerable. 🙂

The Life Autistic: A Place on the Spectrum

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“Aren’t autistic people like super geniuses who can recite pi up to a Brazilian [sic] digits but can’t tie their own shoes?”

“Well, there’s an autistic kid I know and she’s completely non-verbal. I thought all of them couldn’t talk?”

“How come you don’t have the kind of autism where you can play piano by ear?”

I’m not an autism expert. I just have experience with it. And with that comes a teeny bit of expertise, which I’ll share.

Autism is a spectrum of behavioral and communication disorders that span the gamut in severity and symptom.

You can read about the signs, manifestations, all the goodies from the National Institute of Mental Health here; it’s a decent summary.

The spectrum is broad: you’ll find some whose language abilities are exceptional and some severely impaired. Some who war with sensory input and some who just “prefer not to be touched.” Some who are off in their own little world and some whose own little worlds are in entirely different universes.

Each person is different, with symptoms and severity each their own. Some are affected to obvious degrees, others more subtle.

I am on the milder, high-functioning end of the autism spectrum.

Most people don’t know unless I tell them.

Same with many who reside on my side of the spectrum.

We’re different, but we blend in. We act almost normal enough to fool people — even ourselves — that we’re just like Everyman with a side of “oddness.”

But still, we are on the spectrum nonetheless.

See that “unruly” kid you might find at the playground, the one who is dashing up to other kids, ululating in some quizzical glee, wanting to play but can’t talk to them or initiate a game, or the one who melts down just because another kid interrupted his line of arbitrary pinecones?

And did you catch that “normal” human being who shows up to a party, obviously not wanting to feel left out, ambling through the crowd, small pleasantries here and there, eyes darting away from others eyes one to the next, fading off to the wall, going mild when the crowd goes wild.

Mute to acute, talented to timid, chaotic to curious, unique but similar, yet altogether still human: that’s the spectrum.