The impact of friendships for people with learning disabilities and/or autism

Thursday, June 18, 2020

 The importance of friendships


The friendships we make during our lifetime can sometimes be taken for granted. Forming strong connections and a sense of belonging with friends, family and people in the community can have a major impact on our physical and mental health and wellbeing.


Positive friendships can bring about many benefits, such as:

●Feeling happy, included and valued

●Reduces loneliness

●Improves mental health and wellbeing

●Promotes person-centred care and support


The reality of friendships for people with learning disabilities and/or autism


In 2001, the government released a paper called ‘Valuing People’. The paper outlined a strategy to support people with learning disabilities and/or autism. It identified four key principles which consisted of rights, independence, choice and inclusion. The emphasis around the paper was to ensure that people with a learning disability and/or autism have the same rights as the general population.

However, the reality is that creating a social life and being a citizen in their community continues to be difficult for people with learning disabilities and/or autism. This is due to the personal and social challenges they may encounter throughout their lives.


People with learning disabilities are seven times more likely to feel lonely than the general population and have fewer opportunities to take part in social and leisure activities with their peers. Those with learning disabilities and/or autism may not feel welcome in mainstream social settings and might require communication support to help them meet and talk to others and develop long term friendships.



How has the lockdown and COVID-19 impacted the lives of people with learning disabilities and/or autism?


The impact of COVID-19 has been difficult for many, due to the change of daily routines and the restrictions of not being able to see loved ones who live in other households. This has had an emotional and physical impact on people with learning disabilities and/or autism.

Due to the difficulty of communication and the need for consistency and structure, people with learning disabilities and/or autism are most at risk of social isolation, increased anxiety, and mental health issues.

Many people with a learning disability and/or autism may have difficulty understanding the changes and social distancing rules. They may struggle to understand why they cannot see their family and friends and go outside and do things that they enjoy.

As we have previously highlighted, people with learning disabilities and/or autism experience high levels of loneliness and social isolation which will sadly be heightened by the lockdown restrictions. During this difficult period, it’s extremely important that support staff acknowledge and prepare for this. They should provide stability and a sense of normality to ensure the mental health and wellbeing of their client is at the forefront of everything they do.


A recent survey conducted by Mencap showed the effects of COVID-19 of people with learning disabilities and/autism. They learned the following:


●⅓ of disabled people are spending too much time alone during lockdown, we know that people with a learning disability this is likely to be worse.

●The closure of day services, loss of routine difficulties staying in touch with family and keeping active means that they are struggling to cope. The COVID-19 pandemic is having a very negative impact on their health, mental health and wellbeing.

●Nearly two thirds (65%) reported that concerns around COVID-19 are affecting their wellbeing.


What can we do to bridge the gap?

During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone’s lives are being altered and limited. People are having to make changes to the way they live at home and in the community. The general population is mostly able to contextualise this impact and can successfully invest their own strategies to help them cope with the daily challenges.

People with a learning disability/and or autism will often rely on others, to make some decisions within their best interests. This is to ensure their mental health and wellbeing is maintained and prioritised throughout lockdown.

We need to make sure that people with a learning disability and/or autism are a part of discussions and decisions regarding the coronavirus, so they have the best chance of understanding what is happening and can stay in control of their lives as much as possible.


What needs to be considered when supporting people through the coronavirus pandemic.

  1. Explain what the virus is and the rules around social distancing in simple and familiar terms. Explain why things are changing, for example, the virus might make us ill, so we are staying at home to keep safe.
  2. Encourage the use of daily routines to obtain consistency based on what is available in their surroundings.
  3. The World Health Organisation (The WHO) recommends that people exercise daily. Taking a daily walk or run can improve your mood, energy levels and have a positive impact on your mental health and wellbeing.
  4. People must continue to have a choice and control over their social life, who they spend time with and who their friends are. Be creative and utilise social networks to ensure contact is maintained.
  5. Society needs to continue to recognise that having friends is valuable to people with a learning disability and or/ autism.
  6. It’s important to explain to anyone with a learning disability and/or autism that the lockdown restrictions are not forever, they are only for a short period of our lives and we will go back to normal.
  7. Make use of resources from organisations such as Learning Disabilities England, The National Autistic Society and Books Beyond Words.
  8. Keep a list of things the person wants to do after the lockdown restrictions are lifted, this gives the person something to look forward to after lockdown.
  9. Remember to review the Positive Behaviour Support plan (PBS) and incorporate strategies relating to COVID-19.
  10.  If PPE is required to be used, then ensure these are explained and give reassurance to the individual that it’s the same person behind the mask. Utilise name badges and picture of staff with and without PPE to help visualisation and reduce the opportunity for confusion.


At Thornbury Community Services, we understand how important it is that during the coronavirus pandemic we continue to maintain social networks that already have already formed and encourage new relationships that may develop during this period.

People with a learning disability and/or autism cope better in an ever-changing world. They need us to be proactive and positive more now than ever to ensure that the risk of loneliness, mental health concerns and further isolation is significantly reduced.

During Learning Disability Week, we will be sharing a variety of content about the campaign and different ways you can get involved. To keep up to date with our latest posts, follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn.