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Autism and COVID: The intricacy of struggling with 2 challenges at the same time

By: - Content Researcher Writer / @inquirerdotnet
/ 05:47 PM January 25, 2022

MANILA, Philippines—While it was already known that the COVID-19 crisis has negative psychological effects, the impacts of the pandemic are likely to be stronger for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

This was revealed in a research study in Belgium, Netherlands, and United Kingdom in 2021 by the Department of Experimental Clinical and Health Psychology of Belgium’s Ghent University.

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Written by Danna Oomen et. al., it explained that this was because people with autism are at heightened risk of mental health problems and that the crisis directly diminishes social interactions and daily routines.

Czarina Gonzalvo, mother of an 18-year-old boy with autism, told INQUIRER.net that this was what she saw since the day COVID-19 hit the Philippines and strict lockdowns were implemented to mitigate the spread of the disease.

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She said her son loves to go out, but they had to follow the government’s COVID-19 restrictions. “This was the most challenging part of the contagion––less activity for my son,” she said.

Living in Romblon, she said her son, who attended pre-vocational classes before the pandemic struck in 2019, loved visiting places on the island and if her son wanted to walk outside, she can bring him to their store.

“Because of the crisis, we had to stay inside our home. We also had limited interactions with people [because of restrictions] so his social skills were likewise affected,” said Gonzalvo.

ASD and COVID-19

Gonzalvo was one of 19,000 individuals who took part in an online seminar organized by the Philippine Children’s Medical Center-Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics, Department of Health, and Autism Society of the Philippines (ASP).

The seminar, which had the theme “Batang may Autismo: Pagharap at Pagsulong sa Gitna ng Pandemya,” was held as the National Autism Consciousness Week was marked last Jan. 18 to 24.

Signed in 1996 by then President Fidel Ramos, the proclamation declaring the observation of National Autism Consciousness Week, “inspires acceptance, accommodation and appreciation” of persons with autism in the Philippines.

Like what Gonzalvo said, while keeping people with autism away from interactions and the things they love was heartbreaking, this was needed as people with disabilities, especially children, are not safe from COVID-19.

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The Pediatric Infectious Disease Society of the Philippines (PIDS), which gathers data about COVID-19 in children, already received 1,811 reports about the experiences of children who were taken ill by the disease.

The data revealed that 34.3 percent of the 1,811 children with COVID had existing illnesses: hematological and oncological (7.2 percent); neurological and developmental (7.0 percent); and gastrointestinal (5.6 percent).

PIDS said in its “Salvacion” analysis that the rest of the COVID-stricken children had heart diseases (3.5 percent); obesity (3.3 percent); kidney diseases (3.2 percent); bronchial asthma (2.3 percent); and prematurity (2.2 percent).

Graphic: Ed Lustan

Dr. Alexis Reyes, a leading developmental pediatrician, said in the seminar that presently, one in 44 individuals is diagnosed with ASD. In 2018, the ASD prevalence was one in 68 individuals.

Detailing the findings of a research work on the effects of COVID-19 in individuals with autism, Dr. Elmer Balbin said people with ASD and intellectual disabilities (ID) will likely need hospitalization.

The research, written by Arun Karpur et. al., revealed that individuals with ASD+ID were “nine times more likely to be hospitalized following COVID-19 infection.”

It likewise said that people with ASD+ID were nearly six times more likely to have an elevated length of hospital stay compared to individuals without ASD+ID.

Invisible illness

The Autism Society (AS) defines autism as a complex, lifelong developmental disability that typically appears in early childhood and can impact a person’s social skills, communication, relationships, and self-regulation.

Since autism is defined by a certain set of behaviors and is a “spectrum condition,” it affects people differently and in varying levels like persistent differences in interactions and restricted/repetitive behaviors.

• Persistent differences in communication, interpersonal relationships, and social interaction across different environments

This means “being nonverbal or having atypical speech patterns, having trouble understanding nonverbal communication, difficulty making and keeping friends, difficulty maintaining typical back-and-forth conversational style.”

• Restricted and repetitive behavior, patterns, activities and interests

This means “repeating sounds or phrases (echolalia), repetitive movements, preference for sameness and difficulty with transition or routine, rigid or highly restricted and intense interests, extreme sensitivity to or significantly lower sensitivity to various sensory stimuli.”

This was why Oomen et. al. examined the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on the mental health, social life, and everyday routine of people with autism, as well as the satisfaction with crisis-related information and wishes for guidance.

The research, which asked 1,044 people with and without ASD, said within the two groups, three quarters reported an increase in depression and anxiety symptoms in response to the crisis: depression (74 percent) and anxiety (75 percent).

Graphic: Ed Lustan

It likewise revealed that the increase in the symptoms of depression and anxiety was significantly greater in people with autism and that adults with autism “felt more stressed about the loss of routines.”

Protection vs COVID

Balbin, highlighting the findings of “A Pilot Study on COVID-19 and Autism: Prevalence, Clinical Presentation and Vaccine Side Effects,” said 10 out of the 39 vaccinated children with autism were infected with the COVID virus.

However, one out of the 10 only developed fever and cough and did not require any medication while the most frequent side effects of the vaccines in people with ASD were light fever and fatigue.

Graphic: Ed Lustan

Gonzalvo, who keeps his son busy with paper bag-making and painting, said the government should do more to reach people with ASD and protect them against the severe consequences of COVID-19.

“We haven’t vaccinated him yet because we are afraid of side effects on him,” said Gonzalvo.

“Since he is nonverbal, he will not be able to express himself. Moreover, vaccination sites are public places, we are afraid of how he will react to the environment and some people will not understand him. He is quite noisy when he is not in the mood,” she said.

Gonzalvo suggested that the government roll out home vaccination for people with ASD, saying that although his son was vaccinated for other diseases before, it is sensory overload if he will be vaccinated in a public place more so how people will accept his reactions.

“Honestly, we are afraid of people’s questioning gazes. I’m afraid my son might have a sensory overload and thus will have a meltdown because of the new environment. My son doesn’t like being stared at,” she said.

RELATED STORY: He hurdled autism and became a valedictorian

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TAGS: autism, Autism Society of the Philippines, COVID-19, Department of Health, INQFocus, National Autism Consciousness Week, Philippine Children’s Medical Center-Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics
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