Monday 12 April 2021

Looking back on lockdown

Over a year of lockdown has passed, so I thought it would be interesting to reflect on my experiences from an autistic perspective. Needless to say, these are only my experiences. I do not speak for all autistic people, many of whom have had a very different time, as I well know.

There are many things I like about lockdown. It has made me realise just how challenging it has been to travel into work each day, for example. The sensory issues in commuting alone have drained me far more than I realise. I’ve got used now to ending the day with more spoons, which is a welcome relief. Some days I used to get home from work practically unable to speak or think, or I’d catch the wrong train and end up in Kettering, or some other disaster. Now I end the day tired but relaxed in a familiar environment, which is lovely.

This has meant that I can be somewhat more flexible about routines. Before lockdown, I would follow a very strict sequence of actions every morning in order to conserve spoons for when I arrived at work. So, the morning routine has included the same ordered sequence of washing and ablutions, dressing and eating, packing up my bag and leaving the house, every day for years. My main problem in lockdown has been that Frank Cooper’s Original marmalade, which I eat in Spring and Autumn (Fine Cut in Summer, and Vintage in Winter) seems to be completely unavailable. So I am eating Fine Cut out of season, which is a bit disturbing, but in the grand scheme of things not a major problem.

I generally find social interaction online preferable to face to face. It is entirely predictable and managed. There are no unstructured meetings or casual encounters. Whether it is a management meeting, a class, or just a “zoom coffee”, I know about it in advance. I enjoy that I don’t have to work at reading body language. Again, it has been lockdown that has made me realise how much effort that took every day. People often say that autistic people cannot read body language. I’m not sure that’s entirely true. I spend a large amount of time reading body language, because I understand that it is an important method of communication amongst neurotypicals. I’m not saying that I really understand it, but I am pretty good at spotting details and often notice things that others miss. It does require a lot of effort, though, so it is a great relief not to have to do it.

However, this absence introduces a new anxiety: have I now lost the skills to be able to decode body language and facial expressions? Those would take an enormous amount of work to rebuild. I have noticed that I am losing the ability to pretend not to be autistic. Now, many people will say that’s a good thing because masking is bad and we should be authentically ourselves. I would not disagree with that point of view, but the problem is that I then lose confidence in my ability to interact socially and start to become anxious about meeting people at all. Over the last few months I have started to get nervous before I meet someone. This is unusual for me and potentially a big problem in my line of work. 

There has been a major downside in interacting online with my students. They simply refuse to switch on their cameras, so I would not recognise any of them if I met them face to face. This is very strange. They know exactly what I look like, but to me they are just circles with initials inside. This creates quite a pressure on what will follow when we finally do meet. One other problem with online interaction is automated captions. Because of my hearing impairments, I do rely on these quite a lot. But the error rate is quite high and they can create as many barriers as they remove. An example of technology not being good enough for its intended purpose.

One benefit of all the extra energy I have saved up is that I have become much more active as an autistic advocate, both at work and in the world at large. Again, I think lockdown has contributed to that development. It has been easier to sign up for things, such as advising the NHS in Birmingham, or giving a presentation about my experiences to an EDI conference at Edinburgh University (both things in my calendar for this month) when I know that I don’t have to travel to a new place, meet people, etc.

My main anxiety at the moment is the end of lockdown. I really do not want it to end. I am not looking forward to going back onto campus with its chance encounters, random events and sensory challenges. My university’s campus is pretty typical. Every building is a mess of flickering fluorescent lights, asymmetrical patterning, haphazard “design”, high arousal colours, confusing signage, noisy spaces, drifting smells, bizarre heating, reflective surfaces, and so on and so on. On the plus side, my office is nice and quiet and hidden away, so I can be fairly surreptitious. If all the buildings were more autism-friendly it wouldn’t be so daunting, but I’m afraid they are pretty horrid. I’m trying to change that through my work on the disability action group, but it is not easy.

Overall, then, I find lockdown quite agreeable, and I am not aware of any negative impact on my mental health - quite the reverse, in fact. But I do have some anxieties and I am noticing some changes in myself. To what extent these will become a major problem remains to be seen. My survival bag, which would never leave my side before lockdown, has now been gathering dust in a corner for over a year. I am going to have to get it out soon and check that everything is fully charged up and up to date, from the noise-cancelling headphones to the personal air purifier, from the sunflower lanyard to the clip-on shades, and so many more bits and pieces that I use to make life tolerable. That will be a big moment!