The Life Autistic: Go Until You Stop

Imagine living a week pushing against your walls, comforts, depths. To jump in unblinking, then keeping your arms out, elbows locked, and palms pressed against the ON button.

In The Life Autistic, that’s a doomsday scenario.

But it wasn’t.

For these sorts of events, where I’m beyond my element, I stay close to home base. Plot things out. Venture out with those I know.

But I didn’t.

I found brand new co-workers, strung together a network of fabulous people from all different parts of my business. And I had a blast with “fast friends,” enough to where I didn’t even see my team for days.

For the conference itself, I had each day mapped, plotted to a tee, keeping things open only enough as a fallback. Gotta be predictable, right?

But I wasn’t.

The plans I woke to were not what happened. Whether opting out of sessions spontaneously for lunches or flipping the script on my day, I—*gasp*—went with the flow.

On Wednesday, Tableau hosted Data Night Out at the Superdome – 17,000 people strong – crowded, cacophonous, chaotic. That should have counted me out.

But it didn’t.

I was halfway serviceable on throwing footballs, but pitiful kicking field goals. But I tried. Even professionals miss there! And the entire time in line, I got to chat with a data analyst for the FDIC for 90 minutes solid – strangers to start, “friends” by the end.

But.

On the day before I was to leave, my batteries ran beyond depleted. I’d confided with others who said the conference was tough. They, too, were introverts – and they couldn’t fathom me being one as well. I shared my secret:

“You just go until you stop.” 

The plan was hang out Thursday, leave Friday.

But.

I thought about staying in this hotel again. Out of my element. Voice getting more hoarse. More and more dead time. I thought about my office. Colorado. Home. My family.

I stuck it to the plan and called for a trip home.

I’m Hunter Hansen, autist-in-residence. I know what I’m about. I burned bright, burned quick, but totally burned out.

But I grew myself, and not just from 50lbs of oysters. I practiced making fast friends on the draw. I tried spontaneity for a while and enjoyed it for others’ sake. I didn’t let my being twice out of my element ruin it for others.

Go until you stop.

Then go a little bit further. Be strong. Stretch the boundaries – if just by a little. Or stretch them a lot, melt down, then reforge.

But go.

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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 

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. 🙂