While Melbourne's Stage 4 lockdown may present hardships for anyone, there are concerns that the tough restrictions may exacerbate difficulties and disadvantages among people with autism spectrum disorder, particularly children.
Single mother Christina Stamatopoulou says she is “extremely overwhelmed” by the impact of Melbourne's Stage 4 restriction on her 15-year-old autistic son. She says not being able to attend school is the most difficult part for her son.
“He misses all the interaction with the teachers and his classmates; he misses his routine, which is so important for someone with autism," she says.
Under the current restrictions in metropolitan Melbourne, all students have moved to online learning, except for those considered vulnerable or children of permitted workers. The same applies to special schools and consultations with specialists are now happening through telehealth.
- Amaze, the peak body for people with autism and their carers in Victoria, says Stage 4 restrictions are a particularly tough time for children with autism and their families
- Many parents and children are experiencing difficulties in the absence of face-to-face support services, with young children finding it difficult to cope with online instructions
- There are some welcome exceptions for people with autism but Amaze wants access to school prioritised for autistic children post-Stage 4 lockdown
Fiona Sharkie is the CEO of Amaze, the peak body for autistic people and their carers in Victoria. She says the disruptions to schooling during Term 2 magnified pre-existing disadvantages faced by autistic students – who already experience poor schooling outcomes with around a third achieving Year 10 or less.
Ms Sharkie says while Stage 4 restrictions mean fast-changing requirements, which are difficult for anyone to keep up with, it’s a particularly tough time for autistic students and their families.
She lists some specific concerns about autistic children.
"Loss of school routine, challenges in accessing tailored support, learning adjustments, falling behind, loss of connection with teachers, teacher aides and peers; and escalating anxiety and other mental health challenges are all huge and live issues."
Students require a special permit to access on-site school under the current restrictions. But even when this permit is granted, students attend school in a different setting. Most special schools are only providing essential care to eligible children, with one–on–one therapy sessions now suspended.
Support plans are only available online via telehealth. This is particularly difficult for non-verbal and young children with autism who cannot communicate well enough to receive help online.
This is something that Donna Stolzenberg's 11-year-old autistic son is also struggling with.
“He isn't seeing the therapists in person and doesn’t like interacting with them on a screen. It’s been really hard to engage him,” she told SBS Greek.
She says her son's online lessons had to be shortened as his attention span is much shorter when it comes to online activities.
“We have to prepare him for about half an hour beforehand and get him to work in short five minute blocks. He doesn’t cope with much more than that.”
It’s equally difficult for Christina Stamatopoulou's 15-year-old son who has to stay indoors due to the restrictions.
"With online lessons, he needs my help, but I am a parent, I cannot replace the role of a teacher. I need to be everything, the mother, the teacher and the jester to a 15-year-old with autism during the lockdown.
"It’s hard. It’s really very hard."
Amaze CEO Fiona Sharkie points out that a common theme has been that many autistic students are struggling to see their parents in the role of their teacher – which can create family tension.
Many children on the autism spectrum function through a system of positive reinforcement wherein they get rewarded for good behaviour through their favourite activity. But under the current circumstances, with limited access to treatment, many with autism find it difficult to adjust, including Ms Stolzenberg's son who is at risk of self-harm.
"For his rewards for good behaviour and doing good work, we’re to visit his favourite parks and favourite ATM’s, but most of them are more than 5km away, which means he can’t go there. This upsets him greatly because he doesn’t understand. It’s also difficult because these places being rewards were his ‘currency’; so we could use them to bargain with him. Now we find it really hard to motivate him," says Donna.
But these concerns aren't limited to just autistic children.
"Autistic adults are also having similar struggles due to changes of routine, challenges in accessing support services, and accessing community – all of which contribute to worsening mental health and wellbeing," Amaze CEO Fiona Sharkie says.
She notes some welcome exceptions allowed for autistic individuals during Stage 4 lockdown, including exemption from the requirement to wear a facemask that's helping those with relevant sensory sensitivities, communication issues, intellectual disability or mental health concerns.
There are also compassionate exceptions to the stay at home directions provide important flexibility, allowing a relative or friend from another household to visit to provide assistance, and being able to leave home at any time to escape harm or risk of harm, including self-harm.
Finally, once the peak passes and infection numbers decline, Ms Sharkie wants to see the return to on-site learning for autistic students prioritised.
"Going forward, action on the long-awaited Autism Education Plan (promised by the Vic Gov in late 2017) is needed – underpinned by ambitious targets to lift educational outcomes for autistic students," she says.
"Implementing recommendations from Victoria’s Program for Students with Disability Review including a new funding and support model, inclusion measures, behaviour support and strengthened staff capacity is also needed."
Metropolitan Melbourne residents are subject to Stage 4 restrictions and must comply with a curfew between the hours of 8pm and 5am.
During the curfew, people in Melbourne can only leave their house for work, and essential health, care or safety reasons. Between 5am and 8pm, people in Melbourne can leave the home for exercise, to shop for necessary goods and services, for work, for health care, or to care for a sick or elderly relative.
All Victorians must wear a face covering when they leave home, no matter where they live.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.
If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, stay home and arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.
News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.