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Social Isolation - Autistic Friend or Foe?

In these strange times of lockdown and social distancing, many people are struggling with the enforced isolation. They feel disconnected, lonely, frustrated, out of touch. But these feelings are something many Autistic children and adults live with on a daily basis.

For some of us Autistic individuals, social isolation is comforting. By keeping our world small, limiting social contact, immersing ourselves in our special interests, we feel safe and secure and in control. Internet shopping is the norm to avoid queues and crowds. Social media is a lifeline, a way to communicate and stay connected with the people and causes we care about without having to brave birthday drinks and leaving parties. Sometimes we accept social invitations to be polite, to be brave, sometimes we really DO want to go. Buts it's more than likely we'll cancel last minute or worse, be a 'no show' because the sounds, smells, heat, pressure, masking and stranger danger will scare us off.

But there are many Autistic individuals who enjoy socialising. Who would love to be included on that invite. Who crave human connection even if they aren't quite sure how to communicate or how to behave in order to 'fit in' with the neurotypical majority. And some of them pull it off marvelously. Some of them surround themselves with other colourful neurodiverse folk so they can be themselves. Some of them may even have friends and family who understand and accept Autism, allowing the Autistic person to cast aside their mask.

I am fortunate to have a wonderful Husband and a small group of family members and friends who love me and try to understand my needs even if they don’t understand my differently wired brain. But at school, where I was surrounded by different cliques and friendships groups I was always aware that I was generally liked by all, but not enough to be taken in by any one group. I usually had one or two close friends at any given time, who were different in their own way, or who were intrigued by me. But I didn’t warrant inclusion at a deeper level with the majority of my peer group. As I got older and learned to mask more effectively, then I grew in popularity. But I was always afraid that if the mask slipped and I failed to act like everyone else then I’d be discarded for not fitting in.

Now as a mum to two boys I avoid eye contact in the school playground because I see those same impenetrable cliques and competitive groups. On the few occasions I’ve tried to ‘fit in’ by going to PTA meetings or volunteering for a school fete, the other parents smile and make bland conversation but I am largely invisible. I’m not apportioning blame. I’m sure my social awkwardness is like a technicolor coat that scares others away. Thank goodness for the two or three Mums who actually see ME and seem glad to see me. You know who you are.

Rejection is feared and experienced acutely by most Autistic people I’ve met. Perhaps because we are so often judged for not following social norms, for not behaving like everyone else expects. What makes it worse is that when we need help and we pluck up the courage to ask for it, our intensity, our straight talking, our tendency to scares people away. And so the cycle of rejection and feelings of abandonment continue. The irony is, that if you really get to know us (if we LET you get to know us), we make the most loyal and loving friends. We may not be the most proactive or thoughtful, we may need you to tell us in black and white how you’re feeling or what you need before we can help you, but once we ‘get it’ we will jump in with both feet because we truly care.

On the flip side, if we ask you for help, we probably really need it. It will have taken a lot of courage for us to ask and we probably don’t have many people to call on. You might think we’re being overly sensitive or dramatic. You might not agree with our way of thinking or doing things. That’s ok. Most of the time, all we need is someone to listen. Someone to be present. Someone to mull over possible solutions with (preferably solutions that DON’T require us to pretend we are Neurotypical!). Please don’t tell us to toughen up, to be more resilient, to forget about it. Because Autistic hearts are even more sensitive than Autistic minds. It’s impossible for us not to care, impossible for us not to feel hurt. Just see us. Just hear us. Realise that our feelings and our thinking are valid and important. Tell us that. Because often that’s all it takes to stop us feeling alone, and to empower us to find our own solutions.

Inclusion is the opposite to rejection. Inclusion means we allow everyone to join in and be a part, and contribute in their own unique way. Inclusion is NOT about teaching the different or neurodiverse to adapt so they can fit in with the way things are already done. It is about making adaptations so the everyone’s differences and needs are fairly accommodated. It’s about noticing that others are different and embracing that as ‘ok’. Even better, its seeing the value you add by accommodating people’s differences. But the absence of inclusion will result in feelings of rejection every time.

So as you start to ponder the softening of social distancing measures and you make plans for all the fun things you're going to do post lock-down (whatever and whenever that is), please remember what it felt like to be in isolation. Consider how you can be more supportive and inclusive to those around you. Not just of Autistic people but of all people. Not everyone will say yes to your invitations. Not all of them will want an invitation. But maybe they'd love a 'how are you?' text, or for you to comment on their social media posts/blog/photos so they achieve connection in a way they are comfortable with. Inclusion is the responsibility of each and every one us and there's no better time than now to take stock and start making those connections.

Lizzy Van Tromp - 5th May 2020

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