We finally went back to work on Monday! Yay! I work in a public elementary school, so that means I’m looking forward to seeing the kids. They will be arriving in a few days.
We are taking this time to learn new procedures and guidelines for keeping the kids and staff safe during this COVID epidemic. The guidelines are in alignment with CDC and are just tremendous for the best safety.
Many different people face different kinds of challenges amid this epidemic. Here’s mine. As Harvard Medical School explains,
The COVID-19 pandemic has presented many new challenges for people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Features of ASD, including impaired social and communication skills, repetitive behaviors, insistence on sameness, and especially sensory intolerances, make adapting to wearing face masks and the experience of a COVID-19 test particularly challenging.
Challenges of wearing face masks with ASD
Many people with ASD are highly sensitive to touch, and the face can be especially so. Wearing a face mask involves many unpleasant sensations. On the surface, there’s the scratchy texture of fabric, tight contact where the top of the mask meets the skin, and the tug of elastic on the ears. Sensations under the mask are no more pleasant and include the warm, damp smell of recycled air. In addition, the sensation of breathing in and exhaling air through the nose can feel restrictive, leading to concern and worry for many individuals with ASD. While wearing a mask is uncomfortable at best, these unpleasant sensory experiences can be intensely magnified in people with ASD.
In addition to these sensory challenges, face masks also create new social communication challenges. Autism spectrum disorder can include poor visual perception skills, making the odds of accurately reading another person’s facial expression beneath a mask, from a socially appropriate distance, more difficult than usual. Moreover, when viewing another person’s face while they are wearing a face mask, the eyes are the primary area of the face that is visible. Individuals with ASD often have difficulty making eye contact, adding yet another hurdle for them in the social-communication realm. These factors can lead to miscommunication and frustration. Because masks muffle voices, verbal communication also becomes more difficult.
The school requires one for best safety practices so of course I will wear one every moment I’m required to and not one minute less. This essay, then, is simply to open the curtain a bit and let you know what I or other people on the spectrum might be going through when faced with COVID or other situations in which they find themselves that are difficult to adjust to.
I have panic attacks, hyperventilate, and severe anxiety with a mask on. I can’t hear what anyone says because between the ambient noise I can’t filter out and the muffled words, communication is severely impacted. I have a mini-nervous breakdown every time I wear one because I have a severe sensory intolerance to anything on my face or head. Makeup, earrings, necklaces, lotion, washcloth, Costume masks, hats…even my glasses took me 10 years to tolerate to and I still take them off the moment I step into the house.
People wearing masks are scary. People in masks look like monsters to me. It looks like a bunch of monsters walking around. I kept my eyes shut at our staff meeting because there all the people were wearing masks and the scene was so scary it was making me nauseous. Also, all that’s left to look into is eyes and eyes are too intense. So when I walk around I look at the floor.
The mention of routines in the Harvard article- I feel sympathy for other autistic people. Only they/we know the comfort of our “safe places”. Mine were school, church, home, with an occasional Kroger thrown in. School closed. Church closed. Kroger mandated masks so I don’t go there now.
My safe places were gone (though church is opened up at this point but we must stay socially distanced so no close fellowship). My routine was gone. School opened yesterday. I love working in a school for the kids, primarily, but also the routine. I know exactly where I’ll be at 9:05 and what I’ll be doing. At 11:31 I do X, here. At 3:10 I leave the building. And it’s the SAME every day. There are few snow/storm days in Georgia so for 190 days I have a routine that is as firm as concrete. What a relief.
With COVID, my routine was severely interrupted. School closed abruptly. It was disorienting. The first few weeks I had shutdown constantly.
A shutdown is different from a meltdown in that meltdowns the autistic person expresses their distress outwardly. They’ve come to a crisis point. They might ratchet up the stimming (self-stimulatory soothing behavior), tantrums, crying, screaming, self-harm or harming others by lashing out, are all possible in a meltdown.
A shutdown is more internal. All the same overwhelming feelings, overloads, and emotions as in a meltdown, but the autistic person draws it in, and stops communicating, lies down or curls up, goes somewhere quiet and safe, shuts out input, and so on.
The first day back at work I shut down when I got home. When I shut down some physiological things happen. My brain feels like 100 mice are running around in all directions, screaming. It feels like the liquid in every cell in my body is boiling. My skin is so sensitive my clothes hurt. My lungs feel deflated and my stomach is in such a knot I can only breathe shallowly. I’m too wired to sleep so I experience it all without the benefit of being able to go unconscious in a nap.
And I can’t think. Executive functions diminish to practically nothing. Things just don’t compute. It takes a loooong time to process anything. Getting out a coherent sentence is a struggle. Even after shutdown ceases, the effort to function takes all the energy I have and I get tireder and tireder. Recharging takes longer. While I’m recharging, normal tasks fall by the wayside.
Everybody is experiencing the epidemic/scary time/lockdown/quarantine, etc, differently. Some people have visible reasons to be grief-stricken or distraught. Elderly parent with COVID, spouse in nursing home, a death in the family, a child grieving loss of experiences/friends/memory-making opportunities. For me, I’m having an equally hard time but there isn’t a visible reason. It’s all inside my neuro-atypical brain.
I decided to write this personal essay even though I’d really rather tear my own arm off, for one reason. I wanted to boast of my weakness. The loss of fellowship at church, the stresses building up in this strange COVID time for the last 5 months since the National Emergency was declared, civil unrest, combined with the changes at school & wearing a mask have put me beyond my limit. I am out of gas. No strength, No energy. No ability. COVID and then masks did me in.
This is me now:
So why this excruciating revealing of my inner thoughts?
Paul. Paul’s words.
But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10).
The Lord made my brain this way. I accept His wisdom in doing so. The Lord made the COVID illness sweep the world for His reasons. I accept that. I’ts gone on so long that all my mechanisms, work-arounds, and compromises are expired. So I stand on the Rock. I must attribute my ability to manage life’s intense situations to Christ. How am I held up? It is all Him, not me. I’ve exceeded my limit. I accept that. So how am I still going? Jesus. His grace.
How will you know how strong He is unless you know how weak I am? Thus I wrote this essay.
It must be that Christ gets the glory for sustaining me in His grace. He. Must. Get. The. Glory! My relief is knowing when I get to heaven Jesus will wipe from my memory the intense emotional, mental, and physical agony I now feel every day and will continue to feel until the COVID situation is over.
I am not there yet with being content in weakness and hardship, but I’m comforted by the fact that Paul said he learned it. Perhaps the Lord will be gracious and teach me that too. But for now, when I am weak, He is strong.
Dr and Senator Scott Jensen with 6 minutes of compassionate words-