How has the pandemic impacted people with autism?

Friday 3 December 2021

Everyone has been impacted by the global pandemic. Immense political, social and economic change has meant rethinking and adapting to new ways of working and living.  

In observance of International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) we reached out to members of the ANU and Canberra community about the challenges, barriers, and opportunities for people with autism during the pandemic.  

Dr Scott Rickard, Senior Education Designer for the ANU Center for Learning & Teaching Educational Design team, found the shift to working from home to be a positive experience, one that dovetailed nicely with her autism. 

“Since I am tech savvy, I’m able to work remotely from home. With most barriers eliminated, I am less stressed. For me a safe and quiet environment is a better working environment. If anything, my anxiety has helped me to keep aware of any health guidelines and my autism helps to implement them.” 

For many people with disability, the pandemic has meant reduced access to health care and rehabilitation, and greater isolation. But people with disability have adapted and embraced the changes that have impacted their communities and society at large. 

“As one of my disabilities is autism, a social communication neurological disability which is often very subtle in practice, it means there are far fewer social misunderstandings,” said Scott. 

Benefits of working remotely 

The shift to remote work and learning has also been a welcome change for Dom Friel who recently completed a Bachelor of Arts. He said having more time to do his assignments and removing the commute to his university’s campus helped to reduce stress.  

He said the remote learning environment was less intimidating for him than in-person group discussions. He said he often prefers interacting remotely. 

Scott has also embraced the shift to online meetings. “Meeting people for the first time via Zoom is less stressful as I’m not feeling judged if I happen to be a bit awkward socially that day and it demands less ‘masking’ on my behalf; all of which can sap my energy,” Scott said.  

How we communicate has changed dramatically with most of us now moving our chats, meetings and lectures online. For people who operate in a different communication culture, the shift has given greater agency for non-verbal ways of communicating.  

“Like many other cultures we’re often expected to learn all the nuances of the dominate culture and fit in, even though neurologically in my case, that’s not possible,” said Scott. “For example, I prefer to text in chat than speak a lot of the time as my words can take time to gather and I dislike being judged on my choice of inappropriate words. Yet, the dominant preference is spoken word in face-to-face and Zoom communication, and so I am sometimes asked to speak to my point which defeats the purpose of using the chat because that’s what the dominant culture expects.”  

“It has been great to see a surge in chat use in webinars and external environments as it validates text as an alternate synchronous communication form.” 

Greater use of technologies 

The widespread adoption of digital solutions for remote studying, working and collaboration has also been a positive step for many people with disability.   

For Dom, it has helped improve his online IT skills which has prepared him for the transition to the workforce. It has also meant that teachers have had to adapt their teaching. “Teachers had to ensure that all students with different learning styles had to be catered for using emerging technologies”, said Dom.  

According to the Australian Network on Disability more than 4.4 million people in Australia have some form of disability; that’s 1 in every five people. And graduates with disability take 61.5% longer to gain fulltime employment compared to other graduates.  

This international day is an opportunity to reflect on how we, as an ANU community, foster inclusion and engage with people with disability. 

Please feel free to reach out to Raelene Ernst (she/her) CECS Senior Service Consultant, Diversity & Inclusion. 

What you can do 

The ANU Disability Action Plan outlines how you can embed inclusive practices in your day-to-day work. 

Read Raelene’s blog on how has the global pandemic presented unexpected opportunities for people with disability. 

Other useful resources:


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Updated:  10 August 2021/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing