From my personal point of view, the most frightening thing about the response to COV-19 is, how it’s making everyone a little more autistic. While this wouldn’t always be a bad thing, not necessarily anyway, there obviously are times when it can be crippling. The middle of a crisis is one of them, unless we’re properly focused, and our concerns are properly addressed — and from what see from most Americans, we’re not, and they aren’t.
Autism is living with a constantly heightened fight-or-flight response. We can learn to tone it down, but tone it down is something on which we constantly have to focus. We are more likely than most to see any given stimulus, change in conditions, or other event as overwhelming, threatening, or attacking, and we take actions that sometimes look ridiculous to other people — anything from rocking back and forth, to singing loudly, to having meltdowns, to withdrawing, to focusing excessively on something — to fight for or to assert control over ourselves and our space.
Often, people around us, in normal conditions, become just as autistic, because we’re interfering with their agendas, and so they lose their empathy — it’s a feature of fight-or-flight — and they don’t care what we think either, and so they fight just as hard. Either the autistic feels beaten, or everyone feels beaten, and there’s resentment on both sides.
This is exactly what I see happening now, in the response to COV-19 and, more critically, in the response to the response. The experts on immunology, virology, and pharmacology are weighing in. Now it’s my turn — I think it’s fair to say that living with autism for 45 years has made me an expert on the subject, and I’m telling you, these days we’re seeing a metaphorical pandemic of temporary autism. This pandemic is making it more difficult to address the literal pandemic, and yet so few people want to address it. With all the focus on science, people are forgetting that psychology also is a science, and people are dismissing how important psychology is in cases like this, even though their goal is to motivate millions of human beings.
Let’s consider the recent rebellions against the decrees and restrictions various governments have imposed. People were going out in public whenever they could, and making plans for St Patrick’s Day. When governments imposed more restrictions in response, people sometimes chose to break the law, or to hold large house parties. Now we see thousands of college students keeping their Spring Break traditions, hanging out on beaches in Florida and getting drunk, as usual. We also see people going to the gym, sometimes in violation of local decrees, and doing whatever else they can to be defiant.
Whereas a war or period of civil disorder also means restrictions, at least a person has opportunities to fight actively. Here, we’re told to run and hide. That doesn’t fit well with the human psyche and, especially, with American culture, with our traditions of fighting instead of running and hiding, and of resisting excessive authority. It especially doesn’t help when restrictions come one after the other — what we got last week was supposed to be enough, but now there’s something else, and next week still something else will come along.
We also see people doing whatever they can to get a sense of control. Of course there are people who bought and still are buying various commodities, to try reselling them at higher prices. Not everyone, though, buys them for that reason. Some are trying to get a sense of control, and they even get a sense of accomplishment from it. Buying toilet paper when people see stores running out of it, there’s one example. Buying masks and sanitizer to have some sort of defense against this plague, is another.
In response, others are angry to the point of being condescending, personally belittling, and vicious. I think some of them feel a sense of strength by fighting for a cause, thereby dodging the idea that they’re largely expressing their own personal anger, whereas the defiant at least are admitting they’re at least partially upset for themselves. I’ve seen several posts about how “it’s only for a little bit”, “you really don’t need to do this and that”, “you’re being a public menace”, and even “you’re killing people by leaving the house”. It’s as if they take it for granted that anyone should do what they’re doing themselves, and they see someone else doing the opposite, and it hits a nerve, hard. Welcome to my life.
The best I can do is explain why the defiant are acting as they do. I admit that some of these opinions are my own, and I’ve argued against many of the restrictions and decrees. In this case, I’m not trying to get anyone to agree with me, but to explain why others think and act as we do, because at this point, we truly need open communication.
Much of how Americans are thinking and acting has been years in the making. News outlets have sensationalized stories and scared us into demanding action, some of which has made the country less free. Forty years ago, it was drugs — what we heard as kids made it sound as if my friends and I would be playing in the park and some stranger would come up to us and offer us free cocaine just to get our nine-year-old selves hooked. Or, kidnapping — of course there are creeps around and kids need to learn to avoid them, but there were parents afraid to let their kids walk two blocks to school or to friends’ houses. After 9/11, we were so afraid of Middle Easterners attacking us that we endorsed a war that’s still going on, and we cheerlead for government surveillance that hasn’t been relaxed even though the ringleaders are all dead.
Within the first few months of this year, the information we received about COV-19 was confusing, as one report would contradict another. Part of this is because the Chinese were horrible about addressing and informing even themselves about the progression of the disease. Another part was because many of the stats we heard left out contextual information like pollution, heavy smoking among the populace, and mixing of generations, all three of which happened in China and the last one, along with greater population density, happening in Italy. We also were told that only a small segment of the population was at high risk, and the rest of us would experience the virus the way we would, a bad cold or the flu, yet authorities started treating the virus as a large-scale and imminent threat.
From my point of view, it’s only natural that a person responds to this information with doubt, and that a person sees authorities as wanting to rule by decree, and using this information as an excuse. When most of the rebuttals consist of personal attacks, and most of the discussions of “flattening the curve”, don’t involve numbers, it sounds as if people are being dismissive and even condescending. I’m not saying others intended to be that way; I’m saying it’s the perception, and there’s a reason for that perception. People are not being stupid or intentionally reckless, at least for the most part — in fact, to us, disbelieving what we hear from the media or from the government is the intelligent thing to do.
Of course, handling all this would be easier if there were outlets. Trouble is, our outlets are mostly gone. Everything that involves live human contact, including watching or playing sports, trivia nights at bars, even working out, is gone. People are stuck with their families, despite often wanting to get away from them. Church is gone except for live-streaming — and if I were a Christian, I wouldn’t participate in that, because I’d figure that if G-d wanted me to worship Him, He’d go full Thanos on that virus.
It also would help if the problem was widely perceived as an imminent threat. The problem is, it isn’t. Americans largely don’t see ourselves as becoming anything like Italy. I’m not saying that’s right; I’m saying that’s the perception, and it affects our behavior. Again, we’ve heard so many apocalyptic predictions over the years — basically, the media being The Boy Who Cried Wolf — that it’s natural and understandable to call BS even if there’s a real potential problem.
People have given me suggestions, of course. Intellectually, I know they’re trying to help, but when the ones handling out the suggestions also are cheerleading for the decrees, it instinctively feels as if they’re saying, “Don’t you what you like. Do what I like!” Taking walks and hiking do little for me, for instance. Because I want to keep working out, I’ve spent $300 — and counting — on home exercise equipment, and I’m going to have to explain to my future stepson why all this crap is taking up a portion of his playroom.
Of course we realize many people have it worse, and we do have a grasp of the science behind all the decrees. We have some understanding of how too many at-risk people sick at once would be a disaster. That said, if we don’t understand why folks don’t hold quarantining to the at-risk people instead of everyone, and if we don’t understand how difficult it is to make more medicine or why it takes so long to test a vaccine, it sure sounds as if people are trying to impose — and when fight-or-flight kicks in, we lose our empathy. We become more selfish, not because we’re stupid or malevolent, but because we’re human.
When people say, “It’s only this much” or “It’s only for this long”, not only does it sound as if people are saying, “You’re stupid for being upset”, but it sounds like a lie, given the progression of events. Think of when we were kids, and our parents said, “Just three bites of veggies. Just three.” and then, “OK, just one more” and then, after that, “Let’s do one more”. Eventually, we got wise to it, and we realized they never meant for us to stick to three bites. Maybe we even threw a tantrum and threw over the plate or bowl, at which time our parents punished us, essentially, because they lied to us and it didn’t work.
And now we hear that the restrictions are only for a month, maybe two, and the same feeling comes back. It’s only for two months, they say — and yet we hear our left-wing friends say we should keep some of these emergency measures going constantly, and we remember how it took 40 years for state governments to relax their laws on one drug, and now 9/11-inspired measures remain in effect 20 years later. We hear about how limited government doesn’t work, despite how government red tape, in China and in the United States, is a large part of why we haven’t been able to address the disease faster. We have every reason to think we’re in this for the long haul, and when we say, “Enough is enough”, people will continue to tell us we’re stupid, and we want people to get sick and die, and that will continue to do little but piss us off even more.
I don’t know what the solutions are, at this point. Sometimes, addressing the problem is all I have. I do know that while people are saying that stopping the spread of the disease comes first, it remains a fact that people who are fed up will continue to defy the rules, and that isn’t going to help stop the spread. Calling people stupid and ignorant doesn’t help. Telling them losing every way of coping they had, doesn’t help. Of course I understand those actions, too — those in favor of quarantining also have become temporarily autistic too, and they’re lashing out in their own way as well.
I do know that we start by identifying and understanding the problem, whether the problem is a virus or millions of angry Americans who have understandable reasons to lash out. Maybe we can start with the understanding that no one is getting up in the morning and deciding to make anyone else sick. We want to live as best we can, and we want to see a free and prosperous country after all this is over. In turn, because fair is fair, I’m doing my damnedest to understand how the other side isn’t getting up in the morning and deciding to play Mussolini.
Finally, I hope that those who read this will understand a little more of what autism is like. Again, this crisis is making temporary autistics of us all, and while we’re reading up on drugs, hospital equipment, and viruses, maybe we can use some of our time to look at how the human mind works, and use some of that to handle not only the next crisis that comes along, but whatever temporary autism happens in all our day-to-day lives.