Helping Your Child on the Autism Spectrum Adjust to COVID-19

Daughter and father using a computerThe coronavirus pandemic has been difficult for families, who are suddenly being thrust into unfamiliar territory. They’re learning how to homeschool their children as well as helping them grieve canceled proms and graduations.

Many parents have been left scrambling to balance working from home and caring for their kids. But for parents of children on the autism spectrum, these challenges are compounded by the nature of the autism itself. Many children on the spectrum already have difficulty with change. They rely on their predictable schedules and routines, and there’s nothing like a good pandemic to upend all that in an instant. But there are a few things you can be aware of as a parent to make things a bit easier.

Treat Your Child Like They Are Competent (They Are)

Many individuals with autism have difficulty expressing themselves verbally. As a result, they might go most of their lives being grossly misunderstood. When someone can’t speak, we assume they also cannot understand. But this belief is faulty and completely untrue of those on the autism spectrum.

When I’ve worked with individuals who type to communicate and asked them what they want others to know, they have told me they want others to be aware that they are in there. That they understand and want the same things you want. They just can’t always make their needs known. Teenagers on the spectrum who can speak to communicate have also echoed this sentiment; that they would like to be treated like their neurotypical peers. However, they often are not.

So when addressing the coronavirus issues with your child, focus less on their neurodiversity and more on their chronological age. If they are five, speak to them as you would a five-year-old. If they are twenty-two, speak to them as if they are an adult. Presuming competence means no baby talk (unless your child is a baby) and no talking about the child as if they aren’t there. Assume they have seen the news stories you may have had on TV in the background. Assume they probably have questions and concerns just like you do. And address them.

If your child can communicate, follow the same guidelines you would if you were talking to them about sex: ask them what they know and what else they would like to know. Then keep the lines of communication open and update them as needed. Social stories provide a great way of explaining the virus and its effects. Simply go to YouTube and search “coronavirus social stories for kids,” and you’ll find several of them. Watch them together and talk about it.

Help Your Child Identify What They Can Control

Anxiety is a major concern in children with autism. Most of the children in my practice have some form of anxiety that is difficult for them to regulate, and the pandemic could cause some kids to feel more anxious than usual. A great way to help them with that is to make a list of things they can control. While many children won’t wear a mask over their nose and mouth due to sensory issues, letting them know this is a solution might help them gain some control. Washing their hands, staying home, and making a visual schedule together are all things you can help them focus on instead of things they can’t do.

Creating a space in the house or bedroom where they can do their schoolwork, or a sensory space with pillows and fidgets, can help them regulate their emotions during this time. Even creating a bulletin board with pictures of activities can be helpful in providing a visual for activities when they feel dysregulated. Activities such and jumping in place, swinging, and deep pressure with pillows or weighted blankets can help soothe your child when they’re feeling anxious.

Answering Some Common Questions

“What if we get sick?”

Many children are asking what will happen if they or someone they love gets the coronavirus. It’s important to be honest with your child just as you would be at any other time. Telling a child not to worry about it or that it won’t happen to them can be harmful to your child. But so is panicking, so balance is key. Explain to your child that most of the people who are getting the virus are being treated by their doctors and make a full recovery. Assure them that if they start feeling sick, you’ll make sure they are well taken care of and that the reason we need to stay at home is so they are less likely to get sick.

This might be a good time to explain that germs and viruses are tiny organisms that we can’t see but that can make us feel sick. Many kids on the spectrum might have difficulty with the idea that if they can’t see it, it must not be there. Explain that some things, like viruses, are so small we need microscopes to see them. Help them remember the last time they were sick with a cold to help them make the connection that the same thing happens when someone catches this disease. The biggest difference, though, is that this virus is extremely sticky, so it’s more contagious.

Some children will be fine with a simple explanation, and others will want to know more and more. Provide the information in small doses and remember that often, a child on the spectrum may need to process it for a while before adding new information to their brains.

“Why are my favorite places closed?”

Kids on the spectrum rely on familiarity to provide comfort. School, therapy, playgrounds, and their favorite restaurants are among a few places that are part of their everyday lives. To suddenly stop going to those places could really throw your kids into a panic.

I personally dreaded the day when they closed our beaches in Florida, because although I knew it was necessary, my 22-year-old son and I have a very quiet, sparsely populated beach we frequent several times a week. It’s his happy place. But it turns out, I was more anxious about telling him it was closed than he was actually hearing it. I definitely lucked out on this one, because when he was younger, a meltdown would have been likely. But we explained to him why they needed to close the beaches, and when he would ask, my husband and I would remind him they were still closed due to the virus. Then we would tell him we were disappointed as well, but that in a few weeks they will open up again, and we will get to go back.

This is the most important part of explaining something your child: reminding them this is temporary. It will end, and we will be able to go back to the beach, your favorite restaurant, your school, etc. In the meantime, create a new activity that can replace it. My son, who loves to go for long drives, has accepted this as a replacement activity. In fact, we’ve made it more interesting and fun by filling the back seat with pillows, books, art supplies, and a flashlight, and going for drives after it gets dark.

At the End of the Day, You Do You

It’s important to note that the interventions I’ve used with my son only work because I know my son. You know your child best. If your child needs sameness, make activities as similar to the one they are missing as possible. For some children, this is an opportune time introduce a new concept or activity. It might be the ideal time to potty train, teach your child how to cook, or help them learn their times tables.

For others, it might be the worst time to learn a new skill because they’re having too much difficulty with the current changes. If so, allow your child to feel whatever they are feeling, and give them the literal and emotional space they need right now. Keeping them busy every minute of every day is unrealistic and can be frustrating for a child on the spectrum who is trying to adjust to a new normal.

Our children take their cues from us. The more grounded and calm we (the parents) are, the better adjusted our children will be. If you’re having difficulty managing your own emotions, consider getting some help. Every therapist I know has gone completely online, and many are offering discounted sessions, so there possibly has never been a better time to talk to a professional who can help.

Let yourself off the hook for being the teacher and taskmaster of your child’s education. If you manage to get some schoolwork done, great. But if you don’t, please let it go. And if you’re like me and don’t even want to bother because there is too much going on, good for you! Not everyone was made to be their child’s homeschool teacher. That does not make you a bad parent. It’s much more important that you and your child stay grounded and calm during this time than it is that they keep up with their reading comprehension. All children, even those on the autism spectrum, are resilient.

Above all, remind your children that all of these difficult decisions are being made to keep them safe and healthy, that you will do everything to keep them safe, and that these inconveniences will eventually come to an end.

© Copyright 2020 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Janeen Herskovitz, MA, LMHC, therapist in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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