Autism, lockdown and me: 'How COVID-19 restrictions have affected my mental health'

Autism, lockdown and me: 'How COVID-19 restrictions have affected my mental health'

Autism charity Daisy Chain has seen a surge in demand during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The organisation explains that "little is understood" when it comes to how lockdown restrictions impact autism symptoms.

Georgina Spray, 21, who has the condition, tells me that coronavirus has made her world "more unpredictable" which has resulted in her suffering with terrible anxiety.

"It’s like we’re at war with an invisible enemy," she says. "We don’t know where it is lurking and when it might get us. I try to stay at home as much as possible, but when I do go out I am very anxious."

Autism Georgina was diagnosed with autism at the age of 16 (Credit: Supplied)

The face mask issue

One thing that Georgina struggles with – like many other autistic people – is wearing a mask. "When I wear a mask my anxiety increases," she explains. "I find shops unpleasant anyway with the sensory experience that comes with it. The noises, bright lights and strong smells. Wearing a mask seems to heighten my sensory problems and make shops even more unpleasant."

READ MORE: Long Covid leaves writer unable to read or spell

Per guidelines, you are "exempt" if you are unable to put on a mask due to an illness, impairment or disability. You also don't have to wear one if it would cause you "severe distress". Although Georgina is "exempt" from wearing a mask due to her autism, she continues to wear one as she fears she will be called out for not doing so.

"I’ve seen videos of people getting abuse from not wearing a mask," she continues. "For me, confrontation would be more horrible than the feeling of wearing a mask."

Georgina then points out that she wouldn't be able to prove her diagnosis. "I don’t carry that information around with me," she adds. "I wouldn't want to show it to a stranger in a shop anyway."

Autism Georgina Spray has found that lockdown has aggravated her symptoms (Credit: Supplied)

Social distancing and autism

Another challenge Georgina has had to contend with over the course of the pandemic is social distancing. As an autistic person, she explains she finds it difficult to picture distances, so working out how far two metres is is difficult.

READ MORE: Antidepressants saved my life during lockdown – the stigma needs to end

While she has found social distancing markers in supermarkets or on the streets helpful, she adds, "I then get very frustrated when people just ignore them and stand where they want to."

She continues: "People can’t truly understand what it is like to have a disability if they haven’t lived it themselves. Having a hidden disability, like autism, can be very disabling, mainly because people can’t see it and sometimes they don’t believe it’s real.

"Most autistic people have had to follow the same advice as everyone else and haven’t been singled out for being disabled. We want the world to be a more inclusive place so I think if autistic people and parents or carers had different rules to follow than everyone else it might just complicate things even further."

coronavirus A woman wearing a face mask to protect against the spread of Covid (Credit: PA)

Autism amid the coronavirus pandemic

Aware of how lockdown restrictions have impacted those with autism, the charity Daisy Chain set up a crisis line last year. By July, it had received over a 1,000 calls from 800 families.

Family support manager at Daisy Chain, April Butterworth, tells me: "The lockdown was thrust upon us and it was really difficult with all the changes. The whole world fell into panic.

"That level of anxiety is how an autistic person can feel every day. Over time, these people have built up routines around not leaving the house, around not socialising,"

"It's going to be another battle to get them to go back to normality. I think there'll be a number of mental health issues that will be highlighted by this."