I contracted Covid-19 for the first time in April 2020. This required a hospital visit which led to my interest in developing resources to support other Autistic people and their families as part of my professional work as a director of Autism Wellbeing CIC.
I received my two doses of the Covid vaccine during the summer of 2021 and was unfortunate to become infected with Covid-19 for a second time in October 2021. My symptoms of early illness did not present in the expected way.
My most recent Covid-19 infection initially resulted in the common symptom of complete loss of my sense of taste and smell. I have regained about 5% of my olfactory and gustatory processing ability six weeks on from infection.
My professional career has been within social care – developing and delivering services to people who are labelled as having complex needs. My own experience of Covid-19 enabled me to reflect upon some of the potential impacts this could have on other Autistic people, and in particular those who use non-verbal communication or are considered to have “challenging behaviour”.
Interoception – knowing I am ill:
Prior to both infections with Covid-19 I noticed a complete change in my demeanour. I did not feel ill. I did not feel hot or cold – although a thermometer indicated I had a fever. I experienced the sudden onset of severe depression-like symptoms. Fortunately, I am aware of how my interoceptive processing experiences manifest. Interoception is the sense we use to process internal body signals such as pain, hunger, or needing the toilet – and to notice our emotions and the changes they are creating in our bodies (racing heart could mean excitement or anger for instance).
The severity of the depression-like symptoms frequently overshadows my attempts to seek medical help for my physical illness. When I seek medical intervention at these times, my physical illness is typically overlooked, and my mental health is scrutinised – despite me articulately and accurately informing medics that I believe I am coming down with a physical illness. This overshadowing of my physical illness due to putting greater emphasis on the risk management or identification of my depression-like symptoms may prolong my illness as my physical health problems are not treated. It invalidates my experiences and may even create barriers to me seeking support or communicating with medics.
When I consider people I have supported professionally, that are labelled as having “challenging behaviour”, I recognise occasions where perhaps they too may have experienced a sudden change in mood due to a physical illness. Within my work I have observed people exhibiting behaviours such as shouting; biting themselves or others; or running away. These behaviours were considered to be caused by the person trying to communicate that something was wrong and as practitioners we would consider whether this could be something external such as too much noise or the person not wanting an activity to end, for example; or something internal such as toothache or illness.
At times, “challenging behaviour” was interpreted by some practitioners as having an element of intent or wilfulness on the part of the Autistic person. It was sometimes considered that the person didn’t know how to communicate “properly” using speech or sign language or had poor social skills – and therefore chose to demonstrate their pain/distress/urge to leave, by “acting out” and using their behaviour in a planned or possibly even manipulative way to communicate with others.
Where no cause or trigger was obvious to the (usually non-autistic) observer, it was common for the observer to conclude that the person was over-reacting or hyper-responding in some way, and subsequently needed to learn more appropriate coping strategies. My own symptoms of sudden severe depression could look like emotional instability to an observer, and they may well consider me unable to cope with being ill. They may misconstrue that my mood symptoms are a response to my physical illness and not the way that illness manifests for me.
Sensory processing is the process by which the nervous system receives, organises, and understands sensory information. All of us experience the world through our senses and our brains process this information.
Autistic people frequently process sensory information differently to non-autistic people. Our sense receptors (eyes, ears, taste buds and so on) may work perfectly well but there may be differences in the way our brain processes the sensory information. This may include struggling to process too much sensory information or filter out unnecessary information; experiencing heightened, muted, or distorted sensory signals; delays in processing; or perception in one or more senses shutting down, resulting in an incomplete picture of what is happening within the body.
Each of us has a unique sensory profile. But sensory processing does not happen in isolation. Our sensory experiences change and can appear inconsistent to others who do not recognise the dynamic and context specific nature of sensory processing.
Our senses play an essential role in keeping us safe. For example, if food smells rancid, we know not to eat it, and if we feel unstable on a structure, we climb down from it. Sensory information tells us how to act in and adapt to the environment. Sensory processing also plays a role in regulation, activating us to evade a threat or calming us so that we feel safe.
Positive and negative aspects of my loss of taste and smell:
My overall amount of sensory processing was dramatically reduced. This had a calming and regulating effect upon me and reduced distress in some situations. e.g. the lack of diesel fumes and burger van smells made visits to my local town more bearable.
Food never tasted “off”. This reduced the anxiety I typically experience when food tastes different to usual. I used the best before date to identify whether something was safe to eat.
Food tasted of nothing – so texture became more intense. I realised that I could never eat broccoli without the “reward” of the taste of it to compensate for the texture!
I have practiced mindfulness for decades and found that eating mindfully was the best way to cope with my sudden loss of taste. I would put the food on my tongue and notice it without judgment. At first, the only food I could identify in my mouth was mango, due to the distinctive fizz. I am now aware of spices, bitterness, and the saltiness of marmite.
I recognised how I rely on my sense of smell when cooking. It lets me know when to check if the toast needs turning over under the grill and if food is getting close to being cooked. Without the ability to smell my food cooking, I had to focus on following safe cooking procedures and use a timer or else risk burning food.
Smell keeps you safe – I no longer felt disgust at cleaning up pet poo, even if I accidentally got some on me! I didn’t automatically recoil from mess or take extra care using bleach or filling the car with petrol as there was no aroma from it and it could have been water as far as I was concerned.
I can no longer smell the weather and therefore cannot easily identify whether I should wear a jumper or coat. My sense of smell is more effective than my awareness of temperature when processing the environment.
I use my sense of smell to recognise people. Their sudden lack of aroma made them as difficult to recognise as a radical new haircut or significant weight change would. This created a sense of unease within me.
I am concerned that I may smell bad, or my home may smell bad.
I am aware that I would not smell burning so have become extra vigilant about checking things are switched off at night. I recognise that this vigilance could become anxiety, perseveration, and obsession, so I have adopted a sensible routine to manage my safety concerns without escalating them.
My sensory experiences following Covid-19 infection have reminded me how our senses work together and not individually.
The role of our senses in keeping us safe is significant. Risk taking may not always be due to recklessness, impulsivity, or lack of understanding of risks – it could occur due to sensory differences.
Autistic people may experience the world in a disorganised or chaotic way because our senses work so differently. My typical need for routine and structure reflects this. Since Covid-19 infection, I am aware that I am relying even more than usual on timers, reminders, and routines in order to compensate for my loss of certain senses. To an observer, Covid-19 may appear to have made me “more” Autistic. It hasn’t; but my “normal for me” world has changed, and I am needing to find security, certainty, and predictability in this new world of minimal smell and taste.
If I was supporting an Autistic person who was not able to articulate their experiences, and they had recently tested positive for Covid-19, I would consider how their sensory processing may have been affected. It would not surprise me if some Autistic people needed to increasingly rely on their other senses to make sense of the world if their sense of smell and taste reduced. They may touch things more to identify them using their tactile sense. They may stim more in order to get extra vestibular and proprioceptive input. I’d expect to see more tasting and smelling of items and people; and possibly increased frustration at not being able to recognise them by these methods.
I would also expect to see an increase in repetitive questioning by some Autistic people. I too have a felt a need to check and recheck information in order to seek out familiarity and predictability. I have found satisfaction in the predictable to-and-fro of scripted or familiar conversations and exchanges. Those reliable quotes from films and songs that stay the same each time you hear them! Similarly, I would not be surprised to see people stuck in a loop of thinking, or stimming, or behaving in a particular way – these tendencies are often exacerbated by change and unpredictability and can provide predictability and a self-soothing function.
Moving forwards, I have prepared myself for a potential return of my sense of taste and smell. I am aware that just like the effects of the various lockdowns ending; a sudden increase of sensory information may be too much for my brain to process and result in survival responses of fight, flight or freeze. I plan to stick with my mindful approach to noticing what my senses are picking up, with no judgment and a curiosity that will hopefully enable me to reflect and share my insights.
I encourage practitioners to consider sensory processing experiences when supporting Autistic people whose behaviour suddenly changes from what is usual for them, and perhaps check whether Covid-19 infection and symptoms related to loss of smell and taste may be the cause.
I was prompted to write my first blog when I saw the frantic rush by shoppers to buy toilet roll. It triggered my own anxiety about what would happen if panic buying resulted in me not being able to buy the very specific brands of food that I must have.
The world did not run out of toilet roll, pasta, crunchy nut cornflakes or any other items and my anxieties about shortages were unfounded.
However – my distinct lack of anxiety about the potential impact of coronavirus on my health – I believed I would be at low risk due to being healthy and unsociable – was proven completely wrong.
I did become ill in the weeks following writing my original blog and needed to visit the hospital due to my continuous cough and breathing difficulties. This hospital visit was unlike any hospital visit I had made before. Some positives came from it and I was able to share my personal experience of sensory distress and confusion with the health board who were developing some fantastic resources for people who have a learning disability or are autistic. I’m glad I could use that traumatic experience to help others.
I worked as a key worker until late August and also in my role within Autism Wellbeing. We began producing information for people affected by autism. Tips for autistic people; their families; carers; and colleagues; covering everything from the language used in the pandemic; masks and PPE; coping with change; self-care; returning to work and school; and coping with the “New Normal”.
Our popular Covid-19 Resource pack has been widely shared and downloaded. You can get a free copy by following this link:
In fact, we were nominated for and awarded as “Local Lockdown Legends” for the work we are doing online and in our Facebook peer support groups for autistic adults and for parents/carers. (And by the way; many group members are in both groups).
At home we focused on our son. He was already home educated and I watched how parents of school educated kids tried to juggle working from home with providing a full time education. An impossible task. Collectively across society, we all did our best and realised there were many benefits to the computer screens and games consoles we often feel as parents are ‘taking over’ our children’s lives. The ability to chat online and out loud to friends, to play games together and stay in touch from the privacy of our own homes is invaluable and has been a life saver for many people. Here is a personal post I shared on Facebook as the first UK lockdown was announced. And a follow up 2 months later:
We are still learning about what is important to us. We have found that routines work well – and letting each family member set the routines that are most important to them is even better. I tend to bake a cake each weekend, we have pizza and a film on a Saturday – we have found that making the weekends special is important for us so we don’t feel lost in a world where every day feels like Sunday.
My initial fear – in fact it was more like a recurring bad dream, was of the pandemic ending abruptly and the streets being filled with people making lots of noise and desperate to hug me – imagining this filled me with terror. Of course, this is not how it has panned out.
I am so lucky, I live in a beautiful place. The natural world has been my escape, my place of solace, my predictably changing best friend throughout the pandemic. I have watched the bare branches of the beech and oak trees in my local woods fill with leaves until the woods became darker under the shady green canopy. And now, they are almost bare again under the steel-grey autumn sky. I have seen wood anemones make way for bluebell and the foxgloves. The Red kite I began observing on March 13th probably nested and raised chicks – but I’ll never know – my blog diary was never finished due to travel restrictions. I satisfied myself with writing about the history of Red kites in Wales instead. Here’s a link to my wildlife blog below. I also continued to write a nature column for my local newspaper as well as running my wildlife Facebook group.
Our family also faced challenges. Being unable to visit a parent who was rushed into hospital on two occasions during lockdown – not even being able to find out what was happening due to confidentiality rules, was upsetting and frustrating and left us feeling helpless. Not being able to meet as a family to lay another family member’s ashes to rest and pay our last respects was tough too. The uncertainties of the pandemic were topped off with the uncertainties of family life.
And on top of this my husband and I have post viral fatigue. Long Covid is what people are commonly calling it. I have had swollen joints, shingles, urine infections, breathing difficulties, and tiredness like you cannot believe. I have barely enough energy to keep myself feeling regulated and my sensory processing has swung from hearing every noise, finding daylight painful, becoming nauseated by any smell – to – not feeling a thing, not knowing where my bruises have come from or finding my hair is matted from where I have rocked unknowingly and continuously all night long in my sleep.
I have felt confused, scared and bewildered. I initially felt annoyed that people were clapping for the NHS – mainly because I like peace and quiet and the sound of my neighbours beating the hell out of saucepans every Thursday evening left my body activated and ready for flight, fright or freeze from the moment I got out of bed on a Thursday morning. I now wish that society was still coming together in this way – the sense of us all being “in it together” has diminished. People are calling other people out for perceived breaches of lockdown and are jumping on bandwagons they had no interest in before. I watched friends throw every ounce of their energy into campaigning about “Black Lives Matter” – my sentiments are with them all the way but it felt like this and other topics were being used as a distraction from the boredom, worry and upheaval of the pandemic; and I watched with shock, bewilderment and disappointment as I saw other friends demonstrate the most ill thought out and racist behaviour ever. I witnessed parts of society get fed up with staying in when the sun came out, so off they headed for the beaches and countryside. It felt like all the world was out of control all around me. It looked to me as if everyone was on the verge of total emotional overwhelm – people I view as level headed were sharing memes and fake news without checking for facts first – pressing “Like” or “Share” because it gave them a shot of something that momentarily eased whatever negative feelings the pandemic created in their bodies.
And I kept baking my cakes on a weekend, kept working, kept walking every day I could. Kept up my self-care and kept going and going and going. My ability to keep doing the same thing again and again in the same way has kept me focused and strong.
And some days I felt peace and at one with the world – I loved the simplicity, the lack of socialising, the space – and the quiet. And on other days I felt stifled, trapped and unable to find any peace – either internally or outside my body. Our one living room felt way too small for a family and I would have given anything for the endless questions about when can my son see his friends again – or the rants about what the government were or weren’t doing – or the continual noise and movement that inevitably comes with living as part of any family – to just stop!
I wondered whether autistic people would fare better than others because we are so skilled at having to cope with uncertainties. We rely on routines, structures, and rules, and are famous for preferring our own company. I wrote about how there was no better time to be an autistic person. In fact, I have a secret to share… Although my autism was never hidden, I had never articulated to the wider world what it was like for me. So I decided to write a blog because I knew I was very unwell – I wondered if I would die from coronavirus and I rushed this out so at least people would know what life was like for me if I did die. I also wrote an article for the local paper about finding peace in nature and calling for humankind to be compassionate towards each other.
Did I do better than anyone else because I’m autistic? Well, firstly it’s not a competition. We all need to play to our strengths in order to thrive in life. My strengths are by their nature autistic. Unfortunately, the medical model of autism describes them in terms of deficits and what is “wrong” with me. My need for consistency and routine, and my unique way of experiencing the world through my different sensory processing system are viewed as symptoms of a disorder. Does being autistic make the pandemic easier to cope with for me? Yes. Would it make it easier to cope with for you? Probably not. We each need to utilise the coping strategies that work best for us. But of course, there is scope to learn from each other, regardless of our neurologies…
Many of us have found we have needed to work from home during the pandemic – and many employers have embraced this and seen the benefits. Some disabled people have been requesting to work from home for years, whether due to accessibility issues that affect mobility; or accessibility issues around transport, communication and the sensory aspects of workplaces. Lets hope that those people who work better this way can continue working from home. I have been home based for many years and was able to give tips to other working people about planning your day; taking breaks; effective communication; and work/home balance.
No discussion about the workplace would be complete without mentioning video calls. I went from being someone who could not even look at a photograph of herself; to being an active participant (if a bit overwhelmed and reluctant at times!) of conference calls; to being featured in films and training videos. It was a Herculean achievement, reached by taking many painful, brave and challenging small steps. The world of conference calls highlighted many of the challenges autistic people face with communication. Not just the act of being on screen and talking to people – that can feel bad enough! But the technological issues that occur during a video call – these feel familiar to me in my face-to-face interactions:
The lag between speech and mouth movements that makes verbal and non-verbal communication slightly out of synch – that’s how my brain processes communication ordinarily. I put a huge amount of effort into matching up facial expressions, body language and speech so that it makes sense to me.
The background noises are amplified on a video call – the scrape of chairs, tapping of keyboard keys, coughs, hiccups and slurping tea – these all sound at the same volume and intensity. Welcome to my usual world of sensory processing where nothing gets filtered!
The lack of spatial clues means you can’t tell where those “mmmm’s”, “uh-huh’s” and other meta-communication is coming from. You may miss the shaking head of disagreement from the person off-camera because your focus is on the person who is speaking. There is soooo much to take in. No wonder we get zoom fatigue!
Did I take up any new hobbies? No
Did I get fit? No….Sorry Joe Wicks…
Did I learn anything about myself, my family and the wider world? Yes, loads.
Do I feel hopeful?
I have fluctuated between feeling hopeful and feeling despair. I viewed the initial “togertherness” positively: the sense of communities supporting each other, clapping together, helping each other out. I remember a video doing the rounds on social media back in the early summer that spread a message of hope and how we’d learn and become a better society because of the pandemic. I cynically thought to myself, that we probably wouldn’t.
I watched the way the media used language, imagery, metaphors and colours to emphasise whatever mood they wanted to portray. I made accurate predictions of the government’s next moves – I’m no conspiracy theorist, or political expert – just an accomplished spotter of patterns!
I have seen people ride by on a rollercoaster of emotions, I have occasionally hopped on and off myself! A “coronacoaster” as one meme describes it.
Coming out of a 17 day Welsh lockdown today, having been on tenterhooks over the US election, fatigued by post viral illness and worried about my family and what the future holds; I could easily feel hopeless – I do feel hopeless. And that’s OK. This pandemic really sucks sometimes!
But when I reflect and look back at the positives that have only happened because I have been alive on this planet in this exact period of time, then yes, I do have hope…
I have gained friends
I made a flute out of a carrot
I have started a PhD
I have swung on rope swings, gone wild swimming in rivers and ridden my motorbike
I am working with colleagues who value me
I have overcome challenges I thought I’d never face
Covid didn’t kill me
I have written…and written… Autism blogs, wildlife blogs, nature columns, information sheets, contributions to a paper on Sensory Trauma, contributions to ‘Neuroclastic’, Facebook groups and pages, and scene 1 of a play- my first ever work of fiction.
And on one occasion I chased a pig and got over 30,000 social media views for my efforts!
Simply put, “video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language” according to Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor at Insead. Paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy. “You cannot relax into the conversation naturally,” he says.
Many of us will also spend time awaiting calls; ensuring our technology is working; and that there are minimal distractions. This can add layers of anticipatory anxiety and stress to an already energy sapping process.
According to Andrew Hines, assistant professor at Dublin University, and PhD candidate Phoebe Sun; we can improve our video call experience by scheduling shorter meetings. A lot of what determines how fatigued we become is based on what we are listening to.
The voices transmitted through the internet in real time are unedited and therefore crude to our ears. That is why we can wile away an hour listening to a podcast interview but feel drained after a video meeting – even if we didn’t have to contribute.
Their article describes how subtle sounds such as key tapping and swallowing sounds will be captured and amplified through our laptops or other video call making equipment. Squeaky chairs, eating crunchy snacks and slurping coffee can sound to the listeners as if you are chewing in their ears. Our brains respond to annoying, unnatural and unexpected sounds and force us to focus on them. The ability to filter out information is significantly reduced due to the lack of spatial cues and the loss of our ability to recognise the direction of a noise.
Network delays can cause speech; gestures; and meta-communication – all those “Mmmm”, “Uh-huh” and nods of agreement, to become out of synch. Again, this adds to the video call experience being exhausting.
So what has this got to do with autism?
I enjoy writing about shared human experiences. From my very first blog back in March, I recognised the parallels the social impact of the Covid-19 pandemic may have with some autistic people’s everyday experiences.
I am sure that those of us taking part in frequent conference calls will understand the phenomenon of “Zoom Fatigue”. Those of us who are also autistic may well draw analogies with our usual face-to-face social interactions. I’d like to share my personal reflections on this to offer an insight into a world you may not have considered…
When I am in a face-to-face meeting I experience all the same challenges as many people do on a video call:
I cannot filter out background noise or recognise spatial cues.
My hypersensitive hearing causes me to focus on all those annoying breathing noises, the slurping of drinks, and the screeching of moving chairs – with equal intensity.
Awaiting meetings is stressful. This anticipatory anxiety boosts my already high levels of sensitivity even higher.
Eye contact feels overwhelming and painful. But unlike a video call, I can’t slap a post-it note across someone’s face to avoid looking at them!
My brain processes visual and auditory information at different speeds which can cause difficulties and a lag in my understanding.
Knowing when it is my turn to speak takes effort.
Is it any wonder that I am so exhausted after ‘normal’ social interactions? My challenges aren’t because I dislike people, or I don’t understand the rules of conversation. They are processing issues.
What helps is the same courtesy and good humour we have on conference calls. And an awareness that this may feel as clunky, awkward and never-ending to me as many of those video calls do!
A few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of self-isolation but so far I am loving it! I have been enjoying contact with other people more than I have ever done.
That sounds contradictory and even a little facetious I suppose, and in no way do I wish to belittle other people’s experiences. It got me thinking though about how we all take things for granted and how some autistic people will have so much to offer the wider world at the moment. This is because some of the shared struggles in our society during the Covid-19 pandemic are very common daily challenges for autistic people, who have had to learn to cope with them well. I am delighted that so many people are working together and talking about a better world that we can create out of this dreadful and terrifying situation. This is a time for people to listen to each other and learn from each other and share with each other as equals. There may be some viewpoints that we don’t usually hear, or quite likely that we don’t usually listen to because of the biases that exist in society and in our own subjective views of the world.
Now is an ideal opportunity to come together and understand each other better, to learn from each other and have a go at seeing things from different viewpoints. We can all learn from this shared experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. In every other species in the natural world, diversity is a positive thing and an essential component for survival. Isn’t it about time humans caught up?
Before I go any further, we need to discuss empathy. Lots of people have written about autism and empathy – and far better than I can attempt to. You may have heard that autistic people don’t have empathy because they lack theory of mind and can’t imagine how another person thinks and feels; you may have heard that autistic people have too much empathy because they feel absolutely everything. There are different types of empathy anyway – emotional, cognitive and compassionate, for instance. There is no universal definition of how empathy works for autistic or non-autistic people.
This is my personal blog so I’ll describe how empathy works for me – but remember that we’re all different. Some friends of mine who are autistic feel other people’s emotions so strongly and intuitively they find it overwhelming :
My sensory processing is very different to a typical person’s. I hear, smell and see things intensely and notice the details that others miss – in fact I can’t filter any of this out which makes it tough to concentrate or relax; I flinch and jump at a light touch on the arm or an annoying label in my jumper but don’t notice I’ve left half my dinner on my face! I need to walk and do strong physical activities so that I know where my body is and what it is doing or I’ll bump into things and trip over endlessly. It is frightening and disorientating to feel so detached from my body at times.
And internally, my interoception is such that I have attempted to “walk off” a dislocated knee; I have managed several hours of contractions during labour by using breathing techniques and not a cry passed my lips; I may not notice I am coming down with the flu but I will feel unbelievably depressed instead for no reason. I can feel no emotion whatsoever when someone dies or there is a tragic accident – but then it hits me later and then I appear to be dwelling on it, not letting it go and attention seeking, and surely “I should be over it by now”. I don’t have a great sense of what I am feeling and what I do feel is not necessarily accurate so I do not trust my “gut feeling”, in fact, I may not even have one! So, if I have no idea what I am feeling then how on earth am I going to know how you are feeling?
What I understand is gained by observation and learning. I have read a great many books and I have a career in working with people, either in a supportive role, or as a manager. My colleagues include support workers who demonstrate daily how social interactions work; psychologists who tell me “why” people do what they do; psychiatric nurses and psychiatrists who explain “what went wrong” and a multitude of other professionals and families and individuals that I learn from every single day.
So I have developed a good knowledge bank about what people do, some of the potential reasons why, and what an appropriate response should be. And even better, in work this stuff is written down and as long as everyone is consistent and responsive to learning and adapting, then if you follow a person’s support plans or risk assessments you can interact in a meaningful way with people who are really distressed and struggling with communication. It makes me look rather good at all this people skills stuff!
With all this mass of sensory information bombarding me, and no filters; and all the mass of knowledge I need to take on board just to know what to do, things can become overwhelming. I need to compartmentalise things and create rules and systems to work within or else I can’t function. A bit like having some easy to identify folders and sub-folders on your laptop. I am very open-minded because I don’t have filters like “socially appropriate interests for a middle aged woman”, or “cake isn’t a suitable breakfast food”, I don’t get caught up in the excitement of talking about a television programme with colleagues – it creates no emotional response in me. I am not impressed by which car would make me appear most successful or cool – I look at the practicalities of it instead. I am not interested in the hierarchies many people value.
My belief system is one of my own. I have explored religions and share many principles and ways of living my life with a number of different faiths and beliefs but ultimately I don’t believe in any of them at all. I do believe in “doing the right thing”, in “being kind” and enabling people to be themselves so long as they are causing no harm. I am absolutely solid and unswaying in my beliefs. People call this integrity. This is what causes me to be the person speaking out against injustice even though it could be detrimental to my career. It means that I can regulate my own behaviour and act in a fair and consistent way towards other people because I have no ulterior motive and I’m not doing it just to conform or fit in or because I’m frightened of getting into trouble if I don’t.
I don’t “feel” empathy particularly and this can be very useful when supporting someone who is upset or when I managed a residential service for people who displayed challenging behaviour. My reactions don’t tend to trigger other people, there is nothing for their distress to feed off coming from me and I tend to create naturally calm environments around me where emotions don’t escalate because of my interactions or behaviour. I “know” that certain behaviours in another person mean certain things and I combine my knowledge of the individual or situation, and my personal beliefs to create my response to their situation. The down side is, if I have misunderstood or it is a new situation then I don’t know the “rules”. It is also relentlessly exhausting.
Recently I asked a colleague for tips on managing a new situation I had not come across before – the particular type of small talk being used in the Covid-19 pandemic between people who don’t know each other well and want to vent about it. (I am good with talking to friends or family or colleagues about the topic, it’s just this particular aspect I was struggling with). I don’t want to dismiss people, invalidate them or escalate their anxieties but I don’t want to hang around and catch or spread something either! Fortunately my colleague understands me and understands autism so captured it in a way that I understand and can use. She said that when someone random starts talking to me about coronavirus I can use this technique: “Acknowledge (e.g. yes, it is terrible), Divert (e.g. but the weather has been lovely, have you seen all the birds?), Walk away (e.g. I must get going now, bye)” This is a perfect way of managing the situation and explained to me in a way that I can learn off by heart and apply in a number of settings. It also saves me from looking rude, disinterested or going off on a tangent. I have added this to my encyclopaedic knowledge of how to get by in life. This is how I operate. It can feel a bit false and on a bad day I wonder whether I’m some kind of robot and not human, but this is how life has always been for me.
So this is how my empathy works: It is a practical application of doing what is right for the person I am empathising with. I used to think empathy was about finding something in common with the person that we can both relate to and talking about that because that’s how it looks like to me when I observe empathy in the general population. But that can feel very invalidating for the person and is as if I am hijacking their emotional situation, or attention seeking, or making it all about me. I try and avoid that, but it is a difficult balancing act that I frequently get wrong. For the people that know me, it doesn’t matter. They understand that my intentions are good and about being caring, but my actions may appear random, blunt or insensitive. It’s no big deal to them but it holds me back from interacting more with others because of my fear of getting it wrong and being misunderstood. Empathy is extremely complex and difficult to get correct.
There is a place for the “things we’ve got in common” aspect of empathy and this blog will invite the reader to look at autism from that perspective. I respectfully ask that if the reader is not autistic they don’t assume that because we have things in common we must all be “a little bit on the spectrum”. Try and appreciate the complexities and fundamental differences behind the diagnosis. My husband has backache at the moment and is feeling tired, he is not however pregnant. Or even a “bit” pregnant! The important message I would like to share is that fundamentally there is one thing we have in common regardless of our neurology – and that is our humanity.
I like things to be predictable. In fact my husband frequently tells me that I must stop trying to second guess everything all the time. Clearly he doesn’t appreciate the total carnage that would occur if I were to do that! I have to know what is going to happen so that I can plan. If I don’t then how can I ever know what it is I am meant to do? Anything could happen! In fact, my husband is fantastic and he knows that in my unfiltered world I need some predictability and routine to guide me. We have a calendar on the wall and a magnetic planner on the fridge. They have appointments and anniversaries recorded on them. There is additional information at the moment about our lunch and dinner menu. Outside of this self-isolation period, I would not need this level of detail about our meals. I know that my husband will have something prepared for us that we enjoy – and the fact that we always have breakfast, lunch and dinner is enough information for me. But at the moment, in these times of uncertainty, I need to know that lunch is a veggie sausage roll and salad and tonight we are having spaghetti bolognese, followed by strawberries and yoghurt. Breakfast doesn’t need to be written up. Breakfast is easy. It is always crunchy nut cornflakes for me, after all, how could I possibly know the day was underway unless I had my daily fix? I describe my anxiety around the panic buying in my earlier blog about anxiety and coronavirus, and elaborate on the value of routine in my other blogs too. Our son felt much better about life once he had replaced his old pre-coronavirus routine with a new one – this is shared in my blog about coping well and self-care.
My need for doing things a particular way that is planned and organised has been called many things:
• Control freak • Highly organised (when it makes sense to others) • Highly disorganised (when it only makes sense to me!) • Inflexible • Procedure led • Consistent • Rigid • Insensitive • Thorough • Diligent
As you can see, interpretation of why I do things the way I do is open to whichever agenda or opinion you wish to hold. I can appear to be all of these things. I can actually be all of these things – and none of them – and they vary as well. Even though I love a rule and would categorise and break everything down into its tiniest elements if I could, I have to accept that human beings do things for a number of different reasons and these reasons are not fixed across one person, let alone across the entire human race. Me included.
The more unpredictable a situation is then the more people will create a routine so that there is some predictability. I loved reading survival books when I was young. All about how to live off the land after a plane crash with only a small tin containing a magnetised needle, a coil of wire, a match (with the end dipped in wax to keep it dry) and some other handy items. I also know which bear to run away from and which to make yourself look big in front of! I know how to turn urine into fresh water and how to skin a rabbit that I have caught in a noose (using that handy bit of wire). All of this has been completely and utterly useless in my life – particularly as a vegetarian. I should have studied books on how not to get bullied, not be so gullible and how to make friends! However, I do know that in a survival situation it is important to structure your day. Shipwreck survivors are likely to have created themselves a routine and stuck to it rigidly, even through the days of dark depression and flagging motivation. The world feels very frightening to people at the moment and the language and media coverage used to share information about the coronavirus pandemic often conveys fear. Every day can feel like a survival mission for some people. When you consider the difficulties of sensory processing and add to that the particular way imagination works for a lot of autistic people then it begins to make sense why autistic people experience so much anxiety.
Another way that people create predictability is by their behaviour. Sometimes I will plan and structure my outside world to give me a sense of order and control and sometimes I will provide my own internal predictability. This is important to me because I don’t have a great sense of what is going on inside of my body due to poor interoception and I have terrible proprioception as well, which results in countless bruises that I don’t remember getting from where I have misjudged doorways or fallen over my own feet.
I took my son to a trampoline park last month. We both enjoy a good bounce and he challenged me to a jousting duel on the balance beam above a pit of foam. I was wearing black socks and I stepped confidently up onto the black beam and held my pugil stick ready in my best jousting pose. My son approached from his end of the beam and all of a sudden I realised I was absolutely frozen solid. I had taken my glasses off for safety reasons and I could no longer see my black socks on the black beam and although I knew my feet were down there somewhere, I could not make them move despite shouting at them silently inside my head to move forwards or back. There was nothing more I could do. I had to suffer the humiliation of asking a teenage lad to knock me off the beam where I was stuck and into the pit of foam so that I could crawl out!
This experience made me realise how easy it is to misinterpret the actions of autistic people and it reminded me of a training session I attended where my partner said I was refusing to take part in a particular activity. In fact I was unable to despite my best efforts. The task involved using a mirror to complete a simple drawing exercise and in the same way as I couldn’t move those feet of mine because I couldn’t see them and therefore had no sense of where they were, I couldn’t make my hand draw when I could only see it in the mirror. I find mirrors and videos of myself extremely distressing. I have absolutely no sense whatsoever that the person I am looking at is me. I have been looking at some old photos recently and trying to make myself connect in some way with that person in the picture. It is difficult. My inability to recognise myself and move my body or “comply” as so many professionals like to call it can look like I am being lots of other negative words like “uncooperative” or “refusing”. It makes it seem like a choice when it isn’t. It adds a label to a person that does them no favours and offers no help or understanding.
Now that you have a deeper understanding of what it is like living in my body, you may understand why it can feel so reassuring to create predictable and repetitive sensations. There are as many reasons for this as there are for my need for external routines, and they vary in a similar way too. People sometimes use the word “stimming”. It’s not a word I like because it makes something that is so central to who I am (yet keep more hidden than almost anything else I do) feel pathologised and a symptom of something that is wrong with me. I feel ashamed of myself both for doing this in the first place and feeling like this about it, but I have a deep respect for the people who are confident in their openness and ease at being themselves. I would like to live in a world where one day a person flapping their hands in excitement or to relax is seen as normal. Self-stimulatory behaviour as it is sometimes known can be many things including:
• Hand flapping • Jumping • Twirling things • Making favourite noises • Stroking fabrics or textures • Sniffing objects • Listening to a repeated noise
There are as many of these as there are people and the purpose of stimming can be to relax, to liven myself up, to feel good, to calm myself down, to help myself think, to give myself a sense of familiarity and control. It is a need that I have and not something I have a choice over. I don’t view it as a problem that I should give up. I don’t have any repetitive behaviours that are harmful to me (unless you count getting your head kicked in for looking weird!) and if I did or if our son did we would try and change them into something less harmful, but I would never try and stop something that is integral to being me or anyone else. Repetitive behaviours are likely to be increasing across society during this time of uncertainty. Maybe the reader has their own examples? Perhaps you are nervously tapping your leg up and down more at the moment? Or smoking more? Or biting your nails? Maybe that relaxing bath with the essential oils every evening is vital for your wellbeing? Perhaps you’ve taken up knitting again and find the repeated motion of the needles and the sound of them clicking together rhythmically is soothing? Don’t be surprised if your autistic friends, colleagues and family members feel the same and please don’t jump to the conclusion that an increase in repetitive behaviours always means that something is wrong with them. There is something wrong at the moment – the Covid-19 pandemic – and it feels perfectly rational to me to increase my coping strategies because of that. I have a huge selection of coping strategies at my disposal and I try and use the healthier ones.
I have a tendency to take things literally and for me, this is nothing to do with a lack of ability to understand information. I’ll share a piece I wrote recently that describes how this works for me and is pertinent to the current world situation.
So with all this fear, why am I enjoying the social isolation so much? I see inspirational quotes on social media about how we’ll all one day be able to hug in the streets, meet for coffee and engage in small talk yet again. This is not inspirational for me. In fact, if you asked me to describe what a really bad day was like, then those three things would be in there, and pretty near the top! But I am enjoying socialising online and I have been in contact with old friends that I’d lost touch with and I’ve even been on the phone. Yes really. Did you know that you can actually speak with people out loud down a phone and they will talk back? It’s not just for using as a diary and handy internet search tool. I am realising that I am far more sociable than I ever imagined. The threat of having to meet face to face has been completely removed and I am free to communicate from another room! Let me explain why this feels so great:
I like people. I find them interesting. However, (and please reflect on the earlier part of this blog and how my senses work and how I have no filters and a tendency towards a literal interpretation of events, before you take this personally and pass judgment) – people are overwhelming.
Imagine yourself in an empty room with nothing going on. Gradually, people enter the room. It may not bother you, but try and think about it through my senses.
People smell. Every single one of us has our own smell and many people top that off with fragrances too. Imagine all that mixing together and having to be processed. This processing alone will use up some of your capacity to function. Have you ever tried concentrating when there is an unpleasant smell in the room?
People are noisy. Laughter and shouting feel the same to some people – e.g. frightening. All the noises combine and it is difficult to know which you should be paying attention to. So on top of processing the smells, you now have to calm yourself from feeling scared because of the noise and work out what to tune in to.
People move about and are unpredictable. They touch you out of friendship and to build rapport but that hand reaching out may feel uncomfortably gentle and tickly but if you flinch you will look rude so you have to switch a bit of yourself off to cope with the potential touch. So you reduce your capacity for socialising even further by switching a bit of yourself off.
…Another bit of you is processing the smells. Another bit of your capacity is calming yourself down because of the noise. That bit is also saying to you that you must act “normal” and not do anything too autistic to cope with all this like flap your hands about. You are also trying to listen to the correct conversation.
Then the person makes eye contact with you. This feels physically painful and you feel nauseous and panicky. You know that eye contact is normal so you have to use a bit of your capacity to make sure you are doing enough eye contact, at the right intervals and for the right duration. It would be easier not to but that feels rude. Think for a minute about a scenario at a job interview, for instance. Imagine being asked a difficult question that requires thinking. Where do your eyes go? Most people’s eyes will move from eye contact and turn to look slightly upwards and away from the person (or downwards and away from the person if they are feeling intimidated or told off). It frees up some capacity to think.
I haven’t even covered all the senses yet but am conscious of being repetitive. Now add in some factors like taking things literally and struggling to know how you feel or how to show empathy appropriately.
I hope this has shared my experience and helped make a point without being too preachy. My avoidance of social situations is nothing to do with liking people or being aloof. My outward expression because of my poor interoception may make me appear to be disinterested or bored or unemotional but that is not the case. I avoid social contact because it is so bloody exhausting!
What I have found is that this reduction in social overwhelm has increased my usually overloaded capacity. I am able to relax and enjoy things and my focus has been intense and productive. I also know that I am good in a crisis. A line manager once said to me “I do believe you thrive in a crisis” and she was right. When others are reacting emotionally, I am calm and logical and continually seeking a practical solution. Sometimes this is annoying for people. Sometimes people don’t want me to solve their problems, what they want is a listening ear and a person to just sit near them that they can share it with and I am very good at getting this wrong and defaulting to being helpful and trying to fix things. At the moment though, my traits of being calm, following instructions and being able to hyper focus are useful and valuable. Some of my most commercially successful work has been done at times other people would have taken off for compassionate leave. Having a focus gives me a purpose and it regulates me because I know what it is I am meant to be doing. It channels my energy. I was told once that I should take it easy at times of high stress. This was said by a mental health professional that was viewing my undiagnosed autism as a psychiatric illness. This is good advice for some people but not for me. There is always a balance to be found though between focus, interest and obsession. I explored the benefits of seeking information in order to cope with situations in an earlier blog and noted that it is important not to become obsessed. Here are some tips:
Self-care and regulating myself is part of my daily routine. It consists of activities likes walks and exercise and meditation sessions but mostly from integrating self-care as a way of doing things rather than a special activity I have to plan. This is much better for me because if you do things mindfully, for instance, you don’t have to find time for a mindfulness session. I’m more likely to stick at things and remember to do them. My hobbies are important at the moment and I am delighted to see that it is becoming “normal” again to have hobbies. Years ago, people would ask each other what their hobbies were and they’d take pride in them. They weren’t always competitive things but were activities that provided a focus and brought enjoyment to the person. Hobbies have gone out of fashion in mainstream society but autistic people frequently have hobbies. Sometimes this is pathologised in my personal opinion, and is referred to as a “Special Interest”. I have friends who are comfortable and proud of the “Special Interests” label and they quite rightly say that their special interest is far more than a hobby. It is something they have an intense and deep knowledge about, something that brings them far more pleasure and satisfaction than the hobbies people tend to have does. I agree with them on that and to call their interest a hobby would be disrespectful and invalidate the importance of it to them or their incredible levels of knowledge, commitment and skill. This is the great thing about people though. We can disagree on things. I am totally cool with calling my friend’s special interest a special interest and she calls mine a hobby. There is no right or wrong and we both know what we mean.
What is important is that everyone can benefit from finding an interest or hobby. It gives a break from the day to day mundane parts of life. It provides respite from the stresses and strains going on around us. It enables us to put our energy somewhere productive and creative. My hobbies are fairly mainstream and this is not uncommon in girls and women who have autism. We tend to be more affected by social pressures and choose to pursue interests that don’t make us stand out any more than we already do. What I will say is, enjoy your hobbies and take an example from those unconventional people in society – autistic or not. I’m pretty mainstream with my hobbies compared to some people but still a little unconventional. Do whatever it is that brings you joy. If your interest is motorbikes and you’re a woman then so what! If you have a secret stash of animal bones in your garden that your husband doesn’t know about (oops! until now), then who cares!
These are strange times. People keep telling me this. They are right.
I feel fear of the unknown everyday because I am autistic. I crave predictability and feel stressed when my routine changes. I want to understand everything I can so that I feel in control, but there are some things that need more than an explanation to sort them out. I crave solitude and time on my own so that I can have a break from the overwhelming world. So please don’t feel sorry for me sat on my own or when I turn down an office party – I like being like this and I don’t want to be more sociable, it’s ok and I am alone but certainly not lonely.
There are valuable lessons to be learned from each other and I include all people in this – of every neurology, gender, sexuality, race, age or IQ. I secretly (well not so secretly now!) hope that many of the quietened voices in society will be heard during this time of reduced social contact. Those people that don’t thrive in a busy, social world; those people that are problem solvers every day of their lives; the innovative thinkers; the ones who find simple pleasures in life with total disregard for perceived status; the ones who aren’t heard because their voice isn’t communicated through speech or people simply don’t listen to them. If we are going to make a better world through this crisis then lets make sure everyone is enabled to play a part in it this time.
“Mummy, I’m happier now I’ve got a new routine”. This is a relief for us all in our family. We are no different to any other family at the moment coping with these strange and uncertain times. Some of our challenges may feel a bit quirky, unusual or just plain selfish to other people but they are our reality in the same way that every single individual, couple and family will be having their own unique set of challenges at the moment.
We were eating our Sunday dinner. This was important. My husband had cooked a favourite roast meal for us, the same as on any other typical Sunday. I made sure that my veggie sausage acted as a gravy breakwater so that no gravy seeped on to my roast potatoes. What I would have given when I was young to have those food dividers on my plate to ensure separate foods didn’t touch! But back then when I was growing up, it was called being a “fussy eater”. My son, who is a teenager and now bigger than me; and who enjoys wrestling; cartoons that involve lots of swearing and gross-out humour; and is planning how he will attract girls by developing a muscly chest and holding our cute dog in a photograph for his tiktok account (I kid you not!) has mashed potato not roast. And it is lovingly crafted into the shape of a steam ship by my husband – complete with upright sausage funnel. This familiarity brings us pleasure and reassurance. Even the dog is happy, she recognises Sunday by all the visual, scent and auditory cues that go with our weekly roast dinner and she’s eyeing up her bowl in readiness for some leftover veg. If our son settles down with a partner when he is older, I hope they have skills in making sausage and mash steam ships!
Our son announced to us that he was happy because he has a new routine now. He listed his routine and although it didn’t sound that educational, healthy or varied, it was a good solid routine that would fit into these strange times and add some predictability and control for him. It is like this:
Watch a cartoon
Play video games
Go outside for the afternoon
Watch YouTube videos
Watch a comedy programme or a car programme
Bedtime story with dad
In fact, it is a fantastic routine because he has created it himself and we can add in various bits and pieces to his day that won’t upset the routine but will add variety and balance. For instance, the YouTube video watching time can be used to slip in something educational. The video games time can be spent online gaming with friends – including old friends he has lost contact with. The outdoor time can be used for all manner of activities that will promote exercise and wellbeing.
Before this new routine had become set in our son’s day, he was extremely restless and although I feel I shouldn’t say it; demanding. He cannot initiate activities for himself and it was an endless “mummy” (said in a very particular tone that consists of 4 syllables and a whine) “what shall I do now?”. This was mostly because he did not know what to do but also because he freely admits he likes saying “mummy” like that. He tells me that he finds the sensation in his mouth and ears very satisfying. It probably also creates a stronger reaction in me than his normal chatter if I’m honest, and as someone who is not particularly demonstrative or outwardly emotional, he possibly enjoys seeing my lack of patience escalate whilst I am trying to look calm and normal! Of course, getting fantastic sensory feedback from certain sensations can be very stimulating and if you repeat them endlessly it can create its own sense of calm, predictability and control – and just plain, feel nice – which is important to remember during these times where so much doesn’t feel nice because of the anxiety whirling through society. I am sure an increase in repetitive behaviours is a fact of life for many autistic people at the moment. His new routine hasn’t stopped him asking questions or seeking reassurance about what is happening or needing prompts for what to do next but it has helped him feel slightly calmer and helped us as parents understand him better which means we can respond in a more helpful way. It means we can concentrate more on our own self care which is vital, particularly when you are all under one roof. I need to wind down at the same time as our son winds up in the evenings and this can create quite spectacular meltdowns from us all if not anticipated and proactively managed. I’m not saying it will avoid overload or overwhelm but it has reduced the impact of it.
My own anxiety about the uncertainties has increased too and of course my autism is affecting how this looks and feels. I imagine I have the same anxieties as the rest of society about getting ill and seeing loved ones get ill. And the whole, massive, almost infinite box of “what ifs?” and “whys?” that is sitting directly above my head, drip feeding my brain at the moment. My routine hasn’t changed much and some pressures have been reduced because I thrive on working from home and my job is safe, my employers are fantastic and I have a valued and important job that is enabling me to focus my coronavirus anxieties and the need to plan, control and understand what is going on into something positive, useful and beneficial. It also means I can leave Covid-19 at the metaphorical office door when I finish work and I can focus on other things.
It is important for me to have breaks from interests and I crave balance in my life constantly because I know it benefits me. I have a tendency to hyper focus and fixate on things to the point of obsession and this can be detrimental to my wellbeing so I need to compartmentalise things so that they don’t take over. “Broad rather than deep” is my mantra at the moment. Although I readily admit that my ‘normal’ depth is probably deeper than most people’s – I can’t just let it lie, I have to explore, find out and see how everything works. I can hear my mum’s voice berating me “you have to fiddle with everything don’t you, why can’t you just leave it alone instead of taking it apart and breaking it?!” I have always been an analyser.
Social distancing. I had never heard of this phrase two weeks ago, but I am loving the experience. I am absolutely not being facetious about this. I have been more sociable than ever before. I have reconnected with old friends, colleagues and acquaintances and I’m enjoying the online contact with them. What makes this work is that there is no expectation that we will have to meet face to face. I avoid friendships and going out in groups because I find it so painful not knowing what to do and say and it reminds me that I am different – and that reminds me of every negative experience I have ever had of being weird, different and an easy target for bullies or teasing.
Our son is from a very different generation. Differences are more accepted and he has grown up with ‘different being normal’ in our family. He is far more self-assured than I am and he is missing his friends and the face to face contact and being able to run around with them and play fight and hit each other and muck about and wrestle them. Strong proprioceptive input is important for his sensory regulation and although I am a middle aged woman and smaller than my son and therefore not a good wrestling partner – particularly if you take into account my accident proneness – we need to find time for lots of strong hugs and squeezes and physical work like digging the garden and moving firewood and bouncing around on a gym ball. He also misses talking with his friends and the PlayStation is a wonderful tool at the moment because he can play online, (combat games mostly) and pop his headset on and talk to them. It does make the house feel rather small though with his put-on Cockney accent shouting orders at his platoon to take down enemy troops!
Education can wait. It can be done by stealth. Sneak in an educational YouTube video; strike up an interesting and informed discussion or debate about sociology, politics and the media – there is after all a wealth of information out there ripe for discussion. The biggest lesson I hope he learns from this is how to develop resilience and good coping skills. I wasn’t taught these and I didn’t learn them myself from watching others. What I did learn as a child about coping was not always the healthiest or safest ways to get by and has cost me deeply in wasted years where I no longer thrived and in ‘treatment’ and therapy to put things right. It was far easier to rebalance my missed education. School was not a good place for me and in terms of exam results I certainly ‘failed’ even though my attendance levels were high and I did not miss time because of a pandemic. When the time was right I completed a Masters degree and I have just written out my proposal for the PhD I am going to undertake. It was relatively easy to achieve with hard work and the right sensory environment for studying in. What was much harder to rebalance and is a daily effort on my part is my mental wellbeing.
Self-care through these times is essential and I hope we can make a better, fairer, kinder society because of this pandemic. Even if we can’t, the most important thing for our family at the moment is being together, reflecting on what is important to us and for us and helping each other cope. That is the thing we can influence. We cannot make politicians see sense, we cannot make people follow advice, we cannot learn everything there is to know about immunology and virology and medicine and even if we did it may not change anything. But we can take our time, take stock of who we are and create new routines that work and demonstrate how important it is to take care of ourselves. From that, good coping skills and resilience will come and that will be a more useful lesson in life than doing sums or history lessons.