|Photo © Sybren Stüvel | Flickr / Creative Commons
[image: Frustrated white person at a computer keyboard. Their
hands are on their head covering their hair, and they are wearing glasses.]
Like many folks, I had not heard of Zoom before the pandemic. My friends in IT tell me they were using it for work meetings before much of the United States went into self-quarantine, shelter in place, lockdown, or whatever you want to call the “social distancing” we were urged to observe to help slow the spread of the virus.
One bonus for me of the way things have shifted during the pandemic is that I’ve been able to join small groups of people from whom I’m genuinely geographically isolated. For the holy season, I celebrated in community with a Lodge in Sacramento. My friend, Smash Ford, invited me to attend a meeting of the Non-Binary Union of Los Angeles (NBULA), where I had a wonderful time.
My friend Smash is investigating every way they can make people feel more comfortable, safe, and welcomed at NBULA meetings and, to that end, they shared a BBC article, “The reason Zoom calls drain your energy.” Several Autistic people in the discussion said the article made them think about aspects of Autistic life in person. Smash said they thought video chat levels the social playing field for Autistic people. I agree.
Manyu Jiang, the author of the article, quoted social scientists to make a case for why people (meaning mostly neurotypical people, because we Autistic folks are the outliers that get stripped out of general population studies) feel uncomfortable using Zoom, and why that discomfort drains their energy. Those reasons for discomfort are so “Autistic-in-an-NT-world” that we have a home-court advantage. We Autists live with these discomforts all our lives. In any situation where one group is freshly experiencing what another group lives with every day, there is an obvious emotional advantage to the group with a history of those experiences.
Jiang wrote, “Video chats mean we need to work harder to process non-verbal cues like facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, and body language; paying more attention to these consumes a lot of energy.”
Yes!!! All of that takes a ton of energy! As Albert Camus wrote, “Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” Just “treading water” socially requires a tremendous amount of cognitive overhead to process everything that’s coming at me. Every person added to the conversation increases my work exponentially.
It’s why I can’t work a traditional full-time job. All that constant scrutinizing and analyzing and feeling out of sync…that’s what every moment of every day of my entire life feels like when I’m interacting with people in person. I had a job once digging pits with a shovel, alone. At the end of the day I had twenty times more energy than after a day at any other job I’ve had, because interacting with people is that exhausting. (And I’m an extrovert.)
If you are socially disoriented by Zoom and desperate for the pandemic to be over so you can return to comfortable, easy socializing, please lean into that feeling and remember it later. For me and for many Autistic people, there is no end to that experience. It is where we live and it is why some of us are among the most anxious people you’ll ever meet.
Jiang wrote, “One 2014 study by German academics showed that delays on phone or conferencing systems shaped our views of people negatively: even delays of 1.2 seconds made people perceive the responder as less friendly or focused.”
I have no idea how or if this translates to in-person interactions, but it has an interesting correlation: Autists often take longer to process the words we hear, formulate a response, and speak it. What a social disadvantage it must create if it’s causing people to view us as less friendly or focused.
Jiang again, “An added factor […] is that if we are physically on camera, we are very aware of being watched. ‘When you’re on a video conference, you know everybody’s looking at you; you are on stage, so there comes the social pressure and feeling like you need to perform. Being performative is nerve-wracking and more stressful.’”
This passage is striking in how aptly it describes the Autistic experience, especially for those brought up to work hard to not appear autistic. A lifetime of training in the art of survival through self-suppression leaves a tense, performative, masked ball of anxiety in its wake. If you feel ‘stage fright’ on Zoom calls, stop to consider those Autists who feel that way our entire lives. And we can’t just turn the camera off.
There are other aspects not mentioned in the article. For example, Zoom can have connectivity issues causing the video to move jerkily or the audio to break apart into incomprehensible noise. I’m used to having struggles interpreting incoming sensory information, so a Zoom stutter doesn’t affect me any more (or less) than the auditory dyslexia of the central processing disorder I live with.
Someone without any auditory disability is sure to be much more frustrated by the unaccustomed experience of having to work harder to piece together what’s happening, and what people are saying. I live with that exhaustion but it’s a new experience for the many people who didn’t use video conferencing before the pandemic.
Imagine how much closer you would be to having a meltdown if this pandemic and time of sheltering at home was not measured in months but in years or decades.
You can never know how it feels to be Autistic if you are not. But remember that many Autists are living every day on what should be emergency reserve energy—not just during this crisis, but all our lives. Know that many of us experience our entire lives as if in the middle of an ongoing crisis due to sensory processing issues and the ripple effects those issues have through our social lives, school experiences, work lives (or lack thereof). This is the stress that results in mid-life Autistic burnout, an experience desperately in need of compassionate study. More than simply knowing the stress too many Autistic people endure, these intellectual understandings must inform your empathy toward us.
Jiang’s article indicates that people have some context, as a result of living through the social constraints that come with this pandemic, to help increase their understanding of, appreciation of, and empathy toward Autistic people. You’re living little tastes of our world right now. Not the whole experience, just little tastes. Don’t forget it later, when your life is back to normal.
While you’re planning what your life will look like on the other side of the COVID-19 pandemic, plan ways to make the world a little easier for Autistic people to navigate. Too often, Autists get our needs met by paying with our own discomfort, even outright pain. When you feel inspired to think, “we’re all in this together,” ask yourself what you can do to make that the truth for more Autistic people.