Adapted from a post originally published on TheHill.com.
Too many Friday and Saturday nights spent in solitude. Maybe the living room TV is on, or perhaps I keep boredom at bay by getting work done. Maybe I’m practicing piano or refining a newly written song in my recording studio with the door closed so that others in the house aren’t disturbed, or I decide to do nothing at all and go to bed early. Either way, on weekends, I am left to my own devices far more often than I would prefer when I would rather be out and about with friends.
These less than desirable scenarios are not exclusive to my social distancing experience in the age of COVID-19. They were pertinent to my upbringing and earlier adulthood during which I was contending with social competency-related challenges which stemmed from my as of yet undiagnosed Asperger’s profile. In my book A Long Walk Down a Winding Road, I collectively refer to these challenges as my “sphere of unawareness and self-absorption.” If there ever was a concrete reason for my sense of isolation during these years, this was it. Being self-unaware and unaware of the needs and interests of others made making friends difficult, resulting in lots of time spent in solitude.
As I matured, learned lessons, sought help from behavioral health clinicians and worked towards building self-esteem, the sphere gradually broke down, and consequently, I increasingly found it easier to make friends. As such, feelings of isolation gradually began to alleviate. As I navigate my way through the COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing, I feel very fortunate to feel connected to the people who matter to me, albeit via social media, my phone and Zoom videoconferences, knowing that there are many on the spectrum who regrettably feel even more isolated than before the pandemic.
Remotely connecting with friends, family and colleagues with whom I am accustomed to in-person interaction has somehow been manageable for me as we endure the coronavirus crisis. Perhaps this is because I entered into this “stay at home” situation having already experienced more than my share of social isolation while growing up on the autism spectrum. Having my wife and son around certainly helps. I find that I am dedicating considerably more time to phone conversations, email and to my Facebook community, and these have helped as well. Nonetheless, communicating over the wire, as I’m sure most would agree, is far from being a true substitute for face-to-face connectivity. I think of it more as a crutch, as a means of survival as I try to adapt to this “new normal.” I feel a void that wasn’t there before, but I cope with that void by reminding myself that I am fortunate to have quality people in my life to reach out to whereas there are others, both autistic and non-autistic, who I know do not have what I have.
As such, my heart goes out to those less fortunate. I am often thinking about them during these trying times, attempting to imagine what it is probably like to be without a job or without a spouse or child, or without all of the above, in the midst of social distancing. I become uneasy when I think about those on the autism spectrum in the age of COVID-19 who are not merely dealing with the fallout from increased isolation but who are also struggling to cope with the anxiety brought about by drastic changes to their daily routines. Making the necessary adjustments which these changes demand must be a truly formidable task for many autistic folks, I’m sure. And so I have been thinking a great deal about the spectrum community to which I belong, with much apprehension.
During my younger years, the cultivation of a personal interest or talent proved to be the difference between loneliness and contentment whenever I was not with friends. Today, this is my greatest hope for autistic people who feel isolated no matter what the circumstances. Music, school work (because of how much academic achievement always meant to me), reading a good book and sports television, particularly Major League Baseball, were my go-to pursuits when I felt socially distanced. These passions kept me occupied in meaningful ways. They added spice to my life. And, they helped me build self-esteem. If you are trying to address the challenges that stem from loneliness whether during the coronavirus pandemic or post-pandemic, spending time on an activity that brings you joy may help to fill the void, as I have found. Participation in an online support group or other groups of people who share a common interest may also help. The Asperger/Autism Network may be of service in this regard.