The Life Autistic: A Week in The Big Easy

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Hi folks.

This week, I’ll be staying in New Orleans.

By myself, in a city I’ve never been to before.

At a large work conference, all about data. 

Which, I had to win a contest to get to.

A contest that involved a technical field I only just recently got into.

It’s like this week combines all the stuff that my autistic self would never have managed years ago.

But here we are: a hard road to the Big Easy.

image credit @wallyg 

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The Life Autistic: Can Empathy Be Learned?

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Almost ten years ago, I began my Apple career as an iPhone Advisor.

It was my first customer service job, in a call center, taking phone calls from strangers, and de-escalating people while I solved their technical (and sometimes personal) issues.

I look through all those elements of my job through The Life Autistic lens; frankly, I don’t know how I managed!

The job required a thing that would make or break one’s success.

Empathy.

*gulp*

Of course I knew about empathy. I mean, I had the dictionary definition on hand, along with plenty of analogies to describe what it meant, how it related, why it applied to the work.

How was I supposed to learn something I couldn’t always feel?

I knew I couldn’t be reborn as a natural empath. I didn’t have the capacity to program myself that way for the job.

But I did have my own attributes that would help. Puzzle-solving. Hyper-competitiveness. Pattern recognition. 

I’ll fast forward the story a bit and admit that I didn’t learn empathy.

Instead, I practiced and perfected empathic response. 

It took some doing, being able to listen, hear, and read into the core of customer concerns, to frame the why behind the what of their tech issue. I made it an art, to turn those stated and unstated concerns back into a response that more or less said “I feel ya.” 

Not every situation called for it, and I more than once maybe tried too hard, to my embarrassment. But it didn’t matter.

What did matter is that I had to do it. I wanted to be the best at the job. I could still come in as Hunter and take calls as H2.

It was and still is unusual to me, operating in a language that I don’t often think and rarely feel.

But then, sometimes, people will respond back.

“Exactly – you know what I mean, don’t you?”

“I know, right? You get it.”

“YES! I, you, you understand just what I’m going through.”

And then it’s like . . . I do feel it.

I don’t ‘get’ empathy. Not until I give it first. 

 

The Life Autistic: Quit Trying to ‘Cure’ Us!

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“I don’t eat with the other teachers,” my sister admitted. “I can’t stand listening to them for more than a minute.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah, today they were competing to see who had the worst auto-immune disease and then one of them said you can cure Aspergers with a powder you order online.

I’m glad I wasn’t there, because I’d have jumped all over that one.

Really? From where? Is it cocaine? Y’all on the Dark Web? Is it high in protein? Where does a brother gotta go to get this?

Maybe it’s a misguided suburban white woman thing, but there’s a certain point at which natural remedies beggar belief.

There’s no magic cure for autism.

But really, that’s the wrong assumption to begin with.

What is there to cure?

Social anxiety? Aversion to eye contact? Empathetic difficulties? Stimming? Hyperlexia?

I’m not going to dismiss the idea of learning to cope and adapt. Far from it.

But thinking that autism is some disease or debilitating condition that demands treatment with some voodoo?

Too bad there’s no magic powder that cures ignorance.

No.

Stop trying to ‘cure’ us.

Be curious. Ask questions. Gain some understanding.

We’re always trying to understand the ‘other’ world better.

You can too.

The Life Autistic: Communication – Step Up or Dumb Down?

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I think it was when the word ‘physical’ popped up in my mind.

And then the mental dialogue began and ended in an instant:

“No, try corporeal it’s so much richer, and it gets at the essence of the topic.”

So I weaved that into my answer, capping off what was probably a short (75-second) but pontifically mellifluent dialogue. It felt good to say, felt good to speak, and I ended knowing and feeling like I’d contributed something meaningful.

Until I got a note.

“They said they can’t understand you.”

Ah, to be me.

I said nothing for the remainder of the class.

I do wonder: at what point do we compromise?

First, let me propose a musical genre. Opera.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not an opera fan. Maybe I should be. For some it’s more of an acquired taste.

But people acquire the taste for opera.

They work up to the refinements, the nuance, the subtleties, the appreciation of a finer art.

Where would we be if we insisted that every form of expression “above us” should be made more accessible?

Sometimes it should.

It’s not always about dumbing down, but making clearer.

But what of aspiration? That challenge to yourself that says, “I need to get better at understanding and appreciating this?”

Alas, that is not our burden.

It is hard to make it easy. 

The Life Autistic: Only I Could Have Gotten This One Word in a Performance Review

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When I saw the word, I laughed. Out loud. In the middle of my review.

“I’m sorry,” I told my boss. “I said I wouldn’t read ahead to the feedback. But this — it’s too true.”

I’m fortunate to get a performance review every year, which assesses my work and includes feedback from my peers, co-workers, and clients.

I say fortunate, because I’m optimistic; these past few years have been a bit tougher on me.

I made a career switch to something that would test me differently, leaving behind a decent run in middle management, where most everyone seemed to appreciate me, people respected my work, and leadership threw me a ton of money.

I gave that up because I needed a different challenge.

And it has been a challenge — a humbling one at that.

I pivoted to an area where I started from scratch, needing to build my skills, connections, and clout all over again.

Expertise and experience take work. My reviews from years back were like annual coronations of that effort, while now they’ve been more building blocks and stepping stones in my current career.

This year, though, amidst half-decent feedback and kind commentary, one phrase stood out:

“Hunter tends to be a bit obtuse in his analogies…”

OBTUSE!

Unlike the Warden in Shawshank, I got the connotation straight away. I wasn’t mad – that’s a brilliant word! That takes English dexterity, a connoisseur’s word, one that I appreciated.

Obtuse wasn’t just deliberate. It’s just me.

The rest of the comment was positive, but ‘obtuse’ rang as an unassailable attribute, something that typifies me as much as redheadedness.

It was my worst review in years, relatively speaking. It’s a newer gig to me.

But that’s ok.

I’m going to try harder things. I’m going to get good enough to have a chance to be bad at something even more difficult.

Though my stories, analogies, and communication might have obtuse angles, there’s one angle I hang onto that helps most of all:

Positive.

The Life Autistic: What We Do When You Don’t Talk to Us

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If you’re neurotypical, what words does this scene evoke? Lonely. Isolated. Ignored. Alone.

If you’re living The Life Autistic? Normal.

Sometimes that’s fine. Sometimes it’s discouraging, even disconcerting. Sometimes we’re just off in our own thoughts. Sometimes it’s our way of saying “come talk to me.”

But it’s always productive.

When you’re in a spot like this as often as I am, you learn some coping tricks, some of them clever.

I’ve made an art of treating it like a multi-input listening exercise, the aural equivalent of a panopticon.

In college, I didn’t come to conversations with seat mates easily, but I learned an awful lot about them, picking out details, concerns, insights.

At work, same story — I’m a reliable tag along, even if I just end up listening to everyone else talk and putting their stories in my back pocket.

The real trick is when I bring it back, to everyone’s surprise.

“How did you know that?”

“Did I . . . tell you about this?”

“Wow, I’m surprised you remembered that.”

I’m no good at breaking the ice. At least not right away. When no one talks to me, I just listen. And remember. And recall.

And that all makes one heck of an icebreaker.

Fast forwarding to a recent endeavor:

I’ve started getting back into the Sunday School habit, since it’s a smaller group, more of my age cohort, etc.

There I sat, as each of the couples there found their own little pockets, surrounded in discussion, finding other normal people to talk to.

At first, it discouraged me, since I’d thrown myself in the mix to try being more social.

But I know who I am at this point. It isn’t going to change. Neither are others.

So I listened.

Picking up what others say, things they share. What they’re about.

Maybe later down the road I’ll be looped into a conversation.

It’ll be a while, but it’ll pay off.

“So you’re Hunter, and — wait, well, how did you know—”

It’s . . . what I do when you don’t talk to me. 🙂

 

 

 

The Life Autistic: Not a Klutz (Anymore)

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Growing up, I hated the fact that I wasn’t “well coordinated,” or “athletically gifted,” or otherwise all too dextrous.

Turns out, the starting stats for The Life Autistic cheat us in physical skills.

They just do. We’re not naturals at this.

So I decided to cheat back.

After college, I lived in my grandmother’s attic, where the muggy winter temps of Virginia took their toll. To keep warm and, well, “not bored,” I tried juggling my folded socks.

They were just the right size, they didn’t bounce, and after picking up dropped socks for a half-hour, I’d gotten a good cardio workout and slightly better at juggling each time.

It never occurred to me that my autistic traits might hinder natural athleticism, but they might accelerate what I needed to pick it up.

Discipline. Habit. Focus. Practice. Repeating and trying something I wasn’t good at. Hour after hour. Day after day. Week after week.

I’m not a natural. I’m still not. 

But I can be an unnatural. 

After months of dropping balls, hours of YouTube videos, and days of practice, I became a passable juggler. Enough to where it impresses kids, some adults, and can put on half a show and keep people entertained.

What I didn’t realize was that juggling helped erase a lot of my clumsiness.

The only real anecdote I have to show for it: I’ve owned iPhones for 10 years now. I’ve gone from a 3G, to a 4S, to a 5S, 6S, and now an iPhone X – a beautiful glass block.

I’ve never put any of them in a case, because I don’t drop things much anymore. And if I do, I can catch falling objects with (more) ease, and that’s saved me hundreds of $ in broken iPhone glass.

Yeah, I still run like a duck with giraffe legs, and I can’t throw darts/baseballs/cornhole bags with much accuracy at all.

I’m still quite autistic, but thanks to its benefits, I’ve erased one of its deficits.