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The advent of the Covid-19 pandemic affected all educational institutions without warning. From our experience, it seems that special schools, particularly those that work with young people with autism, have been the most affected. The impact has in many ways exposed the unpreparedness of educational institutions and systems to effectively respond to disasters caused by pandemics such as Covid-19.

In hindsight, the experiences and lessons learned during the pandemic will serve to inform sustainable policies and measured responses to problems of educational institutions and systems (Aristovnik et al., 2020). Unfortunately, there appears to be very limited documentation on the impact of the pandemic on young people with autism. As people with autism are generally known to struggle with change (Baron-Cohen et al., 2009), we wanted to understand more about how they were coping with sudden changes and the unpredictability of situations during the pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of children’s education, especially in terms of there being adequate alternatives to ensure sustainability of their education during the pandemic (Douglas et al., 2020). Its impact undoubtedly robbed a generation of its right to effective education and support. Many children are currently lagging behind in their reading and writing (Azorin, 2020), with special education schools struggling to support the children during the pandemic due to the suspension of many support services.

‘Many children are currently lagging behind in their reading and writing, with special education schools struggling to support the children during the pandemic due to suspension of many support services.’

With limited solutions and less than effective support to health and wellbeing during the pandemic, many parents and children have suffered mental health distress, following long periods of enforced staying at home under the lockdown (Spinelli et al., 2020). Most parents had to oversee the learning and support of their children with very little support from schools whose online preparedness was far from what was required. This situation was even worse in our experience of working with young people with autism as their parents could barely manage their behaviour during lockdown, let alone their learning.

With the continuous growth of child poverty and severe inequalities in communities, it has become clear that a lot of households were disadvantaged by limited access to the internet and the prohibitive cost of equipment such as laptops (Van-Lancker & Parolin, 2020). Reflecting on our own experiences, we found this lack of resources to be prevalent in most families of autistic young people we work with. In response, our school resorted to using non-governmental sources of funding to buy laptops for the students.

On reflection, we believe there is a need for a clear strategy supported by a coherent policy on special education during pandemics like Covid-19. The pandemic has exposed weaknesses in our educational system with regards to specific contingency plans for young people with autism who would be most disadvantaged in the face of unprecedented and unpredictable situations.

This blog discusses a research project supported by BERA’s Small Grants Fund, which will publish a full report in the coming weeks as part of our ongoing series, Education & Covid-19: BERA Small Grants Fund research.


Aristovnik, A., Keržič, D., Ravšelj, D., Tomaževič, N., & Umek, L. (2020). Impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on life of higher education students: A global perspective. Sustainability, 12(20), 8438.  

Azorín, C. (2020). Beyond COVID-19 supernova. Is another education coming? Journal of Professional Capital and Community, 5(3/4), 381–390.

Baron-Cohen, S., Scott, F. J., Allison, C., Williams, J., Bolton, P., Matthews, F. E., & Brayne, C. (2009). Prevalence of autism-spectrum conditions: UK school-based population study. British Journal of Psychiatry, 194(6), 500.

Douglas, M., Katikireddi, S. V., Taulbut, M., McKee, M., & McCartney, G. (2020). Mitigating the wider health effects of covid-19 pandemic response. BMJ, 369.  

Spinelli, M., Lionetti, F., Pastore, M., & Fasolo, M. (2020). Parents’ stress and children’s psychological problems in families facing the COVID-19 outbreak in Italy. Frontiers in Psychology, 11, 1713.

Van Lancker, W., & Parolin, Z. (2020). COVID-19, school closures, and child poverty: A social crisis in the making. The Lancet Public Health, 5(5), e243-e244.