The challenges with social communication experienced by individuals with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC) are well documented. During the current pandemic, many of such social interactions have moved to an online environment. Here at I-AM, to stay connected with our members, we have been running highly successful Zoom meetups.
What have we learned that makes these successful?
Firstly, there is an imperative to connect with our members to alleviate social isolation. But how this is achieved is critical to its success.
There has been a lot written of late about “Zoom Fatigue” experienced by “neurotypical” individuals. The challenges with communicating at a distance, being on camera have been likened to having to undertake a performance. The inability to judge effectively facial expressions, body language and tone of voice, that is distorted by the small delay in software and hardware audio, leading to sensory discomfort. A nagging fear of being judged based on personal presentation or communication style. And the inevitability that individuals will fall foul of social conventions of turn-taking and talk over each other or be diverted by some other thought or external occurrence.
If we look at this a different way, are these not many of the communication challenges experienced by ASC individuals every single day?
The key to the success of I-AM’s Zoom meetups is that we have created a safe space. Individuals can choose whether or not they appear on camera, but not feel judged if they prefer for their camera to be firmly in the “off mode”.
All our Zoom meetups are staffed by our highly experienced expert key workers. They are able to support individuals to not only alleviate anxiety and guide interactions but also can provide a “virtual room” for participants to access should they feel they need a break or have a concern or issue that requires individualised support. A safety net for overload or anxiety. People can drop out and come back in as they prefer, with no judgment.
Our meetings are led by our members, we are committed to co-production, there is no expectation of convention or direction around topics of conversation. Essentially our members are in the driving seat. Often for ASC individuals, this is a rarity in itself with the pressure of having to put on the mask of conformity. Ownership for the sensory environment is retained by the individuals, there is no judgement going to be made if the compulsory bookcase is not in the background or the need for a pot plant to be staged for aesthetic effect.
They are a space where individuals can interact with their peers and be 100% certain that they are amongst friends and will not be judged. No performance is required. People can be their authentic selves.
Perhaps for neurotypicals, we should remember our own communication challenges with virtual meetings. As we move towards more face to face interactions with social norms firmly re-established. We can take with us the discomfort of the virtual meeting, learn from it, and use it to aid our understanding of ASC and its impact in daily life. Maybe become more tolerant of differences?