Socially Awkward Social Distancing: Autism in the Era of #COVID19

Happy end of Autism Awareness Month! It looks like we’re all finding out what it’s like to be autistic in this time of #COVID19!

Celebrating National Autism Awareness Month has become something of a thing here at Ye Olde Blogge because it is so prevalent in my family: mother, sister, myself, nieces, and my daughter, and, truth be told, probably my maternal grandfather, too. Suffice it to say that I have some experience with being autistic and the resulting social awkwardness that so frequently accompanies it, and I’m here to say that social distancing has made my life and that of my daughter, maybe, especially, my daughter, much easier. Socially awkward social distancing, as it turns out, isn’t that much different than just plain old social distancing or being socially awkward.

It looks like Zoom meetings are the great equalizer for us socially awkward autistics with all their clumsy talking over one another, uncertainty about what to say or when, doubt about what to do with your hands, questioning whether you’re lack of grooming will be noticed, everyone can experience the social angst of autism! Everyone is awkward. Every interaction has a degree of uncertainty because we are missing the usual cues of turn-taking when speaking and the other subtle non-verbal interactions that the autistic so often miss out on. Now, we can all enjoy them!

FINALLY, being socially distant pays off! Sheltering in place makes my social awkwardness much easier to bear and less of an issue in my daily life.

Being alone means being free from the expectations of others. When you’re different, it’s okay for people to make fun of you. That’s a truism, right there. My colleagues aren’t too awful about it, but it’s the glances exchanged between members of the meetings that tell me something is wrong, but I just can’t quite figure out what. Or, the sounds of exacerbation that people make as I clumsily bungle my way through moving a chair across the room or connect my computer to a projector or what have you. I don’t know about the autistic people in your life — and they’re there, I guarantee — but I can do without that shit.

So, I don’t mind being alone being free from small talk and social intrusions. In many ways it is better for me to be alone.

Autism, What’s It Like?

Autism, especially higher functioning autism, is more like being blind or deaf than having a debilitating mental illness. The blind and deaf are cut off from a set of perceptual information that is available to the majority of the population, autism means being cut off from social information that is available to the majority of the population. We all have to compensate for not having that information, and we all need a little accommodation to help us get along.

Similarly, there are lots of causes of blindness and deafness. In many people, their perceptual organs work well, meaning there is nothing wrong with their eyes or ears, respectively, but there is something wrong neurologically meaning when the neurological signal produced by their eyes and ears reaches the part of the brain dedicated to decoding it and giving it meaning, so that the perception is in error. Autistic folks are having similar issues processing social information; if it reaches their brain, it is not processed correctly and what ever is perceived is done so in error.

Maybe the best example of this is my daughter and distance learning.

Socially Awkward Social Distancing: My Daughter’s Story

Tortuous School

Being in school has been a challenge for her, especially after hitting middle school. She is tremendously sensitive to noise and chaotic environments. She has an inordinate amount of social anxiety. Just being around others can render her non-functional. Oddly, and, in many ways, maddeningly, she does well with presentations and addressing a classroom of people. There are several key factors here. One, she has to be well prepared for the presentation or the question. And, two, it is a formal social situation. There are fewer moving social parts. The roles and behaviors are clearly defined. There are people there, but they are supposed to listen and not interrupt until she’s done, and, then, if she’s unlucky, they may ask questions. But, the questions are done in a very predictable pattern and focus on an area that she knows something about, so they’re easier, too.

The noisy hallways during passing time between classes, the moments of noisy chaos that can descend onto any class as teachers transition between segments of the lesson or try to take care of the endless ubiquitous technological failures that besiege our classrooms — that’s another blog post all together — or for any other reason, all take a terrible toll on her. She expends such cognitive energy just maintaining herself and filtering it all out, that she is exhausted by the end of the day and has very little left to deal with any kind of problem that might arise. That’s when meltdowns happen.

She has very little left over to deal with classes or homework. In short, going to school was a torture, and she got very little done.

The Ease of Distance Learning

Distance learning means that most of the crap is eliminated. She doesn’t have all of that unpredictable and irritating noise and chaos to deal with. She can go to her online class, listen to the teacher talk, watch whatever video or other visual display, answer questions when called upon, and not find her senses or emotions overwhelmed by trying to process all of the ancillary information that crowds our days.

I’ve never seen her so productive, complete so many assignments, or achieve so much academically. It’s not that there aren’t problems. She’d rather be on social media with people she’s never met and likely to never meet. She’d rather be drawing and writing and watching science videos, but when we help her get organized and return to an assignment, she’ll eventually get it done.

Her social awkwardness and inabilities no longer interfere with her ability to process information and complete assigned tasks. Social distance has been good for her.

The social awkwardness that is inherent in online video interactions has brought everyone to her world and not thrust her into theirs. They all do just fine in her world, but she can now thrive instead of struggle in theirs. Socially awkward social distancing has been a net plus. Her life is better for it.

Image Attribution

The image was found using a Creative Commons search. It was found on WikiMedia Commons. It was created by CGP Grey. It is licensed as Attribution 2.0 Generic.

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