Five Ways to Handle Social Distancing from an Expert Neurodiverse Distancer

Okay, I have something important to admit: I've spent a good part of my life social distancing. Like, long before Coronavirus drove us indoors. Long before it was in style.

And something else: the world's always felt scary to me. Like, long before it was a shared global sentiment. Long before the news was reporting on it constantly.

The truth

Having Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) means that the world most people take for granted is overwhelming for me, purely due to the way my brain is wired. For people with SPD, the world is often a scary place filled with jumbled, intense sounds, sights, smells, and other sensory input and related feelings that we can't untangle. It's loud when we least expect it. Someone surprises us from behind when we thought we were alone. We can't connect our bodies to the physical space we're in, and we crash about like a gasping fish on the shore. And sometimes, when it becomes too much, our brains temporarily disconnect from processing this distressing input, and we lose our already tenuous connection to our bodies and our environments. It's these sensory shutdowns and meltdowns that often drive us indoors and away from people. We can't be overwhelmed when we're alone. We don't have to account for unpredictability when we control our environment.

In watching my friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, and really my entire social network retreat into their homes for the immediate future, I keep thinking - finally, something I'm skilled at doing! As friendly and outgoing as I am, I'm great at social distancing because being in my own space alone is my most comfortable state of being.

So what advice can I pass along during this time to keep you both safe and sane?

  1. Embrace the situation. This health crisis and its rippling impacts are happening, whether or not you like it. You can't change it, but you might be able to "flatten the curve," as they say, and have a greater impact on our collective health by staying put. You're safer staying put. As much as I like to challenge my sensory differences, there are days where I feel safer staying put too. As much as I wish I could undo how I'm feeling and the ways in which my neurological differences impact my life, I can't. There've been many times where I've had to let my friends and family go out, engage with the world, and live more fully knowing I can't handle the [concert, fair, party - insert all events here, really]. Those moments make me feel especially sad - like I'm missing out purely because of something beyond my control. And it's true, sometimes I am - but I can control how I feel about it, myself, and my life. My reaction won't change the situation but it will change my personal climate. Embrace this time. Even if it sucks and it's scary, hopefully it's temporary. 
  2. Redefine your indoor space. I like to think of my apartment as having zones with different potential activities connected to each zone. When I'm having one of those sensory-triggered social distancing days, I like to shift from room to room and from zone to zone. I think of them each as their own individual space. Divide up your house and rotate around the different stations like they're their own locations. You'll feel less cooped up if you're not just sitting on the couch having an endless Parks and Rec marathon. While you're at it, throw open your blinds and let daylight in - open the window if it's not freezing. Bring the outside to you as much as you can.  
  3. Get creative with your activities. Think about your zones and what you like to do in each one of them. Kitchen: try a new recipe, whip up some homemade hand sanitizer, organize your recipe box (make a recipe box!), pick one ingredient and have your own mini Iron Chef competition, play bartender and day drink. Bathroom: have a spa afternoon (if you do this, enjoy it for me - this is impossible to do with a preschooler), take a long bath with a glass of wine and your favorite book, finally clean the damn tub, sing every song you know and pretend you're grammy-worthy. Living room: watch a series you've been putting off, rent a movie (or a bunch of movies - pick a theme), watch documentaries about new things so you feel like you learned and engaged with the outside world even while inside (this always helps me), read a book/magazine/old journal, do an online exercise class or dance routine, dance party!, sort through old photos (extra points for posting them to social media and entertaining others), play a board game, play solitaire, take a nap. Bedroom: . . . I don't need to tell you what to do in the bedroom *wink*, just don't sleep there because you'll want it to feel fresh at nighttime. If you have outdoor space, you're super lucky - enjoy that fresh air for me. Be sure to vary these activities like you do the zones of your house. And then - and this is the hardest part - repeat. Don't use up all of your activities in one day. Space them out throughout the week. (SIDE NOTE: If you have a kid like me, a similar concept applies, except it's mostly chaos and frantic wall-climbing - lots of zone movement, lots of activities, lots of exhaustion - you can do this and you're not alone, but yes, it's hard entertaining people when you yourself are bored and feel stuck.)
  4. Take to social media but don't let the news break you. Sometimes, the safest way to connect with people as someone with sensory sensitivities is virtually. This applies to neurotypicals now too. Go online, text, FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, just be careful for the onslaught of deeply upsetting news. Won't help your situation at home and might make you feel hopeless. If you do this and feel terrible, see #1 again. Your reaction won't change the situation but it can change your personal climate.
  5. Get the hell outside - safely. For me, this has always been a walk around the block or around the neighboring, familiar blocks. Maybe for you it's a hike deep in nature or sitting on your front steps. Even on my most sensitive days, I make sure I get outside, and even just 10 minutes of sunlight will make you feel better.

Did this help? Maybe not. Maybe it helps to know that a whole bunch of people often social distance because their unique wiring makes it necessary. We've survived. We continue to survive. So will you.

Basically, yes 
Wishing you all health during this uncertain time,



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