The mental health and emotional wellbeing of autistic children is worsening amid the current coronavirus lockdown, a survey has revealed.

Three quarters of more than 2,000 autistic children and their parents surveyed said they feel more anxious since the health crisis and think they will need ongoing mental health support.

More than half (56 per cent) said they feel stressed. A similar proportion (54 per cent) said they felt overwhelmed during the pandemic, according to the survey by the charity Ambitious about Autism.

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.

“Medical services have been cancelled, routines lost, there are things we can’t do and people we can’t see anymore,” said one respondent.

“For me this has caused trouble with an eating disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder- almost agoraphobia.” 

Social distancing measures, especially for those who have an exemption from wearing a facemask, are also causing concern.

One autistic young person told the charity: “The virus situation has caused a lot of extra anxiety, particularly with the face masks. It’s extremely difficult to go to shops because even though (you’re) exempt, you feel people will judge and it is very uncomfortable.”

Lack of access to support services is another key concern. Before the pandemic almost six out of ten (58 per cent) young people with autism were receiving specialist support and a fifth were supported with their mental health.

However, the majority (80 per cent) said this stopped or reduced during the first lockdown, from March to June 2020. During this time two thirds said they received no support.

Ambitious about Autism warns that lack of access to support can have “devastating consequences”, including suicide attempts by young people.

One parent surveyed described how her 11-year old autistic daughter attempted suicide twice in May last year. The parent said: “She spent nine weeks in a general hospital because there was nowhere else to go. Specialist units were closed due to Covid-19.”

Online therapy is an effective alternative to face-to-face support, the survey found.

“Being able to have therapy via Zoom or other online support services will help,” said one young respondent.

The charity’s chief executive Jolanta Lassota said the impact of the pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of austitic children is “disastrous”.

“Routine, structure and predictability – so crucial in helping autistic children manage an often-challenging world, have all been stripped away,” she said. 

“Meanwhile, disruption to vital support in education and access to mental health services has caused an increase in mental health problems and anxiety.  

“The setbacks faced by autistic young people, already among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in our society, will have repercussions for years to come, affecting their health, wellbeing, happiness and ambitions for the future. 

“Decision-makers must take action to protect them and ensure their needs are at the heart of the recovery.” 

A coalition of autism charities, including the National Autistic Society and Ambitious about Autism is calling on the government to take urgent action to protect autistic people and their families during the pandemic. Recommendations include prioritising special school staff for vaccination.

A survey of special educational needs coordinators (SENCOs), published last month, found that almost three quarters (72 per cent) felt their schools had experienced challenges in providing support to children with education, health and care plans (EHCP) during lockdown.

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