Pandemic poses unique challenges for children with autism

Kaitlyn Diehl was disappointed when she found out she’d be online for her senior year of high school.

"I didn’t really expect it to last that long," she recalled.

It was last summer that Kaitlyn’s family had to make the tough decision. She’d be missing many of the activities she looked forward to. 

"The book fair, prom, senior retreat, just all the normal events that we did last year," she continued. 

It was an even tougher decision because Kaitlyn has autism. She was non-verbal until the age of 5. 

"She doesn’t like to be held or touched. She likes her quiet space and tends to zone out when life gets too crazy, explained Marie Diehl, Kaitlyn’s mother. 

Marie had concerns about removing her from school. She thought the isolation would cause her to lose valuable social skills. That didn’t concern Kaitlyn, though. 

For many children on the spectrum, isolation is embraced and even enjoyed. 

"The six feet apart and the social distancing, I didn’t really have a problem with that too much," Kaitlyn laughed. 

But experts say seclusion is the last thing many children with autism need. 

"If we think about losing a whole year of social practice, that’s really concerning," said USF pediatric psychologist Dr. Heather Agazzi. "We know that they lost those opportunities, obviously because we were in a crisis situation, but I think the longer-term worry is the accumulation of those lost experiences."

RELATED: U.S. students falling behind in math during pandemic, study shows

Dr. Agazzi says in the future, research may be able to answer exactly how much progress special needs children lost during the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, Marie says it's time for Kaitlyn to relearn how to interact with others. 

"You have to deal with people on a daily basis if you are going to be part of society. Whereas for her, the peace and quiet and less activity is heaven, that’s not reality. So coming back to school is essential," Marie said. 

They've made the decision to allow Kaitlyn to return to school for the last month of her senior year. 

Kaitlyn plans on attending St. Pete College in the fall and will be studying computers and writing. 

"I’m thrilled," she added. "I really don’t have any other words to express how happy I am that I’m graduating and coming back to school for my last month of school."