For children with autism, the abrupt changes created by the coronavirus pandemic are especially difficult. Trying to explain to your child why there is no school, why everyone has to stay home or why they can't go to their favorite places can add a level of confusion and frustration to an already stressful time.
Children on the autism spectrum often feel the non-verbal anxiety and stress of the world around them intensely. In this difficult time, modeling patience, creativity, resourcefulness and positivity can help the whole family. As difficult as it is to stay calm and positive in the middle of a pandemic, your mindset and interactions with your child can have a major effect on how they adapt to this big change.
Here are some ways to help children with Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and their families adapt to the sudden changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
1. Create a schedule
If you're parenting a child with ASD you know how important daily schedules are. The cancellation of school and other activities is hard on everyone, but this can be an opportunity to give your child more input—their opinion is important. Consult your child's teacher for a sample schedule based on what they used at school, along with visuals and key words they use. Keep activity blocks short, no longer than 45 minutes per slot.
Even if you are bored with the schedule you created, trust me, your child is not. Sameness will not only keep things calm, but it helps your whole family feel more in control and structured during these difficult, long days.
2. Schedule in breaks (for them + you)
Provide lots of sensory, gross motor and physical breaks to get everybody up and moving. Add in bathroom breaks throughout the day to remind them to use the restroom. Schedule in breakfast, snacks and lunch. Also add in "brain breaks"—during this time it is okay for your child to engage in self-stimulatory behaviors and/or screen time. Brain breaks are times for both of you to take a break from one another and decompress.
3. Use a timer to help with transitions
To help your child transition from one activity to another, use the alarm on your phone so your child knows exactly when an activity is over.
Each morning, set all the transition times on the alarm on your phone. A few minutes before the timer goes off, give a verbal warning. For example, "In 2 minutes when the timer goes off, we will clean up math and start writing." Your child will learn quickly that when the alarm goes off the current activity ends and a new activity will begin.
Ask your child's teacher if they sing a transitional song such as the "Clean Up" song or say a transitional phrase such as, "All Done." Replicate that during your transitions.
4. Set goals you can achieve
Creating a home learning schedule for a special needs child from scratch can be quite overwhelming, so keep your goals simple, and base them on whatever goals are in your child's IEP (Individualized Education Program) or service plan. Reach out to your child's teacher for worksheets or activities that help support their goals.
Also, create a personal goal that you would like your child to accomplish during the next two to four weeks. Whether it is learning to write their name or learning to dress themselves, focus on life skills, and you will be amazed at what your child can learn while they are at home.
5. Take care of you
Do whatever you need to do to take care of yourself. It may be waking up early and taking a walk around the block, drinking that extra cup of coffee, or binge watching a show after the bedtime routine. When creating your daily schedule, add in breaks for yourself such as sitting outside for five minutes and taking a breath, looking on social media, even eating a piece of chocolate. If you are not taking care of you, you will become ineffective when working with your child.
I also highly recommend taping "Parent Prompt" cards throughout your house with positive sayings like, "You got this," "You are doing great!" "Breathe." Write down any positive statements that will get you through your day and put them throughout your house where you will see them. It may sound simple, but these visual affirmations can make a big difference on a tough day. Both you and your child are depending on your strength right now—so do whatever it takes for you to support your own emotional well-being.
6. Make a ritual of Fun Friday
Everyone enjoys a Fun Friday! With all the unpredictable day-to-day changes, it is time to create some predictability in your life. Fridays are consistent and are not going anywhere. Make Fridays a fun day by having a half-day of learning and using the other half for a movie day, to make cookies or pizza, play games or take a walk together. Choose activities that would be fun for you and your family to do together, and Fun Friday will give both you and your children something to look forward to.
With all of the many changes within our communities brought on by the pandemic, it is hard to predict what tomorrow will bring. Your children are depending on you as parents to provide some normalcy in their lives. However, it is just as important to take care of YOU during this time. If that means that your child is having a little more screen time than normal or if they are engaging in more self-stim behavior, that is okay. You are human and it is all right for you to take a breather. Remember, we are all in this together.