The Life Autistic: Why I Made the Mistake of Summer Camp Only Once

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Oh man, Hunter’s got a SUMMER CAMP story!

A poorly adjusted autistic teenager, packed in a bus with a church group who rarely talked to him, going to a camp more than three states away.

What could go wrong?


 

Folks, I hate to disappoint, but the camp story is boring.

It was uneventful.

I didn’t embarrass myself, didn’t fall off a zip line, never had someone stick a lobster down my swim trunks, didn’t sit on a vaseline-covered toilet seat, and didn’t melt down in an awkward, autistic mess.

Not yet.

After a week of camp, my family came to pick me up and drive me back home.

I was elated – nothing went terribly wrong, and I felt like I got along and went along with everything that went on, so I babbled on during the car ride back home.

As we drove, I noticed my folks taking a different way home.

“Mom’s got to handle something at work,” Dad said, as we drove onto the nearby Navy base.

So on we drove, keeping on in conversation, when I noticed something in the distance.

“Oh, look! That person has a New Beetle just like Mom’s—”

At that moment, they all (all six of them) shouted:

“WE MOVED!”

Yeah.

My family literally moved houses while I was gone for the week.

Moved.

Up and relocated without me knowing.


 

On the plus side, at least they came to get me.

I did have my own room there.

Did I have an awful, abject, autistic meltdown and weeping fit?

Yep.

And did I ever go back to summer camp?

NOPE.

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The Life Autistic: How we’re People within People, with Masks upon Masks

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The last interesting person around—magician Ricky Jay—passed away a short while ago.

There’s a New Yorker profile of him that has one of the best opening anecdotes I’ve ever read. But it also stands out for this sobering gem of a quote:

Those most familiar with his idiosyncrasies realize that there are at least three Ricky Jays: a public persona, a private persona, and a private persona within the private persona.

I’ll never relate to Ricky Jay’s skill, patter, or duende.

But I definitely relate to there being Hunters within Hunter.

In The Life Autistic, many relate as well.

Many of us have resorted or otherwise phased into “masking” – a way of passing as normal, skirting our obvious idiosyncrasies, and working hard to make it seem like we’re naturals at social interaction.

There’s that phrase people use: “once you get to know them, they’re —”

I wonder what people think once they feel they get to know me. 

There is that polished, fine-tuned, clever professional persona, my H2 — one of my greatest creations.

After a while, people think they get to know ‘Hunter.’ They do, genuinely so. I step out of the armor, one layer removed.

Yet even beyond the veneer, when I hear people think I’m funny, engaging, or otherwise a normal, bright, sociable creature beneath the professional and personal . . .

There’s a Hunter further down, working hard to craft the jokes. Predicting the way conversations could go. Practicing every word so as not to offend with unintended brusqueness. Plotting my timing. Putting my empathetic response into overdrive to make sure I know I can show I care.

Many folks are OK getting to know H2.

Then sometimes those folks stick around, and they’re fine getting to know Hunter.

But then I worry, what comes of getting to know the Hunter beyond that?

 

 

The Life Autistic: We Fall and Make No Sound

IMG_2441.jpgIf a tree falls in the forest, and no one hears it – does it make a sound?

Were that tree autistic and the forest “normal” — no, no one would bother hearing it.

And it would make no sound.

People look at “getting the last word” as a show of force, of getting one’s point across with finality.

Save those of us with selective mutism or otherwise blessed with blissful silence, we’re often cursed with being the last ones speaking, to empty rooms, ears tuned out, no one left yet listening.

Conversations come and go; we often cannot follow and latch on to nothing but vapor.

And no one would think to say, “Hey, we’ve moved on from that.”

We bring up memories, things of note, expecting some reflecting — but no, that sheen has passed, and we don’t see it.

I’ve continued pulling thread from worn spools of talk, only to find myself stranded.

The yarns are spent, and there’s only one time when we figure it out.

When it’s far too awkward and late.

The Life Autistic is like talking on different trains, misjudging schedules, miscalculating interests, missing everything.

Measuring so carefully every word and thought, excited to elaborate.

And like sculptures doomed to dust, they’re dashed quickly on sleek tiles keen to move on.

I have destroyed and had dashed so many thoughts, threads of conversation and idea, that it is becoming painful to walk on the fragments of thought and talk.

I create because I think it matters, and yet it too soon becomes dust and ether.

Hopefully it shines. Somewhere. Whether in a shard someone wants to keep or at least in dust underfoot.

The Life Autistic: Before Kicking Fear in the Face, Kick This

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It took just one line in one email to heap a dollop of dread on my Monday.

“Sorry folks, I’m out of office – hope someone can carry the torch and host today!”

If you haven’t heard of a thing called Makeover Monday: check the link, re-read this post, and —*voila*—now you’ve heard of Makeover Monday, a weekly social data project where folks gather to visualize data better.

I’m a stickler for routine, learning, and talking, so I ended up being one of the “regulars” for our sessions at work.

But I’m still in “learning” mode, soaking things in, far from where I’d step up and lead peers who are way better at data viz.

I had a thought. But I was apprehensive.

Now – this is where three things converged; I’m sharing this slice of The Life Autistic to help put steel toes on a boot that kicks fear in the face.

The show must go on

Some people think I’m a “take charge” person, naturally keen on stepping up to the plate.

Uh, not quite.

A LOT of this is due to my absolute and nigh-inflexible dedication to routine. Someone’s gotta keep the chains moving, and maintain order. I’m less “go-getter” and more “not-stopper.”

Fortune favors the brave

Thank you Sir David Attenborough and Planet Earth for echoing that phrase–audentes Fortuna iuvat–when lizards jumped for prey, tigers leapt for kills, or whatever predator vaulted for things just beyond reach to reach success.

But it was this final point that has led me across this Rubicon:

Before kicking fear, kick YOURSELF

“I should host,” I thought.

“That’s a bad idea,” I thought back.

But this week’s Makeover Monday at work couldn’t just not happen.

Maybe it’d be an awesome session, something that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t try.

I readied an email, swallowing that welling lump of fear, ready to take the torch.

Then I got a text:

“Hey Hunter, you’re gonna lead today’s session, right?”

Right.

 

The Life Autistic: Why Your Skills Can Only Go So Far

IMG_1404.jpgEver feel like you’ve done everything right and still end up like it all went wrong?

Where you’ve mastered every facet of your work, acquired new skills, checked the boxes, and yet — failed?

When you look around and realize, while you may do everything better than everyone else, you are not the best?

This is a hard lesson in life, even harder in The Life Autistic.

“There should be logic to this,” we think. “The whole should consist entirely of the sum of its parts — that’s how it works!” we plead.

That’s not how it works.

Early in my career, I thought that mastering my current job would be the gateway to the next level up. Surely, being a top Advisor would open the doors for me to manage, right? (Don’t laugh.)

But it took a different set of skills (like coaching, motivation, leadership, organization) to progress.

“Ah, so that’s it — it’s all about the DIFFERENT skills!” we think.

As I picked up skills that helped me move beyond to organization leadership, I was motivated to “learn all the things” and fortify every deficiency for success.

Presenting? Check.

Forecasting and staffing? Check.

Employee engagement? Check.

Reporting? Check check check CHECK.

Hopefully your neurotypical minds figure out what took my autistic mind too long to discover, only after I’d stalled.

It’s not about the skills.

It’s about attributes.

Respect. Tact. Diplomacy. Patience. Approachability.

Not just what you do, but who you are.

I was dismayed. I’d done so much, and I thought I could solve it all by doing. But as it turns out, it’s about being. 

Your success must go beyond your skills.

In The Life Autistic, it’s so much easier to do, do, do. The idea of being is not impossible, but it’s tough! To practice things that would normally be just someone’s personality – that’s difficult.

It still doesn’t always make sense to me.

But I’m still making sense of the world. Making better sense of me and people like me to the world.

 

The Life Autistic: What’s with the Autistic Obsessions?

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You’ve heard the stories. You’ve ‘Liked’ the posts. You’ve seen the viral videos.

“Adorable Boy WOWS Captain with Encyclopaedic Knowledge of Boeing 787 – and You Won’t Believe What He Did Next!”

“This Five-Year-Old Genius Knows More About Trash Compactors Than you will Ever Know about Anything in your Entire Life.”

It’s a basic formula: young child, semi-arcane interest, staggering depth of subject knowledge. Yet while it’s a common thread in the tapestry of The Life Autistic, it’s still not the best understood.

Autistic people have a strong tendency to fixate on specific interests, at a level that’s typically dubbed an ‘obsession’ or ‘enthusiasm.’ While hobbies might be more about practical activities (like camping), obsessions are more components of the hobby (like tents or camping equipment).

How do you develop obsessions?

I’ve had a few (and will share them later), but it’s when interest and ‘attainability’ collide. I had a much bigger kick about cameras when I was younger, and the proliferation of camera and camera gear magazines only stoked that further.

Is it bad to have such focused obsessions?

Not always. Sometimes they’re utterly impractical, but their side benefits pay off. I was once immersed in (sigh) Who Wants to be a Millionaire, to where it was more than just appointment viewing for me. Was it really all that life-enriching? No – but I banked an immense amount of game show and trivia knowledge.

Why can’t I get my child to obsess over something profitable, like neurosurgery?

In my experience, it’s less skill-based and more ‘knowledge-accumulation.’ I’ll use my photography example from earlier: the components, brands, and formats of a camera interested me, but I had no interest in actually using them or learning how to compose photos.

Do you ever get over it?

Sometimes they pass, other times they wax and wane.

What doesn’t pass is the “obsessive” tendency — I’m in a bit of a lull on mine at the moment, but with enough time and space, who knows?


 

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The Life Autistic: Almost Thankful

IMG_3062.jpgLast Thanksgiving, I pulled off one of my best Thanksgivings ever.

Two days before the events (yes, because we end up doing multiple Thanksgivings because of reasons), I went in to have my remaining three wisdom teeth removed.

You did what?

Yes, I had my wisdom teeth yanked right before Thanksgiving.

It was the best.

I’m a bit of a diet stickler, so with my mouth in stitches, I couldn’t overeat.

Making small talk at the table? *mumbles something like ‘sorry, my mouth hurts, so I can’t talk’*

Awkward socializing? Didn’t have to, since my medication gave me very good reason to opt out and nap until everyone left.

Yeah, I know, I’m a scamp.

But Thanksgiving holidays are just hard. 

They can be hard for everyone, and they’re hard for us.

It’s a break in routine, an extreme amount of effort, and there’s very little getting around the social effort.

Even in a time and set of situations that make me almost thankful, I find comfort in the small things:

– Hosting always gives me the grief, but at least we make good hosts and serve up a good spread.

– There are weeks I get anxiety about something as simple as dinner each night, but after Thanksgiving, I at least have some idea what we’ll be eating next week. (Korean turkey burritos? OK THEN!)

– And for all the talk about people dreading political banter at the table, it never happens with me — I’ve gotten good at shutting down conversations when I need to!

If you’ve got one of those relatives like me: be nice, gracious, and quick to leave or understand why we want to leave the quickest (hah!).

We’re thankful for people who get us and make it easier for everyone. We do try.

I don’t have any more wisdom teeth to pull this year.

So I’m going to try to be more than almost thankful.