Friday, March 27, 2020

Your Lax Social Distancing Is Stressing Out Autistic People


Image © Shannon Des Roches Rosa
[image: Photo of six people, seen from behind looking
at downtown San Francisco from atop Twin Peaks.]
Now that every rule of social engagement we’ve painstakingly tried to learn has been turned upside down by social distancing, it’s not just our routines that are disrupted: It’s our whole concept of the importance of Rules.

I’ve heard many parents say their autistic kids are “rule-followers” and bitten my tongue wanting to ask if they thought it’s because we’re naturally rigid, or because we’ve been undergoing compliance training for as long as we can remember. Regardless of the origin, many of us cling desperately to whichever skills that get us approval rather than admonishment. Not always a bad thing, many rules certainly do make sense in appropriate context. All we-were-made-for-this jokes aside, social distancing is a stark example of a good rule in this context.

Follow this rule, and more people live; ignore it, and more people die. So here I am, the very model of a rigid, autistic rule follower, thrown into this situation where the rules are pretty much reversed, but still thinking I’ll be OK, because at least these rules are beautifully clear: Stay six feet away from others. What could be plainer? Then I go outside, and some seemingly random groups of people are following the rule and some aren’t. 

That’s what has me most on the verge of a meltdown every time I have to poke my head out of the house. I can stay inside. I can go outside, and do my best to keep six feet from everyone else, though that’s difficult on Brooklyn streets and even in our comparatively crowded green spaces. What I cannot bear is the sight of all these seemingly ordinary, sensible people flouting life-or-death rules. When I get home, and calm down enough for my spoken or written language to fully return, I can process my confusion and fury with complaints. My son can’t, though. 

I’m not sure people who haven’t spent their lives adhering to particularly rigid rules, for whatever reason, can fully understand how horrible this is for autistics.