Autism and Lockdown- The ponderings of a Therapist

As Aspire Autism Consultancy launch their website during lockdown, I thought it would be valuable to share the thoughts of a Psychotherapist working with autistic people in these “unprecedented” times. 

On March 23rd when Boris Johnson announced his lockdown regulations there was much discussion on social media that staying indoors and not having contact with others was a dream come true for autistic people. Well was it and is it?

Clients initially had to adjust to remote working via video or telephone and for some this was challenging.  Speaking on the phone, not seeing the other and knowing when it was your turn to speak can be disconcerting.  

Video conferencing is a highly sensory experience, but on the other hand you are not required to look directly at another.  Once clients had decided which remote platform to use, the emerging issues of lockdown were different and diverse.  For some the relief of not having to go to work, engage with others making pointless conversations and arrive home exhausted, was an enormous relief.  

Clients were able to reflect on how much masking and camouflaging they do daily whilst at work and the consequence of this which causes increased anxiety, exhaustion, and meltdowns.  

Lockdown allowed for quiet contemplation of how they had been surviving in a neurotypical world and an understanding of increased mental health problems.

So, let’s look at the other side of lockdown, we were thrown into our own homes not able to go out; routines, activities, and contact with friends and family were stopped abruptly.  It was this abruptness that caused many clients to be extremely distressed and anxious.  Clients stated that they were given no warning, no opportunity to make changes and as we know autistic people really struggle with change.

Within the first couple of weeks clients presented with increased anxiety, low mood which was exacerbated by the uncertainty and unpredictability of the situation.  There was no consistency with the regulations and no familiar routines and so nothing to anchor to.

The whole concept of unpredictability and intolerance of uncertainty has always intrigued me with autistic people and led me to look at some interesting research, conducted by Sinha and Held (2015).

For some time I have pondered over why every experience is like it’s never happened before, “Every moment is a new moment!”.  This seems to be borne out by “an inability to make predictions” and to consider what has happened prior to the event to cause it and what might happen as a result.

When lockdown happened clients immediately felt overwhelmed because their routines and their need for the same structure was disrupted and so the predictable, controlled environment became chaotic and disorganised.

The research showed that the difficulty with not being able to manage unpredictability results in “the brain becoming constantly overwhelmed with analysing a seemingly chaotic environment” (Sinha and Held 2015). This has also led to an increase in sensory sensitivity and the fight, flight and freeze response due to loss of control within their lives.

As I write this, eleven weeks into lockdown and with lockdown regulations easing, many clients are now faced with new challenges and what the transitioning into the “new normal” brings with it.  “Do I want to return to life as it was or make changes to sustain the peace and tranquillity that has been found during this time?”, or  “Is time to put the mask back on and socially engage?”. 

Whichever it is, lockdown has certainly been both empowering and disabling for my clients, which has endorsed the individuality, diversity and difference of every autistic person.  

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