COVID has had a devastating impact on children and young people with autism, according to a North-East organisation, while one mum "broke down" trying to home-school.

Michelle Weston was at “wit's end” with her sons, one of which is autistic, during the first lockdown when schools closed and has raised concern as the debate around school closures in Tier 4 areas rages on. 

Some 44 million people are currently under Tier 4 restrictions, including in County Durham, Darlington, Stockton, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Gateshead, Sunderland, Newcastle and Northumberland as well as London and the South East.

Schools have been urged to reopen as normal after the Christmas break despite a more infectious strain of Covid taking hold, with pupils returning this week.

However, all of London’s primary schools and those in some surrounding areas worst hit by Covid-19 will not reopen until January 18 except for vulnerable and key workers' children.

The NAHT – alongside the National Education Union (NEU), the NASUWT teachers’ union, GMB, Unison and Unite – have called for a move to remote learning for most pupils amid safety concerns.

Struggling with Covid measures and home-schooling Nathan, five, and brother Bobby, ten, the 39-year-old mum broke down crying on the phone to the boys’ school, St Bede’s Primary.

She says Nathan, who has non-verbal autism, has been set back "immensely" by the change due to Covid.

Ms Weston, from Darlington, said: “Nathan loves St Bede’s, from the teachers to playing out. He was really outgoing and happy but when the first lockdown happened he just changed. He went back inside himself.

“He started to say odd words when he went to school. In lockdown, he reverted.”

Ms Weston, who is a cleaner but was able to stay home with her sons for most of the first lockdown, says Nathan came on “leaps and bounds” during his first year at nursery but also that he is naughty.

The Northern Echo:

She said: “It was just horrendous. I had a break down. I called the school crying my eyes out. It was just so up and down, really difficult. I’m not a teacher. Neither of them would do any work.

“Nathan doesn’t have a clue, we can’t explain to him what is going on. I can’t imagine that.”

St Bedes Primary School took the brothers back in after the mum revealed her stress.

She added: “They are a brilliant school, they are great at handling Nathan and are very supportive of me. They have the best Special Educational Needs Coordinator (Senco) and have the right strategies to deal with Nathan.”

Nathan has an Education, Health and Care Plan meaning he was able to stay in school during the first lockdown, but this did not happen as he was going from Nursery to Reception.

If schools closed again today, Nathan would remain in school but Ms Weston is concerned for parents who have less support than her.

She said: "I really don’t support school closures. The kids have missed out on nearly a year of education. They need structure and routine, it’s important for their mental health and wellbeing.

"If it’s for the greater good to shut for a couple of more weeks then I would support that decision, but I think if the schools can make everyone safe enough why can’t they go?"

Ms Weston, however, agreed that there should not be different rules for school closures within Tier 4 areas. 

According to The North East Autism Society, many autistic people experience anxiety and distress when there is a change in routine.

For those who struggle with flexible thinking, learning at home is even more difficult.

The Northern Echo:

Chris Dempster, director of education at the County Durham organisation, said: “Flexible thinking includes the ability to see things in a new way. Some autistic children have a fixed perception of what they do at home and what they do at school so difficulties here and being asked to work at home could have a massive, massive impact.

"Some young people compartmentalise, not everyone but some, so schoolwork is done at school and home is home. Even though some schools have provided resources at home, it can be very, very hard.

"The lack of structure in home learning may be displacing as individuals are not able to tell one day from the next, due to no defining characteristics."

The North East Autism Society runs its own schools that have not closed during the pandemic but Ms Dempster says those in school still face difficulties adjusting to Covid measures.

She said: “Stability supports emotional self-regulation and encourages positive behaviour for young people.

“But there can be difficulties due to staff wearing masks and a child only seeing half their teacher's face. Communication can break down because they can't read facial expressions."

Walking on just one side of the corridor, staggered start and end times and one-way systems, prevalent through public places and schools alike, can also cause distress.

The Northern Echo:

Ms Dempster added: "People don’t realise the structure, support and strategies that are in place to ensure these young people don’t have sensory overload and that their anxieties are reduced."

Ms Demptser's concerns echo findings from the National Autistic Society, which conducted research into the impact of Covid on people with autism.

Tim Nicholls, head of policy and public affairs at the charity said: “Our research suggests the pandemic had a devastating impact on many children and young people with autism.

“In the first wave, the Government said that children with EHC plans would be able to go to school but this didn’t always happen in practice.

READ MORE: Inside Go North East's biggest depot and new electric buses

“Without the routine of going to school and social contact with teachers and friends, many autistic children struggled and continue to feel stranded.

“In many cases, it fell to parents to try and fill the gaps: to home-school or support their child’s education, often while juggling work and other commitments. The pressure this placed on families was huge and, in some cases, intolerable."

Seven in ten parents told the charity their child had difficulty understanding or completing school work during the first lockdown, around half said that their child’s academic progress suffered and 68 per cent said their autistic child was anxious at the loss of routine, with 65 per cent unable to do online work.

On announcing Scotland's January-long lockdown, Nicola Sturgeon said most pupils will be learning from home for at least the rest of the month.

The First Minister said a period of home learning would drive down transmission rates. She also said the scientific community was not clear on the impact of the new variant of Covid-19 on young people.

The National Autistic Society also slammed the Government for not setting out provisions for people with autism in its spending review earlier this week.

Caroline Stevens, chief executive, said: “The Spending Review needed to tackle many vital issues to protect the country from the coronavirus pandemic.

"But it’s a mistake that the Government again missed the opportunity to commit the essential funding to end the social care crisis. It’s not yet clear how what has been announced today will be spent, but the Government must invest in the support and understanding autistic people desperately need.

“Autistic children, adults and their families have been waiting years for funding for the diagnosis, education and social care services they need. This has never been clearer than during the coronavirus crisis.

"With the Government set to publish a new all-age autism strategy in the coming months, it’s vital the funding for these services is in place so autistic people and their families aren’t left stranded again.”