Autism and COVID-19: Promoting understanding and acceptance

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With this week being Autism Awareness Week, Suzi Payton, Skills Advisor for Horsham, Crawley and Mid Sussex, writes about her experience supporting neurodivergent young people in the light of the current pandemic. Suzi writes:

As a Skills Advisor for YMCA DownsLink Group I love working with young people to help them realise their potential and help set them on a path that is inspiring and meaningful.

Before joining YMCA DLG I was a teacher of P.E, IT, Health and Social Care and more recently a lead teacher in a specialist therapeutic residential special school for boys with complex social, emotional and mental health difficulties.

As a **neurodivergent person myself, I am passionate about celebrating the strengths that come with brain differences as well as helping others to understand, accept and support those who work extra hard to function in their everyday lives and careers.

You can see a strengths diagram here

In this time of uncertainty and change for everyone, anxiety levels are rising. For many (not all, let’s not assume) autistic and **neurodivergent people these feelings can be felt more intensely. Changes to routine can be a source of anxiety as well as fear of the unknown. How do we help autistic people manage these feelings and cope?

First, don’t assume anything. Don’t assume that:

  • They are ok as they don’t go out much anyway
  • They must be struggling because they are autistic
  • They are ok because they say they are
  • They didn’t have much of a routine anyway so not much has changed for them
  • They can make a new routine by themselves

Instead try the following tips, remembering that they may not work for all as all autistic people are different with their own individual personalities:

  • Keep in regular contact through call/text/email asking how they are and reminding that you are there if they need anything
  • Ask specific questions i.e. ‘how are you feeling about the coronavirus? How has your life changed? What activities are you doing to help you cope?’
  • Help to create a daily schedule i.e. wake up, breakfast, shower, yoga/workout, writing/drawing, TV, call to relative, gaming, lunch, career research etc. Be mindful that for some a full schedule can be a good thing but for others it may create pressure and therefore stress so make sure this is led by the young person. Make verbally clear that the schedule is a guide and does not need to be completed exactly. Also, discuss reasons why the schedule may not happen exactly as it is written such as: change of mind, someone may call at a different time, not feeling like doing the activity. This can help promote flexibility. Encourage creativity; for some the same thing each day might be appropriate but for others variety may be needed (again speak to the individual and see what works for them)
  • Provide opportunities to discuss the situation and the virus as doing so can help with processing. Be aware that talking/discussing may not be the young persons preferred method of communication so again find out what is and offer opportunities for expressing thoughts, feelings, observations i.e. writing, poetry, art
  • Provide or direct to factual information to help keep worries in perspective. Be aware that for some too much information can lead to obsessive thoughts/ruminating and sometimes the only way to have a break from these is distraction techniques i.e. play a games console, create art, have conversations about the person’s interests etc.
  • If bored encourage people to create something based on their interests i.e. a blog, comic (hand drawn or through an app), make a website, make a video, write a story or book
  • Remind people that this situation is temporary

The links below provide information on autism and PDA (a profile on the autism spectrum) and give further information on how to support:

National Autistic Society

PDA society 

Article on why acceptance and understanding is needed and not just ‘acceptance’

**neurodivergent: It is estimated that around 1 in 7 people (more than 15% of people in the UK) are neurodivergent, meaning that the brain functions, learns and processes information differently. Neurodivergence includes Attention Deficit Disorders, Autism, Dyslexia and Dyspraxia’ https://archive.acas.org.uk/neurodiversity

See the video on Neurodiversity on Genius Within’s website here

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