Note: This blog post is about the world in the context of coronavirus outbreak. It is not specifically about coronavirus. I want to acknowledge the sense of fear and loss of the coronavirus outbreak health crisis here at the start, because it is not what I am writing about below.
At the moment, pretty much everyone in the world is feeling destabilised.
Destabilised is a term used in the autism community to describe the stress an autistic person feels when things don’t go to plan, or don’t happen as they usually do. This can be as seemingly minute as: I am up to the part in my routine where I make coffee, and there is someone standing in front of the coffee-making set-up. Because of the world we live in where things change often, autistic people like me have the experience of being destabilised on an almost daily basis.
It has always been interesting to me that the challenges that autistic people deal with are common to all humans – it’s just that autistic people get stressed out from situations that allistic (1) people wouldn’t even begin to imagine as being stressful.
For example, I have been to two live events in the past few months in which loud music is played before the event starts (both of these being speaking events not involving music). At one of them (ironically it was a live performance of Hannah Gadsby, who is autistic) the music was so loud I had to cover my ears.
No-one else seemed to be bothered by the loud music. But any human would get stressed out by sensory overwhelm if there was enough sensory input. Us autistic people just get there faster.
So it is with being destabilised. Autistic people thrive on routine and get stressed out from interruptions to routine. But so too do all humans. It’s just that allistic people don’t get destabilised as easily as autistic people. They roll with a certain level of change and interruption to routine.
What we are experiencing at the moment is humans all over the world getting destabilised from a massive change in routine.
The interesting thing is that, in this situation, autistic people are better placed to deal with this destabilisation because we are accustomed to the feeling of being destabilised. It’s something we cope with on a regular basis so we have ways to coping and dealing (2).
It’s like when I was anticipating going through a massive transition in life and I called my mum to ask for advice on coping with change. “You’re the expert on that, Emmeline,” she said. It’s true. I cope with change all the time. I find it difficult but I am well practiced at it. If you are hoping for some advice here on how to cope with being destabilised, look forward to a future blog post on this topic.
- The changing of the rules
We are now living in a world where many of the usual rules of society no longer apply. Some of these rules never suited me to begin with. For example: 1. You must go to work in an office and be around other humans even though you could just as easily communicate with the other humans via email or video call. 2. You must shake hands when meeting a new person. 3. You must greet friends and family with a hug and/or a kiss.
Matt and I were talking about our future employment prospects, and Matt said, “But you don’t like working.” I replied, “It’s not working that I don’t like. It’s being out in the world for extended periods of time that I can’t handle, because the world isn’t always a very safe place for me.” (3) (This is related to my introversion as well as my autism, and I can’t separate the two, but #notallautistics are introverted.)
I don’t like touching strangers, so being able to not shake hands with people I have just met is a good thing. (I haven’t yet had the chance to avoid shaking hands with a stranger. I shook hands with a new acquaintance a few days ago because I hadn’t yet processed the socially appropriate way to avoid handshakes for coronavirus reasons. Now I know about “elbow-bumps” as a greeting and feel confident to pull that one out.)
I like hugs with people I love, as an expression of that love, but I don’t like hugs as a matter of social etiquette. I would prefer to hug when I want to express the love, not just because we are saying hello or goodbye.
Apart from the rules that really don’t suit me, just in general, society is full of rules that seem completely arbitrary and unnecessary. Allistic children grow up and learn these rules intuitively. I have had to learn them by rote. I am not attached to them, so it doesn’t worry me when they fade away.
I am struggling to think of a concrete example here of what I am talking about. I guess what I am saying is the world really seems in chaos right now for a lot of people, but for me the world is always a chaotic place that doesn’t run according to logic or good sense, so I don’t find it as challenging as people who have always been unconsciously invested in the unspoken rules of society. (It’s the same reason why I cope differently with culture shock. I am not used to knowing the rules, so it doesn’t seem a strange when I don’t know the rules of a different culture.)
- Global connection
The internet has connected most of us for decades, and since the availability of the smartphone it has connected even more people, who could never have access to a computer but have skipped that step altogether. Despite this connection, there are few issues that connect the entire globe. We had a taste of it a few months ago, when almost everyone was talking about the Australian bushfires, but not everyone was experiencing it directly.
There is something powerful about a lot of humans thinking about the same thing at the same time. Mystics might call it prayer. Apparently it has something to do with quantum physics. I remember someone telling me about a documentary about quantum physics in which something was measured when Princess Diana died. There was something that changed in the world on some level that we can’t see because so many people were thinking about her and emotionally connected to that event. (I am horrified by my lack of proper referencing in this paragraph but I am practicing overcoming perfectionism so I am just going to leave it as it. Deep breaths!)
There must be something going on at a deeper level because everyone in the world is anxious about, or at least thinking about and emotionally connected with, the same event.
On the level that we can see, I have been going on Instagram more than usual. I am seeking connection. Everyone is talking about the same thing. And it’s not just trending hashtags, it’s literally everyone. And even if they don’t mention it, you know that they are deliberately not mentioning it. As well as the emotional connection between people across the world, a lot of people are having common experiences: working from home, financial insecurity, homeschooling, self-quarantining.
As an autistic person, I often feel disconnected from other people. And as with all humans, no-one else is ever experiencing the same thing I am in life, and the only way to bring them into my experience is to talk to them about it (or write/express art about it). But now, if someone says “I’m feeling anxious”, there is no need to explain further. We are all connected and going through the same crisis – even though it affects us differently, of course.
Now onto the topic of the year/decade/rest of our existence: the climate crisis. I will go into further detail in a future blog post about the connection between the coronavirus crisis and the climate crisis, but here is the short version for now: the coronavirus highlights for us what has always been true about the climate crisis. We humans are all connected. The natural world doesn’t care about borders drawn by humans. We can only solve this problem if we collaborate and all work together for the common good. So if you would like to see action on the climate crisis, consider signing the Climate Change Act petition. For more info on this act, check out Sarah Wilson’s blog post. This act is inadequate action (in my opinion) but it is a step in the right direction.
(1) Allistic = Not autistic. May or may not be neurodivergent in other ways.
(2) I feel the need to put in a “not all autistic people” caveat here. Obviously I can’t speak for all autistic people. I am just making a general observation. If this isn’t true for you, wherever you are placed neurologically, then it isn’t true for you and that’s okay.
(3) Also, even when working from home I generally can’t manage more than 5 hours of deskwork, but that just makes me a normal human who is more honest about how much time I’m spending actually working.