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How the coronavirus pandemic can impact autism and pre-existing mental health impairments

Thinking back to new years eve of 2019 we all would have held hopes and aspirations for the year ahead of us, 2020. Little did we know, that just around the corner the whole world would have felt the impact of the pandemic of covid_19, the coronavirus, and be forced to adapt to lockdown conditions. Understandably, our mental health has been tested from this experience due to many factors such as job losses, housing and accommodation changes and loss. Financial difficulties, changes and restrictions of working conditions, health anxiety and fear of losing loved ones, elderly and family members especially if they have preexisting health conditions. It would be understandable if people suffered an increase in depression, suicidal thoughts, paranoia, anger and agoraphobia. Suffering the impact of isolation, feeling cut away and alienated from their social networks and the world in general. As a whole, 2020 has created more fear about our personal safety and how safe we feel in our world increasing fear can make us all feel insecure and increase our anxieties.

This got me thinking, the power of the coronavirus pandemic on our mental health is clear and weighty, imagine what it would feel like if you had a preexisting mental health impairment? With this in mind, this blog is focusing on the life of a young lady who has a diagnosis of A-typical Autism and Aspergers. Exploring what her experience of the coronavirus pandemic has been like in connection to her mental health struggles.


Below is an illustration, created by Tiffany, on how social distancing affects her chronic anxiety.


When Tiffany first heard of the coronavirus her first thoughts were based on containing any potential anxiety that might have been triggered, she responded to this by remembering how she felt in the past when she first heard about the swine flu pandemic in 2009-2010. This helped her "prepare and normalise" her feelings so that she could prevent any potential overwhelming feelings that can be hard for her to manage on top of her autism. With this in mind, Tiffany prepared to return to her work after the sick leave she had for a sinus infection and was faced with the upcoming closure of the building, this is when Tiffany recognised that the coronavirus was different and unlike anything she has ever had to face before. Suddenly, as if overnight, Tiffany had massive changes to her routine which were out of her control pushing her into the depths of the deepest depression she has ever had to face. Feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed Tiffany had no choice other than to retreat to her home where she lives alone and far away from her friends and family.


Below is Tiffany's illustration of her experience of loneliness for the first time.


As each day went past, Tiffany found her self unable to maintain her usual self-care, she experienced disorganised eating, anxiety, feeling extremely drained and tired wanting to sleep all day and all night. Curled up and alone, Tiffany felt vulnerable as time ticked by and each minute of the day felt like a painful emotional spiral down into the realm of depression. Feeling stuck in limbo, waiting for the seemingly never-ending lockdown and the war against the invisible enemy, the coronavirus, to end. Unsure of what the future would hold, Tiffanny struggled to balance and budget her money, her anxiety increased and it felt like there was no light at the end of this long dark tunnel. Tiffany felt she had to somehow leave the house to get her food shop because the alternate of online shopping increased her anxiety around form filling and online payment. Tiffany feels this is linked to her autism which creates difficulties with understanding wording and content, triggering her hypersensitivity around potential 'trick questions'.


Tiffany's illustration of what she felt helped in her recovery from her episode of increased depression and anxiety.


As the need increased for Tiffany to leave her home to get her food supplies so did her anxiety, because of the social distancing rules and shops requesting for people to shop alone when Tiffany needs to be able to shop with her support worker. This was another challenging hurdle that Tiffany had to face because it is a draining experience having to prove and explain to shop staff that there was a need to be accompanied. Sadly, a situation that Tiffany and others who are on the Autistic spectrum, or have mental health impairments and disabilities experience, due to people in public not recognizing their needs who often respond in shock because their physical appearance "looks mild". Tiffany shared a helping factor in this situation is wearing the "sunflower lanyard" which has been created for anyone with physical and mental health impairments and disabilities to be able to wear, which helps with communicating any needs when out in public. Nonetheless, this is still a frustrating process and can, unfortunately, increase anxiety having to prove who you are on a daily basis.


Tiffany's illustration on how it felt starting her mindfulness practice.


A glimmer of hope started to emerge, as Tiffany reflected on her life experiences and recent self-help tools she had learnt from courses she attended at "recovery college" based on C.B.T (cognitive behavioural therapy) and mindfulness. Tiffany saw the challenge of creating a new routine for herself, day by day, step by step "doing the next right thing". Tiffany started again, pushing her self forward, discovering what self-help and self-care tools worked for her repeating them until she started to rise out of the spiral of depression. This journey was not easy as Tiffany began to accept her anxieties and depression as being part of her, part of her experiences of life, being proof of living. She was able to sit in her feelings processing them, then recovering from them with the help of her tools.


Part of the new self-care routine, walking in a nature reserve.


Giving herself permission to adapt self-help tools to suit and soothe her autism, depression and anxiety is one of Tiffany's anchors. Her mindfulness practise has been extended into nature, focusing her heightened sensory experiences onto the sounds she hears. The sounds of the water trickling by in the shallow stream, the sound of the water splashing as she paddles, the birds singing their songs of nature. The feeling of the water around her feet, the feeling she gains when she is connected to nature as she negotiates the stones and the natural obstacles. This feels symbolic to her and strengthens her confidence in getting past the obstacles that the coronavirus pandemic has presented her. Another anchoring tool Tiffany finds helps soothe and increase her self-awareness is the use of art as a way of her expressing her feelings without having to communicate words. Examples of these are throughout this blog. Lastly, another tool that Tiffany uses to help soothe and manage her autism and feelings is her practice of yoga, which gives her a physical and spiritual connection to herself, helping release any built-up tension that she might be carrying within her body.


In conclusion, what I have learnt from interviewing Tiffany about her experience of the coronavirus pandemic and the impact it has had on her autism, is that it has been one of the hardest times of her life. Tiffany has had to dig deep leaning on all the self-help tools she has ever learnt in her life to be able to cope with the increase of her depression and anxiety. Having her support worker, being able to speak to her family via telephone has been a helping factor. Her spiritual beliefs, determination to do the next right thing are another, but what shines through is Tiffany's self-awareness and ability to sit in her feelings and process them, even though they often become scary and overwhelming for her. The coronavirus pandemic has been one of the most challenging times as a collective we have ever experienced, which has impacted every individual in one way or another. The challenges and changes COVID 19 has created are perhaps felt more intensely if you have a pre-existing mental health impairment or disability like autism and asperges.

Written by:

Rebecca Way BA MBACP

Owner of:

Empathic Connections Counselling ®

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