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The Impact of a Global Pandemic...

Updated: Jan 7, 2021

The Impact of a Global Pandemic, a 3rd National Lockdown and School Closures for Autistic Children and Young People

The good, the bad and the truly overwhelming…

Vicky Brewer

2020 and the start of 2021 have bought us all incredibly uncertain times, the shining light being that we now have not one but two vaccinations on the roll out to us, providing protection for our most vulnerable in society. We have seen almost a year of social restrictions, safety measures, furlough, job and income loss, childcare pandemonium, school closure and bubbles. You can be forgiven if you have felt moments of absolute overwhelm, frustration and anxiety. The last year has been hard on all of us, not to mention our Autistic children and young people.

Let’s start with the obvious; drastic change in structure and routine, with sometimes very little time for preparation or warning. Autistic children and young people often rely heavily on a consistent and familiar routine; they like to know what is happening next, who will be there, where they will be and what will be expected of them. They need this information in order to process the events, the demands, in order to understand the world around them and to predict the outcome. Without this information they might feel scared, overwhelmed, confused and out of control. Although many of our children and young people are entitled to some continuous provision from their education setting, this does not always mean the same, familiar adult or student faces, the same classrooms or even the same timetabling. Favoured activities have been delayed, cancelled or changed and support services aren’t able to offer face to face sessions. Students have been unable to access areas of the school they previously used due to bubbles and zoning, and in some cases, this has meant their known Safe Space is now out of action.

Moving on to the sensory considerations; suddenly there is a far higher and unfamiliar level of demand for processing of sensory information. Can you tolerate washing your hands so often, the sensation of water, the fragrance of soaps and gels? Can you tolerate the new, overwhelming smell of much needed cleaning products in your classroom, on your tables? You may not be expected to wear a face mask, but visually can you manage the new information surrounding you with both adults and students having half of their faces covered, most of the time, not to mention how this might affect your ability to recognise the emotion and intentions of others. How about the onslaught of visual information on the floors and walls? Arrows, boxes and zones at every corner. It’s cold too, with all the windows and doors open. Yes, we don’t want our students to get too comfy in a nice warm classroom, but temperature regulation can be a real challenge for Autistic children and Young People who find it difficult to regulate their Interoceptive information, making it impossible to learn. Sensory rooms, sensory toys and comfy zones have been de-commissioned or reduced in order to minimise virus transmission and to protect our children and their staff.

We have seen a significant increase in demand for use of Executive Functioning Skills; the ability to retain and sequence new hygiene regulations, follow new timetables and routes around school, ensure you have the full day’s belongings with you before entering the classroom and to remember all your own equipment. Not to mention use of IT and technology, requiring independent access, as TAs and teaching staff have been encouraged not to touch students’ equipment.

Our Children and Young People have faced challenges in their ability to think flexibly like never before, and we’ve not even touched on the rule breakers yet. If the guidance states 2m, why is that person so close to me? Why hasn’t that person got their mask on, why aren’t they wearing it properly? They saw each other at the weekend, that’s not permitted and now I can’t be near them in case they make me poorly. We’ve been told it’s a terrible, life-threatening illness, yet I’m still expected to go into school, or to leave my house, that doesn’t make any sense to me.

We are yet to consider changes at home. With households being full to bursting with all of their residents most of the time. Finding a low demand, quiet space in the midst of Zoom ballet, conference calls and Google Classrooms is almost impossible. Screens have become a reliable way to block out environmental and social stimuli and are difficult to break away from. Limited access to physical exercise and daily routine has changed sleeping patterns and bedtime routines. Sleeping-in and not going to school has become the new normal. And although we might assume that Autistic Children and Young people struggle to recognise other’s emotions, they are absolutely able to pick up on parental anxiety. The News is all to readily available and it is difficult to decipher real from fake online information, especially when you are a rigid thinker who takes others’ opinion as fact.

But it’s NOT all doom and gloom! We have seen some of our children and young people thrive. The elimination of classroom social demands has meant that our youngsters can focus on their learning and they have excelled. Online learning and physical resources have removed the ambiguous spoken word and allowed our children the processing time they need when managing instructions and tasks. Removal of a rigid timetable has allowed our children to feel a sense of control over when to start, what to do next and when they can get up and move. Our children have been in comfortable clothing, surrounded by their useful sensory equipment.

Clear expectations and boundaries in school settings, along with the reduction in movement around school has been just what our children needed all along. Having pre-organised stationary pouches and work packs has supported independent learning and organisational skills. Even coming into school already changed for PE has removed unnecessary additional demand. The cancellation of exams, for the majority, has been welcomed, with exam conditions being intolerable for many. Adults and peers no longer sit too close and there has been an increased appreciation for personal space by all.

For the most part, the clear guidance from higher powers has been rigid, often represented visually. We have used the time to prioritise daily exercise, life skills, cooking and baking, mental health and well-being. Adults have been able to be more present. I have personally worked with teens who are now able to complete an online shop, can correctly sequence COVID safety instructions independently and who have developed fantastic trusted relationships with key members of staff with whom they have been able to spend increased time. Many of the children and young people I support have been able to spend time learning about their topics of personal interest, have developed new interests and have discovered new hobbies they enjoy. As professionals we have discovered alternative ways to check-in with families and young people, using messaging services and virtual platforms, often removing the intensity of a direct visit, making it easier to manage for the young person.

So now we come to the tough part. Which bits are we going to keep and what have we learnt? Are we going to insist that being in school for a full day, in a busy classroom is the best place to learn for all of our children and young people, or do we need to think of a more flexible approach? After-all, the system is already set up and running. What about the focus on life skills, mental health and well-being and contact with a key member of staff? What have we learnt about assessing our students’ progress in a manageable way to accurately reflect how well they have done? Crucially, what a fabulous new understanding we all now have for the all-important social downtime and physical movement as part of our daily routine.

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