Autistics have waited for this moment their entire lives: Prescribed social distancing. The time has finally come!
It just took an international pandemic for society to reevaluate the necessity of social interaction, redefine the rules governing face-to-face communication, and frown upon unnecessary and optional interaction. Goodbye to the dirty, suspicious, judgmental looks for failing to make eye contact. Adios to maintaining a wide berth to avoid unnecessary social touching. Bring on asking food delivery services to leave orders on the porch. Hello, not shaking hands with strangers. Where have you been, no large gatherings? And best of all, welcome to the world, my very best friend, six feet of personal space between you and everyone else. So been looking forward to your arrival.
Nonautistics have to “cope” with social distancing. Whether it be from the strange lady at the gas station, that officemate brushing her teeth in the bathroom after lunch (we get it, but come on), a workout/bar buddy, a nosy neighbor, coping with the abrupt, forced change to the amount of face-to-face contact creates feelings of isolation, anxiety, and depression in nonautistics. Sounds unthinkable, huh?
As you are well aware, autistics could teach a masterclass on surviving and thriving in these situations. Silence, routine, and environmental stimuli are controllable when people are reliably out of the picture (asleep, at work or school, out with friends).
COVID-19 throws a wrench in the autistic way of coping with nonautistics because sanctuaries are now shared. Shared with people who are anxious, irritable, sad, and bored. Although this is an obvious “taste of your own medicine” situation, it comes with side effects. They may want to interact with you more. (Sorry about that.) They may interrupt your usual solitary exploits. (How dare they?) They could be cooking their stinky work lunch in the kitchen. They will be using the bathroom and washer/dryer at times that you are not accustomed to, this unto itself will disrupt your routine.
To help you manage these changes, we have compiled 19 tips for your mental and physical health. Be safe. Wash your hands. Disinfect those surfaces. And, of course, keep. Your. Distance.
Noise cancelling headphones/earbuds/earplugs
Laptop/tablet/phone/portable gaming system
Tea/coffee/beverage of choice
Cuddly pets (if applicable)/stuffed narwhal, unicorn, wookie, Wonder Woman
Where to Hunker Down
- Bedroom - Seems obvious, but I’m including it just in case you don’t think of it outside of night time. Normally, for proper sleep hygine, we shouldn’t use the bedroom for anything other than sleeping or sex, but these are extenuating circumstances.
- That Weird Room You Avoid - Got a spare room in the house that you don’t use much? Is it full of junk? Do some Spring cleaning or Marie Kondo-ing of the massive action figure/comic book/video game/Funko Pop!/Magic the Gathering collection to clear yourself a little space and get comfy.
- Automatic Privacy - Don’t discount the bathroom. Yep, we’re getting wild here. A long, lavender bath (you decide the suitable temperature) gives you some time away, or haul some pillows and blankets into the bathroom and turn the tub into a nice little nest where you can relax. Pull the curtain closed and you’re good to go! The bathroom fan acts as a nice white noise machine, too!
- The Autistic Cave - Got a closet with some floor space? Then you have a private oasis just for you! Clothes are a built in sound-absorber. If, like me, you like small spaces, you can pull the door closed for a perfect little oasis in the middle of the chaos. The weight of the clothes and the closeness of the space make me feel safe and secure. Bring in your device of choice and you can surf the web or watch movies for hours! Turn on the closet light and you can catch up on your reading!
- The Obligatory Netflix Diet - This is the perfect time to watch every season of that show you’ve always wanted to check out. You can do with the rest of the folks you’re holed up with, or you can stake out a spot somewhere in the house, pop on your headphones, and tune out the chaos for a bit.
- Eliminate That Reading List - Remember all those books piling up? This is the perfect time to curl up with a blanket, drink some warm tea, and catch up on all those titles you’ve been meaning to read but just haven’t gotten around to. Better yet, (shameless promotion) Autistically Allied has plenty of other must reads.
- Stoke Your Inner Margaret Atwood - We’re writers, you knew this suggestion was coming! Ever wanted to try your hand at writing? This is the perfect time to try out that great idea for a novel you’ve always wanted to write. Try your hand at poetry (social distancing gives you 5 strong syllables to start your haiku). Finish up all those half-written essays that have been languishing on your hard drive for years. You don’t have to be a professional to benefit from the pleasures of writing either. Journal about your life and thoughts; if you're anxious about the pandemic, write about that! Journaling about your anxieties can be a great way to get your stress out of your brain and onto a page.
- Cultivate Creativity - Bust out the arts and craft supplies and try something new! Try a new technique, learn a new skill, or finish an old project. Start (and maybe even finish) your favorite coloring book! Make a fidget or hand sanitizer. Look up online tutorials for how to use supplies you already own and see if you can find new ways to use old supplies. Watching artists draw, color, animate, crochet, art can be very soothing unto itself. ASMR, anyone??
- Earn a Merit Badge - There are countless free tutorials online where one can learn almost any skill you could ever want to know. Knitting, sewing, baking, car repair, massage, cooking, home improvement, and many more skills are available at your fingertips.
- Do The To-Do - Exercise your executive (dys)function. This might not be the most entertaining of all the options, but it beats actual exercise and it is productive. And it’s a great way to get the whole household involved. Divy up the chores and start that spring cleaning!
- Explore The Birds and The Bees - With a partner consensually. With yourself privately. Enough said. (But, also, consider with protection because Corona is a perfectly acceptable beer name, but a baby name….not so much.)
- Do A Scavenger Hunt for Laughter - Laugh. Please laugh. Find the humor wherever and whenever you can. This post was our meager attempt to aid you in that endeavor. Seriously, though, this whole situation is stressful and serious for everyone involved, but that doesn’t mean we can’t still laugh. If you need inspiration, check out @SNeurotypicals on Twitter.
- Fun in the Kitchen - Social distancing means less eating out. Sure, you can use DoorDash and other delivery services and request a no-contact delivery. But, why not take advantage of the extra time at home to try a new recipe?
- Stim Party! - Privacy of your own home + free time + changes + more people home, I don’t know about you, but to me that sounds like a recipe for lots and lots of stims. Let ‘em out! Flap, wiggle, dance, spin, tap, flick; just talking about it has me doing some happy finger dancing while I type!
- Walk the Dog/Cat/Guinea Pig/Self - Fresh air is always good for you, doubly so now.
- Contact Your Therapist - He/she may be offering appointments via Skype/Zoom or some other platform. Telehealth (therapy on the phone) is also an option, though raise your hand if you hate talking on the phone. If you do not have access to someone who understands your autism, please feel free to Jeanne.
People are now in your sanctuary, transforming your space into a battlefield. Let’s reduce the warfare as much as possible.
- Explain to your living mates HOW MUCH and WHAT TYPE of communication you expect during the NEW times they are home.
- Create SCHEDULES for common-use spaces. Post the schedules. (Prepare for people to break these schedules sometimes. Prepare your response.)
- If you have sensory issues related to smell, consider communicating a HOLY-SHEEEEET-DON’T-COOK-WHILE-I’M-HOME list. Keep the list short because this increases the likelihood it will be respected.
If You Still Have To Go In To Work
Guess what autistics, this is our world now. We have every reason to keep people out of our offices/cubes/personal spaces. Not only that, but we have the backing of the CDC and the WHO to do so. As long as we are still polite and business-appropriate, HR is likely to have our backs in this situation, too.
Requesting that someone leave your office because of social distancing is perfectly acceptable (even if the underlying reason was your desperate need for peace and quiet, both are valid reasons) and few people will question your request if asked politely.
A couple considerations:
Consider bringing your own sanitizer spray/wipes if you are especially sensitive to fragrance. This way you can at least control what products are used nearest you.
If you are able, consider using headphones/earbuds/earplugs to help keep things quiet. Between this and the six-foot rule, you should be able to cut down on the number of people who want to hang around and talk about nothing but negative news. This isn't helpful for anyone's mental state, and only adds to everyone's stress.
(Co-written with @Missy_Woford. Check her out on Twitter.)