Living on the autistic spectrum while trying to survive Covid-19 and the lockdown
Durban - 'The new normal' was already adopted by families with autistic loved ones but then Covid-19 hit presenting seemingly simple tasks like wearing a mask as nightmares but as time passed the dark cloud dissipated and hope prevailed.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disorder that can cause significant social, communication and behavioural challenges. The range and seriousness of symptoms can widely vary.
Juliet Carter, national director of Autism South Africa, said the initial lockdown and level five regulations were difficult for the autistic community.
“The change was sudden allowing no time to prepare for the dramatic shift in their routines. Anxiety is common with routines and predictability is important to manage it. The measures and activities that autistic persons used to regulate anxiety and emotions were snatched away.
“They were not permitted to go for walks or to take a drive in the car, under threat of arrest. We received numerous calls from caregivers and parents, where the autistic person’s meltdowns increased in frequency and severity as the lockdown prolonged,” she said.
But Carter said the community gain modicums of relief with each lockdown easement but challenges remained.
“The uncertainty of returning to school for some children, as some schools have closed again due to new Covid-19 infections is a challenge. Wearing a mask is still a challenge for autistic persons with tactile sensory issues. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution,” said Carter.
She said in order to accommodate autistic persons in a Covid-19 world was to learn about autism and the autistic person.
“It is a spectrum disorder and every person is completely different with unique sensory profiles and requires different levels and types of support.”
Ten-year-old Anna Stock has ASD and is enrolled at the Imbalito Hope College said: “This year has been difficult and scary, but I think we are getting through it. It has also been exciting because of the commotion and questions like why this is happening. At first, I was not coping and I was scared, but I then things got better The worst thing was not being able to see people. I also disliked wearing masks at first but now I'm handling it. School helped me get through Covid and seeing my friends, learning and getting back to routine has given me hope.”
Psychologist Nirasha Dhaniram is not just the centre director at Durban's Imbalito Hope College, she is the mother of 18-year-old Mikhail who has autism.
“This year has been challenging as our children had to adopt our new normal sooner than others even realised the term "new normal". Our children are resilient and we were grateful that we were allowed to operate sooner allowing us to provide support since May,” she said.
Dhaniram said some children returned to in-house classes while others for online classes.
“We were flexible as we had to accommodate the children and the public should do the same. We used visual supports like social stories, visual aids and objects to teach children about Covid and the reasons for hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing,” she said
Another challenge Dhaniram highlighted was when food outlets and recreational venues such as aquariums and animal farms closed many children became distressed as their routines were disrupted.
“We got creative and used the internet to show them documentaries and visit virtual places online. My son missed his Nandos, KFC and going to church but he has adjusted to online services and my home-cooked crumbed and Portuguese style chicken,” she said.
Sasha Lee Lawrence’s daughter, Adrianna, has been enrolled at the college for the last four years, said everything was a learning experience and listening to her child describe how she felt was crucial to establish new boundaries and ways of learning.
“At first, constant handwashing was a challenge and the inability to socialise with family members who lived in other countries. We also had to constantly explain the pandemic and its effects.”