Lately, the media has been covered with stories and explanations to the phenomena of “Zoom Fatigue”.
Zoom Fatigue: People claim that working online and engaging in video calls can be more tiring than typical face-to-face everyday engagements. It seems like conversations get longer, people cut each other off more frequently, and there is a tendency to forget what was said in the actual conversation.
For an aspie (someone diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome), like myself, this might be an accurate description of social interactions and their effects in everyday life.
In the academic and medical fields, autism is measured and classified by a set of apparent behaviors, but rarely do doctors and researchers ask themselves what is the personal experience of an autistic person, or why those behaviors emerge in the first place, from a mental perspective.
Now, for the first time, neurotypicals and non-autistic individuals get to actually experience what it feels like to only receive partial information from social communication.
“Zoom Fatigue” is explained to be occurring because of the limited information we receive from video conferencing calls, and from additional information our brains have to deal with in order to process those calls.
In a BBC article, Dr. Gianpiero Petriglieri explains the phenomena: apparently, video conferencing restricts our view of non-verbal communication cues, such as body language. Moreover, it does not allow to maintain eye contact. He adds, that silence occurs less in video conversations, because people get anxious by them.
In an interview to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (free translation: “The State”), Dr. Avi Mendelsohn from University of Haifa, says similar things. He also states that the issues mentioned above bring to oversharing, as well as longer conversations, because of our disability to realize when our partner gets bored.
Reading facial expressions gets hard because of the quality and resolution of the video call, and the size of the displayed face of our communication partner can give arise to fight or flight reactions.
The fact that you have to both process your own environment, the different environment of your conversation partner also contribute to the cognitive load.
Sounds familiar? If you aren’t autistic, you probably answered no. But for a person like me, these things happen all the time.
“Zoom calls make things a little easier for me because people actually take the time to say what they mean, and don’t rely on me to process body language and facial expressions.”
In fact, zoom calls make things a little easier for me because people actually take the time to say what they mean, and don’t rely on me to process body language and facial expressions.
For many autistic individuals, all “natural silences” in conversations are awkward, oversharing is just a thing that we do, and eye contact is a very limited option.
All of that stems from the fact that we have trouble reading non-verbal communication, which leads to an eternal “zoom fatigue”.
When I was first diagnosed, I was shocked by how many of my quirks, feelings and views I shared with the autistic community, and to what extent:
My tendency to only leave the house two times every day;
Arranging it so that all errands are pushed back-to-back;
Feeling that my brain is melting after social interactions with new people;
Being assaulted with sensory information during conversations; and
The tendency to shut down after seemingly smooth conversations.
These are something that almost every other autistic person experiences.
These tendencies arise from the same causes of “zoom fatigue”: not receiving all the information needed from the social partner, and having to work hard, cognitively, to complete the missing information.
An autistic burnout is usually accompanied by loss of skills and most experts and autistic individuals claim that they occur after a period of mental over-work.
When doctors, caregivers and researchers examine a burnout or a shutdown, they look at it as a symptom, but don’t usually look for the cause. They might say that it happens due to cognitive or physical overload, but they don’t try to explain – or understand – what is the inner, mental process that leads to it.
Looking at “Zoom Fatigue” as a case study can allow neurotypicals to approach such questions through a new looking glass: if cognitive load from social interactions that lack body language, eye contact and affect bring actual fatigue, will an ongoing social-cognitive load cause temporary loss of skills?
Is ongoing load severe enough to make people adapt to it by, maybe, sticking to an inflexible routine? Decreased verbal communication, slight aversion from meeting new people? I believe that we, autistic people, will not be surprised by the answers to these questions, if they are ever pursued by science.
Dana is an LGBT researcher currently residing in Israel. She has Asperger’s syndrome, ADHD, PTSD and a strong connection to animals.
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