Navigating the pandemic as an autistic woman

Shakira was diagnosed with autism at 18. At first her diagnosis allowed her to connect with other autistic people and better understand the condition. However, the pandemic changed how she was able to receive this support. Online learning and a lack of structure made it difficult to engage with her course, and she found she had to re-learn social cues because of the isolation of lockdowns. She also shares how she’s learned to reframe her ideas about success.

Shakira shares how the pandemic affected her as an autistic person and how she learnt new coping mechanisms.

Video transcript

Today I'd like to talk about how the pandemic has affected my life as an autistic person with mental health difficulties. Navigating the constantly changing rules and sometimes unclear regulations of this pandemic is difficult, even as a neurotypical person. When your condition revolves around restrictive behaviour and strict routines, uncertainty can have an especially detrimental effect on your wellbeing. I'll be talking about how it affected my career, my studies and my mental health, and how my life may be taking a different trajectory to how I might have thought it would be before.

After receiving my diagnosis at 18, a process which had been going on since I was 16, I was able to access a course to learn more about autism. As a psychology student, I was relatively well versed in the topic, but it allowed me to talk with other autistic people and understand how they overcame much of their struggles. Receiving a diagnosis also made me feel more confident in my identity as an autistic woman. Being female our symptoms are often dismissed as being the consequences of other mental health conditions by both those in our personal circles and medical professionals. This can often lead to the worsening of these pre-existing conditions.

Furthermore, my experience was heavily affected by the pandemic. The course I took, which is usually in person was hosted online, which affected my engagement with the content. I felt like I paid less attention to the course due to the online aspect, and have less of a chance to socialise with others beyond the session we had, as we had no in person interaction. My diagnostic process, which took over two years was also held online and delayed by the pandemic, which meant I couldn't access many of the resources available to those on the autistic spectrum.

Across multiple lockdowns, I had to isolate myself socially, which proved to have a detrimental effect on my mental health. Socialising as an autistic person does not come naturally and coming out of the pandemic meant relearning a lot of basic social cues and rules the average person would understand intuitively. Finishing my A levels within the pandemic also meant I had a lack of closure to my school experience.

I struggled a lot with losing the formalised structure given with in person lessons. As an autistic person, I thrive within contexts which have a predetermined structure. For example, a bell to go off for lessons, mandatory attendance. And the pandemic took most of this away. This meant spending most of my time procrastinating while I saw others making the most of that isolation. I spent days attempting to write a single paragraph of a short essay. This issue has unfortunately continued to present day with most of my lectures being online. But I've started to learn some coping mechanisms to reduce its effects. These include setting dedicated times to study within a cafe, accessing wellbeing support provided to me via DSA (Disabled Student Allowance) and using earphones to fully engage my focus with the content.

Now upon deciding to defer my university application as a direct result of the challenges that I faced throughout the pandemic, I see some semblance of normality returning to my life. I have friends and I'm learning to adjust to university life and adulthood generally. Despite being more enthusiastic for my future, I still struggle a lot with executive dysfunction, which has affected my academic achievements. This affects both those with ADHD and ASD, and can cause a wide range of symptoms that affect all aspects of life. Examples of this are basic organisational tasks, such as tidying my room. Managing my emotions, which often exacerbates symptoms of my other mental health conditions. And planning, which affects much of my academic life. As a result, I'm beginning to rethink my plans for the future and I'm basing a lot less of my self worth on academic validation.

Reframing my idea of success and comparing myself less to the neurotypical norm has helped me cope, especially post pandemic, and I hope others both neurotypical and autistic can take from my experience and learn from it.

University support icon

See what support is available at your university