With the world on lockdown, what has the experience been like for autistic people? The University of Ghent has recently completed a study on the effects of lockdown on people with autism (https://www.ugent.be/en/news-events/impactofcovidonautisticadults.htm ). They found that more than three-quarters of autistic respondents reported an increase in both anxiety and depression symptoms, greater than neurotypical adults.
One of the participants of the study, Andy Clayton, is an autistic entrepreneur, owner of several successful businesses, and shares his personal experiences of the wrenching changes experienced during this once-in-a-lifetime episode. In the article, Andy talks about:
- Business impact. The impact of lockdown on his business and those around him.
- Emotional journey. For an autistic person, what has the emotional experience been like?
- Disruption. The effect of uncertainty, both personally and in business.
- Positives. What has been good about lockdown, and the ‘new normal’?
I’m a 42 year-old with autism, and have been a reasonably successful entrepreneur for over 10 years now, growing and selling one multi-million £ business, and in the process of growing another. Things were going well for me, until coronavirus crisis hit in March 2020.
This has been a strange episode. In some ways, it has felt like the rest of the world has had to adapt to my way of life - now everyone else is also working from home, isolated, and going running all the time. But it has been a difficult time, principally as a result of the impact on business, and consequent emotions.
For those not in business, it is hard to explain just how much of a crisis coronavirus has been. I am a member of an entrepreneurs group, called EO – the Entrepreneurs Organisation, and in a survey of impact of our members we found that >25% of members had lost >75% of their revenues, and that >50% of members had lost >50%.
These may just sound like numbers, but when you actually think through what that means in a business, it is catastrophic. Imagine if ¾ of your salary was suddenly taken away, or ¾ of your house was destroyed, what would that mean for your life? And that’s just the impact on the entrepreneur. When businesses shrink to this extent, workforces get decimated, supply chains destroyed, and demand for a wide range of goods and services suppressed for a long time to come. And each one is tragic story.
A friend of mine in America went from having a thriving events business employing dozens of staff, to being on the dole, within one week. An old client in China had to fire everyone from his travel business and close it up for good. There are so many tragic stories like this playing out around the world at the moment.
My own business has been hit, and though we will survive this downturn, I’ve had to lay people off, and seen valued clients have to leave. You don’t have to be autistic for that to hurt, but one aspect of my autism is that I struggle to distinguish emotions (called ‘alexithymia’), so it’s taken work to understand what the negative feelings were.
A technique I’ve had to lean on heavily is emotional inventory taking. I learned this in alcohol recovery, and it’s the simple habit of writing out all the feelings I think I am experiencing - no matter how crazy - and reasons I might be feeling them. I find it very helpful to identify emotions in this way, as by understanding what an emotion is, it takes the power out of it, and allows me to find solutions for dealing with it.
For example, from writing an emotional inventory, I realized that one of the things that was bothering me most was the sense of feeling redundant or un-valued. I help companies to grow, and in a situation like this, where companies are cash-flow constrained, and shrinking, they are suddenly more skeptical about my services. It was interesting for me to realise that it wasn’t the loss of revenue that bothered me most, but the feeling of being judged and rejected by people I respect.
When the crisis first kicked off, I was aware of a dark feeling hanging over me, and it took someone else to point out what it was. I heard someone share the words ‘You know that dark feeling you’re carrying around? It’s grief’, and I knew that’s what it was. Like any big endeavour in life, a business involves effort and passion to build up, one step at a time, so with each of my customers that had to end with us because their businesses were imploding, I could feel that hard work being undone, a heart-breaking process.
No news is good news
A very positive step for me emotionally was to get back to the discipline of not engaging at all with news and current affairs. When the crisis first kicked off, I found myself compulsively checking news websites whenever I could, something I have avoided for many years now. It was such a relief when, after 2-3 weeks I was able to find the discipline to switch that off, because it compounded my anxiety, and distracted me from taking positive action on things I can control.
The news is designed to touch our fears, and in so doing exacerbates them. The surprising finding of not watching the news is that I am not less well-informed – people still find a way of telling me things that are important – but I am less distracted, and more able to stay positive.
One of the hardest things for me to deal with, both professionally and emotionally, during this period has been uncertainty. I help companies to set plans and strategies, a process of removing ambiguity and uncertainty to create clarity and take clear actions towards certain outcomes.
The crisis has had the opposite effect of course, the rate of entropy has spiked. This has meant many carefully crafted plans have been ripped up (an excruciating process for me!), and it is hard for companies to develop strategies right now, because there is little good information to plan from. This has made teams and companies reactive for the time being, an uncomfortable state of affairs.
In my own business I went from a position of having a plan, knowing what to do to continually grow it, to being thrown into uncertainly, and having to try numerous initiatives without any idea of their outcomes, especially in marketing and product development, which I find really uncomfortable. The fact is that no-one really knows what is going to happen, even in their own industries, and for someone who deals in finding answers and solutions, that’s tough.
Disruption has also been reflected in activity levels. During the early stages of the crises, there was a huge increase in the rate of work for everybody. The sudden market shift required immediate responses, such as moving teams to new ways of working, pivoting business models, and re-negotiation of entire supply chains. The first month for many entrepreneurs was a frantic re-negotiation of all the key relationships in their lives – staff, landlords, creditors, suppliers, to account for the sudden change in business.
More recently though, this has levelled off into a new normal. For me this has settled at lower than usual activity levels, which has brought the challenge of maintaining momentum and fighting off boredom, and filling the time with less familiar work, such as doing more marketing.
The consequences of lockdown have been disastrous, but lockdown itself I have quite enjoyed. I have observed others struggling with being at home all the time, but that’s how I normally work. I’m sure it must be harder if you live alone or are single, but I have really appreciated not having to go out and meet people. It’s also removed the stress of regular travel. In fact, I would happily maintain this working arrangement after lockdown ends.
I have been able to develop new routines. For example, every day at 12 sharp I sound the lunch bell, and I stop work, the children stop their studies, and we all enjoy a lunch together. We also go for a walk every day, and I am able to keep up my 3 runs a week.
Remote working suits me fine, as I can apply my skills on people’s behalf, help them to plan and strategise, but without actually having to spend time with them physically. For an autistic person, this is in many ways ideal.
Conclusions – looking to the future
Everyone has had to deal with and adapt to change as a result of lockdown, autistic or otherwise. It’s pushed us all out of our comfort zones. What’s most interesting is where we go from here. I certainly look forward to businesses getting back to growth. But my biggest take away is how much of my life can be run remotely, and what a welcome change that is. I hope that I can maintain that as much as possible after lockdown, because, to a surprising extent, I do not miss the stress and running around that goes with business travel and constantly having to go out and meet with people.
To get in touch with Andy, you can contact him via https://www.linkedin.com/in/andyclaytonuk/
If you have an experience or views that you would like to share, then please get in touch