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Year-end reflection - the global pandemic and autism

Drawing parallels: How the social and emotional impact of the global pandemic brings everyday issues faced by autistic people into sharp focus

By Elizabeth Baines

Ever since we watched the Coronavirus outbreak begin to take a stronghold in Wuhan, China at the end of 2019, the entire world has been in an ever-changing state of flux with a serious and invisible threat disrupting our daily lives.

Few of us would have perhaps anticipated that by the end of March 2020 our government would be forced to make the life-changing announcement that the UK would move into a draconian lockdown, introducing the most extreme measures in peacetime in order to clamp down on our familiar way of life. Asking people to work from home, for many schools, colleges and universities to close, for people to avoid public gatherings and for us to stay away from the most vulnerable members of society, were all tactics designed to reduce the opportunity for the virus to spread.

The impact of lockdown

The lockdown has created a changing climate of withdrawal from social interaction and an enforced exclusion from ‘normal life’.

The world around us has changed - all aspects of our lives have been affected and it has challenged us to change our behaviours in order to maintain a level of safety and health for our learning and working communities. The freedoms we once took for granted have been all but snatched away.

There has been much time for reflection, of course; some of us have used the time effectively to catch up with things that needed to be done in the home, some of us have been personally hit quite hard by the pandemic, and others have found the challenge of ‘the new normal’ extremely difficult.

Effect on mental and emotional health

Much has been made in the media about the impact on society’s mental and emotional health, and how we are coping with the new COVID-normal which includes interpreting and working within a range of confusing and sometimes contradictory guidance and rules.

It is easy for us all to agree, regardless of our individual differences, that this period in our lives has been bewildering, frustrating and has, without doubt, created a significant level of anxiety and stress.

Drawing parallels

As the leader of a specialist school and college, myself and my team provide a holistic educational curriculum which promotes personal, social and independent life skills as well as academic achievement for autistic learners. Many of the students who we teach find everyday social interaction perplexing, and feel a sense of exclusion from normal society anyway due to their personal challenges.

Whilst having a diagnosis of autism does not truly define each and every child of course, no more than a description of us as being neuro-typical means that we are all the same - the complexity of being human means that there is never a ‘one size fits all’ description - there are commonalities between being an autistic person and being a neurotypical person experiencing this pandemic.

Most autistic learners struggle to make sense of our natural way of being, just like many neurotypical people have struggled with grasping the concepts of our pandemic ‘norm’.

Many experience high levels of anxiety and adjustment disorders, and indeed find difficulties with social interaction and friendship making skills. This doesn’t mean that they do not need this within their lives, but they do experience obstacles in following the rules and expectations that society places on each and every one of us in a pre-pandemic world.

As a neurotypical person in this pandemic, I too have found myself facing anxiety, stress and concern linked to understanding and interpreting the complex rules and behaviours now expected of us, and I have grown in empathy for the plight of those who, for whatever reason, find such normality a challenge.

For the neurotypical person, there is a light at the end of the tunnel - a vaccine which will protect us in time from Covid so that we can return to ‘normal life’, and when we do reach this point, consider carefully how you will accommodate and support those who already find it difficult to live, work and navigate the neurotypical ‘normal’ world.

Elizabeth Baines is the Executive Principal of Trinity School & College, a specialist provider in Rochester for children and young people aged between 5-21+ years, focused on supporting specific learning difficulties, autism, social communication difficulties and anxiety.


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