A new SickKids study found the mental health of most Ontario children has suffered during the pandemic’s first lockdown, and kids with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have been particularly affected, prompting researchers to call for tailored supports.
But advocates caution that pandemic schooling hasn’t been all bad for students with developmental disabilities, and educators should reflect on how to overhaul the school system to benefit all children post-pandemic.
The study, released Feb. 26 in the European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry journal, found that 70 per cent of school-aged children and youth surveyed in Ontario had their mental health harmed during the first wave of the pandemic between April and June 2020.
Children in general fared worse across six domains of mental health — depression; anxiety; irritability; attention span; hyperactivity; and obsessions or compulsions. Children with ASD, the study found, reported the greatest deterioration in depression, irritability, attention span and hyperactivity.
“All kids, whether they have autism or not, are struggling,” said Dr. Evdokia Anagnostou, co-lead of Holland Bloorview’s Autism Research Centre, whom SickKids collaborated with on this study. “But more kids with autism are struggling, and they seem to be a particularly vulnerable group.”
SickKids’ research team surveyed more than 1,000 parents of children aged two to 18, and they surveyed 350 youth between 10 and 18, primarily from southern Ontario.
Forty-one parents, or 4.3 per cent, were parents of children with ASD or other diagnosed neurodevelopmental disabilities. Another 12 per cent, or 116 parents, reported their child had both a mental health diagnosis and a neurodevelopmental disability.
Anagnostou said the reasons behind the deterioration of mental health is related to routine disruptions and massive lifestyle changes brought on by lockdowns. This has particularly affected children with autism, she said, who rely on a predictable routine.
She added that some have also lost their in-school support systems when classrooms were initially shut down and schools transitioned to virtual learning, and that online schooling has been difficult for many children with ASD.
“For kids who need special accommodations, online schooling has been particularly tough and it also required much more investment from their parents,” Anagnostou said.
While the results are from the first wave of the pandemic, Anagnostou acknowledged that school disruptions continued in the province well into March 2021. March Break has been delayed to avoid further spread of new COVID-19 variants, and schools in Toronto only recently reopened for in-person learning on Feb. 16.
“Stability is important in school life … especially for kids with autism spectrum disorders,” Anagnostou said, adding it remains important that school boards and the province minimize disruptions for the well-being of those students.
But pandemic hasn’t been all bad for a smaller percentage of students, including those with ASD, the study revealed.
Around 11 to 19 per cent of children reported an improvement in at least one mental health domain, including up to 14 per cent of children with ASD — a few of whom saw particular improvements with respect to depression.
(Torstar, the Star’s parent company, is involved in a fundraising and educational partnership with the Hospital for Sick Children. Jordan Bitove, publisher and co-proprietor of the Toronto Star, is a member of the hospital’s board of directors.)
Reva Schafer, a retired educator and advocate for families of children with disabilities with the Toronto Family Network, said anecdotally that she worked with a number of parents whose children fared better during COVID-19 as in-school learning was particularly challenging.
“A lot of the kids, and I’m not saying all of them, have done much, much better than they were doing at school,” Schafer said, especially those who attended schools in poorer neighbourhoods that may have lacked adequate resources for students with disabilities.
Schafer said some children and their families were struggling with inadequate Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, which are put in place by schools to ensure students with disabilities meet certain learning outcomes.
Online learning has allowed them to go at their own pace, and parents that have time and resources have been able to monitor their children’s needs and tailor their education routine accordingly.
Students are also no longer subject to verbal or physical bullying, Schafer said. With online schooling, any instances of bullying are now documented and traceable.
“I can’t begin to tell you how many of the parents have been telling me their kids are so happy and they don’t want to go back to school,” Schafer said.
Schafer further criticized the SickKids study for not including a larger cohort of parents from a lower socio-economic background — 72 per cent of parents surveyed had a household income of $80,000 or more — and for not identifying results from children with ASD based on where they fall in the spectrum, as their experiences may vary.
She added it’s important to recognize that some children did fare better during the pandemic, as the mental health of young people has been deteriorating before COVID-19, and whether any changes could be made to the schooling system to ensure the mental health of all children improves post-pandemic.
“The truth is, we need to do some serious thinking about that too,” Anagnastou said.
“What we’re seeing is the school environment was so adverse before, so traumatic for these children, that it took a pandemic for them to experience relief.”
Nadine Yousif, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star