Updated: Sep 14, 2020
The pandemic has compelled us to come up with creative and unusual workarounds to revealing unexpected silver linings.
By Hari Srinivasan
I’m Hari Srinivasan, a minimally speaking autistic student at UC Berkeley. I am currently a communications intern at NeuroNav.
Year 2020 has been a wild ride in the Bay Area. First came the pandemic, followed by rolling power outages, distressing events on TV, and now toxic air from recurring wildfires.
Handling uncertainty is hard for many autistics, even during a pre-pandemic world. At six months and no end in sight, this pandemic feels like the ultimate uncertainty. The pandemic has brought to light disparities faced by people with developmental disabilities. It has also compelled us to come up with creative and even unusual workarounds to reveal unexpected silver linings.
For instance, many autistics are not able to sensorily tolerate wearing masks. I well remember the days when I found it difficult to even wear lab goggles. Now, I am able to at least tolerate masks, but only for a little while. Many autistics and their families are resorting to “out of the box” alternatives like the Australian sun hats with a face veil.
While regular education was able to transition to remote learning, “hands on” special education services abruptly stopped. This lack of structure and therapy means regression of skills for many autistics. These skills are gained through a lot of time and effort, but are easily lost. I have not seen my support staff for independent living skills training since March. While many agencies have resumed services this month, many families understandably worry about the asymptomatic infection risk as the agency staff work hands-on with multiple clients.
For those of us who are fortunate to be in the “regular” mainstream education system, our lives have become one of staring at the laptop screen and an inordinate amount of Zoom meetings, even for extracurriculars. I wonder how many people now sleep with dreams of Zoom boxes of people moving around randomly like in a tetris game.
Zoom, though, has brought about some unexpected advantages. Remote learning is ironically equalizing. I’m a minimally speaking autistic. In a large lecture class, everyone is on mute, which puts me on equal footing with my talking neurotypical peers. Turning the camera on and off puts me in control of the amount of body stims or verbal stims that my peers get to notice. I can even move around during lectures. A lot of effort goes in the effort to not draw attention to yourself in a physical class.
I also love that we are now able to seamlessly interact with people from around the world and hear different perspectives. I appreciate that I’m able to do this internship at NeuroNav and be involved in other interesting projects from the comfort of my home instead of having to travel that distance all of which takes up so much more energy and effort. It also reduces a lot of the anxieties around physical social interactions, another challenge area for many autistics. Post pandemic, I would love to see hybrid solutions for autistics so we get the advantages of both the remote and physical environments.
We are all coping with the pandemic in our own way. I am coping by doing things which are in my control: keeping productive and writing a bit of poetry - non pandemic ones. I’m also trying to do mindfulness exercises, journal, and keep a schedule, especially now that the Fall semester has started.
Neurodiverse individuals are finding creative solutions to manage their mental health. A friend of mine copes by telling himself the pandemic will be over at the end of the month. When that deadline arrives, he extends it to another month and so on. Perhaps like my friend, I too will start the use of strategies like chunking time in addition to focusing on the silver linings.