As some of you know from a Twitter thread and related article I wrote about Greta Thunberg, I have a son on the autism spectrum (in his case, commonly labeled Asperger’s Syndrome). Asperger’s Syndrome is nicknamed the ‘Little Professor' syndrome because many of those with it become hyper focused, and even expert, often in extremely narrow and sometimes esoteric fields of interest, and often at a very young age relative to others in those same fields. As I wrote before, there is no one behavior or affectation that marks a person with Asperger’s Syndrome, but there are certainly commonalities for those who wade through life with Asperger’s Syndrome. Although this topic is never out of my mind because of my son, I have not had a moment until recently to digest the impact of the last year and half on my son (and I assume other autism spectrum individuals).
In the spring of 2020 a plan was in place to further help my son develop into a responsible, more social, independent adult. He had employment ready upon graduation and there were classes at the local community college that would further enhance his technical skill sets in his trade. If he locks on to his trade as a ‘Little Professor,’ we would have much relief that he will be valuable and valued in the marketplace when we are gone. The initial impact of the COVID shutdown on my son was a threefold hammer. My son lost a real graduation from high school and lost his genuinely meaningful employment opportunity. The loss of the graduation is not unique to my son, nor is the loss of the meaningful employment opportunity. There are many stories of high school students losing these same opportunities. He went to numerous graduation ceremonies for his brothers and sister and cousins, and this lost opportunity will likely be his one graduation opportunity for them to attend and celebrate.
The loss of his employment opportunity had a longer-term impact in that the job provided skilled training in its performance, and an opportunity for additional socialization. The irony of the COVID shutdown in terms of those with Asperger’s Syndrome is that social isolation is easy for most. One of the indicators of a toddler potentially having Asperger’s Syndrome is difficulty with social situations that are instinctive for other children. The inability or muted ability to recognize instinctive social situations typically isolates autism spectrum children from other children in social settings. The COVID shutdown on one hand was extremely easy for my son to handle as it promoted his generally preferred state, but did nothing to help him confront, practice, and improve his social skills. The loss of employment also represented a loss of opportunity for him to practice and improve learned social skills in an adult environment. Further, the COVID shutdown resulted in the cancellation of the community college classes. One cannot learn the skilled trades remotely. I believe it is worth reminding people, especially degreed people, that precision, skills, and craftsmanship must be learned, practiced, and improved through tactile learning. Shutting down this type of training meant that no training could occur at all. In actuality, the shutdowns paused my son’s development but did not pause time, resulting in further delay in his independence.
So, for a year plus, my son remained static through no choice of his own, both socially and in terms of work. Much has been written about the effects of shutdowns on school age children and college students. Less has been written about the effects of shutdowns on students transitioning from education to the workplace. Even less than that has been written about the effects of shutdowns on autism spectrum students transitioning from school to the work world, both in terms of skills and independence and of socialization. I can only imagine the difficulties of autism spectrum students in terms of remote learning and wearing face masks. Autism spectrum children have to learn what facial expressions mean in order to glean the social context of communication. The mask makes this learning process extremely difficult. It is akin to socially attempting to read someone’s lips as a deaf person when the speaker is wearing a mask. I have not seen very much commentary on the effects of shutdowns on autism spectrum students and young adults, to my surprise and distaste. Autism Speaks and the National Autistic Society are loudest when fundraising, and quiescent when it comes to what seems to be a serious challenge to those for whom they say they represent.
However, my focus is not on the impact of those in school. The transition from a school environment (which is generally supportive) to an environment where results of production and social interactions are the only scorecard entries is often overlooked and is not a focus of the education establishment. After a year, my son attempted a job more akin to his skill set, but in an environment that was not conducive to his Asperger’s Syndrome. He was dismissed, rightfully, and he handled his dismissal extremely well in terms of understanding the reasons for it. It was a learning experience but was not the learning experience we hoped for him. He obtained and is currently working at a job that he likes but is not necessarily improving his trade skills.
These events and results were concerning, but as I put it together, were not so pointedly impactful. However, one small event hit me especially hard and brought into focus the true impact of lockdowns. My son’s savings account is attached to my online account. This was originally done when he was younger, and there did not seem to be any reason to change this so that I can help him manage his finances. I glanced at his account the other day and saw a purchase that brought home the worst impact of these shutdowns on those higher functioning residents of the autism spectrum. My son purchased a single ice cream cone after work.
The thought of a purchase of something that is a treat typically experienced among friends, purchased for himself by a young man I love because he does not have friends, is crushing. The friendships he was starting to develop after graduation from high school dissipated because of the shutdown. The social relationships he was developing at the job he was set to take after graduation dissipated with the loss of that opportunity. Despite the social support of our family, my Asperger’s son is further on an island of social isolation now than a year and a half ago. He celebrated something that pleased him or made a spontaneous decision for a treat by himself (I did not ask him about the circumstances), and that image actually brought a lump to my throat for the first time in about thirty years. I so much want him to develop interests and friends (not a ton of friends, just a core group) and so far I have failed. Lockdowns eviscerated the progress that seemed to be occurring, and the purchase of a single ice cream cone brought, like a concussion, the “starting over” with him home in concrete form. Parents of offspring on the Autism spectrum experience these moments often, I believe. The events generate simultaneous feelings of “I love that he purchased a treat for himself, with his own earned money” and profound sadness that it was not with peers. We will start again, with more hope and grit than Sisyphus. But if these repeated shutdowns continue, I cannot help but worry that millions of young adults and children on the spectrum will become locked in to single ice cream purchases for their lifetimes.
Just a gaggle of people from all over who have similar interests and loud opinions mixed with a dose of humor. We met on Twitter.