This is not what I wanted.
High-functioning autistics like me who live alone and work from home fight a constant battle against expected levels of socialization. We have to self-limit because of how exhausting it is, and we are constantly apologizing and feeling less than because of it. Over the course of my adulthood, I’ve had to cut out rock concerts, wedding receptions, graduations, amusement parks, arcades, and plenty of other high-stimulus, high-density activities because they inevitably trigger meltdowns, a state of being so completely overwhelmed that it results in physical acting out (I’m a thrower), a temper tantrum, or sobbing, often all at once. (Unsurprisingly, I now avoid risking this humiliating experience when out in public at any cost.)
So you’d think this whole social distancing/no large gatherings thing would be a dream come true, and for the first couple of weeks, it absolutely was. The constant pressure I was under before, to do more than I was able to, was lifted. I no longer had to shut out the potential judgment I might receive for demanding special treatment for my autism, like having the music turned down at a restaurant, or being allowed to wait in a different place from the other patients in a doctor’s office, or not being able to go to a friend’s baby shower. I could putter around doing all my little weird self-care things that enable me to act “natural” in public for the brief periods of time for which it is required and for once not feel guilty about them.
After a month and a half of this, however, I have come to realize that the few and brief social encounters entailed in running my usual errands were a valuable component of my minimal social existence. Even though I resented the expected performance involved in doing them, they were still the lion’s share of my contact with the outside world. As it turns out, a little bit of socialization is vastly different from no socialization at all.
For an autistic, being home alone all the time makes it hard to remember that bathing regularly is still required, as is putting on actual clothing instead of the same sweatpants and t-shirt for days on end. Occasional visits to the grocery store are the only thing keeping me on the straight and narrow regarding personal hygiene. As an experienced work-from-homer, I’ve long since known that teleconferencing only requires a warm-bulb desk lamp, a not-black shirt, and lipstick, all of which can be easily achieved without a shower, deodorant or toothbrush.
Before this happened, every time I left the house I had to put on a fake face and constantly concentrate on not just what I was saying but how I was saying it. Pumping gas, going to the drugstore, ordering coffee, waiting for my dry-cleaning, everything. My whole life was built around making sure I was able to do that when demanded. But now that it isn’t demanded, under the new status quo involves maintaining a six-foot distance and wearing a mask that hides most of my face, the routine has broken down.
Why bother spending time meditating in the morning if I don’t have to steel myself to interact with neurotypical people? Why eat a meal at a certain time if I’m home all day and I can eat whenever I want? Why wear nice but uncomfortable clothes if no-one will see them? (So much for the dry-cleaning.) Why do anything I consider socially prescribed nonsense at all?
Conformation to neurotypical expectations dictated every waking minute of my day, even though very little of it was spent outside my home. Now that the pressure of those expectations has been lifted, I’m bouncing around this apartment like a super ball in an empty racquetball court, moving too quickly and erratically to grab on to anything, to prepare for anything, to settle in any given place. My neurotypical performance was my gravity. I would never have realized it otherwise, but I am adrift without it. It now seems that my trips to the pharmacy, the nail salon, the coffee shop, despite the outsized amount of energy expended in doing them, were incredibly important. I actually miss them, performance and all.
I have yet to find my bearings in a world where compensating for my autism is no longer required. Much as I longed for it before, now that it is here, I am at a loss. As I wait for things to go back to “normal,” at a time that has yet to be defined, I am reminded I have never been good with uncertainty. Now it clings to me like wet air on a humid day. I can’t escape it; I can’t even leave the apartment and leave it here more than the couple of hours every week or two when I venture out, masked and gloved, to re-up on groceries and necessary supplies.
My anxiety over hiding my autism has been replaced by an experience I now share with just about everyone, autistic or otherwise. I can’t shake this feeling of impending disaster that could occur at any time and for which an endpoint can’t even be remotely visualized, never mind assured. For once, I really am just like everyone else.
But this is not what I wanted. Not like this.