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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