Dáil debates

Thursday, 29 April 2021

National Autism Empowerment Strategy: Motion [Private Members]


6:10 pm

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour) | Oireachtas source

I will speak in a moment about the impact the pandemic has had particularly on children with autism. However, one aspect of the Minister of State's speech leapt out at me as being very positive. It reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend of mine whose son has autism. It was some years ago around 2014 when I had just become a councillor. He asked me, as someone with vim, vigour and gusto just starting out in public life, what I would do to assist those with autism. I asked him about his experience, and he said he did not know where to start. He did not know what the first step was.

The Minister of State's speech refers to the establishment of an autism telephone helpline on a pilot basis. If it works, it will be a very important first step. People need a first step in order that they can take other steps. That is not to say each of the next steps will be easy; they will not. I know this because the subsequent conversations I had with my friend were about how difficult things are and how everything is a fight, but that first step was the most difficult. It is encouraging to hear that a helpline is coming on stream. I hope it will achieve its purpose and people will know where to go if they have concerns or worries. From there, hopefully, the journey will be easier than it has been for so many people. Things have been difficult, in particular this past year during the pandemic. Every week, Members speak about the difficulties being experienced by a particular cohort of people or industry. Everyone has had a difficult time.

In August last year, DCU conducted fascinating research, of which I am sure the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, is aware. It found that 74% of parents of a child with ASD reported that they would face unique challenges over the weeks as restrictions were being lifted. We can expect that the same will happen again with the lifting of the current restrictions. Owing to months of limited social interactions, some children had difficulties with social skills and, for others, skills had regressed. Regression has been a major problem in the context of the pandemic.

As the current restrictions are eased, the environments to which children will be returning will be different, with masks, social distancing and other sets of rules. We need to be cognisant of this. While many of us are complaining about what are minor and petty inconveniences, for others, they are life-changing challenges. We need to be of cognisant of that too. The DCU research also found that there had been a 61% decline in relation to particular abilities and skills. Parents who took part in that research noted that in 31% of children there had been a decline in ability to self-regulate their emotions. The pandemic is having a huge impact on parents and families, which, as a society, we will not see until the restrictions are lifted. We need to be sensitive to and cognisant of that.

The shift to online learning in the past year has presented significant challenges for children and families, especially for families with autistic children who often struggle with changes in routine and the engagement required for remote instruction. Some 18% reported that children are experiencing a decline in motivation to engage in activities, including school work. Given the periods of necessary school closures, the move to online learning and the vast shift in environment and routine, negative change in these abilities is to be expected. When we say we will, in future, live in a world of Zoom, Teams and so on and there is a new way of doing things, that might be easy for us and it might make life a bit for convenient for us, but it is a lot more inconvenient and difficult for people with autism, particularly for children with autism. These little changes that may be inconsequential to us are huge for other people. We need to be cognisant of that.


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