We can all admit that the current COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most trying times of our lives, if not the most. From the irrational fears that led to the hoarding of toilet paper, the hopscotch in and out of lockdown, and the well-fueled flames surrounding vaccination debates, all occurring during COVID’s ovulation period as it births new and agile variants every few months; this pandemic is a struggle we can all relate to.

There are very few positives that have come from being cooped up at home for the past couple of years. One positive thing has been the new focus on mental health. Living in such uncertain times has encouraged people to prioritize their mental health like never before. This has also given rise to a wave of content on social media focused on educating people about various mental health issues as well as how to cope with the pandemic. Topics ranging from depression to suicide prevention; from ADHD awareness to focusing on self-love; all shared across platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram. It has shown us that we need to take a step back and work on ourselves from the inside out. It was through such content on social media that Ellin Park, 28, was able to discover she was autistic.

Ellin is the owner of Waterloo’s first zero-waste grocery store, called Zero Waste Bulk (ZWB). She runs it with her partner of 10 years, Cassandra Choi. They met while studying computer science at the University of Waterloo, although Ellin later switched to the psychology program. To own a zero-waste store had been Ellin’s dream for some time. 

“I have always been environmentally conscious, but when I came across the zero waste movement in 2016, I realized I could be doing a lot more to reduce my waste,” Ellin wrote in our email conversations. 

The zero-waste movement is aimed towards the complete elimination of trash in the form of plastic and garbage to curb the growth of landfills, a huge contributor to the emission of greenhouse gases causing global warming. Most people who adopt this lifestyle prefer to buy things secondhand, compost their food scraps and use reusable containers while shopping at stores. Hence, the BYOC (Bring Your Own Container) approach used at ZWB. It’s exactly what it sounds like: customers arrive at the store with their clean containers, which are weighed, filled with bulk sustainable items, and weighed again at checkout.

(Ellin Park, owner of Waterloo’s first zero-waste grocery store Zero Waste Bulk. Photo provided)

Ironically, Ellin’s introduction to the zero-waste lifestyle was not fostered by the Zero Waste Canada movement but instead began as she learned about minimalism.

“As I decluttered my belongings, I realized I had been over-consuming and that much of the stuff I had needlessly bought would end up as waste,” she said, describing the overlap between the minimalist and zero waste communities. There are various ways to shop zero waste across Canada, whether in search of groceries, clothes, or even electronics. Ellin knew this was something she wanted for herself and her community. 

“The goal isn’t to have lots of things to recycle. If you really want to reduce waste, you need to reduce your consumption, so you have less to recycle. That was one of the key ideas I learned that inspired my zero-waste journey,” she said.

Like many businesses during the pandemic, ZWB was faced with challenges. The store was closed from March to August last year and had to transfer its operations online. Although Ellin worried about the health and safety of her and her staff, luckily no one has tested positive for COVID. 

“I think we’ve done pretty well for a new business. The pandemic set us a step back, but we’re getting through it,” she said.

Discovering and understanding her autism

Ellin began her journey investigating her potential attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) after coming across various posts on social media that felt quite accurate to her daily experiences. As she researched further, she found even more content, but this time centered on autism.

“There is some overlap in traits between ADHD and autism, and I learned that autistic people are more likely to have ADHD. The more I learned about autism, the more I realized that autism explains my life experience”, she said. Having an autistic brother only increased her suspicions. After getting a professional diagnosis last year, it was confirmed that she was autistic. 

(Photo provided)

“I think it explained a lot of behaviors that I’ve noticed over the years,” her partner Cassandra said. “How she would take things literally, be very blunt, social anxiety, odd posture, a focus on cognitive empathy. It didn’t exactly come as a surprise to me since I knew already that she behaved somewhat atypically from most people I’ve met, and instead it just helped me understand why she is the way she is.”

According to Statistics Canada, males are four times more likely to be diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder than females. Further impeding the diagnosis in females is the difference in how the symptoms present themselves. 

“From what I’ve seen online autism & ADHD communities, women and BIPOC with autism and ADHD often get diagnosed with depression, anxiety, BPD, or bipolar disorder before finally getting diagnosed (or suspecting) autism and/or ADHD,” Ellin said on the underdiagnosis. She foresees a wave of late-diagnosed adults in the future as awareness spreads. 

Ellin has indeed always felt different. So much so, she often feels the need to mask even before her diagnosis. She explains that autistic people, unlike non-autistic or allistic people, do not understand subtext while communicating due to different communication styles. Due to this, she often comes off as blunt or harsh while communicating with others. 

“One of the worst feelings is when you are acting with good intentions but you are viewed the opposite way”, she said. To deal with this, she engages in something a lot of autistic people do call masking. She describes this as a survival mechanism. “In the context of autism, masking is when you hide your natural autistic tendencies and basically put on a neurotypical performance. It requires a lot of mental energy and can lead to burnout.”

The feeling of being stressed and burnt out has been a part of her experience since she opened the store. Ellin has communication difficulties which is a source of anxiety for her. So much so that she insisted on speaking with me through email. 

“My lack of social skills have led some people into thinking I am cold, pretentious and rude,” she said. She worries her strong preference for email may be interpreted as disrespectful, when, really, she just struggles to articulate herself verbally.

For sale; Zero Waste Bulk; what’s next?

In November, Ellin and Cassandra announced on social media that they were putting Zero Waste Bulk up for sale. A post on their website explained the reasoning behind their decision, as well as answering some questions concerned customers and supporters may have had. To clarify, the store was not closing, but instead in search of new owners.

(Photo provided)

“I always knew I would want to find somebody to take over the business even before we opened”, said Ellin. “I can’t focus on growing the business in this state.” A reference to the burnout she felt from having to conform to neurotypical social standards as the face of Zero Waste Bulk.

Ellin is looking forward to what her future holds outside of the store and what it has begun for her. Once it’s sold, she plans to use her free time to focus on her other interests. Online; she creates content about autism and shares stories for over 4,000 followers on Instagram at @autistic.qualia, as well as an associated blog with the same name. 

“I try to post original content and share stories regularly, and people seem to find my content interesting and/or relatable. Qualia refers to individuals’ subjective, conscious experiences and is a concept discussed in the philosophy of mind. I’ve always been fascinated by philosophy and the nature of consciousness, and the idea of qualia is something I think about a lot. Plus, I just like how the word sounds,” she said.

Having documented her journey on her blog — along with her background as a research assistant at her alma mater where she studied psychology — she plans on writing a book on her experiences being autistic and her later-in-life diagnosis. 

With all this going on, Ellin is anything but less busy, but there was one major thing she was looking forward to. A new addition to her family in the form of a puppy from National Service Dogs that she has volunteered to raise. It was a new responsibility, but a very welcomed one.

“I am both excited and apprehensive; mainly around being ready for the responsibilities,” Cassandra said. “We’ve tried to prepare as much as possible.” Meanwhile, Ellin was already a few steps ahead, excited at the opportunity to train the puppy for its future in helping people with disabilities. 

“To prepare, I have been studying up on dog training, puppy-proofing my home, and buying puppy supplies (e.g. crate, dog bed, etc),” Ellin said.

(Ellin’s puppy. The National Service Dogs organization trains service dogs for PTSD support, Autism Service Dogs, and Canine Assisted Intervention Dogs. Photo provided)

Kiki Afolabi is a young African storyteller. She recently graduated with a Bachelors degree in Digital Media and Journalism. She hopes to keep telling stories across various mediums.