Three years have passed since the initial Covid lockdown began, profoundly altering our lives. The prevailing narrative surrounding lockdowns and this period as a whole have been a negative impact on individuals’ lives, businesses, relationships, and overall well-being. This message pervades media, research papers, academic discussions, and daily conversations, continuing to the present day.
We have heard heartrending accounts of people separated from loved ones until it was too late, as well as the challenges faced by families juggling work, caregiving, and homeschooling. We have read about those in disadvantaged situations, isolated and experiencing the fears and uncertainties of the time alone. We have also learned about frontline workers, such as NHS staff, public service workers, and caregivers, who could not isolate themselves because their duties required them to care for those in need.
While these stories are undeniably important, one perspective has been largely absent: that of neurodivergent individuals, people with mental illnesses, and those living with social anxiety. As World Autism Acceptance Week takes place this week, it is crucial to share our viewpoints. Although many of us struggled with life under lockdown, for some, it provided a respite from societal pressures and a chance to escape conformity.
For individuals with social anxiety, navigating the noisy and demanding neurotypical world can be utterly overwhelming. The need to mask and feign “normalcy”, to smile and feign amusement at jokes that are difficult to understand, can be exhausting. As Pete Wharmby elucidates in his book Un-typical which offers a clear insight into life as an autistic person, people often fail to grasp the complexity of our thought processes.
A simple greeting can lead to hours, days, or even weeks of overthinking and ruminating. Living as an autistic person in a neurotypical world is draining. When lockdown began, it provided relief for many of us, as interactions moved online and we could unmask. Discussions with mental health and autism professionals, as well as other autistic individuals, reveal that this experience is shared by many, yet has largely been hidden from public view. The world was eager to return to “normal”, and our perspectives were overlooked.
During Autism Acceptance Week, rather than simply raising awareness or seeking acceptance from broader communities, it is time to introduce new, practical ways of enacting change. The Covid pandemic altered many aspects of daily life, demonstrating that things can be different. Autistic people often have to “mask” their true selves for a semblance of acceptance. Life should not solely be about masking discomfort; the world can and should adapt to accommodate us as well.
Here are five suggestions for creating a more inclusive world that goes beyond merely accepting autistic individuals by incorporating our voices and experiences.
For shopping, I prefer “click and collect” or online ordering, as they involve minimal human interaction. But sometimes I must visit a physical store, which can be a chaotic and overwhelming experience, especially for autistic individuals.
During the pandemic’s early days, essential businesses like supermarkets remained open, and lockdown measures helped create order in these spaces. Although bright lights and loud noises persisted, the implementation of one-way systems, directional arrows, and designated queuing spots improved the shopping experience.
Recently, I visited a cramped sports shop that exhibited all the issues of a larger supermarket. The lack of clear queuing instructions led to confusion and awkward interactions. This unpleasant experience could have been avoided with simple, easy-to-read floor signs indicating where to queue and maintaining appropriate distances.
If you own or manage a shop or supermarket, please reconsider discarding these signs in the rush to “return to normal”. Sometimes, “normal” is insufficient, and clear directions can prevent awkward encounters that may ruin someone’s day.
It has been a long time since we have been able to dine in restaurants, cafes, or pubs. On a recent trip to Scotland, we chose to eat outdoors while wearing coats and scarves, which puzzled some observers. But eating in front of others significantly exacerbates my social anxiety, and I have often had to leave a meal when a group chooses the table next to ours.
During the pandemic, one positive change in dining establishments was the increased use of booths to separate patrons. Booths significantly reduce social anxiety by providing privacy for eating and conversation, as well as a sense of enclosed and personal space. Many neurodivergent individuals, including myself, can experience sensory meltdowns when overwhelmed, and an audience only makes the situation worse. Meltdowns may still occur in a booth if other factors, such as loud music or nearby patrons, are overwhelming. But they are less likely to happen if we are given additional space and privacy, rather than being in an open seating area or, worse yet, at shared tables.
Although it may seem like a significant request, restaurant owners should remember that a substantial portion of the population is autistic. We are your customers, just like neurotypical individuals. Personally, I rarely dine out because it is too stressful. But if booths or more private seating options were standard in restaurants, I would be much more likely to visit and enjoy the entire menu. And many autistic people tend to be loyal to familiar experiences – provide us with a comfortable dining experience, and we will likely return.
For autistic individuals, certainty is crucial. It is disheartening to arrive at a favourite venue only to find it overcrowded with no available space. I cannot count the number of times we have driven to a location, excited for the day ahead, only to be deterred by a full parking lot and a long queue of customers seemingly unfazed by the crowded conditions. We usually avoid joining the line, opt for a quick turnaround, and proceed to a plan B. As a couple with extreme social anxiety, we always need a quiet backup option when our original plans fall through. Consequently, planning a simple day out can take hours before we even leave the house.
In late 2020, when Covid infections appeared to be decreasing, some tourist attractions in Wales reopened primarily outdoor venues like castles and wildlife centres. Strict rules remained in place, including social distancing, hand-washing, and mask-wearing. Additionally, pre-booking with limited time slots was mandatory. This system was ideal, as we could purchase tickets with the assurance that only a small number of visitors would be present at a given time. If tickets were sold out, we could avoid an unnecessary trip, providing safety, comfort, and certainty.
Today, most of these measures have vanished along with other Covid restrictions. While online and telephone booking systems persist, as they did before the pandemic, limited time slots and restricted visitor numbers have been replaced with a tendency to pack as many people as possible into confined spaces. I recognise that limiting customer numbers comes with financial implications, and many businesses cannot afford to turn away patrons. But there may be valuable lessons to learn from these past policies. If governments worldwide can provide substantial financial support to businesses during a global health crisis, surely society can devise similarly innovative solutions to accommodate those with disabilities who face daily struggles.
This topic should be approached cautiously, as it has been the subject of heated debate for some time. First, it’s important to acknowledge that not all jobs can be performed remotely. This limitation is an issue in itself, as remote work is often associated with more tech-oriented roles, which may be inaccessible to a significant portion of the population. Numerous debates surround this issue, and fully unpacking it would require an entire series of blog posts. For now, let’s focus on the basics: how remote work can be embraced to create healthy and autism-friendly workplaces.
First, the social demands of work often pose the greatest challenge for neurodivergent individuals. Navigating workplace interactions, saying the right thing to the right person, and deciphering social hierarchies can be utterly exhausting, and that’s before even considering the actual work. In-person meetings present additional difficulties, as attendees are crowded into a room under the assumption that it fosters collaboration. In reality, many neurodivergent individuals may struggle to focus on the discussion due to feeling overwhelmed. The emphasis on in-person interaction places significant pressure on people with disabilities. As Pete Wharmby has noted in his book, many neurodivergent individuals maintain their closest relationships online. Remote work and remote socialisation both offer advantages, as the digital world allows for greater asynchronous communication, providing more autonomy and time to navigate interactions that can be challenging in person.
Secondly, a significant issue with attitudes toward remote work is its use as a reward and punishment system in many workplaces. Employers might be overlooking the fact that remote work is not merely a preference for some employees due to convenience or reluctance to leave home. For autistic individuals, it is often a critical need that allows them to work without experiencing distress, panic attacks, or eventual burnout.
There is still much progress to be made in addressing the numerous sub-debates and debunking misconceptions, such as the notion that remote workers are lazy. But for many autistic individuals like myself, the ability to work, study, and socialise in a manner that does not cause distress ultimately leads to better results. The numerous neurodivergent individuals seeking freelance remote opportunities are not doing so out of laziness or a lack of discipline. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Face-to-face interaction in a neurotypical world requires far more effort for autistic individuals than continuously pitching oneself online (which is already exhausting).
By setting aside our preconceived notions and recognising remote work as a solution rather than a threat, we can make strides toward true autism acceptance. This could lead to greater job security for autistic individuals, fewer people taking time off due to work-related stress, and increased overall productivity.
My primary suggestion is for employers. If you offer remote or hybrid work, that is commendable, but please do not use it as a punishment or reward system. Doing so trivialises the needs of many disabled individuals by treating remote work as a mere job perk. For many, it is an absolute necessity, allowing them to be productive without the sensory overload of face-to-face environments.
The phrase “I was social distancing before it was cool” is often used in introvert communities, albeit in jest. While many people struggled with social distancing throughout the lockdown periods, autistic individuals often require space and distance to cope with the noise and sensory overload of the world. Social distancing provided a respite from this chaos and a sense of security in knowing one’s personal space was protected.
As the world has rapidly returned to its pre-pandemic “normal”, social closeness seems to have intensified. This increased closeness can also trigger sensory overwhelm for autistic individuals. Many struggle with physical or social proximity to strangers, even if they are comfortable hugging friends or family members. It is crucial for people to understand that others may have different social needs and that what might seem like a harmless greeting or brief interaction could cause significant distress for some.
We should also reconsider the emphasis on politeness in social interactions. If someone does not smile or greet a passerby, they likely have more going on than meets the eye. Instead of forcing greetings or assuming rudeness, we should be more mindful of giving those who need it a little more space in various situations.
These are just a few suggestions and by no means an exhaustive list. Many small yet practical changes could help create a more inclusive world – a world that goes beyond mere autism awareness or token gestures of acceptance. A world that genuinely allows us to live comfortably and safely as our true selves. The Covid pandemic demonstrated that significant changes can be made rapidly, and that collective efforts for the greater good can indeed be effective. While change is never easy, it has been achieved before and can be accomplished again. Autistic individuals deserve more than just acceptance or awareness; now is the time for them to truly thrive.
An earlier version of this article was published on Aunty Social World.
Laura Barrett and Jon Thrower are autism campaigners. They are the founders of Aunty Social World.
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