Rachel Worsley | 14/11/2020
Autistic professional Hunter Hansen spoke to NeuroWork in our latest ND@Work profile.
Autistic business analyst Hunter Hansen may be best known on social media for his YouTube vlog “The Life Autistic”, but did you know he once wanted to be a game show host?
He spoke to NeuroWork about his childhood career dream and tips for autistic people looking to succeed at work.
It was really through an odd parental talk with my mum, who's a nurse. We were reviewing the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and it was like all of my weirdness clicked into place. It was really strange to realise that all of my oddities and strangeness—things like my adherence to rigidity, the social oddities, a penchant for polysyllabic words—wasn't a product of unexplained deficiencies, but legitimately defined differences.
So starting out, I wanted to host a very specific game show called Legends of the Hidden Temple on Nickelodeon. I think game show hosts were probably my fixation back then! Then I took an IQ and job-matching test and it said that my ideal thing would be a ‘curator of facts’. And I thought well great, I'll be a museum tour guide who just knows everything!
I studied English and history at college because I was great at memorising things and great at writing. I steered more toward academia. And then I graduated, and I was broke. I realised that life throws you some curveballs, and that maybe I could try something different. And if it pays the bills substantially, I'm happy to pretty much stay on this path.
I started off as a technical support agent taking phone calls from irate customers, which is not the perfect autistic job, but I wanted to get into the company and that’s what Apple were offering. I dealt with months of anxiety, never been able to stomach breakfast, just worried sick about my performance.
But I knew the more human charm I could inject into the interactions, would make it comfortable for everyone involved. I made sure my phone voice was very calm, and I even adopted different accents— which reassured some customers.
I moved into different roles and into management and organisational leadership—but I was a non-people leader for a good while. I knew my area of weakness was business reporting and I thought, ‘What if for this area I could try being not just a words guy, but moreover a numbers guy—who understands the difference between a mean and a median. Then they'll have to love me and all my oddities, quirks and abrasiveness would be forgiven!’
I focused on building on skills like coding, logic and aesthetic design. Then I didn’t have to sell strategies simply as ‘my idea’ but could point people to what the data was saying.
And that bug bit me really hard. I took on that challenge and it put me into contact with a lot of very brilliant people who had a different set of skills. It was extremely humbling to know that I have a lot to learn, and be challenged in different ways.
When it comes to things like taking time out for your mental health, it can be hard to overcome the stigma of being looked at as an underperformer—even ‘woke’ companies can struggle with this.
As autistic people, we're already fighting hard enough to be accepted and to be valued for our strengths and not have our mistakes magnified. And often we lack the social capital—of people thinking ‘Oh they’re likable so we will forgive them for screwing up!’ A lot of autistic people are on very thin ice, they’re looked upon almost like a robot—they must perform.
Autism is somewhat of a hidden disability. If you've got somebody who is in a wheelchair, you're never really going to think like, ‘Oh, I wish they would show up to things on time.’ But we mask our autism to pass as ‘normal’.
And so it’s jarring for some neurotypical people when that falters, the ‘hologram’ starts to flicker. Employers need to recognise that our tendency to experience mental health challenges like meltdowns aren’t linked to our level of maturity thing—it’s an autistic thing. It's personal. It's emotional. Just be accommodating and allow us the space to recover.
My younger self thought that career progression was just a matter of being the absolute best. And certainly, if you’re delivering results then that can compensate for a multitude of other questions or concerns.
But just being the best doesn't mean you inspire others to greatness. When it comes to mentors, don't try investing in people who aren't really invested in you. Find folks who see through a lot of the oddity and understand the raw strength. I also directly sought out honest feedback. For example when it came to interpersonal relationships, someone might say something like, ‘Your coaching style is a little weird.’ My approach would be to say: ‘Cool, thanks for acknowledging that. I would love to refine my coaching style. What would you recommend?’
And it was tough—but I see the merits of behaving in a world that just isn’t wired for us, and rising to the challenge of carving out our own space to succeed.