By guest writer Jackson McMahan
In the digital age’s ever-evolving landscape, virtual meetings have transitioned from a futuristic concept to a regular part of our daily professional and personal lives. This is in no small part due to COVID-19 necessitating virtual meetings while everyone was quarantined. Since these virtual interactions have become more commonplace, it's important to understand that some people, based on their unique personalities and neurotypes, might experience these meetings differently.
For example, autistic individuals face distinct challenges and opportunities during these meetings. Many autistic individuals can find themselves overwhelmed during virtual meetings because of sensory sensitivities or struggling to adapt to online social communication. On the other hand, although the digital environment can sometimes be daunting, it also presents opportunities for adaptation and growth.
Like other issues autistic individuals often face, when they overcome the challenge, what was once a weakness in their lives becomes a strength they can use to their benefit.
Understanding Autism in the Context of Virtual Meetings
Autism manifests itself in various ways, but although every autistic individual is unique, there are some common threads that can be identified regarding virtual interactions. For example, an autistic individual can exhaust themselves by trying to maintain eye contact during the meeting. They’ll maintain eye contact because it would be rude to look away, not because it’s what’s best for them.
Autistic individuals also tend to process information differently, and this can include social cues around nonverbal information. For many autistic individuals, virtual platforms can amplify these struggles. In face-to-face interactions, there are countless nonverbal signals, such as tone of voice, facial expressions, and body language, that add meaning to what someone is saying. In a virtual setting, these cues might be diminished, altered, or absent. For an autistic individual who already finds these cues difficult to interpret, virtual interactions can be more daunting for them.
In addition, sensory sensitivities are common among autistic individuals. A barrage of background noises from other participants, multiple people speaking at once, the brightness or flicker of screens, or even the background activities visible in other participants' video feeds can lead to sensory overload. The discomfort can range from mild irritation to overwhelming distress, which makes participating in the meeting taxing.
There can also be problems with knowing when to speak, extreme social anxiety, processing what people are saying over the digital format, and having technical challenges. This can lead to video meetings being extremely uncomfortable experiences for many autistic individuals.
Advantages of Virtual Meetings for Autistic Individuals
Although virtual meetings can present many challenges for autistic individuals, it's important to note that the virtual world isn't just a space filled with challenges for autistic individuals. There are aspects of online communication that can be more comfortable and more controllable than in-person interactions. It’s all about knowing what these advantages are and how to use them. Here are some examples.
Control Over the Sensory Environment
Unlike in-person meetings, where the environment is mostly fixed and out of an individual's control, virtual meetings allow participants to tailor their surroundings. Autistic individuals can adjust their screen's brightness, control the volume, turn off notifications, or even change the visual background to something more soothing. This personalized control can help reduce potential sensory stressors.
Comfort of Familiar Surroundings
Being in one's own home or a chosen environment can be a huge advantage. Familiar settings can be grounding and comforting. There's no need to navigate unfamiliar places or cope with unexpected sensory stimuli, such as strong odors or background noises that are often found in new environments.
Ability to Take Breaks as Needed
In a virtual setting, it's easier to take short breaks without drawing undue attention. If things become overwhelming, one can momentarily switch off the camera or mute the microphone to take a few deep breaths, stretch, or engage in a quick stimming activity.
Written Communication Options
Many virtual meeting platforms have chat functions. For anyone finding speaking communication challenging or overwhelming, typing out responses or questions can be a helpful alternative. This increases an individual’s ability to actively participate in the meeting and reduces the stress associated with selective mutism, which is much more challenging during in-person meetings.
Flexibility in Participation
Depending on the context, some meetings may allow for more passive participation by letting attendees turn off their cameras if they're not comfortable being on screen. This can ease the pressure of being visually present and allow individuals to focus solely on the meeting’s audio or subject matter, which may reduce their cognitive load.
Strategies for Thriving in Virtual Meetings
Of course, part of becoming more comfortable with virtual meetings is knowing how to approach them in a way that makes the most of their advantages while counteracting any difficulties with the format. Here are some strategies autistic individuals can use to thrive in virtual meetings.
Before the meeting, take some time to explore the virtual platform. Understand its features, such as how to join and exit a meeting, adjust the audio and video settings, or use the chat function. This proactive approach can minimize anxiety during the actual meeting.
Create a routine for setting up your virtual space. Ensure the camera is at a comfortable angle, test the microphone, and have headphones ready if needed. A consistent setup can create a sense of predictability and calm.
If verbal communication feels overwhelming or if you're uncertain about interrupting, use the chat function to ask questions or clarify points. That way, someone can respond to whatever’s confusing you without halting the meeting.
Consider sharing about your neurodiversity with trusted colleagues or team members. When people are aware, they are more likely to be accommodating and understanding.
Some meeting platforms have a caption feature you can turn on so you can read what is being said rather than listen. Depending on how your brain works, one option may be much less demanding for you than the other, and some people like having both options!
Using headphones can help isolate the voice of the speaker and reduce background noises. Doing so can minimize potential distractions or overloads. You can also modify the brightness of the screen, use blue light filters, or even adjust the size of the video feeds to make viewing more comfortable.
Use Visual Aids when Presenting
If you are explaining a concept, consider sharing your screen with a relevant presentation or document. Visual aids can reinforce verbal communication and provide clearer context.
Breaks and Self-Care
If possible, especially in prolonged meetings, schedule short breaks. Use this time to stretch, hydrate, or engage in a brief calming activity. You should also consider keeping sensory tools or items that help manage stress or stimming, like fidget spinners or tactile toys, within reach. They can help keep you centered during the meeting.
Tools and Resources for Autistic Individuals
Virtual meetings have become a mainstay of our digital reality, and with that, an abundance of tools and resources have emerged to help users enhance their online experience. For autistic individuals, some of these tools can strongly help tailor virtual interactions to meet their unique needs. Here’s a roundup of some standout resources.
Meeting Platform Extensions and Features
Tools like Otter.ai offer real-time transcription. This service can be especially helpful if you benefit from both auditory and textual information. You can also use apps like Krisp.ai to suppress background noises. Doing so ensures clearer audio and minimizes distractions. Some platforms also have a captions feature that can be turned on.
Platforms like Zoom allow users to customize their backgrounds. This not only ensures privacy but also serves as a calming visual or hides potentially distracting activities happening in the background.
Reminder and Notification Tools
Setting up reminders on platforms like Google Calendar or using tools like Todoist can help manage time and ensure punctuality for meetings. This is arguably one of the most important suggestions on this list as you’ll need to arrive for your meetings on time.
Visual and Sensory Adjustment Tools
Applications like f.lux adjust the color temperature of your screen based on the time of day, reducing blue light and potentially decreasing eye strain. Meanwhile, tools like Eye Care 20-20-20 can remind you to take regular breaks to rest your eyes and stretch a bit.
Customizable Interface Tools
Some meeting platforms allow users to customize their interface, choosing what elements they see and where they're positioned. This can help reduce sensory overwhelm and make the experience more comfortable.
Feedback and Reaction Tools
Instead of relying solely on facial cues, use tools or features that allow for emojis or hand-raise functions. They can be clearer ways for participants to express themselves or signal that they'd like to speak.
Navigating the digital space presents both challenges and opportunities. For autistic individuals, this journey may sometimes come across as treading unfamiliar terrain, fraught with sensory overloads and impossible-to-read social cues. However, with the right strategies, tools, and understanding, this same journey can transform into a path of empowerment and connectivity.
Self-awareness is key, so understanding one’s unique spectrum of strengths and areas for growth paves the way for more fruitful interactions. Experiment with the suggestions above to figure out the optimal approach for you. Likewise, self-advocacy also helps build an environment where everyone is supported and understood.
The beauty of the virtual world lies in its adaptability. While face-to-face interactions come with a set of immutable variables, online platforms offer a degree of customization that can be a boon for neurodivergent individuals. With the strategies, tools, and resources discussed, autistic individuals are not merely adapting but are in a position to redefine their virtual spaces to suit their strengths and needs. With introspection, experimentation, and a dose of resilience, autistic individuals can not only better manage attending virtual meetings, but excel in them.