Photo by Chris Montgomery on unsplash.comMarch 2020 - and those who were typically used to being in the office, started to work from home. Whether it was Zoom, Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, Skype – we started, or continued to in many cases, become accustomed to using these video conferencing tools to communicate with colleagues. But not only colleagues: I clearly remember calls with friends, family, as well as neighbours down the road. Baby showers, funerals, conferences – all manner of events started to take place online, as video conferencing became fully utilised and embraced, and the technological leap accelerated. All ages adapted and a new norm emerged. Globally, we progressed. Together we experienced ‘Zoom fatigue’, as even our language around technology evolved.

But what are video calls like for an autistic person?

This blog explores my personal experiences of using online conferencing and provides some solutions that I’ve found helpful

Too much going on

I cannot filter out background noise. Sounds like someone typing while on a call, having a glug of tea, creaky movements in a chair, even the sound of breathing if someone’s mike is too close to their mouth – all of this is amplified and competes vigorously for my attention. And then imagine the actual loud sounds – doorbells, phones ringing, pets, babies crying, mobiles beeping, children shouting, building work taking place. Being unable to filter out these excess sounds and concentrate takes its toll, and I’m quickly exhausted. I’m also constantly on edge with the anticipation of these loud sounds during the call. Whereas in a face-to-face environment you have a better sense of what these sounds will be (they are more limited), plus you can anticipate them better (e.g. you can see is someone is reaching for a bag of Monster Munch).

Thankfully, I don’t have to smell the crisps on a video call

Aside from the noise, there’s also the visual distraction of people’s backgrounds and what’s going on in and around them. The colour scheme may be jarring, or they may have a very busy, or bright background. Full, untidy spaces make me stressed, and don’t get me started on items that aren’t straight or perfectly aligned. A wonky picture frame is completely unnecessary. The various gallery views in many video calls are also distracting, with everyone moving about in front of you, in different ways.

There’s just a lot of stimuli, all at the same time, and with my hypersensitive senses, I quickly become overstimulated

There’s also the expectation to multi-task, which as an autistic person, I really struggle with. I prefer being sole focused on my tasks. Approaching them one at a time. But on a video call you may have documents being shared, hands being raised, the chat function being used – all while people are talking and conducting a meeting. You just wouldn’t have as much visual input if you were sat with the same people in a physical space.

It’s all so unnatural

Interacting with someone through a screen demands a far greater level of sensory processing, and this is central to many autistic people’s experiences. Particularly in comparison to face-to-face communication. Autistic people tend to be either hyper (over) sensitive or hypo (under) sensitive to sensory input and become quickly fatigued. It’s also important to add that one or two senses may be affected more than another, and this too can fluctuate over time, and day-to-day. Additionally factors such as the amount of sleep I’ve had, my mood, wellbeing and stress levels on that particular day can all have very direct and compounding effects on my sensory processing ability. In essence, our brains are having to work considerably harder than our neurotypical counterparts.

On a video call, there isn’t the natural rhythm that you have with face-to-face communication where people arrive, settle in and start a meeting

It’s much more difficult to establish those types of natural communication rhythms online, which simply don’t exist, since you don’t have the same degree of ‘presence’ available. It’s also considerably more difficult to pick up on non-verbal cues, which can be tricky even in face-to-face settings, but are heightened online. These non-verbal cues could be facial expressions, someone’s posture, their demeanour on that day, as well as tone, pitch, intonation – and body language in general. There’s normally so much going on with a person’s body, that to speak online and only see someone’s head and shoulders, isn’t quite the same. Turn-taking is harder online too, especially in bigger meetings, and there’s that disjointedness of people interrupting and butting in, not on purpose, but this does add to the auditory processing load.

All the anxiety

There’s the natural stress of your Internet connection failing, the exposure of showing yourself on a video, when exactly to turn up to a meeting and the general etiquette of an online meeting. There’s a lot to consider. I remember the first few months of video calling, there were times when I would physically duck down and away from the camera when it would focus on me. I literally found it mortifying to be seen by others. Completely bizarre, given that these exact same people had already seen me in the flesh, on a regular basis.

I just felt so raw and exposed on the screen for some reason

Also, the etiquette of each meeting took me months to figure out and when I should ‘join’ a meeting. For instance, there are colleagues that join early for a bit of chit chat, which I feel adds fuel to my already anxious self, while others will turn up late to simply begin a meeting. I tend to arrive twenty seconds into the scheduled meeting time, as I’ve established that this works best for me. No small talk, just in time for the meeting to start, but with enough buffer should the app fail or I identify any connectivity issues.

And the solution is?

Well, there are various solutions that I’ve figured out over time, and these include:

  • When I have control on whether a meeting goes ahead or not, I ask: “can I send an email instead? Or have a quick phone call?”
  • When I don’t have control on whether a meeting goes ahead, I will ask that the meeting length is kept as short as possible, or I will leave/wrap up if I feel I have gotten all I need from it. I will also ensure that there is an agenda before any call – however loose.
  • From as early as I can remember, I tend to look at just the desktop view of my laptop, and not the faces of those in the meeting, or my own face. This greatly reduces the sensory input required and gives me stamina for meetings that I wouldn’t otherwise have. This doesn’t work all the time, but it is my preferred option, especially if I’m extra stressed or tired on the day.
  • I schedule in regular breaks and walks, or I try to finish my working day earlier if I have multiple online meetings.
  • In calls with more than around four people, I will raise my hand or use the chat function, as this significantly reduces the anxiety of having to figure to exactly when to butt in to speak.

Though these solutions help me cope well, I appreciate that they are nothing new or revolutionary by any means. They simply help me get on with what is otherwise an often-draining process and way to communicate.

So what ultimately helps me? The bigger picture

And I’d say this perspective of the bigger picture helps me a lot in life in general. I focus on the positives that this virtual way of working has brought about. All the many opportunities that I wouldn’t have had, or even imagined, pre-pandemic. For instance, I get to connect with galleries, art institutions, fellow artists and organisations all over the country with regard to my art and advocacy work. I get to deliver talks and trainings online, without having to travel.

I find I experience so much anxiety from travelling on public transport and driving, not to mention the time and money is takes, that it’s far more convenient to have a video call instead. It means there’s less pressure to fit everything into a one-off face-to-face meeting and that there can be several, short video calls instead. I can be more thorough, which is an approach I prefer. This, I hope, will increase my mobility in the workplace and provide me with even more opportunities going forwards. So I’m sticking with video calls for now. And reap the reward from them and the life they are allowing me to live. One which is far more autistic-friendly. And that for me is a winner.

This is very much the era of levelling up, and my sincere hope is that I’m not alone in this, and that remote working creates a more level playing field with people with any type of disadvantaged trait; whether that’s gender, location, socio-economic background or disability

Mahlia Amatina

January 2022

Message from the Employment Autism editor - these are some other suggestions to help you cope with video meetings:

  • request not to be on camera
  • request everyone to mute if they're not speaking
  • ask participants to use hand raise icon and not to speak until called on by the organiser/chair
  • ask to provide all your contributions via chat
  • request participants not to have 'moving' backgrounds
  • if you're an observer rather than a participant, to watch a recording, rather than the live broadcast