• Leah Wong

Every mask-covered cloud has a silver lining

I've been having telephone counselling during lock down, which I've found very useful. It means I can find a counsellor that fits me anywhere in the world. Mine happens to be in the USA so timings can be tricky but we make it work!


Something she said to me stood out though. She has started to see some clients face to face, but with both of them wearing masks. It got me thinking, this must be what it is like for autistic people. You may know my partner has Asperger's Syndrome which makes it harder for him to read facial expressions. So perhaps now, I am able to walk a short distance in his shoes.


From my experience so far, masks have made it harder to communicate. Right at the start of lock down, I didn't leave the house for a few weeks. I can't drive my partner's diplomatic car so I couldn't even go to the supermarket. When I eventually did go for the first time, it was hard not to even see a smile. As lovely as my partner is, I wanted engagement with someone other than him. Masks made that so difficult.


But that must be what it's like for autistic people every day. It's harder for them to understand facial expressions. They often need to rely on the words alone, like we've had to in the past few months. In the past, someone's lips becoming thin might indicate we should change the topic, or a grin would tell us we should take the words in jest. With the mouth covered, this is much harder. If someone lip reads, there's a whole other world of challenges created by masks, but that isn't for me to go into right now.


Obviously, masks aren't all bad. They have the benefit of helping to prevent the spread of viruses, but I didn't think they'd also help me understand my partner better. The lock down has been lonely for me. Does this mean it's what it's what it has been like for my partner all the time?


Luckily, behaviour can be learnt, and my partner has learnt to read me like a book. He understands my sarcasm, my jokes, and when I'm starting to get frustrated. It took a lot of learning though, for both of us. Women are often guilty of saying we're fine when we're not. And that just wasn't an option for my relationship. Not being honest with your partner makes it challenging even if they don't have autism.


So perhaps we should learn from our experience with masks for everyone, with or without autism. When speaking to someone while wearing a mask, be clear with words, laugh audibly, even make a joke about smiling underneath it. If you don't like the topic of conversation, change it. A bit of clarity might just help all of us.

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