'Before and after everything else, we are all on the human spectrum': American author on how to navigate Covid-19

'Before and after everything else, we are all on the human spectrum': American author on how to navigate Covid-19

Author and speaker Jennifer Cook.

Wall Street Journal best selling author and speaker Jennifer Cook has shared some of the ways in which people with autism can navigate the current Covid-19 pandemic and how everyone in a community can work to make for a more inclusive new norm that everyone can live in.

Ms Cook, who is the Senior Directiorial Consultant for Jefferson University Hospitals Jefferson Health Center for Autism and Neurodiversity, has recently become involved in a partnership with AsIAm and SuperValu to create a greater awareness, understanding and acceptance of autism.

Growing up in a small town in New Jersey, Ms Cook learned first hand the commitment, hard work and dedication required to take on and maintain such an initiative through her first job working for a township administrator.

Bringing that experience to the table, she took part in a webinar celebrating two years since Clonakilty became the country’s first autism friendly town, which focused on ideas, tools and tips for anybody navigating Covid-19 challenges in the community and how both autism-friendly practise and people with autism can help inform how communities effectively respond to Covid-19.

Speaking to The Echo from her home in North Carolina, she shared some of those concepts which she said will “inevitably improve” communication and relationships.

She said that “before and after everything else, we are all on the human spectrum” but that “no one is having a monolithic experience of normal” which she said seems to be a discovery whereby people are writing stories about how a particular population is handling Covid-19 and that it is a “beautiful opportunity to say there never has been one monolithic experience of normal”.

“Normal and typical are not synonyms. Typical is how many, it's like statistics and demographics. Sure, there are less people with red hair, but I’m not abnormal.

Ms Cook spoke of the language used when speaking about or talking to someone with autism and said that it is important for people “not to get lost in the verbiage”.

“For some people it matters a lot. For some people it does not matter what you call me as long as it’s nice. For instance, if someone wants to use a certain pronoun, no skin off my nose. I don't want people to get lost in the verbiage.

“If you're so worried about tripping up on your words, you can’t see the wonderful. What’s wonderful about what they [AsIAm and SuperValu] are doing is they're coming in with actual voices of people who are living with autism, on the autism spectrum, autistic people, whatever you call us, neurodivergence, I like to say that, neurodivergent minds.” She said that it is important to remember someone's differences in order for the lessons to be “extrapolatable to everybody, to the human spectrum”.

Author and speaker Jennifer Cook.
Author and speaker Jennifer Cook.

“If I just gave a talk about autism, instantly, unless you personally have a connection, you don't care, why would you? But if you do and you're not willing to listen, then it's a bit like having a really caring male obstetrician who has no idea what it's like to give birth.

“So one of the things you hear me talk about is how differently wired brains lead to different kinds of wonderful things.

“The crazy thing is, neurotypical folks think that because they can often much more easily intuit what the other person is saying, they tend to think we’re the type of logic and reasoning based on a list of assumptions that don't actually work for us,” she said.

She said that something to remember is to “show don’t tell”.

“Use more adjectives. Believe it or not, that is a take away coronavirus tip. Women are often reputed to speak more. 549 words per day on average more. That's not a lot, it's that we use a lot more adjectives and adverbs to communicate how we are and what we’re saying. For those of us on the spectrum, we need that.

“We need the technology as well. Things like velcro were invented by the space programme but we know now what it is and use it all the time. Same thing. The idea of now you're using Zoom for the first time and you've got the screen sharing tutorials showing little video clips and how to do this and do that. You're not just telling me, you are now showing me.

“We’ve become more reliant on it and more aware and these are some of the tools that will be used in SuperValu and companies like that,” she said.

She said that by integrating that concept be it at home or in your business, that you are improving communication which “improves relationships and commerce”.

“Something that has become essential or is more essential to us [people with autism] will only ever help everyone else.” Mindfulness is another element to navigating Covid-19 which Ms Cook said is “really important”.

“When people are around us a lot, it is important to be able to say I need to take five minutes to gather myself.

“When you feel your body react to something it's like a trap door, you are stepped down in your fight, flight, freeze. You cannot get to your upstairs brain. What happens is we flip the lid, whatever it is that triggers us.” 

“Until you can calm back down you will be stuck here, you will not be able to problem solve with your teammates for work, you will not be able to problem solve with your family, you will not be able to have adequate compassion, you will not be able to do anything but fight, flight, freeze, and that's bad for everyone,” she said.

Ms Cook said to take time to stop and be present in the moment by looking around and finding five things that you can see, four things that you can hear, three things that you can feel, two things you can smell and one thing you can taste.

After taking part in the exercise with Ms Cook via Zoom call, I instantly felt more at ease and more present. My breathing slowed and I was speaking much slower because I had become more calm.

“What you've one is overridden your parasympathetic nervous system,” she told me.

“If people can do that at home and do that in work it will bring them to a place where they can then use these communications techniques and their relationships with each other and professionally will inevitably improve.” For more information visit jenniferotooleauthor.com or follow Jennifer Cook on Instagram @jennifercook_asperkids.

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