COVID-19, also known as the Coronavirus, has impacted us in many ways. Financially; there are millions of people unemployed due to the impact of this virus. Mentally and emotionally; individuals have isolated themselves due to stay-at-home orders, only going out for the essentials to places such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and banks. With social gatherings limited in capacity and many events being canceled due to social distancing practices, this isolation has impacted everyone in various ways. Some people have transitioned to working from home. Schools have closed their doors and have transitioned from a physical classroom to virtual school. The Coronavirus has impacted how we live, work, and play. Now that families are staying home more, how does that affect them? If you are a family with an individual with autism, what are the impacts of our new normal and how do we help families cope with staying home?
How to Explain Coronavirus
Our children may have a lot of questions now that the world is going through a pandemic. Why are people walking around with face masks and gloves? What does it mean to social distance and when can we go back to school? These are all valid questions. How do we as parents explain what is going on and how do we help our children cope? Explain to your children in clear, concise language what is going on and how it will affect their lives. According to Kidshealth.org, “Find out what kids already know about the virus.” Ask them, “What questions do they have regarding what is going on?” This helps weed out any inaccurate information and also keeps the line of communication open. It is okay if the child does not want to discuss what is going on. Assure them that their feelings are valid and you are there for them when they are ready to discuss what is happening. Explain the new rules the family will be following during this pandemic such as increased hand washing practices, the practice of social distancing, and wearing protective gear while out in public. This explanation can be from simple YouTube Videos, a social story you have created, or news from other sources such as The Autism Society or the Center for Disease Control.
Staying Safe at Home
Routines are very comforting and keeping the same routine helps provide some kind of normalcy. Things such as a bath and bedroom routine will help your child while the world is transitioning. Give children choices. We all like to feel like we have some kind of control in our lives as we comply with restrictions, giving children choices will bring a sense of autonomy. This can be something as simple as what they want for lunch, what they want for a snack, or what clothes they will wear for virtual school. The use of a visual schedule could be a useful tool for the house. This helps children know what they are to be doing at certain times of the day. This schedule helps keep children on task as well as helps parents keep tasks in order. The children can have individual schedules to carry around with them, checking items off as they are accomplished. The schedule can be placed in a central location so the whole family can see it. Make sure you section out time for family dinner, family exercise, and family time in general.
Since most of us are operating school, work, and family life at home, the use of a timer can be helpful, too. The timer can be used to indicate moments of transition. In this article from Kids Health, they state, “Visual schedules and to-do lists can help kids know what to expect, while timers and 2-minute warnings can help with transitions.” Taking breaks can also help with this transition. According to Autism Speaks, “Free time could be broken up into time for: books and puzzles, arts and crafts, table top activities, etc. Try to include some outdoors and exercise times in your child’s schedule, weather and safety permitting.”
Managing Screen Time and Incorporating New Activities
According to the Autism Speaks, “Limiting screen time can be one of the biggest challenges for a family during breaks. It helps to set clear limits before the day begins and to review these limits with your child often. You can do this by scheduling screen time at specific times of day and only allowing screens during these times. You could also allow your child a specified amount of screen time (e.g., 1 hour) and keep track of it throughout the day. Using visual timers (there are many apps for this) can be helpful for setting these limits.” If screen time must be limited, then something should be put in its place.
Families are coming up with more creative ways to cope while being at home. This may include enjoying the back yard more or playing games such as I-SPY, which helps with color, object recognition and the use of imagination. Another game can be hopscotch, this helps with gross motor skills and counting. How about more help in the kitchen? Cooking is a life skill. Cooking new meals together is a cool creative way to break up the monotony of staying at home. Cooking involves math and science and helps children learn about sequencing and following directions. It helps with focus, seeing a project to completion, gives children active roles and the best part, families get to eat the fruits of their labor. Children can be given duties to include measuring ingredients, ensuring there is adequate space in the refrigerator for the food, and clean up and break down of dishes and tools.
Managing Challenging Behaviors
As we transition to safer at home orders, continue to work from home distance learning with virtual school, maladaptive behaviors are sure to be on the increase. There may be more noncompliance, tantrums, and physical and verbal aggression. These things are to be expected as we are living a more restrictive life. When children know what to expect, it takes the element of surprise out of life. This can be as simple as setting up realistic expectation for your children and explaining to them in clear concise words what is expected as the family transitions. Create and follow a behavior model using “if/then” statements. For example, “if you finish your math homework, then you can play a game.” Setting up and sticking to a schedule and routine helps children know what to expect. Model the behavior you want to see. In the article Managing Children’s Challenging Behaviors in the Mist of Coronavirus (Covid-19): Help for Parents written by Rory Panter, PsyD, and Rebecca Schulman, PsyD, BCBA-D, they state that “There are bound to be times when your children become upset and raise their voices at you. The key is how you respond to your child. If, in frustration, you raise your voice toward your child, you have taught them that yelling at each other is acceptable behavior. If you say to your child, in a raised voice, ‘Don’t yell at me!’ you are sending a mixed message. Modeling the appropriate behavior will help your child to learn the more appropriate behavior. So, instead, take a deep breath and say in a calm and even tone of voice, ‘We can talk when you are using a calm voice like mine.’” Also, be sure to validate their feelings. Children, like parents want to know they are being heard, listened to and understood. We all are experiencing different emotions, and sometimes these emotions are in forms of maladaptive behaviors such as verbal and physical aggression. According to the article, “Praise the appropriate behavior. Don’t just save the reinforcement for the end of the day; give it out in small increments throughout the day. Let your kids know that you are watching and noticing all the good things they are doing. Verbal praise is an excellent and quick way to let your children know you are proud of them and you appreciate their efforts. ‘Catch them being good!’”
Self-Care is the Best Care
Parents continue to wear multiple hats; it is very easily to lose one’s self, especially in days and times such as this. Self-care is more important than ever. What that looks like varies, but it is important. Self-care can mean reaching out to friends and family. This can be a weekly call and or check-in via various meeting platforms. This can be an end of the day check in with self as well, identifying small wins and victories. Self-care can include taking baths, writing in a journal, doing yoga, being intentional about spiritual practice, mindful breathing exercises, and dancing to music. Self-care can also be asking for help from your support system. This may include family, friends and any mental health professionals. Self–care can be something as simple as lying in bed and taking deep breaths and being grateful you survived the day.
This pandemic has made people aware we are facing a “new normal.” It is uncertain when and if the world will go back to how it used to be. There is not a rule book on how to survive a pandemic. As families are staying home more, it is imperative that we stay strong. Staying at home is difficult for various reasons. Having families stay strong during this pandemic is crucial. Creating a routine for the family to follow, developing coping strategies such as giving children as well as parents more understanding during the unprecedented times is critical. Thinking outside of the box and maintaining self-care practices will help children and parents cope while staying at home.
Taveesha Guyton is a social worker who works with autistic children and adults. For more information, please visit Werfamile.org.