Should lockdown be easy for autistic people? We’re not too keen on crowded spaces, busy commutes and greetings with hugs after all, right? My daily life before coronavirus was already very low key, and I assumed staying at home for weeks would be effortless. I was wrong.
My autistic sensory systems are highly tuned to detail, suspended in a state of constant alertness, and can become overwhelmed very easily if there is too much input all at once. The changing dynamics of my immediate neighbourhood during lockdown is impacting upon my senses in ways I hadn’t anticipated.
As more households remain at home, new noises quickly stack upon one another to create a cacophony of auditory pain like no other before. I flit between wanting to cry and wanting to scream. Maintaining any internal equilibrium is requiring herculean effort.
The bustle of lockdown is brutal: I can hear every detail of sound from the hum of the electricity charging my phone to the conversations people are conducting three doors down to the spontaneous eruptions of music and almost constant whirr of DIY. By 2pm every day, at least three households seem to be simultaneously maintaining their gardens. Pressure cleaners and lawnmowers unify as one, their vibrations reverberating like a thousand angry wasps inside my head.
“The throb of drum and bass pulsates through the base of my temples, causing the left side of my face to physically twitch in response. It hurts.”
In the evening, neighbours appear to compete for musical dominance, with several households ratcheting up the volume to ensure theirs is the loudest. The throb of drum and bass pulsates through the base of my temples, causing the left side of my face to physically twitch in response. It hurts.
I am able to cope (just about), by drifting inside myself and blocking the loudest parts out. Normally, I reduce music – at least, the music that I do not like – to a series of repetitive patterns, that I then relegate to the outer stratosphere of my being where I can shut it out.
But life is never predictable. In lockdown, people want to flick through every radio setting or Spotify playlist, switching tracks multiple times before resting upon their preference. These snippets of sound deliver jolts of panic to my already frayed nervous system, placing me in a semi-permanent state of over alertness – waiting for the next attack. My chest is tight for the majority of the day, which causes only more worry – not just the existential worry of navigating through a global pandemic, but the more immediate worry of getting to the end of my day without succumbing to a full blown panic attack.
Motivating myself to cook, clean and work is much harder as my energy levels have been so depleted by processing this additional noise. My body is just not fully rested, irrespective of how much rest I have; I stumble when I am walking and I drop the cutlery when I am eating.
And while Bank Holidays long weekends and fine weather have brought joy for most, for me they bring a relentless increase in neighbourhood noise. My windows and doors are now permanently closed and I’m struggling to open my blinds – when one sense becomes overloaded, the others quickly follow, and I cannot currently bear to look out of my front window for the visual clutter of extra litter and stationary cars. Only my own back garden brings some relief (and I recognise my privilege at having access to one) but even this sanctuary is invaded by the cigarette smoke snaking over the dividing fences.
“As the days in lockdown have multiplied, so too has the sensory onslaught – the processing of this additional sound has drained so much of my daily energy that I am becoming lethargic and rapidly losing my ability to speak coherently.”
In usual circumstances I would escape to my places of solitude, my local inner-city park – but this too has been transformed into a hub of over-activity. The central path has been commandeered by beautiful people feigning exercise in lycra. Navigating this throng is complex – few people seem to be adhering to social distancing rules. Physical exercise is central to maintaining my sanity, and if I don’t exercise enough, I find my body feels as if it is floating away in agitation. For me, as an autistic person, I need exercise to regulate my whole being – I require a higher level of proprioceptive input in order for my body to feel ‘normal’ but the anxiety at being too close to others renders the activity futile for me. To suddenly be unable to meet these most basic of bodily needs, is incredibly frustrating.
And yes, I have experimented with going at different times in order to offset this newly acquired auditory burden, but not without consequence: the sudden change to my usual, daily schedule only makes me feel more lost.
As the days in lockdown have multiplied, so too has the sensory onslaught – the processing of this additional sound has drained so much of my daily energy that I am becoming lethargic and rapidly losing my ability to speak coherently. Social media has become a portal of stress where I am having to work twice as hard as usual, to interact. I feel as if I am existing only within the confines of my own mind.
The one thing I do have though – thanks to spending my life navigating a world not adaptive enough to autistic minds – is resilience. And I know this resilience that will see me through to the post-lockdown world, whenever that comes. I just hope a greater understanding of neurodiversity will make it through too.
Alice Running is a writer and autism advocate
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