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

Screen Shot 2018-11-17 at 2.07.05 PM.png

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?


 

Original photo

Advertisements

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.

 

The Life Autistic: Working for a Boss on the Spectrum

11393591_10153349996547246_2339323436093048714_o.jpg

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: Disclosure at Work?

IMG_6778.jpgI came across an article intriguing enough to where I read it twice, about disclosing one’s autism at work. The premise: is it beneficial to disclose your autism at work?

The topic weighs heavy on me, only because I almost did. (Of course, if you’re reading this and you know me from work: Surprise! You were right: something is definitely “weird” about H2! )

But I don’t make a practice of formal disclosure, and I have my reasons why:

I want to be judged by my work, not by how autism affects my work. 

In The Life Autistic, we can often compensate for personality challenges (awkward conversations, small talk, using bigger words than necessary, social unease) by turning in a good day’s work at the end of it all. I’d prefer people focus on the quality of my deliverables over the idiosyncrasies that they’d perceive (fairly or unfairly) about me.

I want to be managed, coached, and led as Hunter Hansen. 

My company is a world-leader in being understanding and accommodating to employees of all walks and abilities, and I’m proud of them for that. For me, though: I’m stubborn and proud of my abilities, even as they weave within my deficits. I’d rather the topic not come up to “explain” why I fall short, or come behind, or even in the rare cases I get ahead. I want my holistic traits and working habits to be what define me professionally. I am not my autism. 

I don’t want it to be used against me.

Again, see above about my company. They are gracious. Not every other employer is. I’m still wary of autism being seen as a “crutch” or an “excuse.”

I remember during a particularly harsh interaction with a (former) manager, where I nearly buckled, nearly threw it out there because I felt helpless — where I almost spilled the beans early, in a desperate attempt to give my boss some context and soften the blow.

At that point, I still had a lot to refine in my professional conduct, but I’m glad I stopped short — it locked me into a more helpful work precept:

It’s the what & how that matter.

I look for ways to deliver what I need, keep it within reason, open to negotiation, and sticking to the facts. “Would I be able to take this meeting via phone today while I concentrate quietly on other work?” Do you mind if I leave early from the team builder this evening?”  

Sometimes it takes a little clout, a little accommodating on my part to earn some oomph to ask.

It’s a balance.

Work can handle the what, where, and how.

The why is mine, on my terms.

The Life Autistic: We are your Workplace Engines – Here’s Why

a3aa9a6118a2420f6a8b2d557e107e5a.jpg

I remember getting a interesting compliment from my boss on my work ethic; it was as much his own transparent introspection as it was a testament to my drive:

“I have actually let things slip, knowing that you will catch them.”

(And for the record, this was a manager who did and does get things done!)

I was grateful for the feedback — flattered even!

Despite my troubles in other areas (tact, speaking out of turn, saying too much, being too direct, you get the trend) — in both leadership and in individual contribution, there are some ‘autistic features’ that have really helped me.

And they’re common enough among us autists to where they help you.

We’re great at laser-focusing on tasks.

I ended up building all of my Excel skills purely by taking on the most tedious and taxing items that involved spreadsheets, formulas, all that jazz. While I’ve since moved on to more fun tools (hello, Tableau!), my ability to zero in and grind out arduous work paid off.

We’re honest.

For all of our tactlessness, we are at least forthright about when something is great or not great. Back when I managed supervisors, I wasn’t always the most accommodating, nor the warmest, fuzziest manager. But I was honest, and that brought out the best in my folks – the expectations and feedback were always clear.

We’re good with details.

One of my best career experiences was with a global communication team — I was fortunate to be in a role that allowed me to fight for excellence in even the smallest details: pixel-perfect presentation arrangements, fine-toothed grammatical combing, and punctilious analysis of distribution lists, procedures, and more.

We’re quite good engines: driven, detailed, and dutiful.

Hire more of us, please!