April 12, 2020

COVID-19 Exposes Ableist Assumptions of Autistic Social Interaction

Many seem to think autistics are innately built or born for handling COVID-19’s regimen of sheltering in place and social distancing. There is this semi-truthful, semi-tongue-in-check notion that autistics must be fine, even thriving, right now. The absence of social interaction in “the world” is their default, so hunkering down is as natural as breathing. 

Some autistics, however, are downright struggling with the lack of social interaction. While most autistics are not what one would call social butterflies, most do have the desire for social interaction, albeit on their terms, with people they consider “safe”, and usually in small quantities. The prescription for COVID-19 has thrown a considerable wrench in a well-cultivated social routine, with challenging and serious consequences. 

Ableist Stranglehold on Autism 

Before we examine the social needs of autistics in a time of social distancing, we must examine why these basic needs ring like an oxymoron. Autistics are frequently painted as less desirous of social interaction or even sometimes downright anti-social. Put more simply, autistics supposedly “don’t people”. They are a deviation of humankind that has evolved away from social interaction and toward purposeful isolation. While those statements may read hyperbolic, they are the outcomes of the ableist framework of autism. 

Ableists create and maintain a chasm between “their'' socialization and all other types of “socialization”. Because autistics don’t socialize in “acceptable” ways — they’re not big on parties, small talk, or chatting on the phone — they reside on the other side of that deep canyon. Autistics have been given a sign post (a diagnostic label) because they are recognizable enough to nonautistics, suggesting just how foreign nonautistics must see the socialization of autistics. 

Autistic socialization challenges and confounds nonautistic understanding. Nonautistics are only able to apply existing paradigms to social behavior, which illuminates their own familiar, accepted forms of socializing. Nonautistics have not been historically interested in exploring the autistic perspective of anything. Autism has become an undesirable opposite (read: wrong) way of socializing, behaving, sensing, and functioning in the world. Autism is, by nonautistic definition, pathologized and denigrated. 

The ableist script goes further, writing autistics not only as tragically flawed but also tragically conflicted. Their cross to bear is an ironic and cruel loneliness and envy of the relationships of nonautistics. Cue the pity for the poor, broken autistics. End scene, please. Such a storyline only drives further miscommunication. Nonautistics continue to believe they know everything there is to know, without ever asking any actual autistic people for clarification. 

Differently Social, Not Antisocial

Far from being antisocial, autistics are merely social in different ways. They may desire less interaction with less frequency than the average nonautistic. Talking (on the phone, via text, or in person) with a friend may seem unnecessary, anxiety-inducing, and exhausting. In lieu of a “life update”, a quick meme, emoji, or joke may suffice. Rather than a phone call for a few minutes complaining about a lazy coworker, autistics opt for discussion via a messenger app with a close autistic friend that lasts most of the afternoon and covers current events, politics, and what both parties have learned about making their own masks. 

Autistics often prefer to socialize with fewer people. Most autistics are not keen on crowds or parties. They need to feel safe with someone in order to consider them a friend, and that doesn’t come easily or quickly. The speed with which nonautistics develop a first impression is incomprehensible to autistics, who are seeking to understand how others react (predictability), what they care about (values), and if they can be trusted to follow through on what they say (consistency).

Autistics also value meaningful interactions, preferring deep discussions with close friends about special interests and in-depth topics over small talk with multiple acquaintances and strangers at a party. The banalities of small talk cannot be highlighted enough. Social chitchat feels like the Olympian sport of trying to be witty, pithy, and empathetic with an aura of effortlessness. Certainly, not an endeavor autistics care to medal in.

Autistics enjoy spending time together pursuing separate interests, such as gaming, reading, or drawing. Nonautistics consider these solitary activities because they lack an emotional connection and a shared focus. Autistics, on the other hand, feel an emotional connection by being able to engross themselves in something that they love doing, while being in the same shared space as someone they enjoy. It is truly the best of both worlds: enjoying one’s favorite activities, being with someone you care about, yet not having the added pressure of social interaction. 

Whereas nonautistics are energized by social interaction, autistics find themselves depleted. Even desired social interaction with favorite people requires effort and energy from the autistic. Even with “safe” people such as other autistics, they are constantly monitoring things like tone, body language, facial expression, and eye contact, and they never fully relax or become completely comfortable. 

Categorically Building Understanding  

While the understanding that “less is more” more accurately captures autistic socialization needs than “perfectly happy left in a corner”, the ways in which autistics cope in a society that desires, though passively denies, social homogeneity warrant exploration. 

Nonautistics are pretty unpredictable, whether they like to admit this or understand it. Autistics have come up with ways to compensate for this unpredictability. By ritualizing interactions and categorizing behavioral responses, autistics can begin to counter the unpredictability of interacting with nonautistics.

Autistics have mastered the art of ritualized interactions not simply to check a diagnostic box for the DSM. Nonautistics are rather unpredictable. Ask any nonautistic to explain why they do or say or feel or react like they do, and they will provide an answer that only satisfies other nonautistics, who already know that answer. This answer is filled with assumptions and emotional logic (yeah, that’s a thing) built on neurotypical social mores and culture. This answer lacks the logical why and how autistics need. It’s like telling someone you don’t speak Swahili but they continue to speak to you in Swahili (but louder and with more gestures) as though you are a native speaker.

Nonautistics also categorize their behavioral responses in social situations in ways vastly different to autistics. They take an action, add a context, and aim for an outcome. No mention is made of the analytical processes undergirding the completion of this formula, of the unlimited variables added by even the smallest changes in context, of the emotional assumptions and self-management required to understand and navigate the situation even somewhat successfully. 

Take introductions. There are an infinite number of variables (contexts) to an introduction that play into its success. Nonautistics just know these things (and assume you do, too). If they were to explain “how to introduce” oneself, they would capture the critical components (eye contact, smile, hand shake, greeting plus name, etc.) and offer how the context of the introduction (e.g., job interview, first date, casual get together at a friend’s house) impacts the critical components. But, so much is left unsaid because they can distill terabytes of data and experience into the simple social-behavioral category: Introduction. 

On the other hand, autistics manually, and with difficulty, learn and categorize each individual part of the process called “introduction”, learning more and more throughout their lives, never being quite finished, and never naturally understanding how all the parts fit together to create the whole. This laborious process resembles the now-defunct library card catalog system. While this system always worked, it was inefficient, cumbersome, and time-intensive. 

It’s as though one keystroke retrieves the information nonautistics required, while autistics build the system from the ground up each time. What is a natural and automatic process for a nonautistic will almost always be (at least partially) a scripted process, requiring mental effort from an autistic. It never becomes fully natural or automatic in the way that it does for the nonautistic.

COVID-19 Exposes Ableism

COVID-19 and its social distancing presents a situation in which autistics now find themselves unable to access the few social situations they consider safe and find comforting. Left feeling more lonely and isolated than ever in a time of forced social isolation, autistics are also surrounded by those who believe they do not actually have any social needs. In a time when everyone, autistic and nonautistic alike, is feeling stressed and anxious about the ever-changing nature of our present reality, everyone needs social support. 

Autistics cannot be forgotten. The consequences of failing to consider offering support can be severe. Feelings of hopelessness and isolation lead to increased anxiety, depression, obsessive and intrusive thinking, compulsive behaviors, and even suicidal thoughts or behaviors. The stress brought on by COVID-19 and self-isolation protocols can make reaching out for social comfort feel impossible. 

Most of the ways that nonautistics are bridging the gaps left by social distancing are much less comfortable for autistics. This discomfort can be so intense as to make these methods of connection completely inaccessible for autistics. 

Ableist assumptions must be done away with in order to understand how the current social distancing protocols, while necessary, are just as hard on the social needs of autistics as they are on nonautistics. 

Autistics have been given a label with etymology that literally defines them as uninterested at best and uncaring at worst in socialization. That does not mean they agree. This label is not all encompassing. It neither explains all there is to know about autism, nor all there is to know about each autistic individual. As explained above, far from being antisocial, autistics are merely social in different ways. Clinging to ableist assumptions of the antisocial autistic yields consequences as damaging as COVID-19.

Wash your hands of coronavirus and your minds of ableist assumptions. Let’s stop spreading deadly germs.

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