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Will we ever go back to ‘normal’? And what can we learn from people with autism?

Sunday, Easter Day.

Day 35 of lockdown.

Happy Easter. I was supposed to be in Vienna today with my little sister, but I spent most of the day with Charlotte Bronte and Jane Eyre. I was so enchanted by it, I could barely let the book down. I’m not happy about this turn of events, but I’m not miserable either. I guess I’m now more used to spending endless time by myself.

I’ve been pondering for a while about the situation we are in and how our brain copes with it.

We humans have two fundamental characteristics that are perhaps in conflict in some aspects right now. We are creatures of habit, apparently it takes 30 days to form a habit and we are also social creatures.

The lockdown put us into social isolation, yes we face time and text but we don’t hug each other, touch each other, walk together, comfort one another, so at the moment we form habits that perhaps are not healthy to have when this is all over. We socialise and interact differently don’t we?

So my question is, when this is all over, how easy will it be to go back to our previous life? Will we ever go back to whatever ‘normal’ was? Can these new habits be useful in the new normal or will this experience leave us with issues we won’t necessarily know how to deal with or fears we can’t shake off or will our innate social ‘insticts’ kick in?

I posed the very same question to my friends. Some seem to think that as soon as we are let out (which I’m sure it will happen gradually, no country will risk another wave of infections) we’ll be back to our old selves straight away.

Others think that will not be the case, which I tend to agree with. I personally believe we’ll never go back to ‘normal’ the way it was. We will initially be scared of human interaction, shopping, being outside, we might not even crave going outside, since we are now used to keeping ourselves entertained indoors, but at some point our social nature will prevail, and though initially we’ll appreciate every moment we’ll then get used to our new reality again and get close to what ‘normal’ was.

But I don’t think we’ll ever go back to how we used to live. Fear never really goes away. We’ve all been traumatised but also formed new habits, learned to live with less of everything and by we I mean the whole world, how incredible it is that the whole planet is going through the same situation all at once, so we’ll all deep inside have this experience affecting our lives for ever and we hopefully learned a few things about ourselves and our future.

But this experience is not the same for all of us, for some it’s not as challenging or even difficult.

I had a chat with my friend Claire about this, who’s been diagnosed with autism a couple of years ago and I found it incredibly fascinating how her amazing brain which is wired differently to most is coping with this. I asked her if I could send her a few questions and here it’s what she said. I’ve learned a lot from reading it and I think you will too.

1. For those who might know enough if anything about autism and it’s different aspects how would you describe it and how is it for you?

Autism is hard to explain because it is vast and complex (as is everything brain related.) Autism is a neurodevelopmental difference in the way the brain functions. You can’t see my brain functioning, but it affects nearly everything about me. My personality, my sensory experience of the world, my memory, my development, the way I communicate, how I think, how I move.

There’s nothing ‘wrong’ with autism but, because we are the minority our condition is classed as a disability. But that’s just because the social world doesn’t accommodate us yet.

2. How are you coping with lockdown?

Adapting suddenly (well, inventing from scratch) a new routine – making it intricate enough to curb the anxiety of ‘empty’ minutes – was challenging beyond words. But now I am coping very well. The social world, and it’s uncertainty and misunderstanding, is overwhelming for someone like me, and therefore I am a regular self-isolator!

It takes a lot of conscious energy to be around other people. This is partly because I have to ‘mask’ a social and communication disorder, and partly because the worry about what other people think about my ways and responses to our shared world, is draining. People people people. This is not the same as being antisocial though. I love my friends and I value people very much indeed. I’d want to be the one to help someone in a crisis and I’d be the first one to support their projects and celebrate their victories. But the rules of conversations and spontaneous social times are far from natural to me.

3. How is it different for you?

In order to socialise and communicate with a person I need there to be a very clear purpose and for the words spoken to be clear and direct. Even then, I process information and conversation much more slowly than other people because I can’t filter out environmental distractions and because I need to physically see things to understand them. I’m often tired by this (and the subsequent shame) so I need to isolate to get my energy back. This means I very often feel lonely and separated from the rest of society.

Right now EVERYONE is in isolation, and for many active, extroverted, sociable autistics, and especially the non-autistic community, they maybe feeling this type of uncertainty and separateness for the first time. People are inventing ways to stay in touch although they’re not together (like online quizzes and things) and these online social events are accessible for autistics too!

I hope these continue forever, because, it means those who struggle socially can still participate in the fun activity and not worry about the social element – therefore being less lonely.

4. What advice would you give to others? Any tips from your experience?

Generally speaking, non autistic people prioritise communicating and socialising with others, whereas, autistic people prioritise the environment, detail and solitary hobbies and projects. Non-autistic people are sort of being forced to experience the world from the perspective of an autistic person for the first time (they’re just avoiding a virus instead of the social/communication etc.) So, with that in mind, I would advise the following.

Yes… socialising and communicating are valuable to most people, I completely empathise, but when doing those things you miss so much. Now is a chance to focus in on the environment, the detail in rooms and objects, and intricate, time-consuming, all-encompassing hobbies, interests, projects, learning. Not for the purpose of working, or competing or recording, but just for pleasure.

If you think you can’t do it because you have children, let it be your project to encourage THEM to investigate the environment, the detail, the comfort of a new special interest. If you find a nice flower, look at it closer. If you see something interesting, look at it for longer than you normally would, and from all different perspectives. If you smell something lovely, savour and memorise it. If you read an interesting article, research more around it, that kind of thing.

People are starting to do it… they’re posting things about the beautiful places they live near, the weird things they’ve got in their house and they are sharing nature, art and ideas. This should become a habit beyond isolation. Look at things more intricately than you thought possible and awaken a quest for knowledge about those tiny details… then you will begin to experience an autistic-like joy. There is so much joy in the ‘little’ things – and you know … you’ve all got each other again when it’s all over.

Thank you Claire for such an informative and insightful interview!

Eleni

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