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Coronavirus shifted autism program online making access easier for many busy parents


Key points:

  • Early Days moved online when COVID-19 made physical attendance impossible

  • Brisbane mum Julia White says it has increased her ability to access courses

  • Jenny McPherson says she hopes the program continues online


While this year's coronavirus lockdown has left families way more isolated than they would like, for some parents it has provided access to a whole new community.

After her son's recent autism diagnosis, Brisbane mother Julia White found attending workshops often proved too difficult.

But during the COVID-19 lockdown, a free, federally funded program shifted online and made access a whole lot easier.

She said she found the support from the Early Days program — on offer via the Autism Queensland website — had proved "invaluable".

"We've been able to balance that in with our work commitments a lot easier so it definitely increased our ability to attend some of the programs," Ms White said.

The advice she received through the Early Days workshops, which she accessed through the NDIS, also helped them adapt to life during the pandemic.

"Children on the spectrum enjoy things in a structured way so [the pandemic] was a bit disruptive … so there were some techniques in there about helping your child adjust to changes," she said.

Ms White really hopes the program stays online.(ABC News: Holly Richardson)
Ms White really hopes the program stays online.

Ms White said while it could be confronting to share details and stories about children in a webinar, the ease of access made it worthwhile and she hoped the online program continued after the pandemic.

"I think it would be a real loss if they weren't to continue online, even if some were offered face-to-face as an option as well," Ms White said.

"Having that specialised knowledge about ASD was really invaluable. It does go a huge way to making you feel like you're not alone.

"I'm more patient, as a result, with my child as well … learning more about what it might mean and just trying to appreciate what some of the challenges with living on the spectrum might mean."

Early Days workshops, which have been funded through the Department of Social Services' Helping Children with Autism program, usually tour regional areas several times a year, but now programs are being offered solely online.

"We're gradually getting more and more families from regional areas, but we're also getting more families that are quite isolated within the city areas as well, which has been a surprise," national coordinator Lynda Melville said.

Jenny McPherson wants to help her son Archie but says attending workshops in person is tricky.

Some carers have told her they previously had trouble accessing the workshops because of transport or work difficulties, and the online program helped them feel less isolated.

"Children with autism really seek predictability and that helps them feel calm … so during this unpredictability … they may become more and more anxious and may withdraw from family life or become quite rigid," she said.

From 'famine to feast'

Mackay mother Jenny McPherson said she had attended a few workshops before the lockdown to help with her son Archie, but timing did not always work.

"Previously, in the face-to-face model, I'd attended a 'transition to school' workshop, but he was a good 18 months off going to school, but the fact that it was coming to town, I thought, 'Oh I'll do it now because I just don't know if it will be coming back in,'" Ms McPherson said.

Jenny McPherson and her husband both work, meaning their free time is limited.

Now she can access more workshops online, finding the information that is most relevant to her son in a way that is less disruptive to her lifestyle.

"Currently, both my husband and I work, so in order to access any face-to-face sessions, I would be using all my annual leave," Ms McPherson said.

"The access to a suite of courses and … actual flexibility on days, times, things like that, it's a little bit like a famine to feast for me."

Ms McPherson agreed access technology could be a significant barrier for some.

"The plan was that my mother-in-law was also going to attend at her house, she wasn't able to but I also felt that she would maybe struggle on trying to get into the actual meeting on Zoom," she said.

She said while it was great to be able to talk with people in different locations, she could also see people might miss meeting up in person.

But she said she really hoped the program would continue online.

Ms Melville said they hoped to keep online workshops as an option, but that she also had ongoing concerns about the lifespan of the program, which currently only has funding for another year.


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