The COVID-19 pandemic has been an overwhelming catastrophe on many fronts. In addition to the heartbreaking loss of life and the devastation to the economy, it has played havoc with the daily routines, social connections, and livelihoods of many adults with Asperger/Autism profiles in our community. But some of these adults are finding an unexpected silver lining within the COVID-19 cloud.
AANE staff has hosted several Community Connections Sessions for Adults: free, hour-long sessions designed to reach those on the spectrum who are isolated due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of the individuals who attend come from different parts of the US and Canada, and a few as far away as Europe. Some have been previously diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism and others suspect that they may be on the spectrum. As these adults described how COVID-19 had reshaped their lives, some surprising trends emerged.
COVID-19 restrictions have given many of these adults both the time and personal space to be more introspective and more self-aware, particularly with regard to their work environment. The pandemic has eliminated in-person work for many of these adults, and they now realize that working in-person was draining and stressful because they had to pretend to be neurotypical all the time. The act of pretending to be neurotypical, also called “masking” or “camouflaging,” can take an emotional and sometimes physical toll when individuals feel they need to hide their autistic traits in order to fit in. Now these same individuals are thriving working remotely or part-time where they can be “truer to themselves,” and some are re-examining their employment goals. Even those who are no longer employed are taking the opportunity to actively realign their careers to be more in tune with their strengths and passions.
Here are a few of their stories shared with their permission:
- A woman in her 20’s living in a Mid-Atlantic state in the US, works in healthcare. She explained, “When I was furloughed, I just crashed. I realized how much I had been masking, and hiding aspects of my true self and was pretending to be neurotypical in order to fit in. It was exhausting. The lockdown gave me time to examine my life, and I realized that I am probably on the spectrum, so I’m now actively seeking a diagnosis, and I’m trying not to mask as much at work.” She also noted, “In the past, I would get really focused on details at work, and I’d be ‘called-out’ for that. I want to work somewhere, where focusing on details is a valued strength not a problem. I want to be true to my style. One kind of good thing is that the folks at work somehow found out that I might be on the spectrum, and they are now being much more supportive of ‘my strengths.’”
- A mid-western man in his early 30’s who is employed as a production planner shared, “I’m a chameleon boy. I can blend in anywhere. But it’s exhausting! One good thing from COVID is that I finally had time and energy to be introspective. I figured out that I might be on the spectrum, and I’m actively seeking a diagnosis. I plan to switch careers and pursue my media production hobby, which is my passion.”
- A west-coast engineer in his late 20’s has an ASD diagnosis and struggles with social interactions at work. He also said, “I’m exhausted from pretending to be neurotypical all of the time, and I was actually pleased to be furloughed. The lockdown also made it imperative for me to change my living situation. I have many roommates, and when I was working all the time, I was able to minimize interactions with them. Now that we are all ‘stuck in the apartment together,’ even being at home is exhausting.” He added, “I’ve been selling off lots of my belongings online to scale down for a move to a one-person apartment in a slower-paced state, and I’m working on switching careers.”
- A woman from New York noted, “Before the pandemic I was working full-time and was near burn out. Due to COVID, I ended up having to switch jobs, and I now work remotely on a part-time basis. This is ideal. For me at least, COVID made the job search somewhat easier. I was motivated to take online classes to prepare for a new job, and I was able to do phone interviews with hiring managers. Remote interactions are so much easier!”
If you are an adult who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s or autism or if you suspect that you are on the spectrum, we’d love to know if your experience with the COVID-19 pandemic has changed your job or caused you to rethink your employment situation. Share your thoughts with us by filling out our brief, anonymous survey.
Michele Cantara is the Co-Director of Adult Services at AANE and the mother of a young adult with ASD who is taking college classes and working part-time. She recognized her son’s social interaction issues early on because she studied psycholinguistics as an undergraduate. In 1998 she co-founded the Massachusetts Special Education Parents Advisory Council (MASSPAC). She also spent 35 years in the high-tech industry, and now applies her consulting and change management skills in adult consultations, parent coaching sessions, and support groups.