The Life Autistic: How Could You Forget How to Ride a Bike?

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You know that phrase, “It’s like riding a bike – you never forget how?” I’m here to tell you that’s bogus. Bunk.

have forgotten how to ride a bike.

I may be exaggerating, but that there’s not a lot of membership in the Autistic Athletics Association. The spectrum life is about dealing with physical gracelessness and disinclination toward the social aspects of formal sports, athletics, etc.

Exceptional coordination and athleticism is uncommon, but even common coordination can be a challenge for us autists.

I learned to ride a compact, green Huffy bike through the neighborhood of Burke, Virginia. While I was six of seven, I can’t say I was embarrassed about that late start. I was an official biker.

Fast forward to Iceland, that winter, where my parents bought me a new Roadmaster for the “summer” rides we’d take. And by the time that season rolled around, I’d lost it.

I’d literally — in the space of a season — forgotten how to ride a bike. 

I was almost a decade away from discovering just how different I was, but this was embarrassing. Who out there just up and loses their ability to ride a bike?

People like me.

People who fight for every fiber of muscle memory. People who put in work to get to only passable levels of coordination. People who aren’t naturals at this.

I was a whopping eight years old. Young. Stupid. Stubborn. 

Stubborn enough to get back on the bike and try again. And fall. And sputter. And pedal just a bit more. And fall again.

My dad cheered me on; I reflect on it with regrets, disappointment. He shouldn’t have had to teach me twice. He should have watched me take off like any other normal eight-year-old who’d learned to ride before. But after a few hours, it came back. I wasn’t about to revert to my non-riding self.

Since it’s been over a 15 years since I last rode, some people joke about me forgetting again.

I forgot how to ride a bike once, but I learned it twice. 

And dammit, if I have to learn it alongside my daughter this time, I’ll learn it once more.

 

 

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The Life Autistic: Things You Need to Know About MELTDOWNS

atomic-bomb-2621291_960_720.jpgPictured: Me, after more than an hour of forced socializing in cramped quarters

Meltdowns are not tantrums.

Remember that phrase. Recollect this comparison. Recall the equation.

Meltdowns are not tantrums.

“Wait a minute, H2, I thought we were getting some quirky, offbeat story about you like usual, like how you broke down after your parents moved away while you were at summer camp?”

You’ll get that story.

But this is important. Your autistic kids need to be spared the ignominy of misunderstanding. Your autistic acquaintances want you to know the difference.

Tantrums are an explosive reaction, an output to an unfulfilled input. 

When I was younger, I remember finally getting the chance to go out for Indian food in Reykjavik, something I’d been looking forward to for years. That was the plan.

Until, due to whatever-the-heck-probably-something-stupid, it wasn’t. We ended up going for McDonald’s at the Kringlan, where I sulked, whined, and griped all the way through a meal that topped the Big Mac Index (no lie!)

I didn’t get what I wanted, and I pitched a fit. That’s a tantrum.

Meltdowns are either explosive or implosive, a response to overstimulation that defies consolation. 

For starters, I’m going to shout-out to all the parents who have kids who melt down.

These are hard. 

They’re stressful, embarrassing, and the stares you can feel from behind your back — I’ve only small words of comfort that I hope will apply:

This too shall pass.

But let me share what it passes on to.

After my promotion to “Big Boy Manager Job” at Apple, I joined the other organizational leaders in the group for a summit out in California. First time traveling. First time seeing so many of my extended peers at once. 

On the third night, we all went out bowling. It was a blast, we had fun, other people had drinks, and I pulled out all the stops to be just as social and cool as everyone else.

But after about an hour, I ran out of gas. Folded. Catatonic. Zombified. Shot. I just . . . couldn’t anything anymore. People are exhausting. Firing on all cylinders just to keep up with the malaise, cacophony, I could only maintain for so long. I don’t see how you neurotypicals do it, all told.

I melted down to a sedate, sullied, burnt husk of a man, utterly spent, like a robot who’d lost its charge.

As I sat in the chairs at the bowling alley, pitcher of water all to myself, sipping away aimlessly, a Senior Manager caught my thousand-yard stare and cocked her head.

“You OK?”

“Yeah yeah,” I nodded.

See, I’ve learned a bit about meltdowns. They’re far less violent now. The fuse is longer. The combustion is more of a slow burn, cratering in the chaos. Not a bang, but a whimper.

I’ve outgrown the explosions, but I’ll never escape the meltdowns.

The Life Autistic: What’s with the Accent?

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When it comes to autism, sometimes it takes one to know one. The tells, the signs, the idiosyncrasies — our AutismRadar® is near flawless.

“Hunter, I think you need to talk to this guy,” said June*, one of the managers who reported to me. “I’m not sure what to make of him.”

“How do you mean?”

June told me more about one of her new employees, Benjamin Bennett*, who’d started going by B2. “He said he was inspired by you, H2!”

Great. 

She described some of his mannerisms, how he acted in meetings, communicated in email, and then dropped what I found to be the most interesting tidbit.

“He does these . . . accents when he talks to customers. Like, not his normal accent.”

“Ok,” I said. “I’ll talk to him.”

There were two ways that coin could flip.

Some people would smack down with a variation of “Ok, what you’re doing is weird, and you need to stop,” and just make life worse.

The other approach would be that gentle, almost meek, “So, tell me why . . .” style of discovery, unassuming, wise-as-a-serpent-but-ultimately-harmless way of getting him to fess up and explain more.

I went for a third option: make this coin stand on its edge.

Benjamin and I had a great talk a week later, discussing career progression, job skills, how he was adapting to his new team, etc.

As I relayed and related some of my experience, I casually mentioned:

“When I was on the phones, I’d even switch up my accent. Sounds weird, but sometimes it helped, if you can believe.”

100% true, folks.

And I still do it to this day.

It’s a bit of an odd habit, and sure enough, it’s something we autists share to a degree.

My phone habit? An unconscious shift to a Southern drawl, which oozed sweet tea, honey, and biscuits – all of which de-escalated my most irate callers.

And then when out and about, talking to my wife, I take on this almost Received Pronunciation British lilt, as if I have to be overheard with “more intrigue.” Too many William F. Buckley vids? I’ve no idea. Mrs. H2 isn’t ever amused.

And then there’s my lack of accent, an unplaceable affect that I take pride in maintaining. Since I’m half-robot anyway, I find it fitting.

So, what’s with the accent then?

I couldn’t tell you. Stress response? Phoneaesthetic soothing? Who knows.

Back to that talk with B2, my confession loosed a sigh of relief and exultation from him — he didn’t have to worry about being ‘weird’ or suffer the consequences of being ‘different’ in a way that few understood.

But I did.

Takes one to know one.

*not their real names

Image courtesy WikiHow

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.

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