I’m Autistic. Social Distancing Fills Me With Hope.
Updated: Jun 22, 2021
By Haley Moss
The COVID-19 pandemic began unfolding rapidly while I was on a speaking tour throughout the state of Alaska during the first two weeks of March. I traveled through several airports on my journey from Miami, Florida to Fairbanks, Alaska, and another round of airports on my way home from Juneau, Alaska, back home to Miami. Knowing something was brewing, my dad, a healthcare worker, gave me a few surgical masks to wear on planes since people were wearing them through airports. I was traveling throughout the state, with limited access to news, but I saw headlines whenever I checked social media, or my parents texted me to wash my hands. I knew coronavirus was coming, and we better get ready. By the end of my 8-day Alaskan adventure, my goal was to get home safely, sleep, and pray I didn’t contract the virus during my layover in Seattle.
Two days after an obscenely long travel day back home, I was back home at my parents’ house and unsure how long I’d be home. I suspected I’d be home for a few weeks. But, as pandemics are, no one can pinpoint an exact date. Each passing day after my return from Alaska, more restrictions were being set, and stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures were being enacted nationwide. We learned more about COVID-19, and it quickly became clear we would be finding a “new normal.”
I’m autistic. I thrive on routine. The majority of my business relied on educational events that required copious amounts of travel and sometimes not even having time to unpack my bag. I had routine and touchstones of my life; the weekly recordings of the Spectrumly Speaking podcast, eating the same foods every day, visiting my favorite fitness studios (and finding new ones in the major cities I’d visit), calling my parents, playing video games to relax before bedtime.
Coming back home threw my routines into whack; events began going virtual, which meant I spent a lot more time on Zoom calls and am no longer in a one-bedroom apartment. My sleep schedule changed. I can’t go to the in-person fitness classes I once loved. I delight in my mother’s cooking and cherish it. I am still finding a routine, but finding joy each day when I can: our family dog and cat are happy everybody is home, bike rides, and Jeopardy! with my dad, spending time with my mom, reading a good book.
While the lack of routine – or major overhauls in it – are stressful, social distancing is nothing new. My social life has never been particularly active, yet I am filled with hope during this time. I’ve seen book launches where I’d typically be unable to attend to be hosted online, galas and networking events that I can place on mute if they become too much or I just want to absorb a seminar’s content without worrying about the location’s bright fluorescent lights, virtual movie nights with folks across the country, and read emails about virtual game nights.
I watch us get creative. Disability has always brought about innovation. Work environments go remote – what was once seen as an undue hardship or unreasonable accommodation for disabled people, is now standard across countless industries. It is the “new normal.” So much more of our environment will be accessible to people with disabilities, and the digital environment offers infinite possibilities for autistic people who might otherwise be unemployed or underemployed when the pandemic eventually ends.
For me, working in events as a speaker has its own subset of challenges and joys. Events and conferences are going virtual, and it is a welcome invitation from the future. I am not going through airports, where I sometimes felt overwhelmed going through TSA or exhausted after hours and hours of flights. I’m not hopping into Uber rides in unfamiliar big cities. At virtual events, I can go home afterward. I can interact with everyone on a centralized platform and learn the names of all the attendees. I can immediately follow up with questions or drop a helpful link in the chatbox. Whether I am crisscrossing the country or in my childhood bedroom, I get to do what I love – sharing stories, bringing hope, spreading enthusiasm for inclusion and acceptance while gently challenging preconceived notions of disability. People who otherwise couldn’t attend a conference in person, suddenly have access to disability, autism, and neurodiversity education. When I was in Alaska, families from remote communities would express gratitude that I traveled to them. Now, the worries about access are lessened – click the link, and you too can be there and get as much info as you can.
We’re building relationships. We’re building access. It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic for accessibility and innovation to be at the forefront for everyone, but we’re there. I’m excited to see what our future looks like now that we began to realize what’s possible beyond dreams. Some people say my story fills them with hope, and I am filled with hope at all of our stories and collective collaboration.
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Haley Moss is an autistic attorney, author, artist, and advocate working towards greater accessibility and inclusion for businesses, nonprofits. She is the author of “Middle School: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About” and “A Freshman Survival Guide for College Students with Autism Spectrum Disorders: The Stuff Nobody Tells You About.” You can follow Haley at haleymoss.net or on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram @haleymossart.