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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What is the new ‘normal’? Autism, Routine and Covid-19

On April 2nd World Autism Day was being celebrated around the world. Just as it has for the last few years, the Twitterverse was particularly active, with the popular hashtag #autismawarenessday being posted in thousands of tweets in support of those on the spectrum. This year of course, many #autismawarenessday tweets were also focused on another, more sombre topic, Covid-19.

While many of these Covid focused tweets encapsulated the goals of autism awareness day by sharing helpful links and posting online resources, many also highlighted the challenges autistic people and their families may additionally be facing during this pandemic.

Autism is a complex condition that can have a profound impact on many areas of an individual’s life. While many share similar characteristics, including sensory sensitivity, social and communicative differences and a preference for routine and certain interests, as the saying goes, once you have met one autistic person, you have only met one autistic person.

Covid-19 has, of course, upended the normal schedules of us all, not just with regards to our professional and social routines, but in the way that normal activities have changed. We can no longer rely on public transportation, we must queue for groceries, and we are unable to leave the house when we please to go to a favourite pub, or see a friend over the road.

For autistic people this may be particularly distressing as routines are relied upon to make the world predictable and comforting. Additionally, there are quite pressing anxieties in relation to the possibility of infection of both us and those around us. As autistic people are significantly more likely to have clinical levels of anxiety and experience OCD related symptoms the current fear of infection and an increased emphasis on handwashing and social distancing can compound existing stressors.

Also, while social distancing is difficult for us all, it may be particularly isolating for those on the spectrum. Research suggests that many adults with autism already experience higher levels of loneliness and may have less social contact than those without autism and are also more likely to have clinical depression. The closing of schools may also be particularly difficult for children with autism as research shows they in particular benefit from social inclusion during instruction and extracurricular activities where they can learn from other children (Harper et al., 2008).

So, what can help?). Autistic adults can benefit from creating new structured routines for working and socializing at home rather than in person. For more generalized anxiety over Covid it can be to limit exposure to news, to keep up with friends and family members over the phone or email, and to do stress reducing activities like meditation or exercise. Online playdates and scheduled time to meet online with family and friends can be an important way to stay connected. Even spending time with pets can be a big help.

And as always, it is important to know that whatever you are going through, you are not alone. While offering a number of Covid-related resources, autism.org.uk is also sharing the stories of autistic people and how they are coping during Covid. Resources like wrongplanet.net and Reddit sites r/autism and r/aspergers are forums for autistic people to share their experiences and connect with others who are also dealing with the realities of the pandemic. Reflecting not only on how things are different, but how they can be improved, is a good first step for us all. And in these last few weeks of April when we celebrate autism acceptance and awareness, let’s keep in mind how we can support, even from a distance, those who may need that support the most.

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

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Note: all comments are moderated before posting. Not all comments will be posted. Please avoid language that could be viewed aggressive, abusive, political or similar. The moderators decision is final.