COVID-19 has not only introduced a global pandemic, but has also significantly changed the way we operate in our daily lives. Due to spatial distancing measures imposed because of the pandemic, the closure of both mainstream and special needs schools were necessary to curb the spread of the virus.
As a result, families made arrangements to incorporate home-based learning and also had to think of ways to ensure that the children can continue to learn and develop, and not regress in this unfortunate circumstance that we are in. Particularly for children with ASD, the regular face-to-face interventions they have been receiving from professionals had to be restricted and parents, in turn, may experience an increased level of stress during this period.
Though these restrictions are being lifted gradually, going about our days like how we used to before the pandemic might not be possible just yet. The aim of this post is to give some suggestions, summarised in 5 tips, to help families manage children with ASD during this period by taking into account the peculiar behavioural traits of children with ASD.
5 tips for helping parents and caregivers of children with ASD:
Children with ASD possess a concrete cognitive style and would require explanations that are clear, direct, and honest. Be specific about what COVID-19 is, and what is needed to be done and expected. For example “COVID-19 is a virus and it can make people sick. We have to wash our hands with soap and water frequently. Your school will be closed for two months and I will be working at home”. The instructions may have to be repeated or revised accordingly to the understanding of the child.
Acknowledge that these changes do require time to adapt to, and the child may exhibit an increase of stereotyped behaviours due to the perceived stress due to the changes. These behaviours function as a form of self-regulation and should not be seen as regression.
Structured routines are important for children with ASD, and the changes that arised because of COVID-19 will require a restructuring of routines. Set time for learning, play, and nourishment and allow time for the new routine to be adapted to. With the changes in the learning environment, it may also be useful to assign each room for different activities.
The use of visual charts and checklists might help in enticing the child to adapt to the new schedule. Creating these charts can also be a way of engaging the child to work on their communication and writing skills.
Children with ASD tend to have specific interests and it is highly encouraged for parents and caregivers to recognise these interests and incorporate them into their learning processes at home. It has been found that strength-based approaches (e.g. leveraging on a child's special skills and interests) to interventions are crucial for children with ASD to become active and creative individuals (Vellonen, Kärnä, & Virnes, 2015).
As it is common for children with ASD to be drawn to technology, engaging the child through supervised screen-based activities will also enhance the child’s learning. Check out Eblity’s reading program for an example of such an activity!
Many therapies may not be able to be continued due to their interventions needing in-person interactions. However, it is worth exploring online interventions with your trusted therapists as they may have new-found methods to shift their practice online. Children with ASD can often be anxious, especially when there are major changes happening. Shifting psychotherapy sessions online, and assessing the feasibility of the continuation of other therapies online may help with easing the child’s anxiety during this transition.
Online interventions may not be as ideal as in-person interventions, but they have the potential to still be beneficial. Parents and caregivers might learn new things about the child through these online interactions!
Taking care of the child during this time and arranging for the above might add on to the existing stress that parents and caregivers of children with ASD already have. It is important to remember that we cannot pour from an empty cup.
Self-care practices have to be consciously implemented and built, and they may mean different things to different people. Take time to establish your self-care practices by first looking into what recharges you as an individual.
The world is undergoing distress and confusion because of COVID-19, and families of children with ASD have an added pressure to adapt to the safety measures in place. The creativity and courage to try new methods, and the patience to allow these changes to take effect are useful qualities to have during these trying times. It is important to acknowledge and accept that both caregiver and child are learning along the way. Allowing a space for new discoveries can be a motivating factor to push through this period!