The current COVID-19 pandemic has everyone around the world feeling confused and stressed. The whole family suddenly finds itself quarantined at home together, and all regular routines have been thrown out the window. This article will provide some guidance on how to explain the new situation to your child with autism and help you get through these times as smoothly as possible. First and foremost, however, it is important to presume your child’s competence, as was mentioned in a previous blog post. Make sure you are using age appropriate language when you address this topic and remember that just because your child may not be very expressive, it doesn’t mean that they are unaware of what is going on around them. Your child will have many questions about what is happening, and below are a few guidelines on how to address these concerns.
1. Coronavirus is not real because I can’t see it: You might find it helpful to relate back to a time when your autistic child was sick with the flu. Recall the symptoms your child felt when they were sick: how they had a headache, fever, body aches, and possibly a cough. Explain that COVID-19 is like a cousin to the flu, and it is making people sick with similar symptoms. Just like your child couldn’t see the germs for the flu, the germs for COVID-19 are also invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen with special instruments. Walk through how when they were sick with a cold, they had to go to the doctor to get better, and how if they start showing similar symptoms, they will have to go to a special doctor again. Going through all the possible scenarios beforehand will let your child know what to expect in all circumstances. Social stories can help relate this information and a sample story is included in this blog post.
2. Why is everything closed? Recall how when one child in your child’s class fell ill, many people in their class caught it and also fell ill. Explain that COVID-19 germs travel faster than their cousins the cold and flu, so to stop them from spreading everyone must stay at home for a little while. Enforce the idea that this will all come to an end soon enough, just like how schools close during the holidays but eventually reopen, and that everything will soon be back on track.
3. Building a new routine: Allow your child some time to adjust and possibly grieve their old routine; validate their emotions and reassure them that it is okay to be upset but entice them with the idea of a new routine. Get your child involved in making a new visual schedule together. Dividing your day into flexible chunks of time can help your child know what to expect from their day and help the time pass sooner. Remember that these are strange times, so it is okay if the schedule isn’t followed perfectly; just go with the flow.
4. Address fear and anxiety: Your child might regress to old habits and soothing mechanisms. This is normal. Expect it and try to be ready for it. Empower them by bringing their attention back to the things they can do: washing their hands, sneezing into their elbows, helping sanitise surfaces around the house, etc. Keep your consumption of the news at a minimum.
5. Explain the importance of social distancing: Explain that your child is not being punished by being kept inside; staying at home is a decision your family and many others are taking for your health and safety. Try to facetime or call friends and family so that they can see that they are not alone in this, and that there are still ways to stay in touch with loved ones.
6. Some tips for homeschooling: Go easy on yourself and your child if you cannot be very productive during quarantine. Try to work with your child and ask them when they would prefer to study instead. Celebrate small victories; even if they only study for a short while tell them they did an excellent job. Positive reinforcement is a great motivator. Remember that education goes beyond the classroom, and this is a great opportunity to practice other skills.