Perry LaRoque and Family

Silver Linings: Social Distancing in the Age of Autism

Like you, I’ve been spending most of my day performing two types of tasks, 1) things I would rather not be doing at home and 2) finding the silver lining in each. For example, as my wife and I try to “homeschool” our three children under the age of six while working the same hours, the silver lining is that next week it’s Spring Break, whatever that means now. Or, as I’m pulling one child off of the rafters (literally), the other out of an unauthorized bath, and changing a diaper, while my wife is on an important call in the closet, at least we are all together? But seriously, there are those moments when I’m sure we all think, some things are actually better this way. 

My world just before the coronavirus outbreak was about as busy as things could get. Mansfield Hall, the residential college support program for students with ASD and other diverse learners I started 6 years ago, was firing on all cylinders and we were neck deep in the preparations for our new program in Eugene, Oregon. At the same time, I was launching my book, Taking Flight: College for Students with Disabilities, Diverse Learners, and their Families (shameless plug) and was supposed to go on an illustrious book tour, carpetbag and all. And as I am sure you all experienced, things started changing by the hour. We could barely revise our response fast enough and even the final version required daily revisions after it was released. My world, like yours, was completely upended. 

But as they say, when the going gets tough, the tough cry a little bit, force feed on some humility, bang our heads, and get going. Mansfield Hall developed a critical action plan that involved most of our students returning home, along with rotating weekly shifts of employees to keep at least two thirds of our team unexposed, and like a scene out of the Matrix, a deep dive into the Virtual Hall. In a matter of hours, yes hours, our team devised comprehensive online learning plans, social gatherings, virtual civic engagement, and video support groups. We literally picked up all the pieces and digitized them for our students. For a guy who has yet to figure out Twitter or what it means when I’m told someone was talking about me on Reddit, our team’s collective response was quite simply phenomenal. 

Yet on the other side of the Virtual Hall there were almost 100 students, all whom have some unique relationship with society, who were literally being told the opposite of what they had heard their entire life, you need to socially distance. It was almost like some ironic prank from the grave of good ol’ Hans (Asperger). My immediate concern was about the losses in the social skills gains students had painstakingly and awkwardly made over the past few semesters. We spend a fair amount of our time and efforts getting them out of their rooms and now we were encouraging them to do the exact opposite. The big question of the week became, “How will social distancing play out in the age of autism?”

Now on first thought, to the uninformed, first-slide-of-the-autism-powerpoint public, they may think this is a welcomed relief and free invitation to return to the preferable social isolation. For those of us who have spent their careers with these students actually know it’s quite the opposite. Don’t get me wrong, some people (people with autism included) like to be alone. Nevertheless, we understand that the desire to be social and secure a sense of belonging is almost ubiquitous to all people (people with autism not excluded). Like you and I, this social distancing was going to hit us in uniquely challenging ways. Quite simply, I didn’t want my students to be lonely. 

Back to the silver linings. Early in my career, I believe my soon-to-be-retired distinguished and admired doctoral advisor, Dr. Brian Bottge, said something to the effect that we always need to meet students where they’re at. From the side-of-the-river perspective, this often meant paddling out to somewhere in the fast moving middle and saying, I think I’m where you’re at, come on over, while adjusting your distance with each interaction to avoid drowning. But in many of these cases, students were meeting us where we were at, mostly because we determined the appropriate distance…and the river, and the paddles, and the boats, you get my point. Only the most talented and in tune practitioners can ever start on the other side of the river, and no amount of training can train the average person the way to wade over. We are all left with floating and reaching out in good faith. 

With all humbleness and honesty, Mansfield Hall may have inadvertently waded across the river last week. The worry and concern about moving to the Virtual Hall were quickly outmatched by the reports of students showing up to meetings on time (with shirts on), active participation in our virtual social gatherings, and a level of engagement that we would only otherwise see through some amount of proverbial kicking and screaming. Simply put, our students have been present…online. Why? Because we started on their side of the river. Not that all of our students stereotypically find comfort on the internet, but come on, one part millennial plus one part ASD often adds up to something with a circuit board. By reducing the daily weight of an often suffocating cognitive load, our students have seemed to be able to check some amount of their social anxiety, need for predictability, and the preference for an exit behind them at the virtual door. 

The silver lining in all of this is definitely not a permanent move of Mansfield Hall to the Virtual Hall, although keep your ears tuned for more about Virtual Hall later (much to the dismay of my exhausted executive team governed by an impulsive social entrepreneur who won’t let some silly virus get in the way of his self-adjudicated great ideas). The silver lining is that we can still matter in the lives of our students at likely the most difficult time in most of our lives. We can inadvertently show we care by being forced to start from their side of the river. It is our responsibility to reflect on everything that is better right now, from video chatting everyday with people who we would barely see every few weeks, to eating leftovers, to getting and retaining a clear view from the banks of the other side of our student’s river in order to reformulate, respond, and react to what we can be, after what we have to be is over. 

Dr. Perry LaRoque is the author of Taking Flight: College for Students with Disabilities, Diverse Learners, and their Families, Founder/President of Mansfield Hall, and Vice Principal of Cabin Fever Homeschooling.

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