But now, I get to wear a physical mask that conceals my autism for me. Staying six feet away from people has reduced the number of small-talk situations I end up in. And for the first time in my life, it has been months since someone asked if I was mad about something because I had forgotten to animate my face.
To be sure, humans, including autistics, are not designed for social distancing. But for almost a year now, we have been forced to go against our natural inclinations and figure out ways to stay connected while remaining physically apart. This includes school for some, work for many, and outings, dates and holidays for all of us.
And this backward pandemic world has forced people who don’t have autism — we call them “neurotypicals” — to deal with same near-constant anxiety that has plagued us autistics for as long as we can remember, and for many of the same reasons. Not being able to see facial expressions because of masks has been unsettling and upsetting, but it is a fact of life for us.
Videoconferencing is exhausting because it makes it hard to “read” people, but autistics are all too familiar with that mental exhaustion because we have always struggled with reading neurotypical people.
Some people assume autistics do not have the same emotional lives as neurotypicals, but nothing could be further from the truth. Even though we find social interaction difficult, few of us would choose to forgo it completely. The main reason I spent so many years figuring out how to hide my autism was so I could have relationships with friends, co-workers and lovers. I miss physical contact with them just as much as neurotypicals do. I share their anger and resentment about forced isolation. Autistics may want less social interaction than others—although this is by no means universal among us — but less is a far cry from none.
However, there are a few threads of a silver lining. Before the pandemic, the lives of high-functioning autistics like me were a constant battle against cultural expectations for socialization. We would limit social contact and avoid certain environments because they were exhausting or overstimulating, and we often found ourselves apologizing and feeling shame. We were in a perpetual state of anxiety because of how challenging it was for us to be in public.
I had to expend enormous effort to keep myself from freaking out over things most people tune out. Autistics can’t tune anything out. Everything comes in, and all at equal intensity. If you’ve ever been inside a busy arcade, that is what the outside world is like to me all the time. I had to learn to steer clear of high-stimulus activities because they triggered meltdowns, where I am suddenly and uncontrollably overwhelmed to the point of physically acting out, yelling at people or sobbing, often all at once.
Making matters worse, I am challenged by smells as well as sounds. I smell everything, all the time. Being in proximity to smokers, people who wear perfume, people who use scented detergent, people wearing dirty clothes, someone who just washed their hair, someone who hasn’t washed their hair, someone chewing gum or eating a mint — you get the idea — is extremely difficult for me. I quit my gym because I couldn’t get far enough away from my fellow gym goers not to smell them, their breath and their clothes.
Small waiting rooms and standing in line were nearly intolerable experiences. If an elevator I was waiting for had more than a few people in it, I would catch the next one (even if I was running late) because I can’t — and I literally mean can’t — be that close to people. Those who complimented me for taking the stairs for my health had no idea that it was for my mental health, not my physical health.
In short, I often wished I could walk around in a six-foot, life-filtering bubble.
Enter the coronavirus.
Not only are there fewer people to interact with now, but we also have to stay six feet away from each other. I get to wear a mask all the time that deters microparticles — and smells.
I should point out that there are a lot of autistics who can’t have cloth or any other material touching their face. Autistic sensory sensitivities vary from person to person. While I have trouble with sounds and smells, others have tactile issues and are struggling with having to wear some sort of face covering. So while I like mask-wearing, and many other autistics do, too, that sentiment isn’t universal.
I feel guilty about secretly liking some parts of the pandemic and being relieved that the burden of social expectations has been lifted. (I’m also privately hoping I can get away with wearing a face mask for the rest of my life.)
This relief is tempered, though, by my grief at the loss of my grandfather because of an outbreak at his facility, and by not being able to attend his services because of restrictions on gatherings. I wanted a more autism-friendly world, but this version, defined by helplessness and isolation, has scarred me as deeply as it has my peers. I struggle with the same financial and mental challenges as non-autistics, and the suffering we are all enduring is far too steep a price to pay for a temporary respite from my acting gig as a neurotypical person.
But I also hope that maybe, once things get back to normal (whenever that is), my non-autistic friends will have a better understanding of an autistic person’s daily life and of the pitfalls and potholes we have to navigate. Perhaps their temporary visit to our side of the looking glass will help them empathize with what it is like to be autistic. And maybe, that will start to pave the way toward that autism-friendly world I’ve always wished for.
Christine M. Condo is a writer and autism spokesperson who was diagnosed as autistic in 2015. She is a neurodiversity advocate and blogs about her autistic experiences. She is pursuing a master’s degree in disability communication at George Mason University.
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