Neurodiversity: the impact of lockdown and social isolation


Many of us are neurodivergent and HR always has to be aware of mental pressures people are being put under by the current crisis. Matthew Trerise and Dr Angela Armstrong discuss the challenges neurodivergent individuals may experience due to lockdown and social isolation, with tips on how to help manage them

There has been a vast amount of discussion in the media that looks at how lockdown and social isolation, due to the coronavirus, is affecting people’s lives.

However, there are many parts of our society with people affected who are marginalised, misunderstood, unable, or do not wish to communicate their concerns, challenges and coping mechanisms on public platforms.

On a daily basis, in my roles with DMA Talent and the NHS, I am able to speak with people in the neurodiverse community. I specifically work with autistic people, but also regularly encounter people with a range of other neurodevelopmental conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, and dyspraxia.

This is hugely important in helping myself and colleagues understand how lockdown and social isolation impacts people. Also, to support people to develop strategies to overcome challenges they encounter every day.

A colleague of mine, Dr Angela Armstrong, is head of leadership development at Armstrong and author of The Resilience Club. She has a wealth of experience helping people to work through professional and personal challenges by equipping them with the mindset, skills and behaviours that can assist them.

We discuss some of the challenges that individuals may experience due to lockdown and social isolation, with a particular focus on the neurodiverse community, followed by tips on how organisations can help manage these situations.

Mental health

Social isolation and restrictive living/working environments can lead to increased risk of co-occurring mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. This will be experienced by many people, but generally has a higher prevalence in the neurodiverse community.

For people with anxiety disorders such as obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), coronavirus concerns could significantly exacerbate symptoms and lead to increased or problematic safety behaviours, for example excessive hand-washing, cleaning rituals, catastrophic thinking.

For those who experience low mood or depression, this could also intensify symptoms e.g. over/under eating, sleeping too much/too little, feeling helpless and suicidal thoughts.

Coronavirus will have a significant impact on mental health and social care services, services that were already stretched to capacity. Many people will be extremely isolated, unable to receive their usual support, or encounter specific difficulties and now require additional support, perhaps due to recent unemployment or being furloughed.


  • If you know anyone who is living alone, whether they are an employee, family member or a friend, then try to ensure you regularly check-in with them. This can help to recognise noticeable changes to behaviour or mood and identify unmet support needs.
  • Even if staff have been furloughed or are working from home, maintain regular one-to-one communication, explicitly ask what they need and agree how best to support them both now, and when returning to the workplace.
  • Establish the preferred method of communication with a trusted person, some people might prefer video or telephone calls, whereas others may find it easier to communicate via email or text.
  • Listen when people communicate their own boundaries and try not to overload them.

Disruption to usual routines

Not being able to do things in the same way, or finding it difficult to establish new routines while restrictions are in place, could have a significant impact on someone’s ability to work.”

Many individuals, especially autistic people, often have routines in place which provide structure, safety, security and help make sense of the world.

Not being able to do things in the same way, or finding it difficult to establish new routines while restrictions are in place, could have a significant impact on someone’s ability to work, their general wellbeing and mental health.

Some people will be able to manage this, others will have difficulty identifying the need to do this or
find it hard to implement the necessary changes, without support.


  • Try to establish consistent working patterns to give some stability, where possible – but also allow flexibility for those who need it. Only make significant changes when absolutely necessary, ensure to tell people with advance notice when possible, to enable them to discuss any concerns or develop strategies to help with the transition.
  • Ask your staff or team members what they need to work at their best or if they have any concerns – a little can go a long way here. Transparency and communication are key.
  • Be direct and communicate priorities and deadlines clearly. Ambiguity or lack of communication or direction can have a negative impact. Always ask if there is anything that would prevent someone hitting a target, deadline or goal.

Excess or lack of physical and mental energy

We all have periods during the day or week where we have excess energy or feel lethargic. Some people, perhaps those with ADHD, may need to burn off energy and could have difficulty managing rapid thought patterns or going to sleep.

The more creative individuals out there, something often associated with dyslexia and ADHD, could crave mental and creative stimulation to keep their mind active and maintain good mental health.


  • Exercise routines and time slots – encourage people to use the government’s advised one-hour window to exercise – which may be increased for some people with specific needs and a supporting letter.
  •  Walking, jogging, running, or cycling can be a hugely beneficial for physical and mental health. Some people in urban areas may not be able to safely exercise outside so something like indoor yoga or dancing to music with a window open could be helpful – ideally while watching trainers online or doing this with colleagues or friends via Skype etc to maintain social contact and motivate each other.
  • Even if someone can’t go into the garden or outside, try to sit by a window to have lunch and get some fresh air.
  • Mental stimulation through puzzles, memory games, drawing and conversation could help keep people occupied and give a much-needed release outlet.
  • For some people this is a great time to learn a new skill, language, or do something you have wanted to do but have never had time.

Social media and ‘fake news’

People can experience elevated stress and anxiety due to increased levels of social media use and scaremongering tactics that can be more prevalent with certain news outlets on social media. Especially for those people who are very logical, interpret language literally, or need factual information to rationalise things, reduce uncertainty in their life or understand what is happening.

Social media use can sometimes lead to feelings of inadequacy, or allow information-sharing that is misleading or simply untrue.


  • Encourage people to limit social media use outside of working or daylight hours.
  • Suggest they try to receive news updates by media with a typical neutral grounding, perhaps the BBC or NHS websites. The Prime Minister’s and government’s daily updates can be a useful source of information to provide clarity on areas of uncertainty.
  • Tell them to “know what you need to know”, then try to get on with life as best as possible without getting consumed by reading about the coronavirus.

Additional information

If you would like more information about autism or neurodiversity in the workplace, DMA Talent’s Autism Employer Guide is available as a free download.

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