I Thought Being Autistic Had Prepared Me for Social Distancing
I look all over our pantry. I take note of every item I will need to buy.
Then, I put on my face mask and step into the outer world.
I arrive at the supermarket. There’s a long line to enter.
Everybody is careful to stand precisely into the designated spots, large X signs on the floor. On loudspeakers, a man’s voice reminds us to keep our distance.
After several minutes, it’s my turn.
Before letting me in, a security guard verifies I’m wearing a mask and makes sure I apply sanitizer over my hands.
It’s an eerie image, indeed. The huge supermarket, nearly empty, just a few people walking here and there.
Everybody avoids eye contact. Everybody makes sure not to get too close. People hold their shopping carts tight and stare ahead
For so long, I have felt the need to keep people away from me. I’m not a fan of hugs, I have to fake eye contact because it makes me uncomfortable, and I’m pretty much happy to be left alone all the time.
As social distancing became the norm, some people told me, “you must be very happy about this.”
I thought I was going to be, …but I’m not. As I walked through the supermarket aisles, I understood why:
There’s fear in the air. Pure. Undiluted. People look around, and all they see are walking pathogens.
Autistic people tend to engage in either compensation (generating new behaviors) or masking (stopping specific actions) in an attempt to better fit into society.
They are survival mechanisms. The idea is to adapt to what the community requires to reduce your chances of being ostracised. These days, both compensating and masking have become very hard to do, since most people are freaking out.
I notice my fellow citizens looking to their sides, evaluating the person 6 feet away from them. Not only that, but they also avoid eye contact and even cringe if someone accidentally gets too close to them.
I know I avoid eye contact because it can become unbearable, intrusive. I can hold it only for a little while, and then I must switch to staring at people’s ears or eyebrows. However, there’s a nuance.
You see, I might not be looking at you, but I am listening. I’m paying attention.
Nowadays, people are not even noticing their fellow human beings. Immersed in tunnel vision, they seem to care only about those living in their bubble.
“We are in this together,” people say.
You have seen the phrase pop out here and there, haven’t you? What is it? Do we think if we repeat it enough it will become The Truth?
That day at the supermarket, even though there were fellow human beings all around me, I felt alone.
It was as if we were a bunch of castaways. Our ship has sunk, and we must swim to safety. It’s every man for himself. Secure your provisions, secure your borders, don’t get too friendly with the enemy.
This is no longer just about keeping a physical distance. We seem to be isolated, separated from each other experiences genuinely.
It worries me this will become the new normal. We were already experiencing severe divisions. Will this come to make things worse?
I finished my grocery shopping and headed for the checkout line. The woman in front of me turned around and smiled. Well, her eyes did. I smiled back.
I paid and walked back to my car. The feeling of her smile stuck with me. Maybe I’m paranoid. Perhaps I have it all wrong.
Maybe I’m the one who is afraid.
It worries me that I won’t know how to behave in the new normal that will come out of this situation. However, there’s no point in obsessing. When the time comes, I shall deal with it.
In the meantime, I focus on the task at hand: the groceries are not going to store themselves on my pantry.