In lockdown as an autistic person

Hannah reflects on what has been challenging and changing her during the COVID-19 pandemic

A global pandemic has posed some huge challenges for everyone. The world has changed dramatically in an unpredictable manner, and we have been forced to adapt to lots of new things in a very short space of time. Being an autistic person has enhanced these difficulties. It’s been particularly hard to adapt, especially when many things didn’t comfortably cater for us previously. However, over the course of multiple lockdowns, perhaps some benefits have emerged, too.

Communication is already often quite tricky and exhausting for someone with autism, let alone adding masks to the mix. I already have to be hyper vigilant to understand facial expressions, so it is virtually impossible to tell at a glance how people are feeling when wearing masks. Also, lip reading is unavailable for those of us who need it. It has been a process of completely relearning how to talk to others with these extra barriers in the way. Despite being exempt from wearing a mask, it is my preference to wear one, though this was a big sensory battle at first. I do carry a ‘sunflower lanyard’ (used as part of the hidden disabilities scheme), but there is always the added threat of confrontation, humiliation or judgmental looks should a mask not be worn, even if the person is exempt.

Communication is already often quite tricky and exhausting for someone with autism, let alone adding masks to the mix.

Adding to the fear of leaving the house now it’s legal (besides the obvious and continued looming threat of the virus itself) is the requirement of hand sanitiser usage. For me, this is a sensory nightmare. The feel of it causes so much discomfort. Before the pandemic, I was always excessively washing my hands anyway – as an OCD trait of autism – so with the extra push on this, I spent the first part of lockdown recovering from the physical pain this caused to my hands, as well as calming my distressing thoughts. I actively made the choice to avoid many aspects of the news as to not fuel and overload my brain with even more anxiety at this time.

Using Zoom and Teams successfully has been a learning curve for us all, and, in many ways, still loses the sense of personal connection when communicating. I have to use it for important services, such as my interview and subsequent training for work, as well as my counselling sessions so it has been a necessity to get the hang of it pretty quickly. Counselling has proven particularly difficult because body language isn’t there to assist.

Hand sanitiser usage is a sensory nightmare. The feel of it causes so much discomfort.

After abruptly finishing college, followed by lockdown, then beginning work in a special educational needs school – all within the last year – I have felt the effects of the pandemic from several different perspectives. Those last couple of days of lessons were full of uncertainty – we didn’t know whether we needed to continue revising for our ‘A’ Levels, and I was unsure of what I was going to do following on from those, so was a little terrified. It’s strange that I’ll never know what grades I would have achieved, but it most definitely was a flood of relief at the time. It was a blessing in disguise with regards to getting my current job though, as I never would have applied if we hadn’t finished early.

That first lockdown was littered with unknowns for all of us while we were all busy making history (and buying lots of loo roll, apparently). The vast and seemingly endless amount of unstructured time was, on one hand a much-needed and once in a lifetime break from everything, while simultaneously being a huge interruption from routine which really tested my executive function skills. Some days were battles to keep going, while others became the perfect time to pause and reflect on things.

Prior to this, I wasn’t totally accepting of autism as part of my identity. It felt like a big secret, something I hadn’t been able to talk about openly before.

Prior to this, I wasn’t totally accepting of autism as part of my identity. It felt like a big secret, something I hadn’t been able to talk about openly before, and that either nobody knew about since lots of masking goes on, or didn’t seem believed due to not having an official diagnosis. This has often made for a lonely experience, especially when being regularly misunderstood. However, when given the right space, lockdown allowed for this conversation to be explored further (resulting in my previous article for Rife). I delved deeper with my research, completing a diploma on the subject, and since then, reading books, exploring the subject with my counsellor, and seeking others with similar experiences. Although I have been pretty certain on many of the traits for many years now, actually being able to attribute them – and the newly discovered ones too – to myself has felt so unbelievably refreshing. I am beginning to understand that aspect of myself far better than I ever could before: all of the good, the bad, and the ‘this is just me’ bits.

There have been losses caused by the global pandemic in every sense, and as an autistic person, there is much of it that I have struggled to comprehend. Despite this, it has also given time to grow as a person, forget about the outside world and all its social expectations, and figure out how I manage sudden, overwhelming changes. This is much needed, since everything is about to shift again.

How has lockdown felt for you? Let us know in the comments.

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