Higher-Functioning Autism: On Thriving in Quarantine

Imagine that your phone only reaches 33% charge. You could keep it plugged in for a whole week, but the battery will never be more than a third full. The rest of the world, however, has normal phones. Thus, you can never quite keep up. You have to be judicious, only opening a few apps at a time, always conscious of how quickly your battery is draining. You have to prioritize, opting out of certain email lists and group chats and servers, maybe forgoing some platforms altogether. Even with the best of planning, there are still unexpected frustrations. Your phone dies mid-conversation, leaving the other person confused and annoyed by your sudden radio silence. You try to open too many apps at once, and your phone heats up like it’s about to explode. 

This is what socializing is like for me. Even at my most rested and best medicated, I only have about a third of the social capacity that an average person would. (Approximately. I have no idea how you would measure a person’s social capacity, let alone determine a population average, so any statisticians reading this post should kindly suspend their disbelief.) This means that I’ll become exhausted and burnt out in a third of the time. Put differently, each social interaction is three times as tiring for me as it is for most. Something as simple as saying hi to someone while walking down a hallway might only take up 0.1% of a normal person’s social charge. But for me, that would be more like 0.3%, and if you think about the fact that I might say hi to at least 30 people between my dorm room and the dining hall and then back again, you can see why I often prefer to eat in my room.

Of course, when I run out of social charge, I don’t die, but my brain does shut down in certain ways. I lose the ability to think clearly, communicate, and regulate my emotions–hence the importance of planning and rationing. When I put on my headphones simply to avoid saying hello to someone, or I go out of my way so as not to cross paths with a friend on the way to class, or I refuse to answer calls and instead hide under the table until my phone stops ringing, it’s not because I don’t care about people; it’s because I’d rather keep my cognitive functioning intact, at least until 7 pm.

Life continued like this until covid, which – well, you know what covid is, so no need to explain. During March, April, May, and a tiny sliver of June last year, I took online classes. Since then, I’ve been working, volunteering, writing, and taking way too much joy in Russian prefixes. (Seriously, they’re gorgeous.) I don’t want to make it sound like I’m enjoying this pandemic, because I’m not, and because you have to be a genuinely heartless person to enjoy a pandemic. But now that all the spontaneous socializing described above is gone from my life, I have so much more energetic and less anxious than before, which amplifies my productivity tremendously – hence the title of this post.

My current predicament is a testament to the socially constructed nature of disability. My autism is of the high-functioning variety in that I don’t have developmental, speech, or intellectual delays. These characteristics are biological and, for the purposes of this explanation, immutable. However, I’m also able to function highly because I’ve had access to many resources: loving parents, excellent teachers; supportive communities; medical treatment; and various programs at Stanford. All of these resources have helped me find strategies to compensate for or overcame autism-related impairments. Had I grown up in a household where my parents worked full-time, couldn’t afford private schools, and didn’t have access to medical services, I wouldn’t have had the chance to develop said strategies, and I might have ended up struggling far more on a day-to-day basis. I want to acknowledge these factors because they highlight the importance of nurture as well as nature. The bad news is that many people on the spectrum (and their families) don’t have access to these resources, but the good news is that if we, as a society, can start addressing this issue, the lives of autistic people could be so much better.

That was a detour. Back to the subject at hand: all it took was a horrifying pandemic for my 33% social battery to go from woefully insufficient to more than enough. While others go out of their way to socialize, I don’t have to go out of my way not to socialize. I haven’t used the “oh there’s a person I recognize quick let me hide behind a potted plant” strategy in months. My thinking is clear. My days are smooth. My communication is lucid. I know that eventually, life will go back to normal, and I’ll face plenty of the struggles from before: small talk, spontaneity, sudden noises, social cues. I’ll ration my batteries and stock up on earplugs and relearn the delicate art of matching my facial features to the emotional valence of any given interaction. This is the price of an independent life in the Real World™.

I simultaneously yearn for and fret about this prospect. If the universe were designed by Aspies, it would be far more manageable and far less exciting. The tranquility of the present moment is abnormal, but I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.

Photo by Jakub Dziubak on Unsplash



Categories: Autism, etc., Blog

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