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Autism expert warns families to focus on mental health amidst COVID lock down

Kathrine Peereboom

Kathrine Peereboom is one of the country's leading autism experts and advocates and she is calling on families with loved ones with autism to focus on mental health. 

Peereboom is the mother of three severely autistic boys and founder of Spectrum Support, a national organisation dedicated to raising awareness of autism and providing education, training and support. 

"Forget everything including the washing, the only thing that matters during the next six weeks for those in Victoria with family members with special needs - is mental health," Peereboom said. 

"The Victorian government has effectively put a stop to essential care, support and other critical services that families with special needs rely on in order to survive day to day. 

"The next six weeks is not going to be easy. It is going to be really hard. I know, my husband and I have been through lock down with three children with severe autism and based on how things are going across the country, it looks like we could be doing it again. It almost broke us the first time. Going into lockdown again could be the final straw."

As Victoria embarks on stage 4 lockdowns and the world grapples with the pandemic, the greater concern in the disability community needs to now focus on the mental health of those most vulnerable.

"For many autistics, the past six months have been an incredibly difficult being forced to adapt to so many changes in routine. Limited access to regular therapies, work or schooling from home, not being able to source specific foods, trying to maintain emotional regulation and the general confusion around COVID, what it is and why they are required to self-isolate," Peereboom said.

"For Victorians the stage four lockdown restrictions have terrified many families. The mental health of everyone within the home is, and should be, the primary concern. Domestic violence, self-harming and meltdowns will dramatically increase in some homes and provisions and services need to reach out publicly to provide families immediate access to respite and guidance."

Peereboom has put together some coping strategies to assist those in Victoria. 

  1. Communication Communication with all family members within your home is vital. Take the time to explain what is going to happen over the next two months in a way that is appropriate for them. Encourage questions and use the opportunity to address any anxiety or concerns. "In my home we use a combination of an AAC device, visual aids and play based interactions," Peereboom said.

  2. Implement the previous routine Going back to the previous routine will allow some to get into a familiar structure much quicker. Using a daily guide on what activities will be undertaken can also be a way to record achievements and feel a sense of control in these uncertain times.

  3. It’s OKAY if the plan doesn’t happen!  The ONLY thing that should matter is making sure everyone comes out of lockdown feeling happy and healthy. If it’s not going to make you smile, then put it aside for now. The school work, laundry etc it can and should wait. Find fun ways to get through the day and re-set for tomorrow. "I love dancing with my boys. They enjoy the movement and the music and the exercise does me good as well," Peereboom said.

  4. Stay active There are so many ways to stay active and the benefits are certainly proved. Exercise will release endorphins that will make you happy and help you sleep at night. YouTube is a fantastic resource and it’s free! Kids Zumba, setting up an obstacle course in your home or apartment, yoga it’s all readily available and can be a great way to shake off some stress and improve fitness. "Just remember to move like no one else is watching.  Your mental health is more important than how you look," Peereboom added.

  5. Understand and acknowledge your feelings or your loved one’s feelings  With new developments happening almost by the hour it can have a serious impact on our emotions. Stay in touch with how you're feeling or what you are witnessing in a loved one. When you begin to be overwhelmed then please reach out to services such as Lifeline who are there to support you. There is no shame in asking for help! "Reach out to others including family, friends and colleagues and let them know that you may need to lean on them for support at some stage.  You don't know when or how - but you need to let them know it could happen so they are prepared and better positioned to help and respond," Peereboom said.

  6. Stay connected Staying connected to the outside world will provide a sense of belonging. Video calls, social media, writing letters or keeping a journal are all fantastic ways to stay in touch with people. Remember though if it is not serving you well then you have the power to walk away. Focus on positive interactions and welcoming kindness. "Use devices and technology where you can to enable communication in a safe and easy way.  Download all the necessary free software and apps to support engagement and interaction online," Peereboom added. 

  7. Schedule a treat daily Schedule time out to do something nice. Video games, soak in a bath, play an instrument, get into that DYI project you’ve been putting off, dance like no one is watching and get all the comedies out. "Little things can bring so much joy. Find joy in everything around you," Peereboom said.

  8. Parents and caregivers  Be kind to yourself and nurture your relationship. No matter what 2020 has provided you so far, know that it will come to an end and life will resume. If the kids are on their devices too much, if you’ve yelled and screamed more than you would have, if you’ve made decisions that you normally wouldn’t. Forgive yourself and move forward. "You can’t control what is happening outside your home, so stop trying. The storm will pass so try and focus on what you can do to positively get through the next two months," Peereboom said. 

"Many autistics have compromised immune systems. This once again stresses the need for people to stay at home and to wear a mask when out in public. While you may feel physically healthy and strong you may be asymptomatic and pass this dreaded virus on to someone who’s immune system simply cannot fight the virus," Peereboom emphasised. 

"Unity and respect for one another is needed more now than ever. It’s okay to question what’s happening but we need to keep each other safe if we are going to move past this." 


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