KINGSTON, LUZERNE COUNTY (WBRE/WYOU) — It’s well-documented how the pandemic has had a negative psychological and mental health impact on young people. That impact is even worse for children and adolescents living with autism.

As part of a joint reporting project with the Times Leader called Invisible Battles, Eyewitness News looks at the struggle, and the work being done to undo the damage.

Step inside a classroom transformed into a rain forest at The Graham Academy, a special education school for students with autism and behavioral challenges.

These students come from 30 different school districts. The school, founded in 2008, considers its curriculum a journey of discovery.

But part of that journey of discovery, social and emotional engagement, was sidelined for six months in 2020.

“When they were confined to the home setting, a lot of those skills that we work very diligently on were lost,” said Carol McGrane, Program Director at The Graham Academy.

“That’s a huge price to pay,” responded Reporter Mark Hiller.

“It’s a huge price to pay,” said McGrane.

Huge because it detrimentally impacted their mental health. According to research, 70% of people with autism have a mental health condition such as anxiety, depression, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

McGrane says it took a long time to get students who regressed to be able to communicate and share interactions once again with other students and adults. Some are still struggling.

“More of our higher functional students, they are more into video games and television and they have lost the social skill and cue of being able to get along with their peers,” said McGrane.

“They’re coming to the table, socializing, getting some enjoyment out of getting to know each other,” said Jason Davenport, Program Supervisor at The Graham Academy.

Davenport says he meets with classes to help them be successful. If a student is experiencing challenges, Davenport says that meeting becomes one-on-one.

“You’ve got some who are more extroverted, some more introverted, you know some that cope different ways. You know, that’s, it is, it’s very much an individual thing because the child is going to process in the way they need to,” said Davenport.

While the pandemic has posed problems for children across all age brackets, Davenport says it’s particularly hit hard for kids ages five, six, and seven.

He blames it on disrupting a young demographic with autism from establishing routines when they are not home which could have them not trusting other adults or questioning guidelines.

“Why do I have to sit at this time and why can I play at that time when at home I can do. I can do that whenever,” said Davenport.

It creates an obstacle for children with autism to achieve good mental health like the nearly 170 students enrolled at both of The Graham Academy sites in Luzerne County.

“We’re fortunate to have The Graham Academy as a resource but if they came to max capacity and you brought your child to us, by law we have to create that program. We cannot say no,” said Stephanie Anuszewski, Director of Special Education for the Wyoming Area School District.

Wyoming Area School District has roughly 60 enrolled students with autism. Stephanie Anuszewski says the district is looking to expand mental health services for those students and others.

“We are creating more emotional support programs. We’re providing more resources such as mindfulness resources, we’re looking at expansive trainings because just because a child is identified with autism it does not mean they’re not in the general education environment,” said Anuszewski.

Lindsay Dragon founded Parenting Autism United during the pandemic. Her Wyoming facility features an array of programs and services tailored to families living with autism spectrum disorder. Her family is one of them.

“We have an 8-year-old on the spectrum and he is severely affected by autism,” said Dragon.

She helps other families with autism with what she’s learned firsthand to help her son, Jackson, avoid mental health stressors.

“We offer resources that are available today and there’s no waiting list. There’s connections and saving the parents that time of indecisiveness of not knowing what to do to help their child,” said Dragon.

And helping autistic families meet their mental health needs on what could be a lonely journey.

Tune in Monday night at 5:00 p.m. on WBRE for our third installment of Invisible Battles when we report on how Luzerne Intermediate Unit supports districts and students with mental health needs.

In the meantime, the first of the Time’s Leader’s reports on Invisible Battles can be found in the Sunday edition.

You can read their next one in Monday’s newspaper, or check it out online in the Time’s Leader’s free access Monday E-Edition.