By: Ronit Molko, Ph.D., BCBA-D and Sally Burke, M.S. Ed., BCBA
The sudden disruption in routine due to COVID-19 is challenging for all individuals to manage as we adjust to a new, and hopefully short-lived, normal of staying at home and ceasing most of our regular activities. For families of individuals with autism and other disabilities, the disruption can be especially challenging.
Although families deal with planned schedule changes or transitions, such as school vacations and summer breaks every year, what we are currently experiencing is different. This is a sudden disruption to our everyday routines with the added pressure of trying to create a viable learning environment to accommodate home schooling or online learning as schools try to complete the year in a virtual environment.
This sudden disruption means that both teachers and parents have not had adequate time to prepare for distance learning and that children have unexpectedly been pulled out of school. Children rely on set classroom schedules and routines and seeing the same friends and teachers every day. Now add into the mix the cessation of center-based services, therapeutic interventions, and possibly in-home visits being limited or put on hold to help minimize the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19) across the United States. This will likely cause confusion and uncertainty for many. Easing anxiety, setting up activities, and staying busy during these unexpected and possibly challenging times can help with this change.
Being transparent about the situation:
Easing any anxiety your child may be experiencing, due to the changes in schedules and routines, is the first step to settling in to a “new” temporary schedule. Children will perceive the added stress and anxiety in the environment and so it’s important to explain to your child what is happening in their world. Keep it simple with basic information and present the facts at the level appropriate for your child’s age and ability to absorb this type of information. Even though you may be concerned yourself, it is important to model calmness when talking about the virus. Children pick up on your social cues and how you respond to new things. If they have questions, answer them. Don’t be afraid to talk about it. Remind them that they are safe. And, remind them that this will end and they will return to school and to their favorite activities.
There are a variety of websites with information on how to talk to your child about the coronavirus. This website offers a social story about the change in schedule due to the Coronavirus as well as a printable PDF.
An increase in sensory needs, anxiety and meltdowns:
Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder generally have increased sensory needs and it is likely that those needs will not be met during this challenging time. Expect to see an increase in anxiety, depression and perhaps OCD. Additionally, since autistic individuals frequently have trouble communicating verbally, often the only sign that your child is experiencing anxiety is through external expressions such as meltdowns and increased self-stimulatory behaviors. It is likely that you may see new behaviors in which your child may not have engaged in previously.
It is important to provide the space for your child to express his concerns. Russell Lehmann, motivational speaker and author reminds us that outbursts and meltdowns are the expression of inner pain, overwhelm, confusion, stress and anxiety. Simply, be present with your child and listen more than you talk. Validation of their experience and a safe space to release their emotions is important in helping to move through it. Helping children take long deep breaths throughout the day will calm the nervous system (both yours and theirs) and help to mitigate the build-up of stress and emotion.
It helps to create a routine at home that provides consistency and predictability. If your child does better with visual schedules, there are great resources available to you on the internet that can help you create your own daily written or visual schedules. We tend to take for granted that we know what is coming based on the time of day (12 means lunch is near), but many of our children can’t associate time of day with certain activities. Creating a schedule will help allow them to see what’s coming next throughout their day and may help to lessen some challenging behaviors that may emerge due to their lack of routine.
If this feels overwhelming, try creating mini-routines for different parts of the day; a waking routine, a morning play routine, a “schooltime” or learning routine, a lunch routine etc. This is also a great opportunity to create and teach hygiene routines such as handwashing.
If you are receiving in-home ABA, seek help and advice from your BCBA to assist you in developing a daily schedule that will help meet your family’s needs. There are also greater resources available, via Telehealth, to receive parent training from your BCBA.
Staying busy, especially during your child’s typical school, daycare or ABA-service hours is the next step. The solidarity of many world-wide educational and additional sites offering free online resources is remarkable during this time of uncertainty. Educational sites, as well as museums, zoos, and even Disney are offering virtual treats for children of all ages. There are free options for temporary internet service if your family needs it. This is also a time to connect with your children in new ways- cooking or baking, playing cards and boardgames, taking a walk, making up games, and learning life skills. Alternate your schedule between electronic activities, written work, crafts or projects and playing inside or outside when available. Use transition warnings (timers, first/then statements and choices) whenever possible throughout the day to help navigate and manage their new schedules.
Remain calm, set up a new daily routine and stay busy. And remember that patience, not perfection, is the key. Know that this is going to be hard- taking it moment to moment makes it more manageable. These tips should help minimize the effects of these sudden and unexpected events on your child and your family. Stay safe and healthy.