The new constraints to daily routines as a result of COVID-19 have certainly affected everyone, but for children, teens, and young adults on the Autism Spectrum, making adjustments can be particularly challenging. People on the spectrum often rely on predictability and routine to bring about a sense of certainty and safety in their environment. Without this safety net, there is the risk of heightened levels of anxiety, depression, or emotional outbursts. So what exactly do these changes and challenges mean for those on the spectrum, and what can we do as parents and educators to help calm the mind, ease emotional tensions, and promote overall well-being?
- Take care. Contrary to popular belief, individuals with ASD are some of the most sensitive people, and if you, as a parent, caregiver, or teacher are panicked and/or dysregulated, your students or children who rely on you for their regulation will feel it. “Put your own oxygen masks on before putting one on others.” Set aside the time you need to confront your own anxiety before you are in the presence of your children or students on the spectrum. Whether you are comforted by meditating, doing yoga, jogging around your house, or taking a zoom Zumba class – do it!
- Tune in, be curious, and connect. It is essential to recognize that all behavior is communication. Do not “react” to behaviors; instead, be thoughtful in your response so you can validate your child’s or student’s experiences. In this way, they will feel heard, understood, and safe. Voice for your child what they are having difficulty expressing, i.e., “You seem sad, (frustrated) right now,” etc. In Barry M. Prizant’s book, Uniquely Human, he suggests not trying to “fix” or change behaviors but instead to be curious and to ask ‘why.’
- Implement calming practices. I often use mindfulness and expressive arts in my classes. Practice deep breathing: breathe together. Inhale 5 counts, exhale 5 count Do this several times until you both feel a greater sense of calm. Let out excess energy by shaking out the body – start with shaking hands, feet, and then the entire body. Add sounds by opening your mouths wide and letting out a loud yawn, and turn it into a roar. Create a collage using photos from magazines to reveal inner thoughts and feelings. In my book, the Seven Keys to Unlock Autism: Making Miracles in the Classroom (Wiley 2011), I offer mindfulness exercises for teachers and parents.
- Presume intelligence. Assume that your child or student knows what is going on and are being affected, especially if your child is non-speaking or is an unreliable speaker. A mother from The Miracle Project, a nonprofit that offers inclusive theatre classes and allows children and young adults with autism to express themselves through creative music, dance, and acting, wasn’t sure if her child understood anything about the virus until he told her, “Mom, the Governor will tell us when we can go outside again. Stay inside and be safe.”
- Accept change. Appreciate that this is a very stressful time for everyone. Students from The Miracle Project have suggested to their friends to “apply logic to their brains.” Learn the facts but do not let your children become obsessed with the news to the point of not being able to focus on anything else. Henry, a student in the new award-winning HBO film Autism: The Sequel states that as soon as he learns one thing in the world, there is always something else he has to figure out. Point out your child’s or young adult’s strengths by emphasizing how far they have come and how much they have already learned to adjust in this complex world.
- Participate in predictable events. Structured activities are calming and reassuring for all children, not only to those on the spectrum. Try to maintain the routines that you have the most control over, such as mealtimes, chores, bedtimes, and family time. As a teacher, keeping your students on a schedule can help, too. Create some new routines that are centered around doing something fun together, like movie or game night, make your own pizza night, and physical activities, whether inside or outdoors. Involve your children in decision making and planning. There is no one solution to fit all; be mindful, creative, and open to all possibilities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only disrupted routines, but access to support services, including behavioral, speech, and occupational therapy, as well as activities that support a sense of community. While virtual platforms are helpful (and even preferred by some), they are not always ideal for providing these types of services for people with ASD. Create learning options using the home as a practice ground. We call this “rehearsing for life.”
Social distancing may actually provide a perfect opportunity for individuals with Autism to build upon their strengths and discover new forms of personal development that will help them become more resilient in dealing with situations beyond their control in the future.
Finally, if you or your child continue to struggle, seek professional assistance, such as the family physician or therapist. Educators can also reach out to other educators for aid and advice. Do not hesitate to ask for help. We are all in this together, and we can emerge from this crisis stronger and more capable than ever. As one of my young adult students said, “We’ve been through so much already in our lives like bullying, being told we are stupid, and feeling isolated and alone – this quarantine will only make us stronger.”
About the Authors
Award-winning author, speaker, consultant to the United Nations
Founder/ The Miracle Project, an inclusive theater, film, social skills program profiled in Autism: The Musical and Autism: The Sequel
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Specializing with anxiety and families of children with disabilities