15th March 2021
By Alex, Intern
Recently my colleague Martin and I (interns at BeyondAutism), have been creating a podcast series on a variety of topics related to autism and employment. Listen to our first episode here, ‘Are people with autism and learning disabilities more likely to be made redundant during the COVID-19 pandemic?’.
A few weeks ago, I was sent a report by the National Autistic Society (NAS). The report, published in September 2020, discusses how this pandemic has affected people with autism and their families. David Anthony, Head of Research & Learning at BeyondAutism, thought that since I have already researched the impact COVID-19 has had on people with autism and employment, why not write a response to NAS’ report?
Has anything changed over the last 5 months for people with autism?
The NAS report was written specifically for the government to put in place support plans for people with autism, in case of another lockdown. In December 2020, the UK entered another period of lockdown.
As I read the report for the first time, my heart sunk. According to the report, people with autism are seven times more likely to be chronically lonely and six times more likely to have low life satisfaction. One person said in the article that the only person they see is the postman.
Children and the pandemic
The report found that the education and wellbeing of children with autism is also suffering:
- 68% of family members said their child with autism was anxious at the loss of routine
- 65% said their child couldn’t do online work
- Seven in ten parents said their child had difficulty understanding or completing schoolwork
- Around half said that their child’s academic progress was suffering
- Some schools have refused to allow young people with autism to come back even when schools have re-opened
- Others haven’t put in place the individual plans that children with autism need to cope with another massive change to their routines.
Another article published on 3rd February 2021 by Children and Young People Now stated that,
“The mental health and emotional wellbeing of autistic children is worsening amid the current coronavirus lockdown… More than half (56 per cent) said they feel stressed. A similar proportion (54 per cent) said they felt overwhelmed during the pandemic… The disruption to the routines of young autistic people’s lives amid the crisis is causing stress and additional mental health issues including eating disorders, the survey found.” This article shows that mental health services and support has not increased or improved since the NAS report was published.
Society has also become more intolerant towards people with autism. Feelings of stress and confusion regarding the new rules and restrictions are common. In the NAS report, people with autism said that buying food was their biggest difficulty during lockdown. “Long queues, unclear rules and a poor understanding of invisible disabilities among staff meant that shopping became a minefield of stress and anxiety.”
“Being thrown out of public places is a very real threat now that face coverings are mandatory in shops, public transport and other venues. Many people with autism struggle to wear a face covering, for example due to sensory overload. 70% told us that they were worried about this.”
The end of the NAS report listed their requests to the government, some of which included,
- Making sure autistic children and young people’s needs are specifically covered in the national SEND Review.
- No autistic child ends up wrongly held back from going back to school.
Unfortunately, the national SEND review was not published in 2020 due to COVID-19 delaying the publication. It will be published in 2021.
The government announced in January 2021 that they will now change The Mental Health Act. The changes mean autism and learning disabilities are no longer grounds for detention. This was a relief to many people with autism, learning disabilities and their families. Too many people with autism have been detained for their differences and difficulties, which aren’t related to mental health.
The government’s spending review in November 2020 stated that they will provide:
- Targeted support helping those with disabilities to get into work, such as through the Work and Health Programme
- Significant new funding in 2021-22 for new school places for children with special educational needs and disabilities
- Removing the seven day wait for Employment and Support Allowance
- Preventing unlawful discrimination for those sharing any of the nine ‘protected characteristics’ which includes disability
Although the steps laid out in the review are positive for disabled people, more needs to be done to specifically support people with autism.
Since the National Autistic Society’s report, there have been only small changes made by the government. Some of the changes and improvements are still unclear. As we are only in the beginning of 2021 there may be positive changes and improvements that will come later on this year, such as the SEND review. Everyone advocating for improvements should continue to urge the government to improve the lives of people with autism, through the global pandemic and beyond. I hope that the research which has been conducted so far will help government be able to respond better to such a crisis in the future, ensuring people with autism receive the support they need.