By Dr. Reshma Naidoo, Neuropsychologist
Director of Cognitive Neuroscience at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital
and Jenna Lebersfeld, Neuropsychology Intern
Coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted all of our lives in varying ways, and families of children with autism spectrum disorder may have unique challenges in handling information about the virus and all the changes that come with it. The following article may help provide families with ideas on ways to get through it together!
Helping Your Child Understand COVID-19
Children may have questions about the virus itself and wonder why all these changes are happening. It is best to strike a balance between answering your child’s questions in a way that makes sense for him or her while also trying not to overwhelm the child with too much information.
- Listen to your child’s questions and answer them as best as you can.
- Use visuals, such as pictures and videos, to help children understand what is happening.
- Try to avoid having separate adult conversations about the coronavirus within proximity to children. They are usually listening and may feel more anxious and overwhelmed by these separate conversations.
- Focus on the basics when explaining the virus to children. For example: “If someone has the virus, others might get sick. To make sure we stay safe, we have to wash our hands a lot and stay inside most of the time.”
- These explanations might have to be repeated many times until children understand the situation. They might ask the same questions over and over again, because they are trying to make sense of what is going on. Try to stay calm and continue working with them throughout this difficult transition.
Coronavirus explanation video
Activity book for explaining coronavirus
Audio and transcript to help explain coronavirus to people with autism
Coping with Change and Uncertainty
Children with autism thrive when they have predictability and routines, and the coronavirus has unexpectedly upended many of successful routines families have established in their homes, schools and communities. That means it’s time to focus on what you can control and create new routines and schedules for structure and predictability within your home.
- Make a Routine: Try to keep the new routine as similar as possible to what it was before. Take a look at which parts of the routine can be kept consistent. This might include waking up and going to sleep at the same time as usual, eating meals at the same time, and having the same kinds of food the child usually eats. Have your child wear the same type of clothes he or she wore to school during learning time. You can even have your child pack a backpack and bring it to “school” when it’s time to begin schoolwork.
- Be Prepared for Possible Setbacks: Even with the best intentions and routines, this transition is sure to be stressful at times. Some children with autism might even seem to regress in some of their abilities, such as talking less, becoming more rigid with routines, becoming overly fixated on things, increasing negative behaviors, and having toileting accidents. This can be distressing, but remember that kids are resilient! With your help and support your child will learn to cope with this “new normal,” whatever that looks like for your family.
- Monitor Mood: Your child may feel anxious or sad following all these big changes, which makes monitoring your child’s mood during this time very important. Encourage your child to try to use positive coping strategies to help regulate emotions. This might mean giving him or her things that can help promote calm and a sense of security, such as a weighted blanket, favorite toys, calming music, and sensory toys. Physical activity and calming meditation can also be helpful. You can talk with a mental health provider or use apps and online resources to help with coping.
Coping with COVID-19 routine disruptions (video)
Apps for coping
Mental health resources
Transitioning to Home Learning
As schools are changing from in-person classes to in-home classes, you may be wondering about the best way to help your child be as successful as possible in this setting. The type of instruction your child receives will vary based on individual need, and you are encouraged to speak with your child’s teachers and therapists to find out what works best for your child.
- School Zone: Create a specific place in your home where school will take place. If your child is participating in school virtually through a computer or tablet, have the child sit in the “school zone” when he or she is expected to work and go somewhere else when it is time to take a break.
- Classroom Rules: Make “classroom rules” to tell your child what is expected while in the “school zone.” You can write these rules down and even draw pictures of the rules together and post it on the wall.
- Visual Schedule: Create a visual schedule for the day with pictures for each activity in a row. Build in breaks and opportunities for free time in between work. There are many visual schedules and visual supports on the Do2Learn website: https://www.do2learn.com/. After each activity is done, encourage your child to cross it out before going to the next item.
- Visual Timer: You can also use a visual timer for children who have difficulty understanding the concept of time. You can download visual timer apps on your phone or tablet or use the ones on this website: https://www.online-stopwatch.com/classroom-timers/. Visual schedules and timers can help ease the transition between activities for your child.
- Therapies: Many families who have special education services at school, including Individualized Educational Programs (IEPs) or 504 Plans, may be wondering how these will be implemented. Each school and school district seems to be handling this differently, so try to work with your school to see what can be done. For maintaining your child’s therapies as best as possible, get in touch with your individual service providers to see if they are offering telehealth during this time. If not, inquire if they can recommend providers who do provide telehealth services.
- Behavior Plan or Token Economy: Find out if your child’s teacher or therapist is using a behavior plan or token economy. If the therapist is, he or she can help you implement the same kind of reward system at home to help with the transition to learning at home.
- Social Narrative: A social narrative is a first-person story of the expectations for different situations that can help children with autism understand what they are expected to do. For example, you could write a story (or have your child write the story if he or she is able to) about the current situation: “It is a weekday which means that I am going to the school zone today to learn. When I am in the school zone, I will sit in my chair and pay attention to my teacher. My teacher will talk to me and my other classmates by video chatting.”
Kindness and Compassion
Overall, kindness and compassion for our family members (AND for ourselves) is very important! So often, parents put their entire effort and energy into caring for their children. However, if you don’t take care of yourself as well, then you will eventually have nothing to give. Make sure you are taking at least a few minutes every day for yourself, whether this means waking up before your children to read for 30 minutes or brewing your favorite cup of tea and meditating for 10 minutes before bed. This will help you stay as relaxed and recharged as possible.
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The national autism organizations around the country have been doing an excellent job of providing resources and up- to-the-minute information about how the COVID-19 pandemic may affect you and your family. For more information, we encourage you to take a look at the resources below.
Autism Society of America
National Autism Association
Els for Autism