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: 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.

 

The Life Autistic: WHO THE $@#% MOVED MY CHEESE?!

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I forget where I was that day, but I’d been out of the house, something typically productive for a 15-year-old, like work.

As I settled back down in my room, I went to put my wallet, watch, and my other effects back in their spots.

Then I noticed something. Many somethings. They were off.

This . . . would end poorly.


If you know me, you know I’m not the cleanest person, but I am one of the tidier, more organized folks you’ll meet.

My nightstand, office desk, and other surfaces are arranged just so. 

It’s not neatness; it’s obsessive compulsive behavior.

I almost wish it were less so! I’d like to be able to leave my bed unmade or have dishes in the sink for more than a minute. But I can’t.

It’s a visceral reaction, one that (to me) seems borne of a need to declutter the things I see so that I’m not being overwhelmed with my own internal clutter than I don’t see. 

So when you’re wondering “Why is he doing dishes during this event at their house?” or “This guy is really obsessed with picking up after every single toy right away” — it’s not because I think y’all are dirty; I just have to declutter space to function. 


Back in my room, my pens had been misaligned. My watches completely shuffled. My change cup was emptied, its contents placed in piles across my dresser. Like a surgeon rearranging one’s organs and fitting them back into a body, my room had been dismembered and stitched into a pale imitation of how had everything.

I heard my siblings’ impish chuckles outside my door, and — well, I might have lost my cool. My brother tells the story better, adding much more violent, beating-someone-over-the-head-with-a-plastic-blue-chair color commentary — I don’t recall the reactions, but I definitely remember the irrational outburst.

In the end, it’s just stuff. 

I tell my normal self that “stuff can be rearranged.”

But my true self, the autistic one, doesn’t see it that way. Out of place is the wrong place, and it’s what makes our world melt.

The Life Autistic: The Silly Reason I Walk Alone

Screen Shot 2018-07-30 at 11.58.39 AM.pngI was touring the campus of Pensacola Christian College for the first time, walking with my campus mom.

Until I heard a voice about ten feet behind me.

Ahem . . . Hunter.”

I’d done that thing again.

There I was, what seemed a mile ahead of my tour guide. I’d walked way too far, but not far enough to hear her tut-tutting at my apparent sprint ahead. I marooned both of us, not by design, but by, well—

See, there’s this thing.

I walk to get places, and I walk fast, and that’s my default setting.

It’s nice when I need to get from point A to point B, or when I need some exercise, but shoot, when I started socializing, being more human, getting to know people, I didn’t realize how much of a socially-illiterate walker I was.

Until arriving at college, I don’t think I walked with another person before.

And that’s when I learned why I’d walk alone: because I walk like I am alone.

It’s not like I’m trying to get away from you if I’m more galloping than ambling. I’m not trying to be rude, inconsiderate, etc.

Walking is a focused, driven, routine, one-track thing for me; it’s how I’m wired, and left to my own devices, I’d walk without stopping, loping along, maybe even talking at myself while I ignore things around me.

I’m learning to slow down.

To walk with people.

To take in surroundings.

To realize that the destination is not the only thing that matters.

They say You’ll Never Walk Alone, but in The Life Autistic, you often do.

 

 

 

The Life Autistic: What Juggernaut and Autism Have in Common

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Yes, you’re reading that right. I’m comparing people on the autism spectrum to an ominous, imposing Marvel character and Deadpool 2 star: Juggernaut. 

I mean, just look at ol’ Cain Marko here – you can’t help but notice the similarities between people like us and a force like him. Muscular physique, Hulk-like strength, metal headgear — ok, maybe wishful thinking here.

Since it isn’t that cool stuff, let’s check the real comparison:

The Juggernaut is described as physically unstoppable once in motion, does not tire from physical activity, and is able to survive without food, water, or oxygen.

While I wish I could say that autistic people could run without stopping and without tiring, I can personally attest, within a quarter-mile, that is not the case.

So what is it then?

Routines.

Routines are near-unstoppable, difficult to shift, and tough to interrupt while ongoing for autistic people.

Dr. Hume puts it mildly when she writes (emphasis mine):

Whether at home, school, or in the workplace, transitions naturally occur frequently and require individuals to stop an activity, move from one location to another, and begin something new. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may have greater difficulty in shifting attention from one task to another or in changes of routine.

Trust me, this sucks. And I’m a grown-dang man, too.

One of my kids can be whining about something or, well, actually need help. But God help me, if I don’t finish washing dishes first, or make the bed, or fold this last stack of laundry and put it away — FIRST. And those are mundane things!

A mundane routine or task can be the most important thing right now for us, even at the expense and detriment of truly important things.

Once you get Juggernaut going on something mission critical, like pulling weeds, or preparing coffee, the motion feels like it needs a cosmic force to be diverted or interrupted.

But there’s good news.

You don’t need the Hulk or Mjolnir to divert an autistic routine.

If you’ve got kids or people like this, read about transition time strategies for managing micro-changes to tasks, actions, and routines.

Don’t always try stopping Juggernauts in motion.

Motion is good – just understand that it’s a difficult force for us to suppress, and unlike the actual superhuman, it’s something that can be diverted, transitioned, even made positive.