Lockdown is difficult for most people, but this can be particularly acute for those with autism spectrum disorder. Many people with autism find that part of their diagnosis involves restricted and repetitive patterns of behaviours, activities, or interests. That can include having a very specific routine, for example eating the same foods or keeping to set times and places throughout the day.
With our routines thrown completely out of whack, this can cause anxiety and distress for autistic people, much more so than in neurotypical people.
If you’re a parent of an autistic child, you’ll potentially have already seen the effects of school closures and routine changes in your little one.
Caroline Stevens, Chief Executive of the National Autistic Society, Metro.co.uk: ‘This is an unprecedented situation. It is affecting everyone’s lives, including the 700,000 autistic people in the UK and their families.
‘This sudden unexpected change and disruption to everyday life is particularly hard for autistic children and adults. ‘A cancelled appointment, empty shelf or closure of a local café can be so much more than an inconvenience – it could trigger intense stress and lead to a meltdown or a shut down.’
A meltdown is described by the NAS as ‘an intense response to overwhelming situations’ and can include shouting or screaming, as well as physical lashing out.
Shut downs are more muted responses to this stress, which can see an autistic person going completely silent, being unable to move, or having to withdraw to somewhere quiet. Think of it like a computer freezing when it’s overloaded with too many commands.
Both of these responses are upsetting for both parent and child, so to keep these situations to a minimum – and because it’s Autism Awareness Week – we spoke with NAS to get their top tips to help cope.
Stay calm when explaining what’s going on:
‘Adjusting to this drastic new lifestyle will be difficult for many. It’s important to keep calm and remember it’s not forever,’ says Caroline.
Even if your child doesn’t use verbal communication, they can still pick up on your tone and actions, so it makes sense to avoid appearing stressed so this won’t affect their mood as much.
When talking to your child about the current situation, make a plan on how much they need to know so they aren’t overwhelmed, and go over things slowly and carefully. If you can, try to keep information bitesize and digestible, and give your child enough time to process what they’re hearing, ensuring they know they can come to you with any questions they might have.
The National Autistic Society have a useful ‘social story’ which helps put things into perspective in an easy and temperate manner.
Give each day structure One of the main things that children with autism may be struggling with right now is how much their daily routine has changed.
Caroline advises parents to ‘give each day structure, making time for exercise, eating and fun activities.’
If your child works better knowing ahead of time what they’ll be doing the following day, write the schedule down on a piece of paper and pin it up on the wall or fridge. Something as simple as eating at the same time of the day can make a big difference.
Create sensory safe spaces.
Because your child’s sensory environment has changed, Caroline advises trying to recreate the space they may have at school or nursery. This could involve ‘using noise-cancelling headphones or finding a quiet area in your home’ your child can go if they need to.
On the NAS website, they say that this works even if it’s ‘just the corner of one room’ and to fill the area ‘with homemade sensory toys and activities.’