Analysis: new research looks at how children and their parents have coped with social distancing and other restrictions 

Over the last fortnight, we have all become aware through media reports of the unique difficulties experienced by parents of children with special needs. The World Health Organisation acknowledge that children with special needs may be impacted more significantly by Covid-19.

Inclusion Ireland and the College of Psychiatrists of Ireland inform us that the changes to children's daily routines, caused by the understandable cessation of schooling and therapeutic services, may cause children with an intellectual disability or autism to struggle in adapting to new routines. This may impact negatively on their emotional and mental wellbeing and lead to increased anxiety, agitation and more challenging behaviours for some children. 

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From RTÉ One's Six One News, concerns have been expressed over the impact of school closure on children with special needs

A national online survey was conducted in late May 2020 with over 1,800 parents and children, focusing on the impact of Covid-19 restrictions on their play and friendship groups. 181 parents of children with special needs, and children with special needs themselves, completed the survey and this paper focuses on their recent experiences and difficulties. Respondents from the top five categorical groups of disabilities are: intellectual disability (21%); intellectual + emotional / behavioural disability (12%); sensorial disability (11%); physical disability (11%) and intellectual + emotional / behavioural  + sensorial disability (11%)

Lack of routine

The massive disruptions to the daily routines for children with special needs has had a significant negative impact on these children, according to their parents

"Because my daughter has autism, routine is very important, it’s her life, everything has to be the same, we get up at same time, we have food at same time, we start online schooling at the same time. Every day has to be the same, and with lockdown she can’t have her play time with her one and only friend and she just can’t cope with it" (Mother, Tipperary)

"I can't go to school or see my friends and it makes me upset and frustrated" - Girl, 13, Dublin

It has not been possible for all children with special needs to fully comprehend the current situation and the reasons for the multiple changes in their day to day lives. "My child doesn’t understand the pandemic due to his additional needs, so trying to explain and cope has been very distressing for all of us" (Mother, Sligo).

'My child has regressed’

Numerous parents report that their child’s behaviour and social skills regressed during this period of social isolation. This regression can be mild ("I feel that my child has slightly regressed in social skills due to not meeting friends" - Mother, Cavan), to very significant regression "social skills have regressed massively and now very fearful of other grown-ups from outside our home" - Mother, Tipperary). This fear or insecurity is echoed by the children themselves "it's not safe to go out" (Boy, 13, Dublin).

Many parents have also reported an increase in challenging behaviours. "Aggressive behaviours are seen daily which wasn't the case before Covid-19, they were few. He is struggling to regulate himself as he is not getting the stimulation he needs throughout the day". (Mother, Kerry).

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'Overwhelmed'

Many parents told us that they are feeling overwhelmed with the addition of new roles during this period. "Working from home along with home schooling, it's formal school work that’s been the biggest challenge" (Mother, Galway). Many parents attempting to work from home are finding this very stressful and difficult, particularly when there child needs constant supervision. "No time for work, my son has special needs and cannot be left unsupervised". (Mother, Dublin)

'I miss my friends'

Many parents report that their child having "no-one to play with" as one of the most difficult aspects of coping with the social distancing. "She longs for her friends, that's who she really wants to play with, her peers" (Mother, Wicklow). ‘I miss my friends’ is also a commonly repeated response from teenagers as well as children ‘‘I miss my friends and school" (Boy, 17, Cavan). The use of technology to partially address this absence of friends, does not suit all children with disabilities "I don’t like using social media or phone" (Girl, 15, Dublin)

Mental health issues

Children and teenagers with special needs, along with their parents, acknowledge that the children’s mental health has been negatively impacted by social distancing and their inability to socialise with their peers. This ranges from frustration ("I can’t go to school or see my friends and it makes me upset and frustrated" - Girl, 13, Dublin), sadness ("I feel sad and sometimes lonely" - Boy, 11, Wexford) to insecurity ("very insecure" - Boy, 11, Dublin)

From RTÉ 2fm's Jennifer Zamparelli show, how parents of children with special needs are dealing with Covid-19 restrictions on school and education

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From RTÉ Prime Time Explained, Eithne O'Brien and Conor Wilson on special needs education

Key priority areas for the incoming Government to address

Parents of children with special needs were also asked about key priority areas they think the government should address in order to help them and their children. The strongest priority identified by parents was the need for the July provision to go ahead for children with special needs. Parents also felt that children should receive extra support to "catch up on the therapies missed out on and the impact of that" (Mother, Dublin).

Finally, if social distancing is the norm come September, then parents suggest "a type of practice play date so that kids know the new rules around social distancing" (Mother, Cork) would be beneficial. This research project is also being conducted in Italy for comparison purposes and further findings will be available shortly


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ