Wednesday 5 May 2021

Emerging from lockdown

A year in lockdown has affected everyone in ways which will only become fully apparent over time. There are the immediately obvious issues of mental and physical health, loneliness and grief, which are a sharp reality for many. But beyond those is a profound change in every aspect of human society and culture. Returning to ‘normal’ is not only undesirable, it is actually impossible.

From my autistic perspective, one of the biggest changes has to do with ‘masking’, that is: performing or presenting as neurotypical in order to fit into society. I learned to do this as a child and have been doing it ever since, to the point that it is impossible for me to remove ‘the mask’ because I do not understand where it begins and ends. Most of the time, I pass as assured and socially capable. People never see the mask, which is a sign of just how well I have learned to wear it.

Since being professionally identified in 2018, a few close friends/family have commented that I seem to be acting more autistic. This is a complicated thing to unpick, not least because I don’t feel my behaviour has changed much, if at all. It may be that their awareness of the diagnosis makes them see things in me that they did not notice before, or it may be that having acknowledged my autism I am now trying less hard to appear non-autistic, or it may actually be that I am indeed ‘acting more autistic’ or performing my autism in the same way that I used to perform neurotypicality. Probably it’s a combination of all three. 

But this is where the lockdown has had an effect. A year of interacting face to face with very few people is making me forget how to do it. I am losing confidence in my ability to behave appropriately. I have a strong suspicion that, when I do start returning to the neurotypical world, people will notice a difference, not because I am ‘acting more autistic’ but because I am not acting so non-autistic. Eye contact, for example, was something that I did with relative ease before lockdown. Now I am finding it harder to do again, in a way which harks back to childhood. Similarly, my ability to read facial expressions has been  compromised both by online interaction and by the wearing of physical masks. When I observe body language on TV or in the street, I am once again starting to struggle with deciphering what it means.

There have been occasions recently where I have been very aware of echoing back to people the way they are talking to me. It’s something I have always done. In the past, once I have felt confident enough with the person, I can move out of that mode and even redirect the interaction somewhat. But now I have forgotten that skill and will probably come across in ways that are not ideal, just because I am reflecting back the mannerisms of my interlocutor.

It’s not that lockdown is making me more autistic. Autism is a steady-state kind of thing. It’s just that masking requires constant practice and I have always had plenty of opportunities for that over the years. The university recently sent me a request to come to campus when lockdown ends, in order to show prospective students and their parents around our splendid new computer labs. I have to admit I find that prospect very daunting. I am getting anxious about my ability to cope in that kind of social situation. I think I need some less ‘mission-critical’ practice before I start re-engaging with the world in that way.

In ten days from now my second vaccination (which happened last Saturday) will have given me full protection. Covid is at a low level locally, so there is really nothing to stop me re-emerging into the world. But I am unsure about it. I think some limited forays will be a first step. Perhaps a visit to the office for an hour, maybe with a coffee thrown in, to get familiar again with that environment. Some low-anxiety social interactions with trusted colleagues too. 

During lockdown I have barely been out of the house. I have only visited the chemist once a month to collect my prescription and, on fewer than five occasions, I have gone to the Co-op to buy one or two items. I have always had a shopping list and have entered and exited as quickly as possible. Although the pubs have reopened, at least outside, I have avoided going back there, even though I do enjoy a pint. I have even become reluctant to consider moving house, something that actually would be a good thing because the present place is inadequate in many respects. I think I want to protect myself from the world. I know this has to change, but the anxieties of doing so are considerable.