Adulting and Autism: 5 things I’m learning to manage that make success possible.

The last few years of my life have been as equally difficult as they have been invigorating. Since December 2014 I have been on an ongoing quest to find myself and to find balance as I further my career as well as place a priority on my role as a father and husband.

In December of 2014, almost three years ago I was given a gift, not for Christmas but the life that was inspired by this gift was as equally as important to me as the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

I was given the gift of self-awareness. At the end of 2014 I was officially diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (Aspergers) and for the most part my diagnosis has been a relief and a reward.

Don’t get me wrong, autism is hard. My challenges are quite different from others diagnosed with autism. Most of my challenges are invisible to the untrained eye. I work extremely hard to be as successful as most people believe me to be but it doesn’t come without sacrifice, support, and most of all strategy.

Until I was diagnosed I felt out of touch and out of sync with the world around me. Social communication challenges and sensory processing issues made things pretty difficult for me especially as I entered into adulthood.

Simple things like making friends and finding and keeping a job were difficult for me because of they way the world works.

This year I’ve celebrated a milestone in my adult life. In August I celebrated 7 years at my current job and next month I will celebrate 4 years as the Lead Pastor of my church in GA.

That’s a big deal for me because this is the longest I have ever held a job with the same organization or company. In the past I was usually able to hang on to a job for 2-3 years before some of my social deficits began to surface in ways that made others feel uncomfortable. Believe it or not being clergy made this even more difficult because leading a church is almost entirely outside of my comfort zone. When I went into ministry full-time I spent nearly 10 years trying to find the place where I fit in. It’s unfortunate that the place where I should be able to pursue my calling would be the biggest challenge I would face in becoming the person I believed God was calling me to become. (I’ll share more on that in a different post)

Now with 3 years under my belt and a diagnosis and more determination, I’ve learned as I am nearing 40, how to manage my life in a way that helps highlight my strengths and push toward my highest potential for pursuing my goals and dreams for being the person I believe God wants me to be.

Adulting is work. Adulting and autism is a grind, but whether you’re on the spectrum or have a child entering adulthood and independence here are a few things I’m learning to manage that have helped me become more successful and stable.

1. Manage Time

When it comes to time we really don’t manage it because we can’t manipulate it. Time moves on with or without us. Time can be a challenge for me as with many people on the spectrum because I can become laser focused on finishing a task and get totally lost in it. Although I have an incredible sense to chronological time, my sense of timing can become distorted. I can miss important windows of time which makes it difficult for me to instinctively know when to take a break. Right now I am on sabbatical for this very reason. Because I love what I do I find it difficult to know when I’ve done too much. My advice is to assign trusted people to point you toward the need for rest. Have them help you create margin. Managing time is about margin. Create space between your load and your limit and have people stand in the gap and warn you when you’re in danger of crossing the line.

2. Manage energy

Energy management is essential. Honestly I am still very much a work in progress when it comes to this critical issue. Spoon theory is a wonderful example of what energy management is all about. Simply put I’ve had to learn what types of activities require certain types of energy and as a result learn to ration out my energy for tasks that are important for this season and stage in my life and career. Sensory overload has a tremendous impact on how I am learning to ration out my energy to be more effective. I’ll write more about that later, but the fact that I live in a world that my brain isn’t built for requires me to be very frugal with my energy. I turn down good opportunities if they infringe upon my ability to be great at something else. In the last 3 years I’ve learned how to manage this through trial and error, journaling, and failing at tasks because I gave my energy away to something less important. Energy management is about learning a pace and rhythm that works best for you in your pursuit of reaching your goals. Give yourself permission to only give yourself away to things that will make a contribution to your journey and that support your core convictions.

3. Manage expectations

Admittedly this one is hard to do. Managing expectations means trying to manage your own expectations as well as the expectations of others. Prior to my diagnosis I thought that I was simply not enough to meet the expectations I placed on myself and that translated to how I perceived others when thinking of whether or not I was meeting their expectations. Truthfully most of what I thought people wanted was probably the result of my own insecurities. Then there is also a small percentage of people who simply have unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of others. This is true in both relationships and employment and it makes it extremely tough to transition into adulthood having trouble with meeting the demands you place on yourself and having demands placed on you. I have learned that most expectations go unmet simply because they go unexpressed. When it comes to managing expectations don’t allow anything to remain ambiguous or undefined. Try to understand exactly what is expected from you by others upfront so that you can decide if you feel you are capable of meeting those demands. It also allows the other party to hear if their requests are actually reasonable. Most times people have ideas in their minds about what is feasible and it’s not until those ideas come out of their heads and on to paper that you can both assess what is realistic. I want to honor my commitments but honoring requires honesty. I’m learning to be honest with myself and with others about what I CAN do. You can’t do what you can’t do and having limits doesn’t make you weak it makes you honest and human.

4. Manage sensory resources

In the past I’ve written about the impact that my sensory processing has on my energy levels. This has been a learning curve for me. Certain sights, sounds, and smells can send my brain into overload. My brain doesn’t always manage the environment very well and as a result it can become overwhelmed and shut down. Think of your computer when it has been asked to process too many tasks. When you get what I call the “wheel of death” you know that the machine is overwhelmed. In order to help the computer you have to open the task manager by hitting control, alt, delete and shut it down. This is what is known in the autism community as a meltdown or in my case as I have grown older, a shut down. My brain needs a break and so it takes one and in the process it takes me with it.

When I’m scheduled to attend an event or outing I like to do as much research as possible. I try to find out what the environment might sound like and smell like. How long will I be there? Is there a schedule or program that I can view so that I can understand what will be taking place? When I arrive I try to sit close to an exit or with easy access to the restroom. I often need to take scheduled breaks so that I don’t get overwhelmed so having access to the door or restroom help me remove myself for a few minutes. Sitting in the corner of the room often helps “cut off the room”‘so that I can place all of the action in front of my line of sight. Having chewing gum and/or mints also helps focus my sensory input. I often count in patterns when I chew or when using mints I try to have something hard and crunchy that I can bite into to give me some sensory relief. Ultimately, I can’t change my brain but I can periodically train it to manage certain situations if I am prepared to take on the challenge in advance.

5. Manage social calendar

Social anxiety has in the past been a huge hinderance to my professional career. On of the challenges for adults on the spectrum trying to enter the workforce is the system by which employment is obtained. In the event we are granted an interview, we are asked to sit down with a person we have never met in a building and environment that is often unfamiliar and uncomfortable and we have 30-45 minutes to impress someone with our social skills. While I am thankful that I am successful today I can’t tell you how many opportunities that I have missed over the years not because I was unqualified but because I was perceived to be uninterested or unapproachable because of my struggle to understand social cues or my lack of facial expressions.

Social capital is the most important resource in navigating the adult world. They old saying “It’s now what you know but who you know” is true and it impacts adult autistics entering the work force in ways that often go unseen.

Since being diagnosed 3 years ago, I have reflected on the ways my lack of social capital has impacted my career. While I am grateful for where I have landed it has taken me nearly 15 years to get here. As a result of a far better understanding of myself I have come to realize that my reach would be far greater had I understood the concept of social capital and the role that my ASD played in that area of becoming an adult and pursuing independence, a career, and a family.

This insight has led me to learn how to manage my social calendar in a different way. I am a pastor, and while I realize that not everyone shares my career path, I do think that social interaction impacts the ability to successfully transition into adulthood for those in the spectrum.

I am still challenged with this issue, but over the past year I have made progress by taking a cooperative approach to managing my social calendar. I discovered I needed a wingman. I am not an initiator so I needed to coordinate with people who can help create a calendar filled with important opportunities to connect with people that I may otherwise not have engaged because of my social anxiety.

This has worked well for me because I am able to interact with more regularity and more confidence because I have reduced the pressure of having to be the initiator.

I have recruited trusted people to help get me in the door and to make critical introductions and initiate relationships that may benefit me as well as other parties involved.

With each successful relational connection comes more self-awareness and more importantly more self-confidence. With the help of trusted friends and professional colleagues I have slowly learned to step out from the shadows and be more confident in connecting with others by learning how to be in the action without feeling the pressure to be the center of attention.

I have something to offer the world and in order to live my best life I have decided that I could use a little help connecting with the people who need to know who I am.

In conclusion, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about who I am and what makes me special and with proper planing and adequate support I find that I continue to get better and more productive at living life well and it is my hope that my journey can inspire and empower autistic teens and young adults growing into adulthood and seeking independence to know and be confident in their ability to make a successful and fulfilling life for themselves one day.

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