Megan Kalomiris, a science writer and 2022 UC Santa Cruz Science Communication Program graduate, has autism and struggles with social interaction. For her, in-person meetings, small talk and socializing feel like “exams I could never study for or pass.” COVID-19 gave her a break, a chance to feel more “normal.” “For the first time, neurotypical people were feeling a bit of what I regularly experience: a world not built for your needs,” she writes. Now, with restrictions mostly lifted, she makes a plea to keep the inclusivity she so cherished.
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People often wonder why I seem exhausted most of the time.
As an autistic person, I find day-to-day interactions with others take significant effort and focus.
Each time I talk to someone, I run through a checklist in my head:
Tune out the background noise.
Look in their eyes. But don’t stare too intently.
Maintain body language that is not too relaxed, but not too intense.
Keep a natural and appropriate facial expression (whatever that means).
Throw in nods and vocalizations — but not too many — to communicate interest.
Listen, because they don’t like repeating.
Don’t make mistakes or else they will know.
This is not an exhaustive list. But if you had to consciously and deliberately enact all of that during every conversation, how would you feel? Uninterested in meeting with me? Drained of all energy? Frazzled from the intense mental labor?
Yeah, me too.
These “spontaneous” behaviors are normal in society — required, even — so I’ve been told by mentors and therapists.
But many unconscious actions are not natural for me.
It took nearly two decades of practice — including hours of book research and humiliating trial and error — for me to gain these skills. In-person interactions, small talk and socializing all felt like exams I could never study for or pass.
School I could do, but not this.
And I felt confounded and disheartened to watch the easy grace of my socially adept classmates. I’m in my 20s now, and it still isn’t easy.
Yet people around me continue to downplay my struggles with trite phrases of encouragement like “It’s not that hard” or “Try being more flexible.”
Those statements were — and still are — untrue for me, as well as many of the millions of people on the autism spectrum.
Autism spectrum disorder is a neurological condition. That means my brain functions differently than most people’s. Autistic people behave differently in a variety of categories: communication, expression of emotions and sensory perception, to name a few.
Still, it’s always felt impossible to explain my difficulties to neurotypical people — those who are fortunate enough to live in a society built for them.
But then, COVID-19 hit.
Suddenly, daily interpersonal interaction as we knew it changed. Many worked from home, wore face masks and limited all in-person contact.
I lived alone, worked from home, spent months encountering only a handful of people. And I had never been happier.
I do not say that to minimize the tragedy that COVID-19 wrought. It has caused — and continues to cause — an unnecessary and calamitous loss of over 6 million lives and even more livelihoods worldwide.
However, the pandemic provided a rare opportunity to pause and examine the status quo with a critical eye. It feels responsible to point this out as we reemerge. For me, it offered a rare chance to see how burdened I felt by normal life.
In typical times, I felt so exhausted trying to be “normal,” I had no energy left at the end of the day. I climbed into bed at 6 p.m.
But during the onset of the pandemic, I had more stamina while doing computer work and was more efficient. Plus, I had energy left over for hobbies and virtual friendships after work.
I was thriving.
Living in a flipped world, I never felt Zoom fatigue
Everyone else talked of missing pre-pandemic life — of feeling chronic exhaustion from trying to adapt to an unnatural, shut-in way of life and of feeling depressed without social connection. Tales of Zoom fatigue, pandemic fatigue and difficulty living in isolation dominated conversation, Twitter threads and news articles.
I didn’t feel any of it.
I couldn’t understand what people missed or why they would take health risks to spend time with other people face to face.
We all had Zoom. We had phones. We were still speaking and connected to others. Why does it matter how we connect?
Then I had a realization.
The world’s struggle with a new form of social interaction sounded uncannily familiar to me. The types of exhaustion, frustration and depression associated with forced adaptation to unnatural social rules were like my own.
For the first time, neurotypical people were feeling a bit of what I regularly experience: a world not built for your needs.
For me, pandemic-style interactions — controlled, distanced — were ideal. For everyone else, they were deeply troublesome.
We had swapped roles. The world had flipped.
For a moment, anyway.
I could not understand why many struggled with pandemic-safe interactions.
Now I see why people struggle to understand me. Just because I could not comprehend the difference between in-person and remote interaction doesn’t mean that there isn’t something missing for them.
They are just as inflexible as I and others on the autism spectrum — which is to say, not inflexible at all. We all simply have our own social needs, and no one form of interpersonal interaction is correct for everyone.
We can’t go back to life in 2019
We are in a phase in which we’re wondering what a post-pandemic “normal” will look like. Though it is tempting to long for life in 2019, I believe that cannot and should not be the goal for everyone.
I found life more enjoyable during the solitude of the pandemic. The only mental strain I found during the pandemic was when I felt society no longer supported my way of life — whether by workplaces and schools mandating in-person attendance, or by a sudden difficulty in finding companions who tolerate remote interaction.
I am certain I am not the only autistic person who feels this way, and autistic people aren’t the only ones who prefer a remote, distanced life. For instance, immunocompromised people might prefer to limit their contact with others. People with accessibility challenges might struggle to navigate day-to-day life physically. People who cannot afford to commute to work could have jobs opened to them if remote work options were more plentiful.
It feels as though many treat remote interactions as inherently worse for everybody, but that is not the case.
There are those who prefer in-person interactions, and they should recognize that in themselves. However, some need a remote world just as strongly as others need in-person life. Instead of one or the other, there is room for both worlds in our society going forward.
We have built a more flexible, inclusive society during the tumult of the pandemic — it would be a shame to lose that.
Megan Kalomiris is a science writer based in Santa Cruz. She has previously written for the NIH Catalyst, Stanford News Service, and Smithsonian Voices blog, among other outlets. Megan recently graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a master’s degree in science communication. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in biology from California State University, Fresno.