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Why Easing Lockdowns Can Be Challenging for Autistic People

Why returning to the "new normal" may be fraught for people with autism.

Key points

  • People with autism are often expected to fit into a world that doesn't meet their needs; for some, lockdown provided some relief.
  • Yet other people with autism experienced a worsening of symptoms which they had developed coping mechanisms for in the past.
  • It is possible to hold onto some of the benefits experienced during lockdown as we transition back to the "new normal."

When the pandemic first struck in early 2020, we found ourselves in a situation that was new and, for most of us, terrifying. No matter what someone's existing anxiety levels were, being thrust into the unknown and fearing for our safety and the safety of our loved ones was unpleasant and stressful. And that's not even to mention being separated from some of the people closest to us, even if we were physically near.

While a lot of people likely welcome the coming out of lockdowns and easing of restrictions, many of my clients with autism describe not only a reticence about returning to “normal,” but also several benefits that they experienced in lockdown. Personally, I can relate. I love being able to see my adult son regularly—missing him was the worst part of lockdown for me—and I’m enjoying being able to go to the cinema and restaurants and see close friends in person. But ultimately, I liked being cut off from most things. Although I worked via Zoom throughout the whole period, I thrived on the lack of pressure to do anything else, including attending any social events which weren’t strictly limited to the very small circle of people whose company I crave.

How Some of My Clients Have Described Lockdown

Sarah told me, “I feel so guilty because so many people have suffered, but I loved being shut away from people and activities I hated. Just having that pressure off to be around anyone but my husband and dogs felt amazing.”

Christine described the relief she felt when mask-wearing was introduced. “I’m sure it sounds completely daft, but I absolutely love wearing a mask! Combining the mask-wearing with crossing the street to avoid everyone was a joy. And there was no pressure to make eye contact. I’ve never felt more comfortable, socially, out and about.”

Betsy told me, “Initially, I hated Zoom. I’ve always struggled with the phone, but when I got used to Zoom, I found it really suited me. I could see people’s faces but I didn’t have to cope with all the sensory overload which I experience when I’m in a different place. I could zone in. I try and see if all my meetings can be done by Zoom these days.”

Jackie said, “I used to have to go to the office every day. Take the train, get into the city, all of that. By the time I reached work and had to communicate with all my colleagues, I was burnt out. I have felt so much better working from home and I’m far more productive.”

Although these individuals often express a sense of guilt at enjoying lockdown—given the devastating effects of the pandemic—before the pandemic struck, they were trying to fit into a world that was often badly designed for them. Lockdown took away some of the things which make life a nightmare for people with autism, including sensory overload and excessive social interaction.

At the same time, while many people are anxious about returning to “normal,” and while many people with underlying mental health issues have experienced a worsening of these issues during the pandemic, some people with autism have experienced increased anxiety and depression. There is also a sense of panic about having to create new routines and respond to new ways of doing things, when, for a long time, a stripped-down and simplified version of life was the experience of many people.

Michelle Ziling Ou, Unsplash
Source: Michelle Ziling Ou, Unsplash

The Fear About Lifting Lockdowns

Another client, Elizabeth, describes a worsening of her autism symptoms during lockdown. “I have become very isolated. I live alone and, although I have one or two friends who I now see, I’ve become absolutely cut off from everything else. I used to push myself enough socially to get out there, but now I’m terrified about doing what I used to do.”

Zoe told me, “I felt sort of safe during the pandemic—worried about COVID, but safe at home. But I’ve become so introverted, I can’t see how to get back to normal.

"I’ve also created a very, very tight routine, which I love, but the thought of letting that go and returning to the chaos of work makes me sick. I don’t even feel I can go back to work now—and although it wasn’t perfect, I did manage before the pandemic.”

How People with Autism, and Others, Can Cope with Post-Lockdown Anxiety

As the world opens up, perhaps there’s the possibility of holding onto some of the things that made you feel good when it was shut down. If the old patterns already made you feel burnt out, emotionally overwhelmed, and anxious, what can you take from your lockdown experience?

Perhaps that will be engaging less socially, or finding ways to connect other than face-to-face. Perhaps you can keep up some of the good habits you developed during lockdown, like taking a daily nap or regularly engaging in a creative activity.

People with autism often see things in black-and-white terms and, for some, they see the ending of lockdowns and restrictions as a blanket shift from the conditions they may have been experiencing for some time. However, while some things, such as workplace policies, may be largely out of your control, you can take control by easing yourself back into new routines. Embracing the “new normal” is overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be done in one go. And, despite the vaccines and general opening up, we’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next during this pandemic.

Responding to these new situations is difficult—if you need help, please seek out a suitably qualified professional. To find someone near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.