What Zoom Fatigue Feels Like When You’re Autistic
Dealing with the cognitive load when you already have sensory processing difficulties
We’ve all heard of Zoom Fatigue: I hear it’s one of Google’s most searched terms of 2020. But what does it actually mean?
For some, it gives expression to a general feeling of being over it. They’re sick of the restrictions the pandemic has imposed on their lives and worn down by the anxiety wrought by relentless uncertainty.
But Zoom fatigue also has a more specific meaning grounded in neuroscience. We feel exhausted because interacting with people through a screen demands a higher level of sensory processing than communicating face-to-face.
Difficulty with sensory processing is central to the experience of being autistic. This may mean hyper (over) sensitive or hypo(under) sensitive to sensory input. One sense may may be affected more than others and it and generally fluctuates over time. Essentially, the brain of an autistic person has to work harder than a neurotypical person to process sensory input from their environment.
Interestingly, the impact of zoom fatigue on neurotypical people has been compared with autistic burnout. So imagine what it feels like if you are actually autistic.
These are some of the ways in which Zoom interactions require additional sensory processing:
The screen delivers more visual input than if you were sitting with people in a meeting room. At any given time, you could be looking at the person speaking, the gallery view of other participants, documents shared on a screen and the chat function. When someone’s speaking, it’s hard not to be distracted by what they’ve got on their bookshelf or their cat darting across the room.
It’s harder to filter out a whole lot of background noise that you wouldn’t get in an office. It’s not only the leaf blower across the road and the dog barking next door but the multitude of things you can hear in other people’s homes if they’re not on mute.
You have to work harder to pick up non-verbal cues such as tone, pitch and facial expressions as well as visual-spatial cues. Because turn-taking is more difficult, people are more likely to interrupt and talk over the top of each other, adding to the auditory processing load.
You are constantly performing tasks such as muting and unmuting, adjusting volume, moving between views, using the chat function and possibly attending to other things popping up on your screen or emails coming through. It can be quite anxiety-inducing if you are under pressure.
Unreliable technology causes poor network connections, screen freezes, echoes and sound delays, all of which demand more of our attention to make sense of what is happening. It only takes a delay of 100 milliseconds for us to experience things as asynchronous: the brain is processing them as separate events. When the tech fails are at your end, it can make you feel like an idiot even though it is completely beyond your control.
If you’re autistic, as well as having to work even harder to process sensory input, you’re likely to experience some additional challenges that increase the cognitive load.
- Small talk is generally not something that autistic people excel at and when you have to endure it at the beginning of a Zoom meeting it can just seem like a frustrating waste of time and energy.
- The need to perform due to being in the spotlight may leave some feeling even more awkward than usual. Many autistic people go through life masking, or adapting their behaviour to meet neurotypical expectations. Seeing yourself on the screen makes you conscious of your appearance in a way that quietly slinking into your seat at the meeting table generally wouldn’t. As someone who experiences social anxiety in life generally, you can feel quiet exposed.
- The conversation is harder to follow due to auditory processing difficulties and asking for clarification can feel jarring — assuming you can find the opportunity to do it.
- Eye contact is difficult for many autistic people so having direct eye contact through a screen at much closer proximity than in real life can be quite confronting. It’s hard to know where to look and it feels like an violation of your personal space.
- The unwanted intrusion of random video calls without notice can mess with routines and plans and distract you from work that you are focusing on.
- Anxiety due to worrying about how you’re coming across before, during and after the meeting, possibly resulting in hours of rumination as you re-play it in your brain.
The cognitive load of video-conferencing is even greater if you’ve got other things going on at home, as was the case for many people when they had to share their workspace with other household members, including children learning remotely. This occurred in a context of general anxiety about the pandemic and where it was headed. The collision of personal and private lives when you’re working from home makes it difficult to maintain boundaries.
There’s a cumulative effect when you have to spend a good proportion of your day having meetings, sometimes not getting breaks in between. I find that I’m okay after two online meetings but the third one will have me climbing the walls. I found it hard to understand people wanting to use Zoom to socialise and relax after work. I would have preferred to stick pins in my eyes.
From March/April 2020, I was spending a lot of time in online meetings because I was involved in a project that was part of my workplace’s COVID-19 response. Dealing with senior managers meant that I was concentrating hard on what I was saying. I would feel overwhelmed and anxious when everyone was talking at once and frustrated that I couldn’t be heard or awkward because I’d said too much.
I would walk away from these meetings feeling on edge and overstimulated because my brain hadn’t caught up with processing what it had absorbed. I couldn’t let off steam in the gym or swimming pool because they were closed.
Sometime in June, exhaustion stopped me in my tracks and I could barely function for a few days. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was experiencing autistic burnout.
I still do a lot of things by Zoom and the like: meetings for work and community/advocacy, webinars and mediations. But I’m a lot more mindful about spacing them out in a way that’s sustainable.
On balance, working from home has been a positive experience for me, as it has been for many autistic people. You are able to have control over your environment and interaction with people. Video-conferencing is not a high price to pay for the freedom of working from home, provided that it can be managed properly.
What you can do to combat zoom fatigue as an autistic person
Take regular breaks and set time limits. If 40 minutes is considered the time limit for neurotypical people to engage in cognitively demanding tasks, limiting the length of online meetings is particularly important for autistic people. Encourage participants to stick to an agenda so the meeting stays within agreed limits. Breaks are important because there’s still processing to be done after the meeting before you try and clear your head for the next one.
You don’t always have to sit in front of the screen. If you can, turn off your camera, mute yourself and walk away. Go to the fridge and get a snack. Look out the window at tree branches moving in the wind. Unpack the dishwasher (definitely make sure you’ve got mute on for this one). You can always return to the meeting if called back.
Take the time to optimise and familiarise yourself with the settings. Figure out to what extent you can adjust your settings on an ongoing basis. Get rid of gallery view — it’s distracting.
Do as much as you can before the meeting to take the pressure off . List points you want to make or email participants so you can refer to it during the meeting. Email afterwards to confirm understanding.
Do things to release tension and make you feel grounded
- Release nervous tension through physical exercise, even if it’s just going for a walk around the neighbourhood. Doodle, flick rubber bands — do whatever you have to do to get through a meeting.
- In between and afterwards, do things that ground you — whether it’s sorting the pantry shelves or a guided mindfulness mediation. This can help you stand back from your thoughts rather than letting them take over.
- Limit the cumulative effect of screen time by doing something other than scrolling through the socials on your phone as a distraction.
Making adjustments in the workplace
Communicating my preferred ways of working to my employer has been one of the most challenging aspects of all of this. I’ve had to fight the assumption that adopting video-conferencing is good thing for everyone. Employers don’t give enough attention to the differential impact that bringing in new technology has on people. This was particularly the case when sweeping changes were brought in quickly as part of the COVID-19 response.
I don’t think the transition to Zoom was properly thought through in my workplace. Although I’m on board with it now, initially the feeling I was being co-erced into something I had little say in triggered my demand avoidance. Sometimes the insistence on regular video-conferencing to maintain connectivity feels a little like surveillance.
We need to check in with each other and recognise that people might not always be coping. People may experience greater sensory processing challenges with Zoom for a variety of reasons, for example as a response to past trauma or ongoing stressful events. They need to know it’s okay to turn their camera off or take a break. Technology should make our lives easier, not be oppressive.