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.

 

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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: 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: 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: 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: 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.