Government restrictions introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19 caused great change to daily living and everyday routines for us all. These changes may have been particularly challenging and anxiety provoking for many autistic children and young people. Now, as we prepare for the easing of restrictions, and as Government plans and a timeline for returning to the ‘new normal’ are revealed, we need to plan ahead and prepare the child or young person with autism for more change.
Leaving home to access a shared public space such as a shopping centre or playpark has resumed and returning to school is imminent, but these places will be very different with public health restrictions in place. The ‘new normal’ within these environments is likely to initially be challenging for many autistic children and young people.
Sadly some families will be experiencing long term change during this difficult period due to bereavement. Others may experience a different type of change due to parents separating and families living apart in separate households. As these permanent life altering changes are also experienced by children and young people with autism, they will need support as they process and respond to these major life changes.
Why Change Is Difficult for Children and Young People With Autism
Autism is a neurodevelopmental condition characterised by difficulty with social interactions and communication and by restrictive and repetitive behaviour and interests including unusual sensory responses (American Psychiatric Association 2013). The restricted repetitive pattern of behaviour is one aspect of the characteristics displayed by autistic children and young people which may contribute to their difficulty in coping with change.
Change, also referred to as a transition, can be minor such as moving from one activity or setting to another. Change can also be significant, such as the onset of puberty, the transition from primary to post primary school, parents separating, a bereavement in the family circle, or serious change to daily routine such as COVID-19 restrictions and the imminent return to the ‘new normal’.
Due to the core characteristics of autism, the child or young person diagnosed with autism can find change especially unexpected change, extremely difficult and stressful, but there are many things parents and professionals can do to support them. To understand why the child and young person needs time to process, adjust and accept change, click here to read the Great Minds resource called ‘COVID-19 Has Caused Lots of Change’. It explains the four responses to change that an autistic individual may experience.
Autistic children and young people will require additional support to cope with the social demands of change. During lockdown they would have had limited opportunity to engage in social interactions, however some may have attended school for childcare reasons. The children and young people who attended school would have been placed in much smaller class groups therefore may find it difficult to adjust to the social demands and expectation of a larger class size and learning in school.
Revisiting social skills and explicitly teaching and practising the new social distancing practices for school and shared spaces in the community is recommended. Children and young people with autism will require time to adjust to the guidelines. Emotional Regulation strategies may need to be taught to the child or young person to enable them communicate when they start to feel overwhelmed.
It may be useful to explore the concept of change with the child or young person and look at examples of other things that change in life. Click here to view an Attention Autism session
Due to the easing of COVID-19 restrictions information is available on an informative animation produced by Birmingham Communication Autism Team Click here for video COVID-19 Transition Advice
When things change, the child or young person with autism may feel confused, uncertain and unsure of what to expect and what to do. This feeling of uncertainty can have an impact on their daily functioning and ability to do everyday tasks. It can also lead to anxiety.
Middletown Centre for Autism has written a chapter on understanding autism and anxiety including the impact of sensory and thinking differences and it is available to read by clicking here.
Considering the difficulties autistic children and young people may have with change it is best to teach the concept of change along with understanding feelings, emotional regulation and anxiety management strategies when the child or young person is calm and alert. Rehearsing these concepts frequently will help ensure that they can be applied more easily when needed.
Differentiating Resources and Supports
A child or young person diagnosed with autism may also have one or more co-existing condition such as an additional health or educational need including a mental health diagnosis, a physical disability, a learning difference or intellectual disability.
For example, children and young people with autism, who have a co-existing learning difference (such as dyslexia) or an intellectual difficulty can learn throughout their lives if provided with the right teaching and support. When sharing information for the purpose of preparing for change, it is important to remember to tailor the support to facilitate the child or young person’s need. For some autistic children and young people, the presence of a co-existing learning difference or intellectual difficulty may impact on their short-term memory, their speed of processing information, organisational and sequencing skills. This means that they may need to revisit information many times or have access to information in different formats (e.g. visual and verbal instructions) before they become familiar with it and can understand the expectations required from them.
Children and young people with autism and co-existing learning difficulty, learn throughout their lives if provided with the right support. When sharing information, for example for the purpose of preparing for change, it is important to remember to tailor the support to facilitate the learning difficulty which may mean that the child or young person with autism is learning at a very early stage of development. The co-existing learning difficulty may cause the child or young person with autism to have reduced short-term memory, meaning they will need to revisit the information many times before they become familiar with it.
We know that autistic children and young people have undergone significant changes due to the coronavirus pandemic. Within this resource there are a range of resources, guidance and strategies to help children and young people with autism to adapt and adjust to changes in their lives and to support them as they transition to the ‘new normal’ post lockdown.
Read next: Case Studies →