Here are 3 lessons Covid taught us about learners with autism

25 Apr 2021, 6:00

Transition from school to college in particular needs to be improved for students with autism, writes Jeannie Christina

Many of our learners have struggled during the pandemic, and for those with autism, this has been a particularly challenging time.

Since Covid struck many of my autistic learners have experienced increased anxieties, stresses and worry about social interaction, travelling and communicating.

Learners with autism focus on routines and rituals, and when that’s disrupted, their sense of support is obliterated too. Lockdown has presented many difficulties that has impacted on their independence and confidence.

So, there’s been an increase in mental health difficulties for many students, but for those with autism it’s been that much more prevalent.

‘Usual worries exacerbated’

Not having advance notice of the many changes that have come in has affected them, so that the world at the moment has become like an alien environment.

“Simple” things like joining a class remotely, which most learners won’t ever have done before, mean they have to adapt and that can be very difficult.

Some learners with autism chose to keep coming into college, because we have always stayed open for vulnerable students.

Then it’s about being aware of how they might be feeling. The way I describe it to colleagues is: imagine they are arriving in college with a big backpack on their back.

In the backpack are lots of worries, like “will my class be running on time?”, “will I be okay today?”, “will I get the virus?”.

It’s about understanding their usual worries may all be exacerbated, and what we can do to alleviate some of those concerns and anxieties.

I’m really proud of what our college has done to support our learners with autism. There’s also a lot we can learn from this period.

‘Communicating at the right time’

Personal contact with our learners with autism and their families has become more important than ever.

Our welfare and student services team ask what’s going well and what the learner would find most helpful.

We say “tell us what works for you”, rather than expecting them to do things around us.

We’ve shown learners step-by-step how to join classes online, and helped them develop essential IT skills, so they are comfortable with this before it happens.

It’s taught us that if there was a fourth lockdown or another pandemic in the future, super close communication with learners and their families is absolutely key.

You need to know exactly when the communication is needed and how it’s needed.

That includes even before learners with additional needs come to college.

‘Smoother transition needed’

We need a bigger focus on better communication from schools about the students’ needs, their Education Health and Care plan, and what support has worked for them previously.

Better communication around transition is the biggest lesson from lockdown.

It’s about having those early conversations with the school or previous provider. Have they passed over everything you need to ensure their learner journey gets off to a successful start?

It’s about having those early conversations with the school or previous provider

That’s massively important for any student but especially those with autism. They should be able to do trips to the campus so they know what to expect before they arrive.

Sometimes they arrive and we don’t even know they’ve got an autism diagnosis until they tell us, because the school has not provided that information. That means it could be six to eight weeks before they get right support.

‘Resources too tight’

We also need better funding. We know that college funding hasn’t been increased for many years, which has a huge knock-on impact on our ability to provide what learners need. It must be increased.

There are more than 8,000 people in Birmingham with autism or an autism spectrum disorder. Across the UK, one in 100 people have an autism diagnosis.

On our college campus alone, there are about 350 learners with an additional need, of which about 115 have an autism diagnosis.

What we want is for them not to be faced with further difficulties, but for this part of them to be their superpower.

If we focus on transition, communication, and better funding, they have a strong chance of believing they have the potential to succeed.

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