Yesterday I stood in front of a number of parents and teachers as well as administrators at my oldest daughter’s elementary school and I found myself incredibly nervous, anxious even.
Part of it was simply because I hadn’t really prepared very much for this “pitch” as I typically do since it’s been a wickedly-busy week but it was mostly because I hadn’t yet created a framework for something like this.
In other words, I didn’t have any explicit model for this experience that I was about to engage with and that makes me incredibly nervous, almost to the point of breakdown.
You see, modeling is a fundamental part of how I navigate life as an autist – I have models for everything especially relationships and how I engage with them. How this works in my head is very much like a library where I am able to create new models on my mental shelf and execute against them when I find myself in contextually-similar situations.
For example, if I’m about to give a talk or lecture or workshop I have a “model” or “mode” for that. I know, generally-speaking, how it’s going to work and what’s involved. What communication methods I should use and how I should react to comments, questions, and the occasional yawn from the crowd. I am executing against a well-worn rubric of tactical and relational engagement which helps me appear normal, at-ease, and generally affable.
If I’m meeting with someone much more casual I am able to rehearse that relationship model and scenario through my head a few times and it works out quite well. Social cues that I generally can’t pick up on have been cycled and recycled through experience into the workable model so that they appear natural and at-will and even on a whim.
Another metaphor that works quite well is (naturally) like that of computer engineering as it’s very much akin to a piece of software that I’ve chosen to open at that specific point in time for that specific task, except those “tasks” are people and the relational components therein. When you and I need to use a word publishing utility and app then we open up Microsoft Word (shudder) or Open Office or Google Docs and if we need to tweet something we’ll open up a Twitter client, etc.
But I had never stood before teachers, a PTA, and a school’s Principal and Vice-Principal to pitch a concept and initiative. My mental library was blank and I had not really thought through it very well at all. With nothing to closely base it on and with nearly all of them being “new” people (i.e. I had never met most of them) it was an opportunity for disaster. I recalled my “lecture” and “workshop” model as well as my “pitch” model and thought that might do the trick.
It worked… except I said something that may have offended more than a few of those in attendance (I hope not…) – it wasn’t bad but reflecting on it while I was sitting in the car I wish I could have taken it back. Since it’s so difficult to build relationships to begin with I always attempt to bridge gaps and then test their integrity instead of throwing a stick of dynamite under it before it can be constructed. Oh… shit.
Another thought that crossed my mind was that of my father who I have closely modeled for my entire life. As a leader and as an incredible public communicator many of my mental models for engagement have anecdotes and elements from watching him do his thing. I cannot think of a single time where I saw him nervous in front of an audience of any size. If he was it didn’t show nor did his voice crack like mine typically does at some point in my talks.
Flawless execution. It’s not something that’s really within my grasp and I don’t feel too bad about that. If anything I feel perfectly satisfied with my broken attempts at communication and more importantly, despite my modeling and intentional mimicry, I feel like it’s me and I am being unashamedly myself. That’s always a win for an autist.