For Owen Bains, having autism makes navigating the rules and social norms around COVID-19 challenging, says his mother. (Courtesy Nicole Zimmel)

For Owen Bains, having autism makes navigating the rules and social norms around COVID-19 challenging, says his mother. (Courtesy Nicole Zimmel)

Pandemic poses serious problems for children with autism, say Victoria parents

Parents of children with autism say COVID-19 is overwhelming and reducing social skills

For parents of children with autism, navigating public spaces and learning social norms were already difficult enough.

Then the pandemic hit and some Victoria parents had to make a tough decision — put their children into overwhelmingly new situations, or risk having their child lose many of the social skills they spent years building.

Michelle O’Neill, whose son Nolan, 14, was diagnosed with autism at age two, said being in public spaces during COVID-19 has only been made bearable through the help of service dog, Stella.

Michelle O’Neill said for her son, Nolan O’Neill, navigating COVID-19 with autism has only been made possible with the help of his service dog, Stella. (Michelle O’Neill)

“I’m finding that Stella’s support is so much more needed now,” O’Neill said. “Nolan doesn’t pick up on subtleties. He walks into a space that he’s been going to for years, and all of the sudden there are all these different expectations.”

One-way grocery lanes, Plexiglas and hand sanitizing stations can be confusing additions for someone whose sense of safety depends on their environment remaining predictable, O’Neill explained.

Not only does Stella help Nolan to navigate space physically, she also acts as an indicator to other people in public that Nolan has an invisible disability.

When masks became mandatory in many shops, O’Neill feared people would get angry when they saw Nolan without one. But, with Stella present, O’Neill said most people have been understanding.

Having a service dog has also increased the amount of social interaction Nolan has in public as people stop to ask questions or say hello to Stella. To O’Neill, this is invaluable.

Increasing social skills is something parents of children with autism work on constantly.

Nicole Zimmel fears having her son lose those hard-earned social skills. Owen, 14, experiences such extreme sensory overload that — despite also having a service dog — he hasn’t been to a grocery store since March.

“Everyone has been quite stressed and my son can pick up on people’s stress levels. It’s unbearable for him,” said Zimmel.

She said being around other people is difficult for Owen and they’ve been working tirelessly to build his social skills since he was diagnosed at age two. Now, with far fewer public outings, Zimmel fears Owen is losing some of those skills.

“What is this going to look like for his adulthood?” she asked.

RELATED: ‘Guide dogs don’t know how to social distance’: Victoria woman asks for patience

RELATED: B.C. families of neurodiverse kids left scrambling before school starts: advocates

Zimmel is working to integrate Owen’s service dog, Richie, into his new school — Oak Bay High.

Both mothers said having service dogs has afforded their sons a level of independence that would never have been possible otherwise. O’Neill can’t imagine how parents of children with autism are navigating COVID-19 without a service dog.

“How are their kids going to safely navigate those spaces in a positive way, not facing confusion or anger?” she asked.

The demand for autism service dogs is huge. B.C. and Alberta Guide Dogs has a waitlist long enough to keep them busy for five or six years, according to CEO Bill Thornton.

Thornton said the charity relies on donations and can only work as fast as funds allow. The pandemic has furthered delayed their work as training of new dogs was put on hold between March and September.

Now, with trainers back at work, Thornton said he hopes they can start to fill the enormous need for more support dogs as children with autism continue to navigate this pandemic.

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