Don't Wanna Go Back(?)

Being Autistic in a Post-COVID World

I received my second COVID-19 shot earlier last month. Of course, I'll remain in compliance with all mask mandates and social distancing guidelines until they are lifted. But, I am very grateful that I can now engage in most activities without the level of anxiety that tormented me for over a year.

And yet, I am not the least bit excited for things to “get back to normal”. For me, “normal” was a far cry from “pleasant”.

First, a bit of context: I'm autistic. I’m “high functioning” enough to provoke the classic, back-handed compliment spouted by well-meaning neurotypicals of “Wow! You don’t seem autistic at all!” “Complements” like these are offensive as they are based on a very narrow definition of the autism spectrum and imply that life can’t be all that bad for those that don’t fit Leo Kanner’s “classic” framework. Struggles associated with being on the autism spectrum manifest themselves in many different forms to varying degrees of severity. Rarely, if ever, will you find an autistic individual that fits perfectly into any predefined typology.

To an outside observer with little or no context, I may be perceived as an “autistic paradox”. On the one hand, I have many “normal” qualities: I have a job, I’m married, I have friends, I can read, write, drive, and I have a sense of humor that people appreciate… I think. 😁

On the other hand, I don’t like traveling, I hate making phone calls, paperwork is torture for me, making “initial contact” with people I’ve never met before is a challenge, large crowds are a pain, certain noises and smells are traumatizing, and I have very intense emotions. I can play my cards close to my chest, but, frequently, they're facing the wrong direction.

I have had to develop strategies to hide or work around several of my difficulties in order to function in society. Perhaps the worst thing about being neurodivergent is the instituted social expectation of acting as if you’re not.

But, in 2020, many social expectations were effectively suspended by the arrival of COVID-19 in the United States. The avoidance of social interaction, a characteristic frequently associated with autism, suddenly became necessary for survival. In fact, anyone that refused to social distance was shunned and ridiculed, and rightfully so. While the majority of the population struggled to adapt to guidelines like “stay 6 feet apart” and “stay home”, for many of us on the spectrum, COVID-land was a world we were quite familiar with.

The shutdowns had the unintended consequence of making life a little easier for me: I no longer had to go anywhere I didn't want to go nor interact face-to-face with anyone I didn't want to interact with. And, I wasn't expected to.

For days on end, I could stay at home in my pajamas binge-watching shows on streaming services while eating food I ordered online. Before COVID this might be perceived as dysfunctional, but during COVID, you could call this self-care.

As previously stated, I hate making phone calls. But Zoom meetings? Piece of cake.

In fact, I found myself with a “competitive edge” having had experience with Zoom long before the pandemic. In many of the circles I run in, I became, ironically, the subject matter expert on online social interaction. People still ask me from time to time to help them set up their Zoom meetings.

Oh, and the ability to turn your camera off when on a Zoom call… priceless.

To be fair, my COVID experience was tempered for two reasons. First, I've worked from home since 2015, so I didn't experience any psychological shock from having to adapt to new working conditions. I illustrated this in an early Think Weiss meme that referenced the song Pompeii by Bastille:

Second, I'm married to my very loving and very supportive wife, who, for the past 5 years, has consistently stood by me during good times and bad. So, at no point was I ever fully deprived of social interaction, emotional support, or physical affection. Yes, there are plenty of autistic people out there who enjoy hugs! 🤗

But, not everyone was as fortunate as I. It broke my heart watching my friends and family struggle to adapt to these changes that were forced upon them because it was the same type of struggle that I've had to deal with all my life. Yes, there are plenty of autistic people out there who can empathize with others.

Now, here we are in what appears to be the tail end of the pandemic🤞. Businesses are reopening, people are going back to work, and the social expectations of the “old normal” are being reinstituted. I'm slowly “reintegrating” myself back into society, meeting up with friends in real life, and attending in-person events. And I have to admit… it feels weird.

I truthfully have no desire to go back to the way things were, at least not without preserving the positive changes we made as a result of the pandemic.

Many of the COVID-19 CDC guidelines involving medical care, food preparation, and sanitation should most certainly remain intact. In addition to reducing the spread of COVID-19, those guidelines have proved effective in reducing the transmission of other infectious diseases. No sense in removing those perfectly good plexiglass shields from checkout counters and reception desks. And having sanitizer available everywhere you go? Yes, let's keep that too.

The increased use of the internet for telemedicine, online shopping, remote learning, movie streaming, and food delivery necessitated additional investment in broadband infrastructure. This is something that I hope we will continue to invest in as the internet is, unquestionably, an essential service.

While virtual K-12 education created numerous challenges and hardships, some students actually benefited from this change, and hopefully, online learning will remain an option for these students. Keeping class sizes small would be nice too.

I suspect that many jobs that went from in-person to remote without compromising productivity will remain remote. Lower costs for employers, better work-life balance, and (sometimes) pay for employees. If a business meeting can be conducted via Zoom, it should be. But, make sure your filters are disabled before turning your camera on. 😁

More remote jobs means also more opportunities for job seekers who are no longer limited to jobs available in their immediate location. And more working from home means fewer vehicles on the road and less damage to our environment. Interestingly, we witnessed during the pandemic our planet can heal itself if we just leave it the hell alone.

Speaking of being left alone: anyone who wants to continue wearing a mask and/or practice social distancing should not be bullied or criticized for doing so.

Knowing the history of our country, I suspect many of these positive changes will be discarded if keeping them means spending additional money. In our hypercapitalist society, profit exceeds the well-being of the people. COVID-19 by itself demonstrated the need for implementing Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. And yet, our elected officials are still out to lunch. Dinning outside, I hope. 😝

So, I don't want to go back. I want to go forward with the lessons we learned from COVID-19 and use them to plan for a better future and prevent such tragedies from happening again. Unless you're really into blackjack, COVID-21 doesn't have that great of a ring to it. 😁


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