April is Autism Awareness month and it got us thinking about how the pandemic and the impacts of lockdown have affected people with autism specifically.
Autism is a spectrum disorder meaning the symptoms and characteristics affect people with different degrees of severity.
Someone with Autism usually has challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and nonverbal communication. The ways in which they learn, think and problem-solve can range from highly skilled to severely challenged.
The pandemic has affected everyone and has been challenging for people in so many ways but, for the 700,000 autistic people in the UK and their families, it’s had a disproportionate affect on their wellbeing, mental health, loneliness and education.
We’ve delved a little deeper to determine how the pandemic has disproportionately affected people with autism and what can be done to help alleviate some of the challenges they’re facing.
1. Dealing with Change
People with Autism tend to struggle to cope with change and uncertainty at the best of times, however the past year has been dominated by both. What’s more, as the pandemic has evolved so have the rules and regulations impacting our daily lives. This has been especially challenging for people with autism because the lack of consistency and regular changes to Government causes stress and confusion.
Creating and sticking to a routine can be helpful in easing the anxieties felt by both adults and children with autism. Try building this around consistencies such as mealtimes, daily activities such as exercise and learning, as well as factoring in rest time. It can also be helpful to limit news consumption and instead focus on the core recommendations such as regular handwashing and social distancing.
2. Managing Mental Health
In a recent study of adults with autism 72% respondents reported either some or significant deterioration in mental health during the pandemic. The long-term impact on mental health remains to be seen, but with increased feelings of anxiety and loneliness being reported along with a reduction of social care and mental health services there’s no doubt that there will be long term affects.
The suspension of services has had a big impact on the families of people with autism with 1 in 5 family members having to reduce their work in order to increase their caring responsibilities. While significant pressure is being placed on Government to increase the support given to people with autism and their families, there are some short-term fixes that can help to manage people’s mental health. Utilising technology to stay in tough with friends is one way to help combat loneliness when we can’t meet face to face. It can also be beneficial to indulge in a hobby or creative activity which can help reduce stress and feelings of depression.
3. Impact on Learning
The ongoing lockdowns have caused significant disruption to the education system and this has disproportionately affected people with special educational needs. As well as being a place to learn and socialise, schools, colleges and universities also give people with autism that much needed structure that helps them cope on a day-to-day basis. Their closure has led to more change and uncertainty in the lives of people with autism.
It is unrealistic to expect parents to have the skills, knowledge and expertise to provide adequate home learning on top of managing behavioural and mental health challenges. The longer the pandemic has gone on, the harder it’s become.
Some recommendations to help autistic people cope with virtual learning include providing sensory support, taking regular breaks, adapting the delivery style to best suit the learner and of course, working closely with the education provider’s occupational therapist to ensure they’re able to give the maximum support.
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