These are challenging times for us all. News apps push update notifications to our phones on an almost hourly basis, our social media feeds are filled with (mis)information, and even jokes about the Covid-19 outbreak.
For many autistic people, the “unknown” causes worry and anxiety – clarity of information and predictability of routines are key to managing this.
The concerns of many autistic people are similar to the neurotypical population, but often heightened. For example, a trip to the supermarket might create anxiety when we see the empty shopping shelves. Beyond the obvious lack of the goods they wished to purchase lies another concern – “the shelves aren’t meant to be empty” – and this abrupt departure from the expected could lead to a rise in anxiety and stress levels.
The situation surrounding the Covid-19 pandemic at the time of writing is fast moving, and we are yet to understand the full impact of any disruption to our lives. We know that these changes may ultimately be for the best, but these changes and recommendations will undoubtably interrupt our daily routines, with little or no time to prepare for the change. For example; self-isolation could have a significant impact on a carefully prepared schedule.
Autistic people may be incredibly anxious about the situation for more reasons than might be immediately apparent. This anxiety can lead to meltdowns or may have a significant impact on their mental health and ability to cope.
So how can you help autistic adults and children through these times?
Clarity – Keep it clear and simple. General “chit chat” about the virus and the possible impact it may have may not be helpful in helping autistic people manage their anxieties. It may be best to avoid jokes, and ensure that any talk follows the official government advice as detailed here – https://www.gov.uk/guidance/coronavirus-covid-19-information-for-the-public
Carry on – Familiarity and routine may be important to many autistic people, as well as the quality of their social interactions. Wherever possible, help them safeguard their routines, as long as they are in line with the official government advice. Keeping to their usual timetable may help with this, with changes made as appropriate – for example, sticking to usual office and break hours if instructed to work from home.
Safeguarding predictability in a rapidly shifting unpredictable world is key.
Autistic individuals often have defined special interests. If changes mean that they cannot undertake these interests (e.g. cancellation of sporting events), help them find other ways to connect with these interests.
Changes – Be aware that changes to daily routines are not easy for many autistic adults and children. Support them however you can in order to ease the impact of any change, whether due to self-isolation or due to the closure of events, workplaces, or schools.
Contact – Many autistic people appreciate friendship and support, so contact via text, email, or video call may help prevent them feeling socially isolated or excluded.
The coming weeks and perhaps months won’t be easy, but additional consideration will help reduce autistic people’s anxieties during this challenging time – please remember that they may need more time and your support to manage the changes effectively.