COMMENT

Maria Dollard: Thoughts on life during Covid -19 for those on the Autistic Spectrum

Kilkenny councillor shares her thoughts on loss of routine and increased anxiety

Maria Dollard

Reporter:

Maria Dollard

KILKENNY

Cllr Maria Dollard pictured with her daughter Lucy

Kilkenny’s new Green Party councillor Maria Dollard is both a mother of a young adult on the autistic spectrum and a trainer with KITE, Kilkenny Initiative for Training and Education, an outreach support for adults with a diagnosis of Autism Spectrum (ASD).

Here, she shares her personal experience of how the Covid-19 pandemic has impacted on the lives of people with ASD in Kilkenny.

“The first thing is to recognise how every person is different. Lucy, our daughter, understood about viruses and bacteria from a young age and grasped the seriousness of Covid early on but other people may not,” she says.

According to Maria, however, there is one thing that most people with ASD do have in common — an appreciation of routine. As with everything, Covid-19 changed the routine for people practically overnight.

“When we first discussed the pandemic with our groups in work, the overwhelming concern was that they would lose their routine. Loss of routine often leads to a heightening of anxiety” she says.

People with ASD often relate to objects of reference, that is something that signifies a particular activity. An example might be a meditation video that signifies the start of a class on stress management.

“I know parents are finding inventive ways to introduce routine at home. Many teachers in primary schools in Kilkenny, for example, are making creative and fun videos for their pupils.

“Parents of children with ASD are using these as a trigger to start some school work. For many with ASD, it doesn’t matter that it is the same video every day, in fact that is a bonus. The video acts as an object of reference, triggering an understanding of what to expect next.”
At home, Lucy has a visual timetable on the wall and she refers to that several times a day: “So do I” laughs Maria.

“As I work fulltime and between that and my work as a councillor, I could easily forget her zoom meetings!”
Maria draws attention to the many excellent resources available online including visual timetable templates ( for example, autism.ie and ncse.ie ).

She is at pains to point out the great work that many services continue to provide remotely, while others offering residential care are working flat out to keep both residents and staff safe and well.
She quotes the example of the Kingsriver Community in Ennisnag: “Kingsriver have organised zoom training three times every day and Lucy really looks forward to them,” she says.

“The topic can be anything from Liam’s cookery class to a jokes sessions to Noreen’s yoga. Noreen uses the phrase ‘I am safe, I am home’ and Lucy repeats this to herself as an aid to staying calm.”
Movement, Maria explains, is hugely important for a person with Autism Spectrum.

“It is important for all of us; when our bodies are moving in space it helps to regulate our sensory system but is often of greater importance to a person with ASD.,” she says.

“We are lucky as a family we have a garden but Kilkenny also has the beautiful Castle Park and many trails and woodlands – if these are within your advised radius make good use of them but of course respect social distance.”

Social distancing can be a difficult concept to grasp.

“Two metres can be hard to map out in your mind and I always remind Lucy when we see people walking towards us. Sometimes she will exaggerate the distance as she is anxious not to catch Covid.”

Increased anxiety is a major challenge during COVID. Many people with ASD experience anxiety, especially when their routine is broken.

“The nonstop media coverage on every channel and platform adds to the anxiety for all of us”, says Maria .

“Lucy listens more than she speaks, taking it all in. I think online video and training platforms are really important during the restrictions but we must also allow for turning off our devices, taking a rest from social media and concentrating on the small and simple things we can do in our own homes like planting seeds or identifying birds,” she says.

Maria, like many, is looking to the future.

“I was really interested to read that as restrictions were lifting in Italy, beaches that remained closed to everyone else were accessible to people with ASD and their family or carers. I really hope that as the phased reopening of our country is planned, the needs of those with ASD and other atypical development or disabilities are understood and prioritised.”

Maria has welcomed the publication of new HSE resource, available online, for carers of people with additional needs. It gives a broad overview of all of the things that a person with additional learning needs, their carers and families need to consider.