If you’re like many of us, you have been spending your days unable to leave your home, lonely, isolated, and scared.
To most autistics, it’s just another weekday. But now the entire world seems to be experiencing it, too.
And now they’re trapped indoors.
This terrible pandemic has thrown our world into chaos. Routines have been disrupted, we live in fear for ourselves and our loved ones, we are fretting for the safety and welfare of mankind… and to top it all off, our NTs are driving us up the wall.
And so, in the hopes of helping all of us through this challenging time, here are some tips for helping our NTs survive.
How To Greet Someone Without Putting Your Hands All Over Them
One of the most bemusing things that has come out of these recent weeks has been watching NTs bend themselves into bizarre contortions in order to touch each other in greeting without risking death to either party.
I can’t understand why bumping elbows – the part of your body that you COUGH ON – is a good idea but there’s a lot about NTs that I don’t understand.
Prince Harry appeared to execute an anti-coronavirus 'elbow greeting' with Craig David https://t.co/u4pbFfnynf— Evening Standard Insider (@StandardInsider) March 9, 2020
People are experimenting with curtsies, jazz hands, and namaste hands, as if a simple hand wave isn’t the first thing we teach babies.
We also have words. They include hello, hi, good to see you, nice to meet you, and the perennial autistic favourite: simply launching straight into an interesting discussion without bothering with all that nonsense.
I hardly ever say hi. Ask my good friends. I walk up to one of my best friends at school pick up time and say, “I just learned that hippo milk is pink. How is your day going?”
Or I call them and when they answer I say, “I think I might have a prolapsed uterus.”
They always laugh.
It works great. NTs should try it.
But since NT’s feel a strong need for some kind of ritualized greeting, I would like to suggest the Safety-Salute.
When they come into a room, or pass someone on the street, or feel the inexplicable NT urge to acknowledge another human’s existence for no particular reason, suggest that they raise their arm over their mouth in the approved cough-covering pose which, when done with proper panache, can resemble that of a dramatic vampire, or possibly a mysterious superhero.
Then take a respectful backward or side-step, like an old timey gentleman making way for a beautiful lady.
Finish it up with a dab.
NTs love dabs.
I think this maneuver communicates, “I respect you enough not to infect you with a dangerous viral agent” while maintaining the sense of fun NTs seem to get from these ritualized greetings.
I certainly think it would have more gravitas than bopping elbows, plus it has the benefit of maintaining a six foot distance.
Try it on your NTs whenever you enter a room. Maybe it will make them smile.
They do love greetings.
How to Connect… Alone.
When NTs are feeling lonely, they usually just… go out with their friends. Because NTs usually have friends, and they have no problem suggesting a movie, or coffee, or… or… clubbing it up or whatever else it is they do.
But many autistic people have few-to-no friends in what we sometimes call “flesh space.”
No one to take us out for coffee, or to come over for a board game.
Some of us do have some friends, but we don’t usually call them. They call us. Sometimes they don’t, and then we feel lonely.
And some of us have other autistic friends who live right down the street, and we text each other and communicate by memes, monologues, and long pauses (hours to weeks)… and meeting up in the community is usually just a refreshing coincidence.
And so many, many of us have turned to online friendships and connections.
For years they’ve been telling us that online friendships aren’t real friendships. We have put up with them sharing memes mocking people who stare fixedly at their phones. We read their articles about how Facebook and Tumblr are destroying real-world connections.
But now they’re in our boat, where our phones, computers, and social media sites are magical portals that connect us, not separate us.
There are so many ways to connect with people regardless of our physical distance.
Miss your board game nights? Check out places like Board Game Arena, where you and your friends can settle Catan without spreading COVID.
Want to talk to your friends? Smartphones also let you phone people! You can talk to them from the comfort of your own home! In your pyjamas!
There is a world of ways to connect without contagion. But we may need to show them the way.
How to Cope with The Existential Dread of an Uncertain Existence
Their future is uncertain. Will they have a job next month? Could someone they love die? Is this pandemic going to end the world as they know it? When will this be over? How bad is it going to get?
They’re feeling much the way autistic people feel most of the time.
I was supposed to go to work today, but now they’re telling me I am going to a surprise party? What about the lunch I packed myself? Was my boss really in on this? Am I going to get in trouble?
Very few surprises are “good” surprises for most autistic people.
But NTs can usually navigate, and even enjoy, the unexpected. Their world remains solid. It doesn’t wobble underfoot like ours does.
Until times like now.
Your NT may never have experienced that cavernous darkness of the future which we face every day. Without a clear routine, a feeling of perpetual repetition, we struggle to picture the future and that blankness terrifies us.
And since we spend so much time online, ya’ know, reading— many of us have been mentally preparing for this reality for a long time.
Of course, COVID19 has made this all the worse for us. Any routines we may have had before have been shattered, and we don’t even know what building blocks we can use to rebuild as the news and recommendations seem to change every 12 hours.
But our NTs… they may be facing this beast for the first time.
Be sure to share whatever coping methods that have helped you in the past. Prompt them to maintain a routine – hopefully if they create one we’ll get one to follow – and maybe try telling them all the things they have told you over the years when you have panicked about an uncertain future.
You could try things like, “Suck it up, it isn’t such a big deal,” or “What are you freaking out about? You’ve done things like this before,” or “Why can’t you just enjoy the moment?”
I mean, sure, those sentences have never worked on us, but it must work for them, right? Otherwise why else would they keep saying them?
How to be Neglected
For the non-disabled, this may be the first time in their lives that they have experienced the feeling of being forgotten by society.
Active, extroverted boomers aren’t used to sitting at home, waiting for the grocery order, and are annoyed by the fact that they can’t get groceries before Tuesday.
They’re going to want to “pop out” to the store to pick up that thing they think they need, and you’ll have to remind them that mayo isn’t worth dying for.
Young, healthy people who have a nasty cough and are frightened about what this could mean will be shocked and scared when overworked health teams order them to stay at home, wait it out, and tell them that no, they don’t qualify to be tested.
People with jobs that they have always seen as important will be bewildered and hurt when they are told that their business is non-essential and that they are now out of work, while their neighbour who works at McDonald’s still has a job.
Autistic people know all about it. We know how it feels to want something from the store but feel like you could die if you go out for it.
So instead you are forced to wait for someone else to bring it to you.
Autistic people know how it feels to have something that is important and frightening to you be dismissed by the people in charge.
Autistic people know how it feels to be deemed non-essential, a burden, and we know all about being unemployed and worried about money.
But our NTs may not.
So all we have to do is remind them that they are every bit as capable, important, and essential as we are.
I’m sure that’ll make them feel better.
How to Concentrate
NTs who are lucky enough to have a job which can be done from home have a different kind of problem.
Now they must find a way to tune out the sound of kids, roommates, anxious parents, and other quarantine-mates so they can focus and get their work done.
Just another weekday, for autistic people.
We’ve been trying to tune out the constant distractions and interruptions of the world since childhood. Let’s remind them of some of the coping methods we have discovered over the years:
- Noise cancelling ear phones
- Predictable routine
- Creating make-shift private spaces, like sitting on the windowseat with the curtains drawn, or making a cozy nest on the floor of the closet.
- Tuning them out via hyperfocus
- Listening to music
- Covering your ears while begging people to shut up
- Taking a mental health break by spending three hours researching the anatomy of the Giant Squid
- Squirting people with a squirt gun when they get too close
- Melting down into hysterical tears when you realize you haven’t accomplished anything of value today
- Throwing things
- Rocking in a corner
- Recovering via self-care and some gentle talks with housemates to help them understand what you are going through.
All of these tried-and-true strategies, plus any more that have helped you in the past, may be necessary for your NT adjust to the new circumstances.
Be sure to remind them of all of the times when they interrupted you when you were doing something that was important to you.
That will help them understand that you empathize.
How To Be Comfortable
NTs can be so scornful of comfort.
“Those shoes look…. comfortable,” a woman autist often hears.
“Thanks, they are! I got them from…” we start to say, before we realize they were actually criticizing how plain and unattractive they are compared to their shiny red Jimmy Choos.
I don’t know how any autistic men manage to wear a tie. I don’t think I could bear it.
Tight waistbands, tight necklines, and tight toes seem to be standard in NT fashion. They’re also big fans of scratchy, stiff fabrics which help you feel that your soul is well and truly trapped within the sensory hell that is your earthly body.
They tend to be the same with their homes. NTs often own hard, uncomfortable chairs which do not accept slumping. They have rooms that are far too bright and rooms that are far too dim. Usually they have ticking clocks and loudly buzzing refrigerators that they insist they don’t even hear.
…Until they have to stay near them for prolonged periods of time.
I’m guessing that by now your NT has discovered every discomfort of your shared home. The ticking of the clock may now be driving them subtly, unconsciously round the bend in an Edgar Alan Poe sort of way.
Therefore it is up to us, the comfort masters, to take it upon ourselves to fix our environments. Tell them you’re rearranging things “for a pleasant change” (NTs love change) because you think you could give your shared spaces “a whole new look.”
Relegate the clock to a hallway or better yet, a Dumpster. Consider ordering a new non-halogen lamp for the bedside table. Use your interests to improve your space with plants, new fabrics, or a beautifully organized kitchen that has everything lined up in lovely rows.
If you’re like me and don’t have the executive function to rearrange the house to your satisfaction, you could simply work on giving your NT permission to feel comfortable. Assure them that yes, it is fine to wear sweat pants – or no pants – while working from home.
Suggest that the Glade Plug-In might be related to their recent headaches, instead of COVID19, and get rid of it. Oops, can’t get more, there’s a pandemic on! But don’t they feel better now?
Best yet, you could encourage them to stim.
Everyone stims, after all. They just don’t do it as much, or as frequently, or as compulsively as we do. What do your NTs do for a stim? Are they a leg jiggler? A nail chewer? A skin peeler? The type who swivels their swivel chair relentlessly?
Help them embrace it. Jiggle one leg, then the other leg, then jiggle all legs together! Give them nuts to nibble on. Spread Elmer’s glue on their arm so they can have the satisfaction of peeling it off when it dries. Spin them in their swivel chair until they laugh-cry.
Deep inside every NT there’s a sensation-seeker looking to escape. Your NT may miss the hustle and bustle of the workplace. Try blasting some music (while you keep your noise cancelling head phones on, perhaps). A spontaneous dance party cheers up many NTs… for some reason.
And deep inside every NT there is a person who longs to be at peace. Help them find that peace– maybe introduce them to noise cancelling headphones yourself, so they can discover the stillness and peace for themselves.
Introduce them to quiet mornings with coffee and a good book. Teach them the fun of making a special hidey-hole in the closet with lots of blankets and pillows.
Without the distractions of the outside world to occupy them, maybe they, too, will finally – FINALLY – learn the joys of small comforts.
Maybe they will finally – FINALLY – leave us the hell alone.