Ottawa·Point of View

Isolated and disconnected: teens with social challenges share their pandemic experiences

Kathryn and Sophia met through a program for teens with social challenges, including ADHD and autism. After COVID-19 arrived in Ottawa in March, nearly all in-person activities shut down. CBC Ottawa asked the teens to share what it's been like for them during this pandemic.

19-year-old Kathryn O’Malley, 13-year-old Sophia say they've channeled their anxieties into artistic pursuits

Kathryn O'Malley, left, has been diagnosed with autism. Sophia Bourgeois, right, has been diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia. They've become good friends. (Martin O'Malley (L) and Robyne Leslie (R))

Kathryn and Sophia met through a program for teens with social challenges, including ADHD and autism, called Spectrum Insights. It teaches life skills and how to make friends. After COVID-19 arrived in Ottawa in March, nearly all in-person activities shut down, including trips to learn how to take public transit or dine in a restaurant. Although workshops continued virtually, for young adults with social challenges it can be hard to read body language or pick up on social cues online.

"[These teens] are quite isolated," explained director John Anderson. "Many of the young adults in the program are routine-oriented and have a hard time connecting with others." 

CBC Ottawa asked Kathryn and Sophia to share what it's been like for them during this pandemic. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.


Kathryn O'Malley at home, with one of her favourite plush toys. (Submitted by Martin O'Malley)

Kathryn 

Kathryn O'Malley, 19, just graduated from Ottawa Technical Secondary School. She has been diagnosed on the moderate end of the autism spectrum. 

The pandemic has meant not being able to see my friends and not being able to go shopping with my mom. Mentally it took me a while to process that basically all my things were either changed or cancelled. 

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A lot of stuff has been a bit different and I just got my graduation sweater —  class of 2020 — officially graduating this year.

So it's been a roller coaster to put it in layman's terms.

During the pandemic, Kathryn O'Malley and her mom began making stuffed toys using patterns they found online. At first it was therapeutic, and later O'Malley realized it was fun. (Submitted by Kathryn O'Malley)

My autism affects me socially and it sometimes makes lights and sounds brighter and stronger. I have some challenges with eye contact — you might see me looking off into the distance. And I have trouble understanding social cues like sarcasm. 

At home, I've gotten closer with both my parents and my brother. 

I've also been making a lot of new friends online, with some drag queens from Montreal, Toronto, and Ottawa. It's been amazing to meet new people and to get to know them. I've been watching RuPaul's Drag Race and I've been interested in learning more.

During the pandemic, I started making small stuffed animals using a pattern online. I thought this would be a good way to take up time. Then I just got into it and realized it's fun.

I started because it was therapeutic for me during COVID. But, it's also brought my mom and I closer because she was the one who taught me how to sew. 

Together, Kathryn O'Malley and her mom have made a stuffed shark, a bumblebee, a bat, a spider, and the Peeps marshmallow bunnies. (Submitted by Kathryn O'Malley)

Together, we've made many toys, including a shark, a bumblebee, a bat, a spider, and the Peeps marshmallow bunnies.

After this summer, I'm taking a year off because I know that a lot of the classes at Algonquin College are going to be online, and I don't do well with online classes. 

I want to do the developmental service worker program and work with people with disabilities. I have friends who have physical disabilities and I have friends who have intellectual disabilities and I've always been drawn to them, because I kind of felt like I was a part of something. 

Sophia Bourgeois, Kathryn O'Malley and John Anderson, program director for Spectrum Insights, are physically distancing at a social gathering organized by John, as restrictions finally allow the friends to meet in person. (Submitted by John Anderson)

Sophia

Sophia Bourgeois, 13, has just finished grade 8. She has been diagnosed with ADHD.

It's been hard not to see my friends in person. 

During the pandemic, I prefer being inside. I do go outside once in awhile with my brother and we play games. Sometimes we wrestle, but safely. He's 10. 

COVID has stopped me from learning in a physical environment. It's hard because I'm a hands-on person and it's hard for me to learn just from a screen. I need to be able to do it myself. 

I have ADHD. I move around and fidget a lot. For me, it's hard to stay in one place and as you can see I am stuck in one place. Sometimes I will just walk around in circles, looking for things that aren't there or checking the fridge multiple times. My father would tell me the fridge is as full as when I checked the last time!

I also have dyslexia, for reading, writing and math. 

It's tough for me to read body language. When I was at a different school, people used to run away from me. It hurt. 

Sophia Bourgeois uses drawing to channel her feelings onto paper, and to keep her hands busy. She has been diagnosed with ADHD. (Robyne Leslie)

Now, I've found some very genuine friends. I can joke around with them and if they do joke, they don't mean to harm. 

I was feeling how COVID was getting to me. So I drew a picture of how we don't want to touch each other but we still want to see each other. 

My drawings put my thoughts into images. They make what is happening around me into a scene I love.

I will be going to high school next year. I am extremely nervous and I do not know how I will fit in. It's very nerve-wracking.

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