The Great Lockdown, Autism, and Trauma

Neurotypicals are experiencing what Autistic people have to deal with for nearly their entire lives.

Source: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/03/why-lockdowns-work-epidemics-coronavirus-covid19/ , REUTERS/Alberto Lingria

It’s no secret that the current global lockdown that’s been mandated by governments worldwide to slow the spread of COVID-19 has been taking a toll on the mental health of a good chunk of the global population. Scrolling on various social media feeds I’ve been seeing plenty of posts from people about their experiences with how isolation is affecting their faculties and how things like memory loss, an inability to push one’self towards tasks, and plenty of other phenomena that they find novel are happening — but, this isn’t new for autistic people, in fact its a very similar song and dance.

Now often there are many posts about how this new life that we have to adjust to is for many people, particularly those who are labeled as introverted, a life that they had already been living, and it’s almost a meme at this point because of how prevalent such sentiments are. However this should be taken with some serious examination when talking about autistic people in particular, because the fact is, we often as the result of alienation, put in this kind of environment out of necessity and often to our own detriment.

Some of the consequences of nearly a month and a half of social isolation with various moments of limited social interaction here and there self reported by people are: lethargy, depression, anxiety, boredom, loss of memory, executive dysfunction, and many more symptoms that together, many are experiencing for the first time. Reading posts from people in online communities made me think of my own experiences as an autistic person, as all of these things have been ever-present in my life, and I began to ask myself the question: “Is this supposed to be normal for us?”

We already know the affects of social isolation on extreme cases like researchers in Antarctica or prisoners in solitary confinement, but again, those are extreme cases. They experience some of the same symptoms but at a higher level, with some prisoners in solitary confinement experiencing paranoia, depression, and even sometimes hallucinations. Although the largely neurotypical segment of the population that is under lockdown at the moment is experiencing only semi-isolation, with periodic social contact made and online access a reality for most people, it’s still clear that this is collectively somewhat of a minor traumatic experience for many communities, adding onto the trauma already being created by the stress of working to make sure this pandemic is contained, and the grief caused by the death of many of our loved ones.

We can then imagine if this is going to be a detriment to the health of those under lockdown, then what about someone who spends nearly their entire life in such a state, what would that do to a person’s psyche? To get a good answer to this question all that is needed is to ask an autistic person. My own experience for instance is one where I can’t remember a time without some sort of isolation being an exception in my life, where I can remember it being the rule in all cases.

The result of having different sensory needs, ergo having different communicative and social abilities when those abilities are the wrong ones for the job, and where your needs aren’t being met is extremely detrimental, it’s traumatic. An autistic person will go into primary school and be bullied for being sensitive, or shunned for being insensitive, bullied for stimming freely, emotionally and physically abused by teachers and parents for lashing out or not following instructions, and so on, and so on. As a pure necessity, and as a consequence of our existence, at a young age, we learn to isolate out of a need for our safety. Not only that, the pure fact that we are often unable to decipher the social complexities of neurotypical interactions even around children make for an alienating social environment in a passive sense, so we often feel literally isolated even when other people are around. One can imagine that this much direct and indirect isolation contributes to isolationist tendencies, and that isolation leads to all the resulting symptoms that were mentioned beforehand, and this is so ubiquitous among autistic experiences that when recounting them and explaining them we often don’t make a distinction between what it means to be autistic sans isolation and what it means to be autistic in isolation.

Growing up and becoming a teenager and an adult this has massive consequences to our social lives, as many autistic people in the age of the internet, prefer online interaction to real life interaction. While the consequences of being autistic in an alienating environment still exist, the previous socialization (or counter-socialization, or de-socialization if you will) is everpresent and adds on with continual social isolation. Often if you go to online autistic communities, plenty topics of conversation will include experiences with anxiety and depression, trouble with doing basic tasks and memory loss, suicide and suicidal idealizations, troubles with forced socializing by family or by school, and the kind of Neodadaist humor that is present in online communities like Reddit and Tumblr where many people who post are in adjacent communities, also stuck inside and suffering from the same issues frequently. And the thing is, it doesn’t just go away, like other traumas it stays with us for our entire lives without some kind of massive environmental change, therapy, closure, or whatever will help, but even we don’t know what medicine the doctor should prescribe.

While i’m extremely skeptical of the social changes that will come out of this crisis, it would overjoy me if many come out of this crisis kinder to disabled folk, particularly autistic people as a consequence.

20. University student studying Philosophy and Sociology. Agender Trans Girl. Autistic & Bipolar. Writing from experience.