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COVID-19 isolated me from my normal life — and allowed me to see what had been wrong with it

I was able to use this time of social distancing productively, and face someone I'd ignored for years — me.
Image: A man looks at a mirror version himself inside a transparent home surrounded by trees and warm light.
As I try to use this time of social distancing productively, I'm learning to forgive myself for my difficulties and to embrace my unique differences.Cornelia Li / for NBC News

Like a lot of people, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that I’ve spent much of the last five months sitting at home with my family, unemployed, watching potential professional opportunities vanish and lacking a routine. As my face-to-face interaction with friends and acquaintances dwindled down to nothing and my mental health began to fluctuate — which puts me squarely within the 30 percent of Americans with symptoms of depression and 36 percent of Americans with symptoms of an anxiety disorder right now — I started going to virtual therapy.

In those sessions, I had to unpack more than just the emotional trauma of the pandemic. Being isolated from my normal life and support systems, coupled with the situation we’re all facing, forced me to face something I’ve tried to ignore for years.

I have what's called "high-functioning" autism spectrum disorder, also known as Asperger's syndrome, and since I started college, I’ve been hiding that from everybody — something we call “masking.”

I'm now pushing myself to confront my autism, how other people’s prejudices forced me to fear and run from my diagnosis and how to make peace with both with my neuroatypicality and my years of shunning that label.

I was first diagnosed at the age of 8 and realized early on that when you have autism, society sets the bar so low for what it decides you can or cannot do. Internally, I felt like an earthbound alien trying to navigate the arbitrary rules of the culture around me — but just because I didn’t understand the nuances of people’s interactions all the time didn’t mean I didn’t understand my schoolwork or when people were making fun of me.

Still, my mother ended up putting me — at the advice of school administrators — in a special education middle school and high school when I got to the end of seventh grade, after years of experiencing constant aggressive bullying by my classmates and a total lack of patience from teachers and principals in my white, suburban elementary and middle schools.

In 12th grade, when I expressed an interest in not only going away to college but working at a record label, my instructors, social workers and guidance counselors all discouraged me from even applying to a bachelor’s degree program, let alone pursuing my dream career. Instead, they felt it was best I either attend a community college, go to vocational school or immediately join the workforce post-graduation.

Unfortunately, many people still carry with them the outdated stereotype that those of us who are neuroatypical will not be able to handle the substantial academic, professional and social demands that come with a traditional college education.

Still, I was adamant about building the future I envisioned for myself, even if that meant finding a different way to get there. Following high school graduation, I did attend community college — for a semester. But I eventually enrolled at (the now-defunct) Newbury College near Boston before transferring to the University of New Haven, where I am today.

Knowing how little my teachers and counselors had ever believed in my ability to succeed in mainstream society, I became an overachiever and workaholic in college — whether in academics or campus activities. I forced myself to go to networking mixers and seek (and obtain) internships at prominent media companies in the music and entertainment industries, which I knew I needed to achieve my dream. I even pledged a historically Black fraternity (from which I eventually walked away, as I was unable to deal with the physical, emotional and mental abuse that came with doing so). Sometimes, I would refuse to seek any accommodations for my autism (even though I’d be entitled to things like extra time on tests), out of a fear of getting fired or stigmatized by my fellow students, co-workers or bosses.

That’s where masking came in — the practice by autistic people of hiding their autistic traits to fit in with a society dominated by neurotypical people. Some of the tools that “Aspies” like me use to mask our autism include predicting, planning and rehearsing conversations before they happen, mimicking the verbal tics, tone and facial behaviors we see in other people and popular culture and focusing on making appropriate eye contact.

I also knew I had to do twice as much as anyone else anyway: I not only have Asperger’s, but I'm also African American, openly gay and plus-size in a society designed to privilege white people, heterosexual people and thinner people. I know systematic racism exists at post-secondary institutions and queerphobia persists within some Black and Latinx spaces. I didn't want to come off as “ghetto” to white people, but I also didn't want to appear sissy to my Black classmates who could be anti-gay. So, I code-switched — made sure to speak without Black vernacular and in a more neutral accent — lowered my naturally high-pitched voice and moderated flamboyant tone in certain circumstances.

But as a result of constantly trying to change fundamental aspects of myself to fit in these spaces, I developed imposter syndrome, extreme self-doubt and autistic burnout. My GPA began to suffer; I would cry uncontrollably behind closed doors. I felt undeserving of my accomplishments, accolades and the friends I've made.

Then I would again witness how students who were openly autistic at my school were treated — they were coddled and babied and alienated from social circles by classmates and school administrators — which made me mask even harder, exacerbating my stress.

Now that I'm home alone, I look back at those moments and feel guilt for completely erasing my autism from my public personal narrative, especially when explaining to other people my age and younger how I got to my destination personally and professionally.

As I continue to evolve and try to use this time of social distancing productively, I'm learning to forgive myself for my difficulties, to embrace my unique differences and gifts, and even considering becoming an advocate for neurodiversity instead of hating myself for being weird. I have always refused to let people feel sorry for me, let alone be defined by the idea that my autism is a disability to me; that seems like as good a starting point as any to refuse to let anybody see my autism as a disability ever again.

Earlier this year, I heard for the first time Solange’s2008 underground song “F--- the Industry,” in which she sings, "Everything I'm not makes me everything I am." I think that's going to be my new mantra.