January 21, 2021

Autism and the new normal

By rosieweldon

‘The new normal’ and ‘unprecedented times’ have been thrown around so much in the last few months they have all but lost their meaning. What does ‘the new normal’ even mean? And, more so, what does it mean for someone who had spent 28 years fighting to understand the old normal?

Autistic life is living in a society that just doesn’t make sense most of the time. It’s noisy, chaotic and wants things from us that don’t make sense. You want me to dry my hands-on worlds loudest machine and stare into the eyeballs of a stranger while I ask for a drink. It’s a lifetime of learning rules, or ways around rules, in order to blend into a society that doesn’t fit naturally.

Then overnight all the rules changed. Where not touching someone was rude it is now expected that you don’t. Where a handshake was a forced societal necessity it is now shunned. All the things I forced myself to do – not stand too far away from friends and family for fear of upsetting – were now not allowed.

Don’t get me wrong most people have had to relearn these rules. But most people’s lives aren’t dictated by societal rules like autistic people’s are. I am hyper aware of what is expected of me and how I can bridge the gap between how I am naturally and what society expects. My mind likes rules. My mind depends on understanding those rules. Not in the why, I don’t understand why you need to stare into each other’s eyeballs – but I do know it is expected. But now, most of us don’t really know what we are supposed to and not supposed to be doing – so where does that leave someone who can’t function without clear rules?

My family will mention visiting a shop and how ‘they weren’t really sure what they had to do’, they just kind of ‘went with it’. Is that a joke? Turn up to a building and have to in real time process how to use it? Beyond impossible for my mind to begin to comprehend.

Add on top of the rule changes the masks and society has felt so much further away from my grasp than before Covid. I am unable to wear a mask. It is as objective and simple as that. My clothes consist of the exact same pair of jeans multiple times, the exact same t shirts and the same shirt in different designs. I’m a walking talking cartoon character. I didn’t attend my graduation as a student because I could not wear the gown and hat. Wearing a mask is impossible for me.

At the beginning of the wear a mask situation I decided I just wouldn’t go anywhere that needed one. They are worn for a reason, I can’t wear one, I just won’t go out to places that need one. Except – that was months ago. I then found myself on long car journeys and unable to use the service station toilets. After years of pushing to integrate into society I was locked out by being unable to wear a mask. I invested in a band that states I’m exempt from wearing a mask and some determination to not care if people gave me looks. It is unfair for me to be shut out of basic society facilities because my disability prevents me from wearing a mask.

I have spent a lifetime on the outside of society looking in. But never has it felt more so than these last couple of months. As people start to adjust to this ‘new normal’ and get back into a semblance of societal life – I’m left on the outside looking in. Can I join in without a mask? What are the rules of these buildings I fought so hard to become accustomed to prior to Covid?

The longer this pandemic goes on for the more I realise I need to re learn all over again how to be a part of society. This new strange society has to find a way to be accessible to autistic people. Rules need explaining. Buildings need to be accessible. People need to understand we may not be able to wear masks.

Please don’t build a ‘new normal’ that leaves out autistic people. We deserve to be a part of this new society too.

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