The Life Autistic: Working for a Boss on the Spectrum

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Having an autistic co-worker is one thing, and it’s probably a more common experience than you may think.

But what if it’s your boss?

I spent years of my Apple career in management. People management. Actual, living human people.

Not only that, but I went from managing employees directly to managing their managers, with a business unit of over 115 awesome front-line agents and six stellar team managers. I was a bona-fide organizational leader.

I found my footing in the role, and I feel I did well for my people and their people. Before you shake your head and wonder “What the heck was Apple thinking?” — mind you, I wasn’t bad at the gig!

But I was different. 

And if you have one of those “different” bosses like me, here’s a few things I’d like you to know:

1) We care, even if we have trouble showing it

Expression doesn’t always come naturally to us, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I had to make reminders to thank my people and highlight their work – otherwise I’d get lost in observing work and fail to recognize the worker.

2) We’re cyborgs, not robots

Routine and ritual are our R&R – if we’re in management, it’s because we’ve likely made the best use of rigid actions and processes to get things done well. Don’t let that intimidate you – we’re just wired that way.

3) Bring a dictionary and a cushion for conversations

If your boss is anything like me, he or she may have affinity for labyrinthine conversations, extended analogies, prolix prosody, and extended stays in the forges of rhetorical wordsmithing. Apologies in advancewe’re honestly not trying to confuse you!

4) . . . or, get ready for blunt feedback

Mind you, we’re not talking “brutal” or “hurtful” – being direct and to-the-point isn’t because we’re malicious. We just don’t always catch the emotional impact of our words. Sometimes our tone is off, sometimes it’s a statement of fact in our minds and nothing more. I’m still working on handling it gracefully.

5) Find the positives

I wasn’t a perfect manager. Most aren’t.

If your manager is genuinely on the autism spectrum, they’re bringing a different mix of imperfections.

They may bring some commanding strengths, too.

Attention to detail. Intense focus. Unassailable determination. Unflinching support. A cool head. A keen eye on your work and ideas to make it better.

It’s a different experience.

And if it’s your experience – I do hope it’s the good kind of different.

 

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The Life Autistic: When the Emotion Should be There

Visiting Grandma and Grandpa was a rare thing growing up. We lived in Iceland, so the trans-Atlantic flight from there to Virginia was an event, the highlight of the year.

After one of those annual trips, my folks called my grandparents and put me on the line. I’m no good on the phone now, and I wasn’t much better then.

I forget who asked or how it came up, but I recall saying something clunky:

“Well, I don’t miss you, but I do remember you.”

My parents laughed it off or something, as I remember them smoothing it over — they all knew I was an odd, hyperfactual duck.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but it typifies all too well one of those fissures in The Life Autistic:

We don’t always feel the emotions that should be there.

It’s not that we don’t “get it” — we do, but we don’t, y’know, “get it.” Not like everyone else.

I’m not always sad when bad things happen to others. I relate, I’ve practiced the words, and I know I should feel more sorrow.

I rejoice with those who rejoice, but it’s not always as deep-seated in me to be indwelled with the same for people and situations.

I’m not some cold, robotic soul who has eroded all traces of human pathos from his system—no, I and many others know we don’t always possess the emotion where it should be. 

We see the gaps, and we adapt.

In time and in some cases, we do begin to feel. It’s growth, understanding, learning what is meant to fill the space. Nothing remains empty forever.

I do think back to those trips.

The long drives through the trees, how foreign they were compared to tundra.

The way the smoke clung to the wood and brick of their old house.

The ironclad hugs from Grandpa.

The two best weeks of the year.

I remember them less and miss them more.

The Life Autistic: Why Dishwashers Sink Me

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With my ‘gifts’ of robotic and inhuman focus, I find I can slog without stress through even the most mundane, monotonous things — except one.

Emptying my dishwasher.

It is indeed the dumbest thing to get worked up over, but if you want to ruin my day, spike my anxiety, and unnerve the tight-knit fabric of my task attacks, just get me unloading a dishwasher.

“Why not just not do it?”

Y’all ain’t be reading this blog long enough – tasks undone make me undone.

“Can you seek help for this?

Let’s start that conversation and see if we can go more than five seconds keeping a straight face about ‘dishwasher anxiety’

“Ok, H2, you got me. Why is this such a pain?”

I’ve been wondering that too.

It’s the strangest thing to be worked up over, so I’ve given it a thought — even applied the ol’ “Task Management System” approach in deconstructing why.

1: It just doesn’t flow

I like logical, behaving things, and my dishwasher is anti-logical relative to my kitchenware arrangement.

If I start from the bottom, then I feel like I’ll forget the top rack. If I start atop, then — well, that’s it’s like it’s hanging over, and there’s too much space beneath—

2: It feels like too many steps

Even when you consider the phrase “unloading the dishwasher,” in my mind, that can only be a single step.

But when I find myself shuffling items out of the unit, staging them for later, stacking cups, bowls, Tupperware to fit in the cabinet, loading newly dirty dishes in, then taking out the silverware basket, and then—

It’s not as simple as it sounds, and that disconnect just frays me.

3: I get stuck trying to “solve” when I need to just “do.”

There’s probably an art, science, and alchemy to doing this.

Someone must have cracked the code.

This must be a solved equation.

That’s at least what I tell myself each time, getting crankier as I fumble plates and jam yet another poor Tupperware tower into a cabinet and then forget I still had silverware to redistribute across adult, toddler, baby, and —

But that is indeed The Life Autistic, conquering challenges great and small. Or in some cases, grimacing and bearing them out, one load of dishes at a time…

 

 

 

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.

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.