Prolonged periods of isolation are known to generate feelings of depression and have been widely reported as arising from this current crisis. However, mental health problems are particularly known to affect neurodiverse people, with Autistica estimating that pre-lockdown over 50% of autistic adults have had depression, and research also suggests a higher than average susceptibility for people with learning disabilities.

This said multiple organisations concerned with the wellbeing of neurodiverse people or those with learning disabilities, and many neurodiverse people themselves, have signalled that during lockdown overall their experiences have been complex. Many have struggled with restrictions, social distancing, and loss of routine. But others welcomed new modes of contact, education, delivery, employment, and access to entertainment and culture.

Interestingly these positives arguably demonstrate a previous societal inflexibility, suggesting that public/private spaces and services were previously poorly accessible, or unsuitable to some neurodiverse people’s needs – and indicative of a mostly overlooked inequality.

Evidence from lockdown

During lockdown mental health stats from multiple organisations concerning young neurodiverse people depict conflictual trends. In September the annual report for the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition reported a significant decline in the mental health for neurotypical children, while at the same time containing anecdotal evidence of an improvement for some neurodiverse children.

Embracing Complexity collaborated those findings in a report for the Education Select Committee and said that lockdown had facilitated for many an improvement both in terms of their mental health and behaviour – and pointed to the cancellation of exams as being a potential reason behind that.

Although a Mencap survey publish in August found that the majority of those caring for young people with learning disabilities responded that there had been an decline in their loved ones mental health. This was supported by the Disabled Children’s Partnership who in May said that research collected from 4000 families showed that 71% of disabled children had experienced a mental health decline.

On the other hand that study also found that for many there had been a significant improvement in 10% of the disabled children’s mental health surveyed – the cause of this reduction being attributed to learning from home, the slower pace in life, video and online appointments, and the increased flexibility of childcare from caregivers being able to work from home.

Additionally Ghent University published a study in August, and the National Autistic Society in September, that both emphasised the mental health challenges posed for autistic adults during lockdown – such as anxiety over shopping, inability to wear masks, difficulties of learning from home, social contact and distancing, and loss of routine. However, Ghent University also recorded positive experiences detailing the lack of obligatory parties and appointments, spontaneous visits, and strangers getting too close.

A possible explanation for the difference of the findings in the studies above, could be the necessary support needed for an individual young person, the nature of that neurodiversity or learning disability, and the time the study was conducted.

‘Normal was not working for everyone’

What is fundamentally consistent throughout all these studies is that the status quo pre-lockdown wasn’t working for everyone, even if different studies recorded either an increased or decreased disparity.

Following that point, this year for many has felt like a lifetime, but before 2020 many have argued that the education system, employment, healthcare, and access to culture have not always suited the idiosyncratic needs of many neurodiverse people or people with learning disabilities.

This begs the question what can we learn from the positive experiences of lockdown? So that employers, the Government, organisations, and society at large can adapt to provide greater participation from these currently marginalised groups.

Recently Autistica started that discussion with the NHS, the Government and other organisations by releasing a briefing arguing the ‘normal wasn’t working for everyone’. And recommending that an evaluation should be made as to whether temporary changes made during lockdown could direct future policy – a response to that briefing from those involved is yet to be finalised.

Anecdotal evidence collected from Reddit users with autism and ADHD, heavily carried the theme that online classrooms, and remote working, were a largely positive experience. And for some there was a sense of vindication – that things can be done differently. With users predominately emphasising positive experiences from:

  •  Being able to learn in a familiar environment
  • Not feeling pressured into vocal interactions (either at work, socialising, or in online lessons)
  • Recorded lessons allowing students to work at their own pace
  • Social distancing (and wearing a mask)
  • The flexibility of remote working.

Similarly looking to create a more inclusive education system, Michael Ryan, a counsellor who works with neurodiverse people, suggested that what we could learn from lockdown is that schools have the ability to fully or partially provide remote access to lessons – and therefore improve access to education for many neurodiverse students.

He explained that: “The student teacher ratio is too large – smaller groups generally suit neurodiverse students. [Also] the sensory issues of schools are difficult – too noisy, too smelly, wrong lighting… All schooling could be delivered through a combination of online and in-schools methods with private webcams in classrooms.”

Before lockdown many cinemas ran sit in autism friendly screenings, but access to entertainment could be further expanded, as responders to a Austistica review have argued, as well-received live events have been viewed virtually this year – hopefully they said this will continue into the future as an option.

Additionally, ‘working from home when possible’ has be largely successful, therefore many who responded to the Austistica review said that in a potential post-Covid world a greater flexibility from employers could be shown to neurodiverse people. And as research has shown also for some carers of people with a learning disability.

Finally, as the research above suggests a movement of therapy services to online platforms might also be beneficial for many people with learning disabilities or autism – although heavily depending on the individual.

What we can gather so far, is that a discussion is starting to be stimulated about how services are provided, and how neurodiverse people can enjoy greater access to the wider community – remote access to education, employment, therapy, and live events have been demonstrated to be possible, it now takes the will to continue these services.

This moment is an opportunity for change, but it remains to be seen if something positive can germinate out of an otherwise throwaway year for some of the most marginalised people.