The COVID-19 pandemic has required the vast majority of us to wear masks. This has predictably become a major source of civic contention: You might be judged a homicidal moron if you refuse, or another type of moron who likes government control if you go along.
As an autistic woman, this time has been simultaneously validating and traumatic, in part because I have had to “mask” — that is, take steps to hide my autism — my entire life.
I wasn’t diagnosed as autistic until I was 28, but autistic masking has long been elemental to my social survival, yet detrimental to my mental and emotional well-being.
In middle school, I learned that I was weird — from my speech patterns to what I wore and how I walked. I understood that if I didn’t at least pretend I was one of the herd, I’d be left behind. So I became an excellent mimic and started to camouflage. I hid my characteristics that had been mocked, analyzed what I said beforehand to make sure it wasn’t strange or offensive, and memorized a repertoire of “appropriate” behaviors I observed in neurotypical, or non-autistic, people.
While I continued struggling into adulthood, people would occasionally tell me that I seemed normal, even after I told them I had autism. So it worked.
Amid the pandemic, I noticed something oddly relieving about the physical masks: They help hide my flat affect. I don’t have to worry about how I come off and can focus, instead, on tasks at hand.
On the opposite end, there are huge downsides. Many autistic people don’t just have trouble with our own emotional expressions, but also those of others, which we are prone to misinterpret or miss altogether. This leads to many of our social difficulties, and when someone is covering their face with a mask, this can make things even harder.
Then there are the sensory issues. For neurotypicals, masks may be annoying, but for someone who naturally finds fabric against their skin the equivalent to sandpaper, it’s painful.
With social distancing, other dichotomies have presented themselves. Because of decreased social interaction, we don’t need to mask as much. And with virtual work, school, and doctor visits, our sensory issues have been mitigated. We don’t have to leave our home environments and have our routines disrupted.
But often for autistic people, social distancing isn’t a choice; autistic people are more likely to develop severe symptoms of, or even die from, COVID-19 than their neurotypical peers. The pandemic has exposed just how dysfunctional and fragile our society is, and how people who are the most in need, like those of us with autism, are still the most let down.
But there is at least one silver lining: virtual work. I was already freelancing online before COVID-19 due to employment struggles, so that was no major adjustment for me. Online work can be ideal for autistic people, but even we tire of isolation and crave outside human contact.
With COVID-19, the limited support that existed for us, like social and life-skills groups, have been shut down and disrupted, or still require masking and social distancing. Without these opportunities, we have less ability to cope or hope.
I can’t help but see this as a problem with our culture — which treats basic needs like mental health care as luxuries, and differences in social functioning as indicators of intelligence, morality and personal worth.
But we can use the pandemic to reflect on the ways that we mistreat neurodivergent humans, and how we can start improving our society for everybody.