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Supporting autistic adults and adults with learning disabilities during coronavirus outbreak

Joint statement by the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) and the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE)

We are living in unprecedented time. Autistic adults and people with learning disabilities are likely to find the coronavirus outbreak, the restrictions placed on daily living, and the changes to how their support is delivered, particularly confusing, worrying and in some situations distressing.

Social workers play a vital role in supporting them through this very challenging time.

The two BASW England capabilities statements on social work with autistic adults, and adults with learning disabilities can help social workers and their employers to keep a focus on what they need to know and do.

The statements may be of particular value to social workers who, due to workforce capacity issues, may find themselves working with autistic adults or adults with learning disabilities for the first time.

Ruth Allen, chief executive of BASW said:

“Social workers have a vital role in communicating with and advocating for autistic people and people with learning disability during the coronavirus outbreak. The restrictions in place represent a huge transition for these client groups. Social workers need to uphold and promote access to the same human rights for these groups as for any other citizen.

“The capabilities statements provide valuable information and practical advice for all social workers working with autistic adults and people with learning disabilities.  The statements will be of particular value to social workers who are working with these groups of clients for the first time.”

BASW and SCIE are currently developing resources to support implementation of these two capabilities statements.

Key messages for social workers

Key messages within the two capabilities statements that are particularly relevant to the current situation with coronavirus are summarised below.

Social workers should:

  • uphold and promote access to the same human rights for adults with lived experience of learning disability and autistic adults as for any other citizens, embedding their values and ethics into rights-based practice that makes a difference to people’s lives.
  • understand that people with learning disability, and autistic adults have much worse physical and mental health and poorer wellbeing than the rest of the population
  • develop, nurture, and manage their relationships with people who use services and their networks, including friends, families, and other professionals
  • understand the different ways that people with learning disability communicate – for instance sign language, Makaton, Picture Exchange Communication System, and Talking Mats
  • understand how autistic adults may prefer to communicate – for example unusual or out-of-character behaviours may be a signal for sensory overload. Social workers should use different communication methods: writing letters, emails, etc; visual aids, and assistive and digital technologies. Communication should cover one matter at a time to avoid confusion, and should be devoid of assumptions, metaphors and jargon
  • understand the key principles of the Mental Capacity Act 2005 and the Liberty Protection Safeguards and their interface with the Care Act 2014 and Mental Health Act 1983
  • know about the increased prevalence of some safeguarding issues with people with learning disability and autistic adults, and the particular forms these can take – for instance sexual exploitation and abuse, grooming, being drawn into ‘gangs’ and extremism, financial and domestic abuse, and neglect
  • use their critical reflection and analysis capabilities to develop their empathy and understand more closely the implications, meaning and emotional experience of change and transition from the person’s perspective.

Useful links

BASW England Capabilities Statement for Social Workers Working with Adults with Learning Disability

BASW England Capabilities Statement for Social Workers Working with Autistic Adults

The capability statements do not include advice on infection risks, our website is kept updated with wider practical advice on risks.  See BASW website.

BASW coronavirus updates

Alert cards for autistic adults and adults with health needs