Two in three children with autism suffered a decline in skills and abilities because of Covid-related school closures.
Anxiety levels also rose for many of these young people and was the biggest cause of concern for many parents.
New Covid-related behaviours, such as refusing to leave the family home, a new fear of death, excessive handwashing and hygiene routines, and an obsession with news coverage of the pandemic were common.
The strain of the Covid restrictions on behaviour, skills and abilities emerge in research from Dublin City University (DCU) which surveyed 85 parents and 98 children aged 18 and under.
The study covered their experiences during the period September 2020 to February 2021, which included the return to school last autumn after the first lockdown, and the second period of school closures.
The findings are part of an ongoing investigation led by Dr Sinéad Smyth of DCU’s School of Psychology exploring the current and long-term impacts of Covid-related restrictions on children with autism and their families.
Anxiety was the most prevalent issue raised by half of all parents surveyed. Issues around routine and sleep were raised by more than one-third of participants while emotional regulation was a problem in 31pc of children.
“Difficulty in regulating emotion increased for many children. For some, this meant increases in behaviours like acting out physically toward others or the environment as well as engaging in self-injury,” said Dr Smyth.
While an overall decline in skills and abilities was reported for 63pc of children, improvements in skills and abilities were reported in 30pc.
Dr Smyth said she was keen to acknowledge an increase in skills in nearly 30pc of children, particularly in relation to daily living routines and behaviour, which may be attributed to the extra time spent at home.
“However positive this is, a decline in skills was reported by the majority,” she added.
The most prevalent issues or challenges for children revolved around routine and sleep and emotional regulation. Children also faced an increased difficulty in understanding and adhering to social distancing and public health guidelines. There was a deterioration in anxiety levels in 13pc of children. Daily living skills and toileting declined in about 21pc of children, and routine and sleep problems were observed in about 23pc.
This is the second report from the study – the first followed the early days of the pandemic in Spring 2020 when schools closed and did not reopen until September 2020.
Dr Smyth said the return to school in September 2020 was “bound to be tricky for children with autism and their families but was really well managed by the schools”.
She said one third of children found that the preparations made the return smoother than in other academic years despite the length of time out of that routine.
With schools closed again for an extended period after Christmas, these children did not start returning to the classroom until mid-February.
Dr Smyth said the impacts of the first and second school closures could be seen in the behaviours of children including more refusing to go to school once it reopened as well as declines in skills during the closures.
“We also know that this has impacted on parents. Parenting stress can generally be higher in parents of autistic children relative to other parent groups and this was seen in our respondents, the majority of whom – 94pc – were mothers.”