By Huda Bashir Dawood

The coronavirus has led to the introduction of several strict measures aimed at preventing the spread of the virus. These measures have ended up either in suspension or disruption of several essential services. Some of such measures unfortunately have directly heightened a few serious risks for children with special needs. These children belong to a community that has always virtually lived in an isolation of sorts. Now the newly imposed norms of social distancing and lockdown have further insulated their lives.

"My son needs a routine, and not having one has affected his behavior adversely," says Ahmad's father. Ahmad, 13, has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Before the pandemic, he was in a special needs school that helped him cope with his developmental and speech delay.

Most children diagnosed with some form of disability start with an early intervention program at a very young age. The help and support of teachers and therapists enable children with special needs to learn necessary skills required for an independent life.

Children can develop basic social, language and motor skills with case-appropriate exercises, some of the tasks being as simple as catching a ball or learning to make eye contact. But children with special needs require therapies and interactive sessions for the development of their sense of individuality. Due to the restrictions imposed to reduce the risk of infection, many are unable to get the therapies that they need, or the socialization necessary for the development of their basic sense of self.

The cruel change in routine has worsened their overall wellbeing, damaging the progress they have made so far. Most children are losing the skills that they developed at school. The instincts that most kids are born with - such as to play, speak and respond to others, or even developing normal attention span - could take years for a special needs child to adapt.

Most families are struggling with outbursts from these children, as they do not understand why they cannot go outside or to school. This may also lead to regression. "My daughter has become hyperactive; we find it hard to deal with her behavioral changes," says Sarah's father. "I try my best to spend as much time as I can with her for her wellbeing," he adds.

Since Intervention is proven to be the best approach for them, being present in a physical classroom with trained teachers and therapists is vital for their development. It is even more necessary for these sessions to be consistent. These sessions offer them routine, personalized structure, better communication skills, and independence, along with the best academic support based on their individual needs. It changes their lives from a complete dependency to that of independence which in turn allow these individuals to be valuable contributors to the society.

The stress on the families of children with disabilities is significant even under normal circumstances, and has only magnified during this pandemic when the support systems that are usually available are no longer accessible. The loss of everyday routine, relationships, friendships, and isolation has only intensified the anxiety of these kids. They feel they are being punished for doing something wrong, leaving them utterly confused. These challenges only add to the pressure the parents of these kids already face especially because some of them are medically fragile too.

Parents and teachers are concerned that if these children are deprived of their support system for a longer time, they will not only suffer a loss of hard-earned skills but also develop behavioral problems that were not present earlier. They are an integral part of the society and it is our responsibility to build a world where they can live independently. While most institutions have shifted to online classes and are continuing their education, the most vulnerable have been left out of the whole picture.

  • Dawood is a former trainer for special needs children.