The Pandemic’s Effect On Autistic Students Still Being Felt

by Rylee Byers

The pandemic affected and is still affecting everyone.

Between isolation and illness, the past few years have meant constant change. However, one part of the population was impacted in a more significant way. Neurodivergent children, specifically, experienced the pandemic in a way that is difficult for many of us to understand.

“With autistic kids, anytime you have a change, it completely throws off everything,” Pam Vance, a retired special education teacher, said.

Vance taught special education students from kindergarten through second grade. One of the key groups of students she worked with were students with an autism spectrum disorder. Vance worked with students with level three autism, which is the most severe form of the condition.

“They [autistic students] are used to consistency and so, all of a sudden, they didn’t understand why they weren’t coming to school anymore,” Vance said. “That was probably my first fear, that it would severely throw off their ability to adapt because it was a change.”

Vance said it was even more difficult for students who had parents who had to work during the pandemic because many of them ended up in daycare situations. She said that caused a decrease in progress because the students weren’t able to get the one-on-one specialty attention they required.

“People assumed it was a behavioral issue and not necessarily related to mental health. I think that we, in general, don’t look at behaviors as mental health issues, we tend to look at them as simply just behaviors. And what I know is that there’s a need behind every behavior and with COVID there were a lot of needs not being met.” Vance said.

For example, Vance said one of her students came out of the pandemic isolation not able to complete normal class work that they were able to do before the pandemic. After working with the student Vance discovered the problem was in the approach. The student was struggling, not with the activity, but with the belief they had to perform a task perfectly.

“It wasn’t a behavior, it was that struggle with, I’m not going to be perfect and I’m not going to be loved.”

Vance said mental health is often the motive behind actions or reactions.

“There’s always a need or a reason behind probably every emotion. And with kids, that’s especially interesting, because they don’t know how to tell you, a lot of the time, what their need is. And you have to start with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” Vance said.

“So many of them struggle with anxiety. They get paranoid over germs and wash their hands 1000 times, not that that was a bad thing, but the pandemic scared them into a lot of anxiety. Am I gonna get COVID? Is my mom going to get COVID? Is my mom going to die? And for little kids, that’s it. Anxiety over all things.”

When the pandemic hit, students went from in-person learning to online. Pushing students into even more of a virtual world forced all interactions into the world of social media. This came with both positive and negative outcomes.

“You get to connect with [old friends]on social media, and you get to know them. There’s some encouragement; ways to encourage friends and good information that you can do on social media. There’s also creativity. It’s addicting, no doubt about it.” Vance said.

However, overuse of social media comes with negative consequences.

“What a lot of kids have done is have their identity tied up with what they look like on social media and that’s true with adults as well,” Vance said. “It’s the positive and the negative, and you may run into the negative because social media and the internet are Pandora’s Box.”

Not all of the changes from the pandemic were bad. Vance said there were negatives, but also positives. The challenge for neurodivergent students was to find balance amid the chaos through whatever coping mechanisms were available.

“Some of my older kids said how they slept until noon and didn’t get any work done. A lot of kids started new hobbies. One girl started learning how to sew and decided, that’s what she would do during the pandemic. Another girl started learning how to cook. One boy that I had, learned to play golf on YouTube and practiced in his house.” 

Vance said harnessing creativity was one of the most effective coping mechanisms for her students. Every student is different, just like every adult is different. The key to surviving is to focus on not just physical health, but also mental health.

“When the pandemic hit, no matter what your personality was, it changed your world. It knocked it upside down.”

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