Face mask rules pose ‘huge challenge’ for autistic pupils

Polls shows parents worried over lack of clarity on how children will be supported

Samantha Holman says her son Simon (16) finds it difficult to wear a face mask

Samantha Holman says her son Simon (16) finds it difficult to wear a face mask

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The compulsory wearing of face coverings in secondary schools will make going back to education a major challenge for many young people with autism, a survey has found.

Almost half the respondents to a poll of almost 1,200 parents by the autism charity AsIAm said their children did not understand social distancing, while almost 40 per cent of children could not wear face coverings due to sensory problems.

Under new rules, secondary school students must wear a face covering where physical distancing of 2m is not possible. While autism is included in the criteria of exception for wearing face coverings in shops and elsewhere, there is no such exclusion in the rules for schools.

Overall, a total of one in 65 children in Irish schools have a diagnosis of autism. The majority of these students attend mainstream schools, while significant numbers attend special classes within these schools, or attend special schools.

These children typically thrive on structure and routine. However, the loss of this, together with school-based support, has had a significant impact.

Most parents say their children have experienced a greater number of overloads and meltdowns during the crisis. A majority are also anxious about the return to school and almost half reported not receiving support from their school during the lockdown.

Additional support

Just over three-quarters of families feel their child will need additional support in settling back into school. However, less than half believe they will receive it.

Adam Harris, AsIAm’s chief executive, said schools and families were worried about the lack of clarity around how students with additional needs would be effectively supported this year.

“Students may become more overwhelmed, experience increased anxiety or be confused or distressed by aspects of the new normal such as social distancing and face coverings,” he said.

Mr Harris said autistic children typically leave the classroom at certain times of the day to access one-to-one teaching or to integrate from their special class into a mainstream class.

However, it is unclear how or if these options will be available in each school this year due to rules that limit the mixing of students.

“We must ensure that the rights of autistic students to be integrated and included are upheld at all costs,” he said.

CASE STUDY: ‘IT’S LIKE HAVING AN INSECT BITE’

Samantha Holman has been preparing her son for the return to school for weeks now – but is getting more worried as the date looms nearer.

Simon (16) has a diagnosis of autism and also suffers from high levels of anxiety. Sensory issues mean that he finds it very difficult to wear a face mask for any extended period of time.

“He does want to wear it; he understands the reason for it is about protecting other people. But it causes real sensory difficulties for him. He can’t concentrate on anything else or communicate ... It’s like having a insect bite that’s very itchy,” she says.

Ms Holman is also worried about how Simon will cope with rules around physical distancing and limited access to supports. If these were normal times, he would switch between his mainstream class and a smaller special class during the day.

But it is unclear if he will be able to do this under new rules aimed at limiting the mixing of students between different groups.

She feels the one-size-fits-all rules around the return to school do not take enough account of the needs of more vulnerable pupils.

“The Government policy is all around getting all children back into school building by the start of September. It’s not focusing on what’s best for children educationally,” she says. “This will heighten the level of anxiety among children with additional needs and make it much more difficult to support them.”

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