I’m worried about the unforeseen impact of school closures on this generation – especially for my autistic child

This is a huge social experiment. And it is a leap into the unknown for all families, not just those with additional needs

Becky Kleanthous
Monday 20 April 2020 10:24 BST
Education Secretary: I can't give you a date for when schools will re-open

"When is it my turn to speak?" my six-year-old grumbles as her friend chatters away on Zoom. She’s not listening to a word he’s saying. The screen briefly blacks out, showing the words "poor connection", and I nod silently in agreement.

If these kids were together actually together they’d be building something, running in a pack, or collaborating in imaginary worlds. Then maybe after a while, Sam* would try to change one rule too many and Willow would stop giggling and begin to cry and refuse to play anymore because she’s autistic and flexibility is… well, it’s particularly difficult.

Her biggest challenges come about in groups and as hard as she finds them (and as painful as it is for me to witness a meltdown, or to hear one relayed in forensic detail by scout leaders and party hosts), each situation provides essential practice to help Willow negotiate her way through this confusing world, with all its invisible rules and hidden nuances. These struggles are part of an information-gathering process which will ultimately benefit her.

And so, I'm worried about the lockdown.

Willow is an only child. I kept her toddlerhood keenly packed with playgroups, museums, and song circles. Her pre-school years were populated with mornings at nursery, playdates and dance groups. And more recently, as a primary school pupil, she’s always skipped in happily, getting swept up by her grinning gaggle along the way. Every week, her best friend, Anouk, comes over for dinner and a play. Willow goes to swimming class and does the Junior Parkrun. Our sociable lifestyle very deliberately leaves little opportunity for those skills to atrophy.

But schools have been closed for four weeks now, with playdates banned under lockdown. Many of Willow’s neurotypical friends are torn up about the abrupt, unceremonious end to their school and social lives, some too distressed to even see their friends on video chat.

Willow, however, seems fine. She has completely accepted the lockdown (she appreciates the logic of it), and she’s never had a problem with big changes, only small ones. Moving house, for example, was an adventure. But I’ll never forget the way she screamed blue murder on a school trip when it turned out that she’d only be grating the apple for mince pies, not making the pastry and assembling all the fillings as she had expected.

I should be relieved that she’s coping well. And I am… In the short term, anyway. I’m glad she’s not stressed about school closures, and it’s nice to give her a little taste of autistic freedom: a holiday from the effort of fitting into other people’s incomprehensible routines and methods and mysteries for a while.

But it feels like the calm before the storm. I’m unsettled by how easily she’s getting on with just a ridiculous dog and an entourage of Pokémon for company. I’m scared that when schools reopen – whenever that may be – it will feel 10 times harder when a friend changes the rules of a game; 10 times harder when a school trip disappoints; 10 times harder when someone accidentally nudges her pencil at scouts. I feel tense every time I wonder just how far back all this will set us.

Autism isn’t a one-size-fits-all condition, and while Willow potters about contentedly at home, many other autistic children will be struggling wildly with their dramatic change in routine. It will be doubly hard for those families, as once they’ve finally settled into a new normal, life will be upended again once the lockdown is lifted. Elsewhere, for school refusers, every week that passes under lockdown will tie an extra knot in the stomach at the thought of returning. For children suffering neglect or abuse, it’s too heartbreaking to fathom what life might look like.

Lockdown: Keir Starmer suggests the closures of schools are worsening inequalities between children

This is a huge social experiment. It’s a leap into the unknown for all families, not just those with additional needs. And while there are daily reports on the need to rigorously test potential vaccines for Covid-19, I can’t help but wonder what the long-term effects of the lockdown will be for this generation of children. Unlike a jab, isolating young people hasn’t been subject to testing, to modelling, to mitigation. These are formative years filled with irreplaceable opportunities. Being together is how children learn how to be part of a community, to feel loved and accepted.

Before I had my daughter, I was an English teacher. I’m not worried about academia though. You can press pause on maths and literacy and if everyone stops all at once, nobody falls behind. But you can’t press pause on social and emotional development; it will gallop on regardless, reacting to the circumstances at hand.

I just hope that the kids can keep up.

* all names are pseudonyms

Becky Kleanthous writes about language, education, family and feminism. She can be found at SheSellsSentences.com

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