The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on autistic adults

The true impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Canada won’t be fully realized for decades to come. It has been a once-in-a-lifetime situation that everyone has found themselves in, and it has affected all parts of Canadian life, from how education works for young children to how disease and sickness are handled for the oldest citizens. As the nation has struggled to get to grips with the virus, and now it’s many variants, all sections of Canada’s demographics have suffered in some way, whether it’s a lost job, a lack of social interactions or even getting the virus themselves. Across all generations, the pandemic has affected many people’s mental health, with the healthcare industry seeing rapid rises in diagnoses of depression and anxiety.

Autistic adults, who are already more naturally predisposed to mental health conditions, have seen big increases in these conditions due to the pandemic. They report being worried about getting the necessary supplies that they need to live and that those around them may get the virus. While many people have joked that the series of lockdowns and a shift to remote working has helped them deal with their social anxiety, many autistic adults have found that other people form part of their routines and structures, and lacking contact with them has actually increased their anxiety and stress.

The biggest shockwaves will be felt in the economy, with unimaginable numbers of small businesses forced to shut and employees having to find new ways of working regardless of their sector. Working from home has become the new normal for many employees and there have been numerous studies, both positive and negative, on the effects of endless Zoom meetings and the blurring of boundaries between home and work. For autistic individuals, there have been three big impacts from COVID-19 on their working lives:

1.Zoom fatigue – most autistic employees find social situations difficult as they are rife with subtle clues and nuances that are immediately obvious to autistic individuals. This only becomes magnified when all face-to-face interactions happen via Zoom where all the body language is shrunk to a tiny box and people willingly and knowingly talk over each other. Being on a Zoom call for large sections of the day has been shown to be stressful and often counterproductive when it comes to remote working for all workers, and employers of autistic adults will need to find more effective ways of staying in contact with their at-home employees.

2. Communication confusion – another big change across all business models is an increase in digital communication, whether this is email, group messaging, or Slack channels for different teams. In any case, it’s well known that it’s almost impossible to convey the correct tone using written words, and this difficulty is exacerbated for autistic individuals. With everyone’s stress and anxiety levels on the increase, there are many more passive-aggressive and gossip messages being sent, both of which put autistic employees at a disadvantage. With no one on hand to guide them through this communication minefield, it’s clear to see why working remotely can be hard for autistic employees.

3. An easy cut – many autistic employees have their job through a talent management agency and are often hired to be an additional rather than an integral part of the team in an effort to increase the company’s visible diversity. This has meant that with the depressed economy, autistsic individuals are often among the first wave of workers to lose their jobs through no fault of their own. Given how hard it is in a normal economy for autistic adults to find meaningful employment, let alone one stricken by a global pandemic, it might be years before autistic employment levels reach their pre-COVID levels again.

Fortunately, the rise of COVID has also coincided with what feels like a global reckoning on improving the lives of minority groups. This includes autistic individuals and there are greater pushes to create autism-friendly spaces in many major Canadian cities and towns, as well as autism employment hiring processes. While the last 18 months have felt bleak for autistic individuals, the future is full of possibilities.