The Life Autistic: Why We Wear the Mask

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For those of us on the high-functioning side, we’re sometimes accused of faking our autism.

But more often than not, we’re having to fake being “normal.” 

That’s where ‘masking’ comes in.

Masking is where autistic people drastically adjust their behaviors to mask their symptoms. Some of us do it more than others.

Things like finding a spot on someone’s face to stare at to approximate eye-contact. A painstakingly-rehearsed repertoire of small-talk to give off the appearance of social comfort. Mimicking normal behaviors. Finding places to sit or otherwise be occupied so we’re not caught pacing, flapping, or otherwise repetitively twitching while we talk. Reaching out to others out of the blue. Doing research on people we’ll be meeting so we can find ways to get them talking so we don’t have to.

Why? To pass as normal. To retreat from awkwardness. To fit in. To be accepted.

It’s exhausting. I don’t know how you neurotypical people do it.

But I know how do it. I’ve needed a mask, something that goes beyond Hunter.

My mask is practically Batman (or Daredevil, as befits the image). It’s become its own thing nowadays.

You may have seen it.

It’s why some people think I’m a great raconteur, an entertainer, and (at work anyway) a well-connected, gregarious individual who can light up a room and spin the conversational wheel of fortune around the table.

But that is itself a mask, an emblem, a symbol.

My mask has a name: H2.

. . . to be continued

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The Life Autistic: Why Apologies are Hard (and how you can help!)

Screen Shot 2018-07-11 at 10.23.45 AM.pngSaying “I’m sorry” is hard for neurotypical people.

It’s not that hard for us.

“What?” you say. “Dude, you just said apologies are hard!

Yep, they are.

What’s the phrase, “It’s not what you say, but how you say it?” It’s different for autistic people, because there’s an added dimension that defies our solving:

It’s not how we say we’re sorry; it’s that others cannot tell if we’re sorry or not.

I’ve spent a good bit reading up on how to voice apology without qualification, excuse, keeping it simple enough to admit wrong and relay why it wronged another.

But for us autistic people, it doesn’t matter. Why?

People assume we don’t feel sorry.

I get when it’s a hasty apology, or when it’s just words coming out to diffuse tension, or something insincere and excuse-laden.

But we hear things like:

“You don’t sound like you’re sorry.”

“I don’t think you understand what you did.”

“You should feel worse about this.”

People, people, people — help us out here.

If we’re owning our blame, conveying that we wronged you and elaborated on why, and we’re apologizing, without qualifications, to make peace and seek genuine restoration in doing better, then please accept that.

Please.

It is difficult enough for us to navigate emotional and empathetic gaps, but we’re not heartless people. Please don’t assume our heartfelt apologies are any less sincere because we’re half-robot.

There’s a line that sticks with me in Moana, when Maui apologizes to Te Fiti.

“Look, what I did was …. wrong. I have no excuse. I’m sorry.”

The sad reality: if Maui was autistic, no one would believe him.

The Life Autistic: I Walk Through the Uncanny Valley

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Ok, if you’re not familiar with the phrase and concept of ‘uncanny valley,’ go read up.

Back? Cool.

Being autistic is like being living in an uncanny valley.

Why?

We humans are most comfortable with humans who act like humans and robots who act like robots. Mixing the two together creates an eerie revulsion that jars our expectations and freaks us out.

And of course, how do people describe us higher-functioning autistics? Monotone. Focused. Cold. Rational. Unemotional. 

Robotic.

Instead of thinking it was always personal, or that it was my weight, acne, whatever, I should have just rationalized it as “Oh, duh, these people have a reflexive avulsion to humans with robotic tendencies!”

If only.

We’re not robots. We’re just different.

Where many would become derailed by emotion, we won’t. Where others make poor decisions based on anger, spite, and hate, we don’t. Where some bask in the warmth of others and feel the benefit of feelings, well, sometimes we can’t.

We’re no less human. I’m no less human.

I might not look you in the eye. I might flap and jitter while walking and waiting. I probably won’t get worked up about hot-button, emotional topics. And my elevated prosody isn’t your computer’s dictionary talking.

I can’t help that you’re revolted. And I also cannot pretend to be a normal human the way normal humans don’t have to pretend.

If you can, try to see beyond the uncanny valley. 

The Life Autistic: Why Handwriting Sucks

IMG_6384.JPGI remember taking notes for an absent classmate back in 4th grade. That was a mistake.

While I thought I was doing her a favor, it turns out that she spent more time decoding my hieroglyphic scrawl, consulting forensic experts, and soliciting translation assistance for my poorly handwritten notation.

She probably failed the test and never spoke to me again. Typical.

My handwriting sucks. It just does.

I used to think that it was due to an early bait-and-switch in my second preschool, where, as the only leftie, I was forced to comply with the “right” way to write along with the class.

But no, while that may be part of it, it turns out that it’s common for us high-functioning autistic folks! It’s like there’s something that gets lost in transcription there.

“So what, H2? It’s 2018. Get over it. Nobody uses pen and paper anymore.”

You’re right about one thing: it’s 2018, not 3018.

Kids like me still write in school. Visit an elementary class sometime and lemme know how many of them text and type before learning to write. We’re getting there, but we’re not there yet.

You try being one of the sharper kids in class who could be out trying to learn about socializing during recess, but no, he’s stuck miring through a penmanship worksheet. It’s a struggle at a young age. And get this:

Handwriting is a struggle for us autistics at any age. 

And sometimes it does matter.

I don’t like putting down more than just my signature when writing in birthday cards.

I’m not the one you can count on to jot something down.

And my wife would appreciate a love letter once in a while, but I’m embarrassed and taxed in writing her one that doesn’t look like it came from a 1st-grader.

So yeah, if we insist on texting or emailing instead of writing: trust us, it’s for everyone’s good.

The Life Autistic: OMG LOUD NOISES – What Now?

Screen Shot 2018-07-05 at 8.24.09 AM.pngFireworks. Who wouldn’t love them?

Well, lemme tell ya . . .

We spent the July 4th with some of our friends whose son also happens to be on the autism spectrum. He’s got a bit of a different symptom set than I do.

For example, he’s way more coordinated and active than I was as a kid, and while he’s not as hyperverbal, he has an almost uncanny talent for sound mimicry.

He’s been doing exceptionally well with therapy, support, all that good stuff. So, I was surprised and not surprised to see him walk out with these awesome noise-cancelling headphones.

“Yep,” said his dad, “If he’s bothered by a loud noise, he just grabs the headphones and deals with it.”

But here’s what’s interesting:

Loud noises are different strokes for different autistic folks.

 

It’d make sense for us autistics to be noise-sensitive, but apparently it’s more of an all-or-nothing deal.

Me? I now enjoy loud noises.

Weird, huh? I might not be for commotion or a gaggle of people in my kitchen, but I’m drawn to BOOMING sound.

Fast-forwarding to the fireworks show, there was my friend’s son, jumping up and down, hands to headphones, getting a KICK out of the show, the lights, and the (manageable) noise. It was amazing to see him manage his senses to better enjoy the sensory load.

But I’m all about that feeling – the resonating waves kicking into my sternum, rattling my bones, heaving me back with sonic oomph. 

The firework sound doesn’t bother, move, or otherwise delight me. But the splintering crack whipping through the air and cascading down to bump me back into my chair? Yeah, man, bring me more of that.

Just another quirk of the Life Autistic: even the things that’d seem unmanageable can be enjoyable. 

The Life Autistic: So I Wouldn’t Make It in the Air Force?

IMG_7770.JPGMy wife is fond of joking, “Hunter was a Navy brat. Now he’s just a brat.” I don’t object, as it’s quite true.

As is the case with many military kids, we often consider joining the service ourselves.

But apparently, that would have been a bad fit for me.

Could I make it through basic? Eh, probably not. Could I survive wearing those big goofy glasses? Not likely.

Beyond that, there was something more fundamental and situational.

I remember frustrating my dad to no end growing up. He was quick to point out my skills, but I tended to get in the way of my own potential.

“Hunter,” he said, “you could be just about anything you want! A lawyer, a doctor, an anesthesiologist! But — not an Air Force pilot.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Because you always have to ask why.”

He clarified:

“When you’re flying your jet, and you get that order to EJECT, EJECT — you’re not going to have time to say ‘Gee officer, why do I have to eject?’ There’s nothing wr—’ and then BOOM!” he exclaimed, “you’re hit by a missile.” 

It’d be some sweet irony to write this and say, “Well, hah — I’m a Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force with over 200 sorties flown—”

No.

It’s always mine to question why.

That mindset doesn’t always fit everywhere.

I’m far from a rebel – I mean, I survived four years of Pensacola Christian College of all places. But I’m not always a rule-follower either.

I’d like to say I’m just unnaturally curious, but I’m too lazy for that.

There’s a different sort of autistic slant.

We’re quick to question logic — we need things to make sense.

I know that’s not the way the world, society, people always work. But the autistic mind rests in understanding, putting pieces together — if they fit, then that helps dispel so much objection, reaction, and question.

There’s a world of difference between “I’m not sold, but I see the logic,” vs. “I don’t even understand the intent here.”

I’m always one to make reply,
And never cease to reason why,
Theirs but to do and (try not to) die (if I don’t have to)

And for what it’s worth, I could always fly commercial airliners. Not like I’d need to rationalize ejecting out of one of those . . .