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Belfast mum who transformed the lives of autistic children by designing a clothing range is now advising them how to cope with the pandemic

When Meta Auden realised her daughter disliked certain fabrics and zips, she began to make bespoke items — and ended up launching her own firm. Talking to her teen during this crisis has also given her invaluable tips for parents, she tells Stephanie Bell

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Close bond: Meta Auden with her daughter Kirsty

Close bond: Meta Auden with her daughter Kirsty

Close bond: Meta Auden with her daughter Kirsty

While adults are confused and worried by the unfolding coronavirus crisis, parents of children on the autistic spectrum are faced with the problem of explaining the new world of social isolation and shielding.

For Belfast mum-of-two Meta Auden, whose 19-year-old daughter Kirsty has autism, it has been a bumpy road trying to manage her child's fears and explain why her routine has been disrupted.

Meta has learnt that communicating with children on the autistic spectrum is essential right now, given that they are seeing so much on the news and online about Covid-19.

She says: "We are bombarded on the news and online with this unfolding crisis.

"But we mustn't let it overwhelm our children. It is crucial that we take the time to understand it ourselves and communicate appropriately.

"It will be the case that they have questions and we must not try to sugar-coat what is a serious matter, especially as it may affect relatives that your child has an attachment to."

And, as Meta explained, it can be a challenge in terms of how the information is conveyed.

"The other thing about a child on the spectrum is they take everything a in very literal way," she says. "The first time Kirsty heard the expression 'it's raining cats and dogs' she fully expected to see that.

"When the Prime Minister started an update with the words 'some of you will die and many die before their time', I can fully see why those words would impact on a child who looks at the world that way."

Meta (61), who became a mum in her 30s, has achieved a lot in life.

She graduated with a politics degree at the age of 40, came through cancer in her 50s and then in her 60s established herself as an entrepreneur when she launched a new business making clothes for autistic children.

Together with her husband John (63), who works with her in her company Spectra Sensory Clothing, they have also opened their home and hearts to over 20 foster kids over the years.

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The pair with Meta's husband John

The pair with Meta's husband John

The pair with Meta's husband John

Meta and John first fostered, then adopted Kirsty, and while they knew she had ADHD, it was only later that she was diagnosed with being on the autistic disorder spectrum.

The couple also have a son Matthew (27), who was nine-years-old when Kirsty joined the family. She was aged just two, had foetal alcohol syndrome, was malnourished and had been moved from one foster home to another since her birth. Despite all of the difficulties she was facing, the couple fell in love with her.

Foetal alcohol syndrome occurs when a mother drinks during pregnancy. It can cause a range of physical and neuro development problems, including an abnormal appearance, short height, low body weight, small head size, poor coordination, low intelligence and behaviour problems.

Though she faces everyday challenges, in many ways Kirsty is a typical teenager who enjoys shopping for fashion with her mum.

However a few years ago Meta realised her daughter wasn't wearing all the new clothes she was picking out during their shopping trips.

Children with autism often have sensory issues and Meta discovered that things like certain fabrics, zips and labels made some clothes difficult for autistic children to wear. She explains: "Labels, itchy materials and seams are just a few of the things that caused Kirsty sensory discomfort.

"Christmas time would cause her stress as all the other children in school would be wearing heavy wool jumpers with reindeer and Santa; for her the nature of these clothes would cause her so much sensory stress that she would not be able to take part and this led her to feel even more isolated from her peers."

Kirsty was so upset that she withdrew into herself which caused Meta alarm.

Changing the clothes her daughter wore and making her own range through her company has not only made Kirsty a happier child but has transformed the quality of life for her many customers across the UK.

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Kirsty and her brother Matthew

Kirsty and her brother Matthew

Kirsty and her brother Matthew

Developing her clothing range led her to meet other parents of autistic children, and that connection has proved vital during the spread of Covid-19.

And Meta has some solid advice for other parents who don't have the benefit of a support group.

"The first thing that you need to remember is you are not alone in dealing with this," she says. "Other parents and carers are considering how to cope and have the same worries that you may have. If you have a friends network reach out to it through your phone, the internet or social media.

"There can be a lot of comfort from hearing 'I know what you mean' from another parent.

"The exchange of tips and ideas are vital, even just to have someone to speak to that understands."

For Kirsty, the change in routine has presented challenges.

Meta explains: "She takes the dog for a walk around the block every day, but does not want to go near shops because she doesn't want to see queues of people waiting outside.

"She has taken to do doing jigsaws that she has had for years but had never looked at before."

Meta has made a point of talking to Kirsty to try and understand how she is coping with the current situation.

And listening to her daughter has really helped the family to grasp just how difficult it is for Kirsty to process what is happening.

She says: "I asked her the other night before bed what were her thoughts on the whole crisis. She answered by saying that she was able to just let her mind go blank.

"What she said in her own words was 'I am talking to you, but my mind is blank, I am not thinking about anything'. What do you say to that?"

"Despite being frightened in her own way, Kirsty is coping.

"I have to say that the whole isolation bit does not bother her at all. I am not surprised as she never wants to go out and doesn't even need to talk to people.

"When she was at school, people would feel sorry for her as she went to sit in the office on her own to have lunch but for Kirsty that was preferable to a large canteen with noise and shoving.

"She took a packed lunch, but would not take a drink of anything all day, even with lunch, as she was frightened she would have to put her hand up to go toilet."

With everything that is going on, Meta wishes Kirsty could talk about her own fears. She herself is in the vulnerable group as she has a number of underlying health issues including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease. Naturally the fact her mum needs to take extra care is an added worry for Kirsty.

"There is no way I can get Kirsty to open up about what is going on at the minute," she says.

"I am sure she is frightened because a few people have said to me that due to my underlying health conditions I am at risk.

"Kirsty even went as far as telling me that if I ended up in hospital I was one of those who would not be saved.

"It does mean that I have to hide any fear I have."

With the daily news cycle and constant updates Meta hopes that parents will avoid situations that will increase stress.

She says: "We all want to know the latest information as it emerges, but the round the clock media coverage can be overwhelming for adults let alone for children with autism.

"You need to limit their exposure to it, as well as what you watch. When you watch or listen to the news be prepared to explain, discuss, chat or ease worries.

"It might be an idea to check online the latest updates to give you some thinking time."

Finally, this devoted mum warns that each child on the spectrum will be different and urges parents to be aware of their own individual child's needs at this difficult time.

She adds: "It is a very wide spectrum and some children are totally non-verbal.

"Each one will be on a different part of the spectrum, and how they can be supported is best determined by you, as a parent, knowing better than anyone else how to help."

You can view Meta's range of clothing, accessories and other products at www.spectrasensoryclothing.co.uk

Belfast Telegraph