Autism on lockdown

Autism on lockdown

Autism on lockdown: We are all aware that Covid-19 has introduced some challenges to our daily lives and we have had no option but to meet them head on. Whether that means being furloughed from work, working from home, missing human interaction, being barred from our families and friends or even facing life without employment. These are all extremely difficult situations to be faced with when we have all grown complacent with life and the idea of normality over the past few years since recovering from the national recession and coming to terms with Brexit; regardless of how you voted.

But what about the people who live with challenges on a daily basis? What about the individuals in our community, our schools, our families who face challenges from the word go?

Those in our community with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) face challenges that don’t comply with national restrictions. Since March I have personally seen these challenges and witnessed the repercussions. ASD is not a black and white condition and what one individual can cope with, another cannot. So how does this translate to a lockdown? Short answer, it doesn’t.

Autism on lockdown

High functioning ASD can equip people with a greater understanding of the inner workings of COVID and the need for a lockdown. However, lower functioning ASD can cause a new realm of challenges to face such as:

Mask wearing with Autism

A lot of our communication is supported by facial expressions and gestures, so if you remove this ability and obscure the bottom half of your face so only the eyes are visible; suddenly your facial expressions are much vaguer and harder to read. In addition, a lot of people on the spectrum struggle with tolerating wearing things like goggles, hats, scarfs, gloves – masks are no different. This can be conditioned and taught but it takes months if not years to learn to tolerate this new addition to the daily wardrobe.


Social distancing with Autism

One of the most necessary restrictions in place, is the social distance between people and this should be easy for most people, but even neurotypical people are struggling to maintain their distance. People with ASD don’t always understand personal space, boundaries or appropriate touch, so they can sometimes want to shake hands, get a reinforcing high five or initiate a hug with people they come into contact with, depending on age and learning in their repertoires.

Handwashing with Autism

Working in a specialist school for pupils all diagnosed with ASD, I am well acquainted with the refusal to wash hands. Some individuals with a lower verbal behaviour can find washing hands a very big task; this can be just the activity itself or the use of soap, encountering warm or hot water and even not wanting to dry their hands afterwards. This becomes a much larger issue when we are expecting them to wash their hands more often, which can lead to undesirable behaviours.

Supermarkets during lockdown

The new supportive measures in place throughout the high street are there for the best reasons and I think we can all appreciate that. But when it comes to ASD and these measures it’s not an easy transition. To most families with a child or sibling on the spectrum they either find shopping a logistical nightmare or a weekly day out that is repeatedly longer for. My pupils love to go to the supermarket, the colours, the smells, the people, they love it all.

Yes, it can be a logistical puzzle still but they enjoy going so it is less of an uphill climb. However, whether they enjoy it or not it is not always possible to avoid them having to go into the shop with their parents or carers at least once a month. The new measures in place within our supermarkets from acrylic screens to sanitizing stations to taped floors; it’s all a massive ask for the majority of us. When you take into consideration those on the spectrum this is a monumental upheaval, suddenly they can’t browse, they can’t walk in their own direction, they can’t pick things up and look at them, they have screens between them and the staff and the fashionable masks that everyone is wearing add another level of confusion to the scenario.

Parks during lockdown

During lockdown 1.0 the countries play parks were all closed down. Understandably so, however the impact of this on the children and young people on the spectrum is massive. This is typically a weekly if not a daily trip for children with ASD, it’s a safe place where they can go and play outside and have some fun. Being restricted to 1 hour a day of leisure or exercise time is a big reduction in a household with an autistic child, they quite often need to be occupied and on-the-go in order to reduce the downtime that tends to lead to challenging behaviours.

Home learning during lockdown

I know all parents, carers, older siblings and teachers have struggled greatly with this concept and it is not something I personally agree with as a special needs teacher. Parents cannot be expected to teach their children in the same manner as their teachers, even if you are a practicing teacher and have home educated your children throughout lockdown it wouldn’t be comparable to them being in the school environment and learning in their typical way. So, factor in ASD and where do we stand?

Well, I can tell you I had no option but to provide home learning resources for my pupils in order to comply with their EHCP’s and maintain their behaviour management while in their home. Some of my pupils worked everyday on their set work with a parent leading the instructional time and they found additional methods of structuring the home environment such as creating daily cleaning tasks and gardening sessions during the summer. However, some found it a massive challenge to get their child to understand that they can’t go to school, they don’t need to wear school uniform, no need for a packed lunch and this endless list of routine changing led to parents trapped in a “groundhog day” effect of repeatedly facing the same day over and over explaining the situation and trying to keep their child calm – when can they fit in worksheets or reading comprehension?

Lost routine during lockdown

As I hinted to above, lost routine is the biggest challenge to face when you rely upon routine so heavily. The majority of my pupils need the structure our school offers them, they come in and know exactly how the day is going to work. When faced with a new reality of not going to school each day, not leaving the house and when you do eventually leave the house not having anywhere to go – how can that be explained to children and young people with ASD? Remember I’m approaching this from the point of view of lower functioning individuals who rely on supervision and have daily support in place. Not having access to routine is something that affects everyone, whether it was not being able to go to work, to the gym or adapting to online shopping all these things made us boil over with anger, brought us down into a depression or caused a chain of rippling effects that altered our reality. With a young person on the spectrum this is not just something to cope with, it has huge knock on effects on the surrounding people, from parents to siblings, carers to extended family.

Autism on lockdown

To summarize, lock down has been rough on everyone. But when your whole world has been upturned how do you begin to cope with that? All the measures in place are there for a sound reason but when it’s implemented after a minimal notice how can anyone prepare for this? Is it even possible to prepare someone especially when they can’t understand what all the fuss is about and can’t follow the news as it appears on the TV and overnight people around them are suddenly wearing masks and standing 2 meters away from them. Is it possible for them to understand that its not their fault? That it is safe to leave the house?

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