Silver Linings: Autism, Covid and Digital Engagement during the Pandemic

Covid Anniversary Blog

While the pandemic has been detrimental for many, COVID-19 has also presented us with opportunities. One such opportunity has been to re-examine the impact that increased digital engagement has had on increasing participation in the autistic community.

Autistic people are advantaged by being able to engage digitally with friends, colleagues, classmates and educators. Among other benefits, the ability to remain in a familiar setting reduces social anxieties and sensory overloading. It may also aid communication for autistic people as there is more control over the digital environment, with less of an emphasis on nonverbal cues.

For years autistic people have advocated for more flexible working and educational environments that better fit their needs. We are now seeing an understanding that we all have individual preferences for work and education that can be accommodated with greater personalization, i.e. the ability to be online or in-person. Maintaining that understanding could make an enormous difference in the lives of autistic people in the future, with some saying that the move to online work models may increase neurodiversity in the workplace.

A move to online spaces may also benefit the way autistic people receive care. Diagnostic processes and the delivery of interventions for autistic people has long suffered from insufficient funding. Improving remote access to care has been accelerated by the pandemic, leading many mental health professionals to operate online, with research indicating that tele-mental health care can address the long waitlists and restricted hours of service that can impede services. Tele-healthcare may particularly benefit autistic people who may be less stressed in their home environments, while clinicians are also able to see the home setting and understand their client’s person-environment fit. For young children, autism interventions like the Denver Early Start model can delivered at home through parent-training programs that rely on telehealth support systems. Initiatives like these are particularly promising as research suggests long-term benefits from parent involvement in early interventions.

That said, digital advancements that may improve outcomes for autistic people are only possible with further changes that require structural changes in society. As suggested in a recent roundtable of autism experts discussing the effects of the pandemic on the autistic community, we must decrease the digital divide, and increase funding for autistic people to acquire alternative communication devices. In order for autistic children to benefit from telehealth initiatives and maximize caregiver involvement in interventions, we must find ways for families to receive financial reimbursement for their work as support staff.

Importantly, we must ensure that remote participation remains possible following the pandemic. It’s common to hear that now that there is widespread inoculation against COVID-19 that life can return back to ‘normal,’ i.e. in-person rather than online. Such statements are entirely subjective, and that for many, online engagement has not only become the ‘new normal’ but preferable to the former way of life. Listening to the needs of the community by including stakeholders in changing practice is vital is we are to preserve any silver linings from COVID-19.   

Dr Gray Atherton is Lecturer in Psychology at Edge Hill University.

This piece is written in response to a post originally published in the Covid-19 blog on 27th April 2020 by Gray which can be found here.

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