An autistic student shares her experience during COVID-19.

By Gabrielle Hunter

Asperger’s Syndrome is defined as a chemical imbalance in the brain during utero. At least, that’s what I was taught.  Being what’s considered an “Aspie” by certain circles (medical professionals, special education teachers, fellow friends) has its downsides.

There are more males out there with Asperger’s Syndrome than women. Even I knew this back when I worked with special education kids in high school. I worked with all high schoolers on the spectrum. I sat in the classes too.

 Aspies, we see the world differently than people not like us. We are high functioning members of the autism spectrum. This isn’t us versus them. It’s just the way we perceive the world. Some of us are touch-sensitive. Some of us have eating issues —I once had a fellow Aspie classmate who only ate Arby’s chicken and oranges. We all have our tics, our rituals, our favorite subjects at the cost of being not so socially good. 

I’m like Olaf from the Frozen franchise with some people. I love hugs and touch depending on who is the target. We Aspies have our own preferences. Touch, no touch, soft things, salty foods, sweet foods, spicy foods, it all varies.

Fast forward to today and now we have more problems. Truth be told, I only have an extremely mild case of Asperger’s Syndrome. My biggest thing with COVID-19 is that it isolates me from touching people I care about who do not live in my house.

It makes me think back to Dedicate Rosethorn’s words in “Briar’s Book” about pandemics where we all put up walls and isolate to save others. Rosethorn said in this response to one of her charges’ questions about plagues. 

Most disasters are fast and big. You can see everyone else’s life got overturned when yours did. Houses are smashed, livestock’s dead. But plagues isolate people. They shut themselves inside while disease takes a life at a time, day after day. It adds up. Whole cities break under the load of what was lost. People stop trusting each other because you don’t know who’s sick.

“Briar’s Book” — Dedicate Rosethorn

I’d go into my classes and hug some of the people or the professors depending on if I see them as worth it. 

However, I did not expect COVID-19 would take my hugs from my older sister and hugs from my mother away. I did not expect I’d be sitting on the outside of my mother’s ranch-style house in Ballwin every two weeks during COVID-19 to get my pills and talk to my family on the other side of the glass storm door. I bawled my eyes out a few times.

I’m not ashamed to admit that I cried because my sister works in a hospital pharmacy saving lives and my mother is an optometrist who doesn’t know if she’ll be exposed to the disease. My mother raised me to be more southern than northern despite our mixed backgrounds of her family from the north and my dad’s from the south.

I hug, I touch if I can, I’m polite until someone offends me and on top of all that I do have a southern accent when I’m too tired or emotional to put on an accent others understand. 

I lost a lot of affection with the pandemic. I lost playing with my mother’s small Border Collie, Hope. Ironic considering that’s what everyone needs now. Everyone needs a little Hope. We all need a little hope to keep going. That’s what was at the bottom of Pandora’s box. Whatever box someone opened to unleash this horror, I can only wait and search for hope.

After this daunting experience, I was curious about how others on the spectrum were doing. 

Kylie Turner has Asperger’s Syndrome like me. 

“My autism feeds my anxiety, so I get stressed over seemingly the smallest things. I’m a huge talker, I usually end up saying things without thinking about them first so I run circles around my conversations and make myself more stressed when I can’t get others to understand my feelings,” Turner said. “It makes it difficult for me during COVID-19 because there’s so many different things I’m stressed about and it’s difficult for me to express what I’m feeling anxious and stressed about.” 

Truth be told, I feel like that too. Except I don’t talk or I can’t communicate. It’s either that or I can’t eat. Trying to eat when like this doesn’t help. Someone could put my favorite snacks in front of me and I’d try, but otherwise, I’d struggle. Aspies do have anxiety like a lot of the population.

Turner video chats her friends some nights to cope with the stressor of being unable to be her extroverted self. She throws herself into playing on her switch and doing crafts. 

“I like doing minuscule tasks that help me stay distracted. Yesterday I painted a glass jar as a happiness jar just to give me something to do. I like mindless tasks that help me connect with myself more,” Turner said. 

She painted a jar and I bawled my eyes out after being bothered too much.  Our conversation about distractions leads to sleep schedules and overthinking. Turner tries not to overthink everything which is something I marvelously fail at stuck in quarantine. 

It’s not just Aspies who have trouble with the changes. A lot of autistic people have had their schedules or rituals disrupted and that’s what messes us all up. Have a care for everyone and your autistic friends for we may be bogged down or unable to process to the point we’ll have what’s called a meltdown.