The pandemic has been a turbulent time for all of us, so I wanted to talk a little bit about my experience of being on the spectrum during lockdown and how COVID has affected me as an aspie.
Before the first lockdown, I was in quite a bit of denial about what the pandemic was going to entail. I don’t follow the news, so the first I heard about COVID was from school gossip. When my peers expressed the sentiment that the school would close due to the pandemic, I dismissed it out of hand. The school, close? That was unthinkable. School was foundational to my routines. In my mind, it was impossible that it should close…
And then we all know what happened.
Surprisingly enough though, when my school announced the upcoming closure, I was actually unconcerned. Rather, I was caught up in the hype that surrounded me – with my friends all cheering and messaging each other clips of the school newsletter announcing the closure – so I was able to get pretty excited about what we all thought would be an extra two weeks of holiday tagged onto Easter. How naive we were.
As it turned out, the first lockdown wasn’t actually so bad for me. I initially felt quite uprooted, as I know a lot of people did, and the fact that nothing was really certain about how long it would go on for was especially stressful. It became a matter of just taking it a day at a time.
Obviously, during this time I was quite anxious. The tactic for me was to establish a routine. During lockdown, I threw myself into my assigned homework. I followed my normal timetable, getting up at the same time each day and going through the motions as though I were still at school, because following my timetable allowed me to keep up a structure, and it gave me a solid focus.
Recently, my mum told me that the extent to which I was committed to my studies actually alarmed her. Apparently, I was doing 12-13 hour days of studying every day, and at one point she actually contacted my mentor and told her to tell me I could relax a bit. I was surprised when she told me that, because I had no idea. While I was doing it, it didn’t feel like work. I wasn’t feeling pressured to study, I was just doing it because I enjoyed it – schoolwork was a way to give myself a foundational sense that I was being productive, and that was reassuring with so much instability around me.
As a family, we would go on walks regularly, and these became a reassuring routine. With much fewer people out, I felt a lot less pressure when it came to masking in public and it was easy to avoid people when I didn’t want to talk. The lack of traffic on the roads was both a positive and a negative. On the one hand it was great – it meant no more constant, overstimulating noise. On the other hand, when cars did go past, they were a lot more jarring. But overall it was fine, and being able to walk around without so much of the subconscious pressure to mask my autistic traits was a pleasant feeling.
Lockdown also removed the problem of people asking me to meet up. As much as I usually enjoy hanging out with my friends and family, arranging meet ups is often a lot of stress, and anticipating the event can sometimes make me agitated as there are lots of variables to plan for.
We have a saying in my house that when I’m at home I don’t have aspergers. Obviously I still do, because it’s a part of me and one I wouldn’t change for the world, but what we were referring to was how almost all of the challenges I face as an aspie disappear when you remove other people from the equation. Which is what lockdown did, essentially.
Before going back to school properly, we had a few lessons in school with reduced class sizes, and only for a few days. These were great times for me – despite my initial anxiety about going back into school. The desks were socially distanced, so I had my own space and nobody came close or really chatted too much. With fewer people in the lesson, it was much quieter, and because we stayed in the same room and had only one teacher for the day, there was no stress associated with lesson change-over. Perfect!
The second lockdown, however, was considerably worse than the first.
My school changed the way they were teaching us, so instead of just being assigned tasks on google classroom at the start of the week to be completed by the end of the week at whatever pace we wanted, they made us attend google meets for each lesson. These were stressful for me. I was certainly one of those who rarely turned her camera or microphone on. The main issue, however, was that the teacher would often introduce us to the lesson, and set us a task, and we would have to stay in the meeting while we completed the task. This meant that at any point, someone could ask a question out loud by unmuting their mic, or the teacher could start talking again, which would distract me. In class, this normally isn’t a problem – I can tune in and out as necessary – but when I’m on a computer, I find it more difficult to process audio input, exacerbated by dodgy signals and lag. So I didn’t want to lower or turn off my volume because I was scared to miss when the teacher started saying something relevant again. But because I didn’t know when the next noise would be coming, I was in a state of constant anticipation, and this meant I couldn’t concentrate. I was much less productive when it came to my schoolwork during this period, and a lot more tired at the end of the day. Google Meets still induced a feeling of masking, although it wasn’t as significant as being in class in person, it was still a significant shift from working on my own.
This was compounded by the winter, which meant that meeting up with people outdoors was more unpleasant and the cold kind of trapped us indoors a lot more.
Wearing a mask honestly wasn’t that much of an issue for stimulation levels, and there were other things on my mind when it came to sensory issues which meant I got used to wearing masks without any trouble. However, I have found that masks do interfere with my processing. I’ve often said that I process normal conversation at 0.5% speed compared to neurotypicals, (not an exact figure by any means, but you get the gist – processing the information and then responding can be a little bit stressful sometimes) and everybody wearing masks exacerbated this. Not by anything too significant, but it does make staying attuned to conversation that little bit more difficult when I can’t follow facial expressions, but I’m aware this has been the case for a lot of neurotypicals too.
What was actually most stressful about wearing masks was the rules around them.
I struggled a lot with cognitive dissonance during the pandemic. For those who don’t know, cognitive dissonance is a psychological theory that (from what I can tell) was proposed by Leon Festinger in 1957 which essentially states that human brains desire consistency in our beliefs and actions. For example, we believe ourselves to be good people, so therefore we do good things to keep our actions consistent with our beliefs about ourselves. The theory suggests that when our beliefs are contradictory, this causes psychological distress, and I have found this theory useful in articulating a lot of my own feelings. As an aspie, I am predisposed towards quite black-and-white thinking, with a strong sense of right and wrong, and so I am especially sensitive to cognitive dissonance.
In the case of COVID precautions, this caused some stress. There were rules to follow, but sometimes people broke those rules, and it stressed me out. Not everyone wore masks when they should, and on occasion even I broke those rules. I panicked when the rules were contradictory, or when the government did something which I didn’t agree with. A lot of this came down to cognitive dissonance. For example, I believed that sensible people would follow the rules. But it turned out, a lot of sensible people didn’t follow the rules. Human beings aren’t always rational and we don’t always behave consistently. Despite the fact that I was aware of the massive grey area of factors, which I have got better at dealing with as I’ve gotten older, it still made me agitated for a time.
Often when rule changes were announced, for example, such as when we moved from being allowed to meet only one person to meeting up with six people, it made me stressed, because of the arbitrary times when the rules would change, and how the rules sometimes felt contradictory. There have also been a few occasions where anxiety over not knowing what rules I should follow has led to a meltdown – for example after the rules changed to mean that you no longer had to isolate if you were in close contact with someone with a positive test result, I became distressed because I didn’t understand why the rules had changed and was scared to be in the wrong if I went to work that morning – the issue was finally settled only after twenty minutes of scanning the government website and talking to parents.
Going back to my education, the uncertainty over my GCSE exams was rather excruciating. Often, I would hear rumours online before anything was said publicly, and the contradictory information from different sources often felt overwhelming. When it was officially announced that my GCSEs were cancelled, I was rather numb to the realisation (and then went and hid in my room to process for several hours).
When I got back to school, the sheer number of people was quite stressful for a time. It took a while to get readjusted to the noise. In the last weeks of school I was very stressed. I took to wearing my noise cancelling headphones and listening to music in class, which my teachers were fine with given that almost all we did was revision for six weeks of assessments. For a long time, I felt as though I was teetering on the edge of burnout, feeling huge pressure to be performing at an incredibly high standard to achieve the grades I wanted (which, fortunately, in the end I did). Music was essential in that time, and has become one of my major coping mechanisms now. Familiar songs can be vitally grounding when I feel overstimulation spiralling into anxiety, because they give me a focus, in addition to helping block out the noise. Some neurotypicals are confused when I say I listen to loud music, but the important distinction is that loud noise that I can control is infinitely better than loud noise which I cannot control, and noise I can predict (i.e. because I’ve heard the song a thousand times) is better than unpredictable noise which is startling and painful.
So, those were some of the most notable instances where I felt COVID affected my experience, as a young person with asperger’s. In my upcoming autism-related post, I plan to talk more about getting back to school, and my experience now as a sixth-former, along with the strategies for dealing with it. Thanks for reading, and I’d appreciate it if you could leave a like or comment, or share this post. Thank you.