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The Hidden Costs of Covid

As we emerge from fourteen long weeks in lockdown, we are all counting the costs of this essential isolation. Whether this is finance, education, employment or travel related, we have all incurred losses. I have spoken in my Instagram posts of the lessons lockdown has taught me, and in all honesty, there have been more than I have publicly discussed. I learned the value of a hug, a proper warm embracing hug. I learned that although facetime is amazing, it will never be a substitute for seeing the actual face of a loved one. I have realised that everyone is most definitely not in the same boat. The time at home with my loved ones, although hectic, brought time for reflection, planning, innovation and realisations. I will forever remember this time, for both good and bad reasons.

Lockdown was challenging for all, to varying degrees without doubt, but everyone experienced difficulties on some level. While the trials of this time have been debated at length, little has been said of the long reaching implications of lockdown. Yes, we have heard of the grim economic forecasts, the implications for the tourism and hospitality industry, but little or no talk of the impact it has had, and will have on our children. Children, the hidden collateral of this time. Snatched from their routine, schools, friends, extended family and therapies. They lacked comprehension of the gravity of the situation we faced; no surprise when a lot of adults I know struggled to realise it also (myself included). Submerged into isolation, without access to their extended family, pals or beloved teachers and carers. As parents, we no doubt tried to fill the gap, however in some respects Covid created craters which even the most well meaning parent would no doubt fail to fill. What remained for our children was us, their parents. We had to be carer, teacher, chef, speech and language therapist, occupational therapist, psychologist, arts and crafts engineer and general Jack of all trades. The mental load which came with this new multi dimensional parental role, was most definitely the heaviest any of us have ever had to bare the brunt of. Add to this working from home, zoom calls, deadlines, house work and laundry, and we have a recipe for a breakdown in even the most level headed of us. The shadow of Covid remains, hovering over us like a bulging black cloud. We can see that a second wave is likely, and we are terrified of the implications of this; a return to isolation, a return to virtual conversations, a return to an increased mental load and likely lack of capacity for same. But can we pause and consider the effects of this crisis. Before we continue, can we pause and see the consequences of the "new normal" for children and families? While every family sees the effect, let's just consider those families with additional needs, either parent, or child, or both.

Let us first count the implications for parents. Setting aside our parenting duties, Covid has heaped on stress like no crisis before it. Unrecognised, untreated stress causes our bodies to hoard stress hormones which has a direct impact on our health and wellbeing, both mental and physical. If an economic crisis is imminent, I would bet that a mental health crisis is looming on its coattails. I do believe that society is slowly realising the importance of our mental health, however, we are still lagging far behind on our treatment options, especially our free options. Should this mental health crisis happen, or should I say when it happens, how will people access help? If people do not have the means to access private help, options are limited. When politicians come knocking on our doors again, this is one question that has to be asked.

Parents are not alone in the stress trap, our children are also now experiencing stresses which were previously unknown to them. The talk of the virus is everywhere. It consumes conversations in every setting and must sound more mysterious at every mention. We cannot see it, feel it or smell it, yet it kept us from emerging from our homes for three long months. Hand washing has become far more of an issue than ever, with children being told that they can spread it if they don't wash properly, encouraged to wash for the exact length of time it takes to hum Happy Birthday. If they had fixated on this at any other stage, parents would be seeking assistance to halt it. We are all living in unprecedented times, but for children, this is the only time they know. What are the long lasting effects for our children's mental health?

Social distancing is now a phrase we hear daily, if not hourly. In my profession, I have spent the last twenty years encouraging kids to mix, play and connect. All has changed, utterly changed. I cannot facilitate group classes as I usually would, and this saddens me more than I have admitted. Instead I have to discover new ways to connect with children, and encourage them to connect virtually with peers. I also find myself policing their socialisation, a position I neither enjoy or welcome.. For autistic children, this must be particularly difficult. They have been constantly encouraged to reach out socially, and now we pull them back, telling them that's far enough. If a vaccine is found or the virus disappears (unlikely unless you believe a certain president) tomorrow, what lasting impact will this have for our children? Will we be able to reverse these restrictions again when the time finally arises, or is this in fact the "new normal" and social distancing is now the standard distance for social interactions?

I mentioned how our children were abruptly taken from their schools, and I think this is where we will see the toughest consequences. Children on the spectrum can find school stressful, this is something we know to be true. The constant barrage of sensory information, the crowded classrooms, the workload and restrictive uniforms are just a few of the stressors for our children. We know that our children often refuse to attend school for these reasons.

They favour the safety of their home environment, where they don't experience demands they fear they cannot meet, can wear their comfortable clothes, have access to their favourite items and are free to enjoy their own interests and hobbies. This essential isolation, has been, in one respect, an ease to our children, but we cannot underestimate the effect that a return to school will have.

Asking children who have spent six months at home to re-enter the school environment will no doubt come with levels of anxiety which was previously unknown to them. The extended break from these challenges, created a new, welcomed normal, for them. How do we reverse this? The truth is that we need to equip teachers and schools with the information to ease this transition for all children, but most especially for children with additional needs. We need to provide parents with support and tools to ease the transition. We need to provide soft bridges back to the classroom. Shortened days, visits to acclimatise, limited work load, the support of a key contact should they require help, an area to have down time in. These are just a few supports which may be required to lessen the burden posed by the transition. Will our schools have the personnel, resources, room or time to facilitate these measures? For a child with a clinical diagnosis, supports should be available, but what of the child without that priceless piece of paper? This brings me to my final point.

Covid has put a stop to the majority of assessments. This means that there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of children awaiting assessment around the country. Children sitting on waitlists means children missing out on vital supports. We know the system was broken before Covid struck. Waitlists were already years long and services few and far between. Covid has further clogged this already failing system, leaving children and families in limbo. Parents are being left with no other option but to seek out private assessments, which range anywhere from €700- €1,500. Parents are desperate for help and longing for answers but are putting themselves in a financial hole to access them when our country should be providing same. Even with a diagnosis, parents are forced to access private help. The warm hug of support expected upon diagnosis is also noticeably absent at present and does not seem likely to re-emerge anytime soon. Our services are over run and underfunded. Staff are over worked and under enormous stress. When will this system be fixed?

Covid has had more than a medical and financial impact on this country. The effects of the virus will be counted for years to come. The support we provide for our most vulnerable is how we should measure ourselves as a nation. Through this crisis, quite rightly, the health and well being of our medically vulnerable population has been the countries main concern. We have rallied together to shield them and evict the virus from our communities. The fight against Covid remains, but we also need to shift some focus to the impending difficulties faced by parents, families and children. We need to act pro-actively and support before the fall out, rather than trying to pick up the pieces after. Cradling a vase from falling is far easier than gluing it back together. Our families and children deserve to be cradled. They deserve and need our support and understanding now and into the future.

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