Being on the Spectrum During a Global Pandemic

By Matthew Toner

Local musician and essential worker Matthew Toner writes about his experiences navigating the changes the world faced last year while living with ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder. 

The world turned upside down last year. 

It feels like most people have now come to terms with the “New Normal” but it has definitely been a challenge. I felt the need to describe my own experience of what it is like living as a person on the spectrum during these uncertain times.

As an adult diagnosed with both Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ADS), an average day prior to lock downs and isolation could be quite challenging. However, as routine went out the window, and ‘typical’ days got replaced with constantly being at home, I started to find both challenges and advantages to coping with my disorders and navigating in this new way of life.

Back when COVID-19 was nothing but a whisper and the world was not wearing masks, I had both daily and weekly routines that may have seemed small or unimportant to some- but they were vital to help keep my stresses and anxieties at bay. So when the initial lock down hit, my mind struggled to cope or understand how to survive without the routines and habits I had relied upon for so long prior to the pandemic. What was I going to do? How was I going to cope without everything I had once known?

As anyone on the spectrum may tell you, I tend to overthink everything, and I do mean everything! The smaller details of a conversation can be pondered over for hours, so imagine the uncertainty of not knowing when I could see my friends and family again. A lot of the time that I spent dwelling on it was in my bedroom at home, isolating with my parents as we had all tested positive for Covid. This added to my worries. Each day started a little different but eventually the evenings would wind up the same; I would hit an inevitable wall of thinking the worst-case scenarios over and over, which would force me into some form of a panic attack or frantic behaviour. 

There was only one solution to this. I needed to form new routines. Once my isolation period was finished, I was able to return to work as my job role classes me as an essential worker. However, I was returning to unknown territory. I could not function in the same capacity as I once did, I was unable to engage in previous routines I had grown so accustomed to pre COVID. I did find my return to work quite hard at first but as I mentioned prior, I decided to set myself some new routines to keep myself going. 

One of the things I struggled with the most was not being able to play live music. I have played in two local outfits now for a number of years and there would be cycles I could rely heavily upon in terms of seasonal gigs and performances. To combat this, I decided to try to write at least one new piece of music a week- to help keep my mind active. I’m happy to say that I now have a few songs I am proud to have in my back pocket.

Social interactions can be very difficult for people on the spectrum and I am no exception. I have spent many years trying to understand the intricacies of how to have ‘successful’ conversations in social settings. I usually go over the top with jokes or open up far too much about my personal life which then leads to a spiral of overthinking that those I spoke with didn’t like me. The pandemic actually offered me some relief from that, but I still felt that I needed to keep in contact with friends. I decided to take part in regular zoom calls and phone chats which gave me an insight into how to manage my interactions better and keep my discussions engaging enough that I didn’t feel as anxious about it. 

Once the lock down began to ease, I found myself feeling anxious again. I worried about how I would cope re-entering certain social situations, or how I would address people I hadn’t seen for months; would I go overboard and make more plans to meet up than I could handle? Alternatively, would I stay in my little bubble and shut myself off from everyone? I picked the former rather than the latter. I felt this obsessive need to jump right back into a place I was not even entirely comfortable being in prior to COVID. This resulted in a whole lot of self-doubt and panic attacks. People were not as keen to meet up as they once were, and instead of putting their reasoning down to their own anxieties around going out during a pandemic,I blamed myself. My ADHD and ASD kicked into overdrive. I began to feel like I was a problem. I began to overthink every little thing someone would say, even if it were a valid reason for not feeling comfortable with the idea of meeting up during these strange times. 

I relied heavily on alcohol and junk food to make me feel better about my anxieties and I entered into a phase where It was clear that I had hit rock bottom. I was lonely and I was depressed. I realised one day that I had to be the version of myself that my overbearing mind thought I could be, I started to take into account the positives in my life. I have an amazing family and group of friends. I also have a 5 year old daughter who was adapting to the “New Normal” better than I ever could. I found solace in these people; they were there for me despite my disorders and they understood who I was and how my mind worked. These people encouraged me to get fit, cut back on drinking, and spend more time in nature.

Things have gotten better now, I don’t rely so much on routines anymore and I think my mind has actually adapted to this, I’ve learnt to take things as they come and enjoy the little things. If you see yourself in what I’m writing, I hope you can find some comfort in it- and I hope things have got easier for you too.

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