More than 700,000 people in the UK are on the autistic spectrum and, for many, routine is key to their daily lives.
Some can struggle with change, meaning that they benefit from both familiar situations and a consistent routine – something that’s impossible under the nationwide lockdown now entering its eighth week.
Yet it’s a situation that is not wholly bad for people and their families, according to one NHS specialist.
Assistant psychologist Lee Scargill, 25, works for the NHS Trust Children and Young People’s Autism Service provided by the Midlands Partnership Foundation. Lee is responsible for supporting clinical psychologists in the assessment and support of young people with autism, helping to assess pupils in schools and conducting interventions through face-to-face appointments.
Some young people have required more support from the Autism Service, but this is not true of all of their clients, he says.
“It’s gone in two directions, I suppose. Some of my clients love going to school, they need that routine in their life, so for them this has turned their world upside down. I’ve got other clients who are having problems with school, so this break is going to be helpful for them and they can go back with a fresh take on things.”
How COVID-19 is changing support for autism
Lee continues to speak to parents and children via a secure video link, previously used when GPs were trying to move their appointments online to reduce waiting hours.
“We have something called One Consultation which creates a secure link network between two people. The clinician and the client can have confidential discussions and the client can receive video link therapy from the comfort of their own home.
“Even though it’s getting us through the crisis we’re in right now, at the same time we’re looking at integrating it after lockdown because some of our clients struggle to leave home to come to appointments, or to speak to people for the first time they’ve never met. It could be something we carry forward to the future to get those first difficult appointments out the way.”
Advice for parents dealing with autism in the home
“Some parents I know are struggling to keep up with home-schooling, they’re being a parent and a teacher and they’re usually doing it for more than one child. It’s a very stressful position that a lot of parents have been put in.”
Routine is important but so are visual prompts. As a result, physical timetables are incredibly helpful to children with autism as they can see their day planned out. This helps to establish a new normal, as some children are struggling to adapt to the current conditions.
For some children with autism, school is associated with work and home with relaxing, so for them it can be hard to understand that this has changed. The key to supporting them through this is engaging with hobbies and interests, which can be used to help educate them further.
“For example, I’ve been talking to children that really like games and history,” says Lee. “So I’ve been recommending games that have information about gods and deities and from there they might start googling it and learning more about it. It’s about using their interests.”
How the Midlands Partnership is providing support during COVID-19
Parents can also find content online to help support them, outside of the face-to-face appointments being arranged with clinicians. The Autism Service has created videos such as the Introduction to Autism: Parent Course. This is the perfect starting block for any parents whose child has been diagnosed with autism. In the past this was a group meeting, now suspended.
“We’re managing to maintain those best bits even in this climate. We’re just providing it in a different way. We have parents who work 9-5, who struggled to get to meetings, those parents can now watch these videos anytime. While making a cup of tea or they can listen to them in the car via Bluetooth. So the parents that were struggling to access it, can access it, and the parents that want to keep meeting face-to-face can still do so. It’s opened us up a little bit more.”
The group meeting also provided parents with a space they could share stories, which can no longer be done in person. To combat this, it is hoped that families referred to the Autism Service will soon be able talk to others through secure video conferences organised by clinicians. This is essential for parents as it reminds them they’re not alone and creates a community for them, which is all the more important during lockdown.
The videos created by the Autism Service will be available during and after the lockdown, and video link therapy will remain to help people ease into using the Service. COVID-19 will eventually disappear, but the advances the Autism Service have made will remain and help to improve lives for people in the future, not just in lockdown.
The National Autistic Society has a dedicated Autism Helpline on 0808 800 4104, 10am-3pm, Monday-Friday.