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Coronavirus and Social Distancing Through an Autistic Lens

Making the necessary adjustments in the midst of this “new normal” is a truly formidable task.

Too many Friday and Saturday nights spent in solitude. Maybe the living room TV is on, or perhaps I keep boredom at bay by getting work done. Maybe I’m practicing piano or refining a newly written song in my recording studio with the door closed so that others in the house aren’t disturbed, or I decide to do nothing at all and go to bed early. Either way, on weekends, I am left to my own devices far more often than I would prefer when I would rather be out and about with friends.    

These less-than-desirable scenarios are not exclusive to my social distancing experience in the age of COVID-19. They were pertinent to my upbringing and earlier adulthood, during which I was contending with social competency-related challenges which stemmed from an as of yet undiscovered autism spectrum profile. In my book “A Long Walk Down a Winding Road,” I collectively refer to these challenges as my “sphere of unawareness and self-absorption.” If there ever was a concrete reason for my sense of isolation during these years, this was it.

As I matured, learned lessons, sought help from behavioral health clinicians and worked towards building self-esteem, the sphere gradually broke down, and consequently, feelings of isolation gradually began to alleviate. Many on the autism spectrum aren’t as fortunate as I have been in this respect. Regrettably, the hardships associated with social distancing pervade their daily lives, pandemic or no pandemic.

The cultivation of a personal interest or talent proved to be the difference between loneliness and contentment whenever I was not with friends. This is my greatest hope for all of us while we are confined to our homes as well as for those who deal with perpetual isolation no matter what the circumstances. Music, school work (because of how much academic achievement always meant to me), reading a good book and sports television, particularly Major League Baseball, were my go to pursuits when I felt isolated during my younger years. These passions not only sustained me when the going got tough; they also helped me learn how to love myself. Today, as I would imagine is the case with most of us, I lean heavily on social media, my phone and Zoom videoconferences to stay connected to the people who matter to me.

Somehow, connecting with people virtually is sufficient to keep me happy as we endure the coronavirus crisis, even though it qualitatively falls well short of face-to-face human interaction. Perhaps this is because I have a wife and a son to spend time with and because I entered into this situation having already experienced more than my share of social isolation while growing up on the autism spectrum. My heart goes out to those less fortunate. I am thinking about them during these trying times.

Many on the autism spectrum in the age of COVID-19 are not merely dealing with the fallout from increased isolation. A good number of us are struggling to cope with the anxiety brought about by drastic changes to our daily routines. The angst that often accompanies the process of transitioning to a new situation can lead to challenging behaviors and meltdowns that are uncharacteristic of the autistic individual’s true character. Making the necessary adjustments in the midst of this “new normal” is a truly formidable task. And so I have been thinking a great deal about the community to which I belong, and to which my own son belongs as well. These are particularly trying times for autistic folks and for those who work with, care about and love us.  

Looking back, I recall having often felt misunderstood with respect to my desire to connect with people, as is often the case with individuals on the spectrum. Many of the choices I made likely gave the impression that I was fine with being socially isolated. I frequently chose to get work done over mingling with my classmates during free periods at school. During my college years, I usually went to the library or computer center alone and spent many hours alone in practice rooms at the piano, to write music or to develop my vocal technique. However, none of these habits stemmed from choosing to be solitary. Ensemble rehearsals aside, it is typical for serious musicians to practice alone in that doing so is conducive to productivity.

As far as academic achievement was concerned, I found that I could best focus on homework, research papers and exam preparation while doing so alone. Furthermore, one attribute of my spectrum profile is that I work exceptionally slowly, so taking the time to get work done at school was a necessity, not a preference. As for socializing with others when I wasn’t working or practicing, there were times when I intentionally avoided opportunities to get together with folks, but only because certain social situations, particularly those that were loud or which involved larger groups of people, were particularly difficult for me to manage, and quite taxing, due to the sensory challenges they presented. In these cases, it was never about me wanting to keep to myself.

As we all push through the adversity of our socially isolated circumstances, let’s try to extrapolate from this challenge what it must be like to endlessly live under similar circumstances. Such is the reality, and not by choice, for many on the autism spectrum and others in society who are different. Greater unity, acceptance and understanding, perhaps to an extent not yet seen in recent memory, can arise from shared experience. 

Originally posted on TheHill.com.

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