The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented phenomenon that has interrupted the normal course of daily life. In Argentina, the population had to suddenly adapt to indefinite lockdown and isolation as of 20 March. This situation has posed challenges in the fields of education, health, and family life, which are especially complex when dealing with people with special needs.
The group of individuals with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) is particularly relevant in this respect. ASD is a condition that affects early development, impacting communication and socialization, behaviour, and sensory processing. In Argentina, it is estimated that 300,000 people have ASD.
A typical symptom of people with ASD is repetitive behaviour patterns, meaning they need to adhere to structured routines, which provide them with security and emotional well-being. The mandatory quarantine has brought about drastic changes to their daily schedules, as well as restrictions to the locations in which they can carry out their everyday activities. This places great demands on people with an autistic condition, who must respond to a novel situation that requires them to modify their routines, increasing their levels of stress and anxiety.
It is important to emphasize that autism is a spectrum. In other words, each person with ASD manifests their symptoms differently, with a personal profile of abilities and difficulties. Added to this is the complexity and diversity of each family that has a member with ASD. As a result, people’s experiences of compulsory isolation are all different.
Autism Awareness Day was held on 2 April. In this context, and taking into account the current problems posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions such as the Programa Argentino para Niños, Adolescentes y Adultos con Condiciones del Espectro Autista [Argentine Programme for Children, Adolescents and Adults with Autistic Spectrum Conditions – PANAACEA] and the Fundación Brincar por un Autismo Feliz [Brincar Foundation] have stressed the importance of providing new tools for the containment and support of individuals with ASD and their families during the lockdown. Meanwhile, the media raised awareness of the issue by publishing interviews with experts and stories of parents who have children with autism.
Considering the context of the health emergency, it is important to create new routines at home so that people with ASD can make use of clear and organized frameworks, supported by visual material, to mitigate the effects of uncertainty arising from the quarantine. It is also essential that they understand current events based on simple and specific explanations. Both parents and caregivers should communicate in as calm a manner as possible so that people with ASD can experience peace of mind. Engaging in educational and creative activities is an effective stimulation tool. These interventions are enhanced when health professionals and school staff work together to monitor, guide and support each family and individual with ASD through remote consultations and online material.
In addition, people with an autistic condition have a need for regular therapeutic outings as confinement causes them acute distress and agitation. Taking a walk outside accompanied by a carer helps to reduce anxiety levels and allows for self-regulation.
This requirement should be supported by public health policy. In Argentina, on 11 April a paragraph was included in Decree 297/2020 on Preventive and Compulsory Social Insulationrelating to the movement of persons with disabilities, including those with an autistic spectrum condition. This paragraph stipulates that they are able to move freely in a radius of 500 metres around their home, three days a week, with a companion.
Measures taken by other governments around the globe are varied in character. In Latin America, countries such as Colombia or Uruguay implemented a mandatory quarantine without including an exception for individuals with ASD. Conversely, in Chile, where compulsory isolation only applies in some regions, from the outset it was possible to seek permission for free movement for two hours a day with a companion. In Peru, 15-minute walks with a companion were permitted as of 1 April, two weeks after the restrictive isolation measures were introduced. As for the northern hemisphere, the United States has chosen not to prohibit the free movement of citizens in general. The United Kingdom introduced a set of restrictions on movement on 26 March, while allowing all citizens to leave their homes once a day for exercise. However, on 14 April an exception was included for people with ASD and other learning-related conditions, removing any formal restrictions on their movements. In the case of Spain, the state of emergency and compulsory isolation was declared on 14 March. On 20 March, an exception was issued for persons with disabilities and behavioural disorders, including those on the autistic spectrum, allowing them to move freely.
On the basis of the above, it is essential that there is joint action by families, health and education professionals and the government to promote the comprehensive well-being of people with ASD. Support and containment throughout the isolation phase provide the resources for each individual with ASD to get through this critical period. The COVID-19 pandemic represents challenges for all—and support for those groups that suffer even more in this situation must be magnified.