World Autism Awareness Week: The new normal

Lockdown has had a ripple effect on all our routines, but for autistic young people it can be even more challenging. Sticking to a routine as much as possible can have a positive impact on development and mental wellbeing in these strange times.

This World Autism Awareness Week (29 March – 4 April 2021), we speak to one parent about the importance of routine for her autistic children.

Closing into a year of working from home for prolonged periods of time, lockdown has changed routines and how we work. For some, working from home is something to easily adapt to, but for others it comes with new challenges.

Holly and Katie are two young women, working their way through critical years in their education, with varying attitudes towards home learning.

As autistic teenagers who struggle in social situations and have sensory issues, working from home has had its benefits. But the lack of structure and routine to the girls’ daily life was hard to adjust to.

LEARNING

“This year has been quite crucial for both of them,” emphasises, Holly and Katie’s mother, Jo. “Holly, who is preparing for her GCSEs this year, is very ambitious and hardworking; she always has her head down in school.”

Lockdown has left Holly with a loss of routine that came with going to school, and the loss of interaction with teachers. Jo adds: “I think Holly feels a little bit let down in the sense she is missing out on an opportunity she should be getting.”

For Katie, who is in her first year of GCSE education, lockdown has been, in some way, a positive. “Katie doesn’t like going into school, she is very quiet and has delayed processing,” explains Jo.

Although incredibly academic and an enjoyment of learning, due to Katie’s delayed processing, she can find it challenging when a teacher asks a question on the spot, leading her to freeze and unable to respond in time.

“She just finds the school environment very overwhelming.

“Katie doesn’t want to go back to the normal classroom environment because for her, that screen filters off what Katie doesn’t like about school,” Jo continues.

Katie and Holly are just two amongst thousands of children and young people who have been affected by the pandemic. Both are studious and enjoy school – albeit both in different formats – the changes in routine have been hard for autistic young people like Holly and Katie.

“With support harder to access and rules around coronavirus and lockdown constantly changing, it’s been incredibly hard for autistic young people to navigate their way through this pandemic,” explains Jolanta Lasota, chief executive of Ambitious about Autism.

“In education, for example, many autistic young people already struggled to access the right support in order to learn successfully before the pandemic. This resulted in many missing large chunks of education.

“The pandemic will have only made this worse, and without the right support to transition back into school life before coronavirus, autistic young people are at very high risk of falling out of education altogether.”

SOCIAL SKILLS

Fortunately, Holly and Katie, who attend a mainstream school, enjoy learning and have adapted to learning at home. However, as both are not very social with their peers, lockdown may have had an impact on this core set of skills.

“I’ve got to be honest, neither of them is great when it comes to social skills,” explains Jo. “They have tried making friends, and they do speak to other children, but neither are good at forming close friendships. They can’t do chit chat unfortunately; they don’t have that connection with other children.

“The school has helped the girls to be more sociable. When they go back it will be harder, because they have lost even more and are now more out of touch with people they were already out of touch with, in a sense.”

Jolanta adds: “The fall-out from this pandemic will be long-lasting and will affect many areas of young people’s lives, from health and wellbeing to education and employment.”

However, Holly is preparing to move into Sixth Form focusing on subjects she is passionate about: maths and science, with ambitions to one day become an astronaut.

Holly is excited about moving to Sixth Form and spending time with others who have the same interests as her. For Katie, it may be more challenging, Jo adds: “I think it will be difficult for Katie to go back to the school environment; she likes the anonymity.”

From change in routine to adaptations in learning, all young people are different and there is no denying the pandemic has had an impact on the mental health of young autistic people.

MENTAL HEALTH

In a survey carried out by Ambitious about Autism, featuring 2000 autistic children and young people and their parents and carers, three quarters of respondents (75 per cent) said they felt more anxious since the pandemic and over half described feeling stressed (56 per cent) and overwhelmed (54 per cent) during the pandemic.

Jo explains that Katie and Holly have, thankfully, not experienced adverse mental health implications due to the pandemic, but boredom has certainly played a part.

Even so, it is important to support young people as we transition back into the school environment, easing of restrictions, and, ultimately, further change in routine.

“Uncertainty and sudden change can immediately increase anxiety and stress for autistic young people,” emphasises Jolanta. “This can trigger or exacerbate other problems.”

But support is available from organisations including the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism; both of whom have services and materials online to help with learning from home, supporting a young person’s mental health and adapting to life post-pandemic.

“Take the time to get to know your kids a bit more, enjoy your children,” advises Jo. “Get them involved with home life, get out and get some fresh air, Katie and Holly like reading, art, and piano; even reducing screen time can all be beneficial for wellbeing.

Together, we can support young autistic people as we transition into a ‘new normal’ routine.

National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism have advice available.