The Life Autistic: The Wrong Way to Fish for Empathy

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Over the span of three wintry weeks, I went from beloved teacher/saint Mrs. Wieler sobbing, hugging me before I left her third grade class in Fairfax, Virginia, to wandering the barren white halls of A. T. Mahan Elementary School in Keflavik, Iceland, and finding my new facilitator, Mrs. Baldwin, staring indifferent daggers back my way as I sneaked into her class for the first time.

She arched her head back just so, resigned to pausing her lesson to make a perfunctory introduction.

“Class, we have a new student – Hunter Hansen,” Mrs. Baldwin stated, as if announcing an upcoming maths test.

I paused. Everyone glanced my way.  That was it. Nothing more.

New class, teacher, school, home, and country.

Still 3rd grade, still awkward Hunter.

But let’s back up a couple of grades, because I’d discovered a way to help cope and win friends.

So I thought.

I’d stumbled on something that brought out an empathetic response in others when I encountered an awkward or embarrassing situation. I’d sigh and say:

“I’m stupid.”

Without knowing the emotional mechanics behind it, I found it brought out kinder, gentler, sympathetic responses from my peers, like fellow penguins who’d huddle closer when they knew I was cold.

Let’s skate back to Iceland then, for my first day at my second third grade of the year.

I forget which incident brought it about, but I went quick to my tried-and-true.

I’m stupid,” said I.

To which young Daniel Merman pointed and clapped back:

“Yeah, YOU ARE!”

….

Needless to say, that was the last time I tried that.

It wasn’t the best approach.

Since then, I’ve not tried fishing.

Instead, I try for honesty, vulnerability, transparency, and hope for the best. 

It’s hard, because it is a hope.

It is not an impossible hope.

If you’re still with me, I’ll share one such moment.

In the midst of a conversation, I tucked in a small-but-honest phrase about “not having the heart” to discuss something, then kept going in my talk.

As if a crimson flag was raised atop a snowbank, I was paused and asked:

Don’t have the heart? What’s going on?”

It is a long, slow lesson, but I’ve learned it isn’t so much about seeking and prying, but letting yourself be your truest self and letting that elicit the truest, best selves from others.

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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?