On the evening of Thursday 12th March I was about to check in at my hotel in Rotterdam when I got a message that the big autism conference of the next day (Friday 13th, how symbolic…) where I was supposed to speak was cancelled. My world and the world of many other people suddenly came to a stand still. I drove home. And that’s where I spent almost all my days since then.
I had a very busy schedule ahead for 2020 with presentations and workshops planned in 4 continents. But my biggest trip this year was to the Belgian coast, about 100 km from my home. For a walk on the beach. I did a lot of work abroad (see the map above for my workplaces in 2020), but all of it took place in my living room. Big thank you to Zoom, my webcam and my Blue iCE Snowball microphone. And my slippers. Never before in my life I presented with my slippers on. But I did put on my bowtie every time I presented!
Quite soon after the first lockdown, in March, it became clear this whole Coronacrisis was not only a threat for people’s physical health. Yes, many people have died from Covid-19, but even more people have been suffering from stress and anxiety.
As Barry Carpenter, Professor in Mental Health in Education, at Oxford Brookes University, said: people experience a lot of loss: loss of our freedom, loss of opportunities, loss of relationships, loss of our common routines, loss of perspective…
The biggest threat of the pandemic is probably the huge amount of uncertainty it creates. Even with the vaccines coming, nobody can tell when life will get back to normal. Probably never. Because the world has changed. The massive uncertainty was a good lesson for the neurotypicals. For the first time they experienced what autistic people experience almost on a daily basis in non-Corona times. After posting my 20 Corona tips in March (they went viral (pun intended) and were translated in different languages, see my blog archive for these and many other resources I developed) I started a project with a former colleague, Thomas Fondelli, where we interviewed autistic people about their coping strategies when facing anxiety, stress and uncertainty. We started a YouTube channel ‘Angst en autisme‘ (fear and autism), where autistic people gave tips from their lived experience with uncertainty.
Never waste a good crisis…
Being in a lock down meant I suddenly had a lot of time that I would otherwise have spent on airports, in the air, on highways in the usual traffic jams, … The topic of well-being and happiness in autism had been a major interest in my work since a couple of years. I dreamt of moving beyond what I had been doing around that topic, namely talking and presenting. The fact that many organisations, parents, autistic people and professionals contacted me during the Coronacrisis, asking for tips to cope with the uncertainty, stress and anxiety made me think I should develop more concrete tools. I had the luck being invited by (a.o.) my dear friends of Scottish Autism to help them develop tools and resources that would be useful in the Coronacrisis. I started to read research on well-being strategies to inspire myself for the development of these resources. I tried out a couple of things in my presentations and was happy to receive good feedback. I took back my notes and writings of the work I had already done together with Carol Gray. A couple of years ago we started a common project: we would write a book together on autism and happiness. All of my research and digging up of materials from my archives resulted in the H.A.P.P.Y.-programme. I did try-outs – online – with parents and autistic adults with the programme and now – at the end of the year – the first training of H.A.P.P.Y.-coaches started, thanks to Specialisterne Northern Ireland.
I learned from this crazy year many things:
– that it is perfectly possible to do a Zoom webinar with bowtie and slippers
– that my vocabulary increased with a lot of new words (lockdown, covidiot, ‘knuffelcontact’, bubble, ‘confinement’ and I learned a lot of new sentences: ‘I just shared my screen. Can you see it now?’ and ‘Could your please unmute yourself?’
– that my dog has peculiar preferences when it comes to pooing (never walked so much with the dog as this year)
– that the non-autistics can learn a lot from autistics when it comes to coping with uncertainty
– that autistic and non-autistic people have more in common than they think: most people I’ve encountered this year, autistic or not, had the same concerns, fears, wishes and the same needs
– that the world becomes very foggy it you combine a face mask with wearing glasses
– that Zooming demands a lot of energy and a live presentation gives a lot of energy
– that I have a network of friends, people and organisations that supported me in this crazy year. I owe them a lot. I would not have survived this year without them. Thanks to all of them!
Ooh, by the way: with all the time becoming available I also succeeded in writing my first fiction book, a book with 6 short stories written together with Cas Raaijmakers: Onder één noemer.