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Autistic people ‘judged by public and police’ over distancing during exercise - UK

By Jemma Crew and Max McLean, PA

Carers of autistic people with a limited understanding of social distancing have said they are being judged by the public and challenged by police when helping them with their daily exercise.

Some autistic people are struggling to understand social distancing advice and have been overlooked during the coronavirus pandemic, a support worker told the PA news agency.

The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, works for a charity in Merseyside, supporting adults with varying levels of autism in an assisted living facility and visiting people in their own homes.

She said the Covid-19 lockdown is “having a huge effect on them and their mental well-being” but little support has been made available.

She said she has even been judged by members of the public while helping residents exercise, many of whom “cannot comprehend ‘social distancing’ and are very tactile and like to touch people and objects”.

She told PA: “In just the last week, I have experienced dirty looks from members of the public when supporting individuals who require 2:1 support to go for a walk.

“These individuals need two members of staff with them when accessing the community and often try to ‘link’ arms with staff as their understanding of ‘social distancing’ is very limited.

“It may look to some like we are ignoring the guidelines put out there by the Government, but what we are actually doing is trying to effectively and safely support an individual.”

The carer said she was left “dejected” after receiving negativity when trying to buy urgent supplies, and believes a designated time should be set aside for people shopping on behalf of those with additional needs.

She is also calling for Government guidance to raise awareness about the needs of people with autism during the Covid-19 outbreak.

Jane Harris, director of external affairs at the National Autistic Society, said: “Our own care workers and those of our members have been challenged by both the public and police officers about social distancing when they are doing their best to support autistic people to exercise and get out and about.

“Even seemingly small changes can feel catastrophic to autistic children and adults, so the coronavirus pandemic has been exceptionally challenging for the 700,000 autistic people in the UK and their families. Going out for a walk is an important part of many autistic people’s routine and changing that may jeopardise their health and safety.

“Some autistic people might need someone to go with them on a walk or a trip to the shops, and care workers may need to link arms with them, simply to keep them safe.

“Some could need more than one person with them. If members of the public or police rush to judge, they might think this is someone ignoring the rules of social distancing. But it’s actually vital for that person’s safety and well-being.”

The support worker told PA that the biggest challenge people are facing is the lack of control and upending of routine, which has “gone out of the window”.

She said: “It is very hard to communicate to them the gravity of the current situation and the fact that the reason we are not sticking to their routines is for their own safety.

“They are coping remarkably well considering, but there has still been a lot of upset, distress, tears and outbursts.

“As you can imagine, this also has an effect on the staff team as we are very much on edge, anticipating behaviours of concern and trying to defuse situations before they happen.”

Maria Ure, a London-based counsellor who specialises in working with autistic children, said the disruption of daily life would be especially hard.

Ms Ure, who is offering discounted well-being sessions during the crisis, said: “Children with autism are likely finding the change in routine difficult during this period, as structure is something that many children with autism find comforting.

“The uncertainty of the situation can be quite triggering for some children, bringing on feelings of frustration and anxiety.

“Providing a visual timetable for the day can be helpful. Something interactive that children can take hold of and post into a box, once completed, adds a sense of order and control to the time.”

The Metropolitan Police said its officers would apply “common sense and discretion”.

A Met spokeswoman said: “Officers are engaging with the public and will of course seek to establish individuals’ circumstances. Clearly there will be instances where officers must apply common sense and discretion.

“Our objective is not to hinder people who have clear support needs but rather to ensure that everyone is working to keep themselves and others safe as far as their individual circumstances will allow.”