The paradox of Zoom fatigue and virtual communication

Every year, the non-graduating members of band and orchestra play Pomp and Circumstance and the national anthem at graduation, but it seems that this tradition will not apply this year. If that’s the case, I’m a bit glad that I won’t have to hear the people who play out of tune. There’s more of them this year than there were in previous years, and the absence of seniors to play among them at graduation would make their atrocious intonation even more apparent. That’s beside the point, though. I appreciate the efforts of those who want to improve, and I definitely want to see my non-graduating orchestra friends at graduation; I want to walk on stage and throw my cap in the air with my classmates and take pictures with friends. None of that will happen on our scheduled graduation date. Much to our dismay, everything will take place virtually, a move that other educational institutions have made with their own graduations and other events.

“My body, my choice” does not apply here.

That includes Admitted Students Day and college visits. Yesterday I attended my committed college’s Diversity Program. Exclusively for accepted students from underrepresented racial, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds, the Diversity Program is usually an all-expenses-paid visit that lasts three days. This year, due to the pandemic, it only lasted several hours and was hosted through Zoom, leaving me exhausted.

This came as no surprise to me, as I’d been in countless Zoom meetings prior to this one. When the quarantine started, I thought that Zoom meetings would not be enough to fulfill my extroverted needs. But when tiredness overcame me after an hour-long video chat with a friend, I began to question my extroversion. I was supposed to feel energized, not tired. Was this really the threshold of social interaction for me? Not long afterwards, I began seeing posts about Zoom fatigue on social media and the news, and I realized I wasn’t alone. To my extroversion, Zoom fatigue is a paradox: it is both insufficient and excessive. Zoom still does not satisfy my need for socialization, yet it is more draining than in-person interaction with people. And as the school year ends, with virtual events approaching quickly, I anticipate the feeling will accompany me more and more. Whereas in previous years, when I felt invigorated after talking and hugging seniors and taking pictures with them at their graduations, my graduation will only impart exhaustion in me.

Thinking about Zoom fatigue lends itself to thinking about the broader subject of all types of social interaction via technology—a distressing subject to think about. Even with Zoom meetings, the already prominent role of text messages, emails, and group chats has also increased. This has led to some interesting thoughts in the autistic self-advocate community. A while back, I found an Instagram post that argued maybe the quarantine will make people realize technology-based socialization is valid, and that people should stop giving others a hard time for not wanting face-to-face interaction. The post brings up a particularly distressing conflict for me because in several ways, I do find face-to-face interaction somewhat demanding. I can’t always make eye contact comfortably as an autistic person. Even when the person is fine with my lack of eye contact, not making it feels a bit jarring. Sometimes I have a monotone voice that some people like to point out. With my slow mental processing speed, I’m better at writing than I am at speaking, as I need to take time to organize my thoughts.

Even then, my need for in-person socialization trumps all. Having to rely on messages so much makes me want to throw my devices out at times, but I stop myself; I know I need them more than ever if I want some kind of interaction, because the face-to-face type just isn’t possible outside of family without sacrificing public health. So I imagine that the consequences of the quarantine might turn out to be more complicated than the post proposes. People may start recognizing the value that virtual communication has for many individuals, yet at the same time, they might come out of the quarantine valuing in-person communication more than ever, having been deprived of it.

I don’t mean to discount the needs of the people who are more inclined towards texting and/or Zoom meetings. Indeed, if you’re one of those people, I advise you to take my words with a grain of salt or stop reading so that this post will not burden you. If I’m interacting with someone who prefers that over face-to-face communication due to sensory overload, arguing against their needs is selfish. Additionally, all institutions should take the time to think about how to make themselves accessible to disabled and neurodiverse people, pandemic or no pandemic.

Yet on a more personal level, I’ve become more afraid—and lonelier too. I feel as if I don’t fit in with the autistic self-advocate community. Of course, every autistic person’s different. There’s a popular saying: “If you’ve met one autistic person, you’ve met one autistic person.” But in the autistic circles I’m in, it seems that most of them enjoy the aspect of social distance. I’m one of the few who don’t. I have also realized that during this time, more people have started to understand their preference for digital communication. Before the pandemic, I’d worry that if I asked someone to hang out or talk, they wouldn’t want to. Thus, I didn’t ask. Now that I’m getting tired of virtual communication, I’m terrified that in the future, if I ask someone to hang out or talk in person, they will want to text instead. On the outside, I’ll say, “Oh, that’s okay,” because they’re not obligated to cater to me, but on the inside, I won’t know how to handle the rejection and break down. So I won’t ask, and instead I remain frozen with anxiety, waiting for someone to reach out to me.

Coping With Coronavirus Through Music • reminiscing with Danzón No. 2

For a few years, I’d listen to Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major every day, multiple times. Now it’s Danzón No. 2 by Arturo Márquez, which also happens to be one of the pieces we were playing in orchestra. We were supposed to perform it in a concert, but our school district announced the cancellation/postponement of all school gatherings two days before the concert. Then the following day, the official announcement of school closures. I started listening to recordings of the piece a few months ago, but I’m listening to it more than ever during the quarantine. I still haven’t gotten tired of Danzón. I don’t know why; perhaps it’s a symptom of my autism. After all, many autistic individuals have special interests and engage in repetitive behaviors. Whatever the case, it’s definitely helping me through a long, uncertain period of time. Coronavirus cases are still spreading rapidly, filling up hospitals and forcing us to stay inside longer.

During this quarantine, my mental health still hasn’t been the best. As the lockdown has progressed, I’ve come to realize that I’m not the only one feeling lonely, of course. I used to feel like I was the only one, especially because a lot of my friends are introverts and I become attached to people quite quickly. And the truth is, even if I know deep down it isn’t true, I still feel like I’m the only one every now and then. No amount of chatting with my classmates on social media and calling my boyfriend—who also happens to be very introverted—has changed that feeling. Listening to Danzón brings back memories, a way of reliving moments with friends.

As the piece opens with a clarinet solo, I think about P.G., my good friend who played clarinet in band and symphony orchestra. Because he graduated last year, he isn’t part of symphony orchestra anymore, nor does he play the clarinet regularly anymore, but the instrument is one of the things I automatically associate with him.

Next, the oboe enters to play a duet with the clarinet, evoking a memory of Y.S., my senior for Senior Night. I think of how much she practiced the oboe, an instrument she only started learning in tenth grade with only a couple of lessons at the beginning. Even though my violinist self has never been very literate in wind instruments, her progress over the years was always quite clear to me, achieved with daily practice. I think about how the oboe wasn’t the only instrument she started learning in high school—she came into marching band in ninth grade as a violinist not knowing how to play a single marching band instrument, but decided to learn the clarinet.

Then the violas come in and play what is essentially the clarinet solo in a different key. I think about P.J., one of my closest friends in high school and the principal violist in orchestra. There’s so much that comes to mind when it comes to P.J. I think about how I frequently spam him with funny Instagram posts and cringeworthy videos. The times in orchestra last year, when we’d share a look of disgust every time someone played an A that was less than 440 Hz. His costume during the Halloween concert, when he dressed up as the Viola King from TwoSetViolin. Sophomore year, when I started writing a fanfiction over him, inadvertently making everyone think I had a crush on him. Danzón No. 5, another of the Danzón works by Márquez. Unlike the orchestral Danzón No. 2, it’s composed for a chamber group. P.J. and I were supposed to play it with some others for the music department’s chamber music concert, but now we plan to record our parts and put them together in a video as part of an orchestra assignment.

Afterwards, the violins take over as the piece transitions from a slow and seductive dance to a far more energetic theme, in which the melody now alternates between the brass and the woodwinds. Listening to that section evokes memories of dancing to the music with my friends. I remember wanting the orchestra to play that section as quickly as all the other orchestras did in YouTube videos, but when I asked the music director if we could do it, he said he needed to keep it at a manageable tempo. The reason: the collective skill of the orchestra declines every year. The strong musicians graduate, leaving behind more members with less experience, and the new faces are rarely as experienced as the previous members. Then we performed Danzón at a music festival and got Unanimous Superior, the highest rating a music ensemble can attain. The Monday after that, we listened to a recording of a judge’s comments as we played the piece. The judge said that although our tempo was fine, playing it that slowly meant that we had to pay more attention to the way we played each note. Only then did the music director speed us up. At long last!

Unfortunately, the concert was canceled before we could perform it at that tempo. It’s wonderful to reminisce about the good times, but I must admit that sometimes a tinge of sadness accompanies my reminiscing. Will we ever get to play it in a concert? I hope so, but our music director says May 1 is optimistic. As the death toll rises, the possibility of returning to school becomes more and more miniscule.

What COVID-19 has revealed about neurodiversity

Bad news. In addition to a mild fever, tiredness, slight on-and-off nasal congestion, and an occasional dry cough, I just feel a bit off. My best attempt to describe this would be feeling familiar with a lot of the symptoms, but not with the sickness as a whole, which doesn’t sound good in these times. I haven’t left the house, but my brother has been going to doctor’s appointments, since he’ll have brain surgery in early April. I’m guessing he picked up something from the clinic, since he was also a bit down for a while. The first day we felt a bit sick, we overslept. I’m scared to find out what it is. I definitely don’t feel like I’m going to die, but I worry that these symptoms might worsen and result in asthma complications. My brother seems less affected, even though he’s the immunocompromised one; he’s been running around the house as usual. I’m going to call the doctor soon and see if I can get a test for coronavirus.

Meanwhile, I’m wearing a mask to limit spreading whatever I have to my parents. The bottom of the mask bothers my chin, though. The CDC recommended wearing a bandana in the event that masks aren’t available, but I do not like the idea of the clothing fibers tickling my nose and making me sneeze so much. So a mask it is.

Other people don’t seem to have an issue with the mask bothering them, which leads me to think this is another of my sensory issues. I’ve always had sensory issues, which are probably due to my ADHD or Asperger’s or a combination of the two. I can’t wear boatnecks or low-cut ankle socks—the sensation on my skin is too overwhelming. Sirens are far too loud for me. I have to be conscious of where I sit in the classroom because I don’t want to be too near to the fire alarm, which frequently goes off because it is broken. And the list of sensory issues goes on.

Anyway, wearing the mask made me think of how the spread of the novel coronavirus has affected people with disabilities and neurodivergent people, or people with neurological differences. I’ll elaborate on my family situation first. As I’ve mentioned there are two neurodivergent individuals in my family: me and my brother. Like me, my brother also has ADHD and autism, but in more “visible” ways. By “visible,” I mean that if a stranger looked at me, they would not suspect any conditions. It’s easier for me to fit in with the rest of society, as I have fewer support needs. In contrast, my brother more closely resembles the stereotype of an autistic person with ADHD. He’s loud, rambunctious, and minimally speaking. He can’t sit still for very long, and he hums constantly (one of his many stims, or repetitive behaviors). That’s the thing, though. Autistic self-advocates have long argued that stimming is therapeutic and thus society should accept it, rather than shame autistic people for doing it. But what happens when it hinders someone else?

You see, right now, the only place where I can do my schoolwork is the living room, which bleeds into the dining room. Long story short—there is too much stuff in my room and the master bedroom to make room for a workspace. My dad, a school coordinator and part-time teacher, must use the office for his Zoom meetings and other school-related stuff. My brother frequently runs between the living and dining room because it provides him the most room to run around. Despite taking Vyvanse to help myself concentrate on my homework, my brother’s running and loud humming is too much for me. I need complete silence to focus—no music, as I am a musician with perfect pitch who would sidetrack myself by identifying all the notes I hear. I tried my brother’s noise cancelling headphones, which don’t work. Earplugs also do not remove all the noise. I can’t go to the library to work because the lockdown has mandated its closing. I can’t go to my dad’s classroom at his school because teachers aren’t allowed to step foot on campus, even if there aren’t any students. And my parents can’t always take my brother on a walk, as it’s been raining frequently these days and they have other things to do. Essentially, by forcing us all to stay in this tiny house, the coronavirus-induced quarantine has exposed the dilemma of two neurodivergent people with conflicting needs.

Since I read articles about and follow many Instagram accounts about neurodiversity, I think it would be safe to say that neurodiversity advocates would fight for my brother’s right to stim and express himself at home. After all, neurodiversity is a movement that promotes respect for neurological differences, rather than forcing neurodivergent people to behave like neurotypicals. As an autistic person, I understand the need for stimming, as I have my own stims. But I also deserve a quiet space to work, free from sensory overload and distractions, because those too are issues faced by countless individuals with ADHD and/or autism.

I definitely think that the issues posed by conflicting needs is something the neurodiversity community hasn’t sufficiently addressed, from what I have read. No, I’m not writing this post to say, “HA, neurodiversity clearly doesn’t work because this happened, so we should all abandon that movement and make neurodivergent people conform to neurotypical expectations.” I’m writing this because I don’t know what to do. I’m sure there are other families going through the same problem. I haven’t found anything, though. In light of all the issues revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic, I hope this is one problem that the neurodiversity community can solve.

Edit: After I reached out on social media about this issue, @neurodivergentactivist sent me this helpful resource by @theautisticlife.