‘Can we go home now?’

Lauren Jenner on how experiences of the pandemic can help those without autism relate to those on the autism spectrum.

In an attempt to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19), unprecedented changes have been made to the inherently social world we live in. Though for many this may feel unusual, I cannot help but notice that for those on the autism spectrum, attempting to function in an unfamiliar world may not be a new experience.

Atypicality in a social world

As an assistant psychologist in a neurodevelopmental service which assesses and diagnoses autism spectrum disorder (ASD), I spend a lot of my time looking for ways a person with autism is significantly different from those who do not have autism.

I have always been fascinated in the differences between the neurotypical mind and that of those with ASD. Growing up with my brother who has autism, this comparison formed the basis of how I developed an understanding of myself and the world around me. I noticed from an early age that I enjoyed surrounding myself with and relating to other people, and that these behaviours were valued in society. 

My brother, on the other hand, found fulfilment in completely different, yet fascinating ways. He would get little out of social situations, and instead preferred to spend his time alone at home, where he had control and could pursue his own interests. As a family, we rarely attended social gatherings, like birthdays and weddings, as these caused my brother immense anxiety. If we wanted to go out, my brother would need a purpose for why we were doing this – whether to walk our dogs or to buy something. If we spontaneously bumped into a friend, he would quickly become distressed and impatient, repeatedly requesting ‘can we go home now?’ regardless of whether we had finished catching up. In the context of a social world, his behaviour was always seen as atypical – a message reinforced by the social stigma towards him and the isolation we experienced as a family over the years. 

Over time, I noticed the qualities routinely assigned to people with autism are the inverse of the qualities that our neurotypical society prizes most. Clinically, we pathologise this, defining the disorder as an absence of social interaction/communication and a presence of restricted behaviours, highly circumscribed interests and unusual sensory sensitivities. The person with autism is then compared against neurotypical norms, to evaluate whether their present/absent behaviours are in fact ‘symptoms’ of a ‘disorder’. As a result, neurotypical people are assumed masters of social interaction who go through life without special interests or routines or feeling hypersensitive. 

Neurotypicality in a non-social world

The pandemic has exposed that what is deemed ‘typical’ rests on the flimsiest of foundations. 

We no longer live in a world where being social is the status quo. We’re applauded for staying at home and distancing ourselves from friends and family. We sit on video calls awkwardly navigating whether it is our turn to speak. When outside, we’re reluctant to engage in small talk and if we do, we worry afterwards whether we navigated the interaction correctly. Routine has been normalised as a tool to manage our anxiety, with behaviours like handwashing and exercise encouraged as rituals. We’ve been advised to become more intensely interested in our hobbies, to help maintain a sense of purpose and focus each day. It has become common to feel hypersensitive, particularly when it comes to maintaining personal space and hygiene. A weekly trip to get groceries can now feel overwhelming for us all. 

For those of us who are ‘neurotypical’, our current experiences and behaviour in a non-social world resonate powerfully with what we have pathologised in autism for years. 

Difference versus dysfunction

Neurodiversity has often been viewed in binary terms of autism versus neurotypicality. We assume if someone exists on the autism spectrum, they are on the ‘dysfunctional’ side of the binary line, and if someone is neurotypical they are on the ‘functional’ side. We make a distinction between which category people lie in depending on whether their brain is ‘hardwired’ to be social (functional) or non-social (dysfunctional). 

The current situation reiterates that what we see in ASD is not necessarily evidence of dysfunction, but rather evidence of difference (Lai, Lombardo & Baron-Cohen, 2014). We are all part of a larger continuum where so many of us have a mixture of different traits and ways of thinking. Whether these are deemed pathological or not will fluctuate depending on if they are congruent with the environment they are presented in. Some cognitive profiles are adaptive in certain environmental niches, but manifest as dysfunctional in others. Today, the non-social world is the new normal and therefore, non-social behaviour – reminiscent of what we see in ASD – serves as an important adaptive function. 

The new ‘normal’

This is not to suggest that people with autism will not be struggling with changes resulting from the pandemic; in reality, they’re likely finding them exponentially more difficult. Rather, it is to highlight that anxiety about social contact, the outside world and its unpredictability are familiar challenges for us all right now. We all have our own quirks to help us cope, and that’s okay. I can relate to my brother now more than ever and welcome his different ways of navigating the world – in fact, I find myself asking him ‘can we go home now?’ when we’re out!

One of the biggest barriers for people with autism is the challenge they face assimilating in a world designed for neurotypical people. As we design the new ‘normal’, we can address challenges, overcome barriers and create a new narrative. In doing so, I hope those of us without autism can use our current experiences to relate to people with autism, recognise that norms dictate how we evaluate behaviour, and increase inclusivity in society for those on the spectrum in the future.

- Lauren Jenner, Assistant Psychologist

Reference

Lai, M., Lombardo, M. & Baron-Cohen, S. (2014). Autism. The Lancet383, 896-910.

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