During the novel coronavirus pandemic, many autistics experienced ambivalence regarding lockdowns, telecommuting, and online education. As an autistic and parent of two elementary students, I noticed my daughters and I were more relaxed and productive without constant social contact. Yet, anxiety and fear accompanied the pandemic, along with mourning.
Trauma from COVID-19 has changed us. Friends, family members, and colleagues died during the pandemic. We anxiously awaited the development of vaccines. We wanted an end to the daily media reports on new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Now, it seems the worst might be behind us, assuming no new vaccine-resistant variants arise. How should autistics and our families begin adjusting to the new post-pandemic “normal” emerging?
First, we should declare loudly that the pre-pandemic normal wasn’t meeting the needs of autistics. Schools and workplaces discriminated against our neurological and cognitive differences. Autistics have been told for too long that we need to adjust, to force ourselves to integrate into the world as it is. Now, we have a chance to promote change based on the pandemic.
This article suggests some ways to adjust to the post-pandemic normal, but I also argue that many of these suggestions should have been part of our lives before COVID-19.
- Transition to the post-COVID normal at your pace, not the speed of others.
- Allow yourself to decline invitations to social events and gatherings.
- Insist on health and safety protocols that meet or exceed federal guidelines.
- Advocate for “time-based” metrics in place of “task-based” measures of productivity.
- Assert control over your living and work areas, politely yet firmly.
Transition at Your Speed
With many people rushing to embrace their old routines, you might experience self-doubt and anxiety because you’re not as ready or eager to return to the past. Lockdowns were a sudden change. Now, many of us have adapted and have routines we don’t wish to change.
Autistics like our routines, including the ones we adopted during the pandemic. Transitions take time and energy. The adage applies: Don’t compare yourself to other people. Also, consider that many making the quick transition are extroverts and social connectors, many of whom who were miserable during the lockdown.
Some employers and schools have embraced hybrid models for this transition, allowing people to work from home some or even most days of the week. Ask if you can transition slowly to working or studying in person. You might even consider asking to remain mostly remote, especially if you’re productive at home.
Learn to Say No to Invitations
I’m receiving a lot of invitations for social and professional events, but I’m not going to any of them yet. Social gatherings were always difficult for me. After more than a year at home with my wife and daughters, I’m not ready to deal with social interactions.
Invitations are not mandates, though they can feel like requirements from employers, colleagues, and even friends. You do not owe anyone a detailed explanation for declining an invitation to an event. Many of us, including me, overshare information and try to justify our allocations of time and energy. It is polite to write or say, “Thank you for the invitation, but I cannot attend the gathering.” It’s not necessary to make vague promises to attend future gatherings either.
Embrace Health and Safety
My wife is a cancer survivor and I’m diabetic. We both have histories of asthma and allergies. Though I exercise daily and am physically fit, my doctors tell me I should be cautious because of underlying conditions. Our family doctor also gently reminded me that my wife and daughters could be at higher risk for complications from COVID and other respiratory infections.
If a workplace or school campus isn’t going to maintain health and safety protocols, I don’t want to be there. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has clear COVID policy guidelines that employers need to respect and has fined employers for not complying with COVID-19 protocols. The agency has also determined that you can wear a mask, social distance, and use hand sanitizer at a workstation. The agency website has a guide to employee rights during the pandemic.
I still wear two masks when running errands. Unfortunately, our masks mainly protect other people. Most masks offer minimal protection for the wearers unless you double-mask or wear an N95-rated mask. Yes, I’m vaccinated, but I worry about variants.
Don’t let other people pressure you to do something uncomfortable. You can still socially distance, wear masks, and practice good hygiene. Let other people mock the hand sanitizer I carry. I’m going to be safe.
Promote Tasks Completed Over Time Spent
The pandemic disrupted our work and schedules, yet we still met deadlines and were productive. We proved that tracking hours worked wasn’t as important as completing tasks. Educators and employers should accept that tasks matter more than being on campus or in a work cubicle for a set number of weekly hours.
I pointedly asked other people if my work was still exceeding expectations. It was. Therefore, when I did my work shouldn’t matter. Let’s value people for what they contribute, not being present in a specific location for a set amount of time. Ask your supervisor to clarify any criteria for work performance. Good employers want to maximize your productivity. Be sure expectations are in writing and align with any employee review process.
Control Your Spaces
We should have control over the spaces in which we work and study. During the pandemic lockdown, I was able to control my home office environment. I like dimly lit spaces, a ceiling fan on, and music without headphones. Unlike some autistics, I hate headphones for more than a few minutes. Yet I do need music or other sound to mask other noises in the environment.
Private, quiet space allows me to focus and be productive. I have sensory issues and those should be appreciated.
Workplaces, especially schools, seldom allowed me to set a room temperature. I constantly overheat and find myself drenched in sweat. The lighting is “all or nothing” and unbearable. Windows were a rarity in my workplaces.
The pandemic allowed me work in a space I controlled. I don’t want to give up comfort, now. If you have medical needs, use the return to work as an opportunity to discuss those with your employer’s human resources department. Also, explain those needs to supervisors and explain how accommodations empower you to be productive.
Don’t let the world around you determine when and how you will return to school or work. Well-intentioned friends, family members, and coworkers might try to pressure you to rush into social situations and spaces that you know will be overwhelming.
Take control of your transition to the post-pandemic normal. You know your needs better than anyone else. As we transition to a post-pandemic normal, you have the opportunity to communicate to others what you need and how you would like to meet those needs.
Christopher Scott Wyatt began blogging as The Autistic Me in 2007, at the age of 39 while completing his doctoral studies. Wyatt avoided becoming an autistic self-advocate until he realized things had not improved significantly since his childhood. Blogging led to invitations to appear at regional and national conferences. Wyatt also provides training to schools on how to better accommodate students on the autism spectrum. Along with his wife, Susan, he also frankly discusses relationships and parenting. The couple lives in Central Texas with their two young daughters. You can find him on his blog, Facebook, and Twitter.