Your Autistic Child in the Time of COVID

What will the COVID shelter-in-place orders mean for children with autism?

How bad can this be? It’s been the whole of the spring quarter that your child’s IEP has not been implemented. How are you feeling about the COVID-19 pandemic and the child or children with autism in your life? In addition to worries about infection, parents, teachers, and therapists are especially disconcerted: What will the time of COVID end up meaning for an autistic child’s learning, ability to learn, and for new skills that were just emerging or just consolidating? Isn’t intensive training critical to the whole endeavor of treating autism? Whether we have a child with autism in our living room, our classroom, or our clinic, there’s a new normal to accommodate.

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Not knowing when COVID will ‘end’ is anxiety-provoking. But, what can be done to help a child with autism right now? How can we diminish some of the anxiety in parenting or teaching that child right now? Undeniably, keeping a child with autism out of school and/or therapy for months on end would never be anyone’s plan of how to help. But, just how bad will this be? What can be done to mitigate negative impact? Is there any silver lining to this cloud? At the moment, we are all looking at kids still being out of most school and therapy, probably, through most of the summer with unsurprising fear of a mushrooming of whatever detriment may have accrued already. Scary.

A child’s age, existing abilities, and specifics of family life, will, of course, be big factors influencing the impact of sheltering-in-place. But, in examining the scariest risks, it is also important to balance any fears with the potential “silver lining” to this cloud. So, let’s go through the good, the bad, and the ugly. I’ll save “good” for last so you are left with things you can do, or talk to others about doing—if you are reading this in hope of some help.

The bad. Guilt. Every parent of a child with autism I have spoken to (through Zoom, of course) in the last 3 months is guilty. An extreme example—the mother of a 7-year-old who refused to come into his mom’s Zoom session with me even to say ‘hi’—but loped around, scripting from a favorite video in an agitated tone of voice. His mom ‘admitted,’ to letting him watch two hours (or more) of YouTube every day, to providing unlimited access to preferred high-calorie foods, and to having given up on Zooming with his second-grade mainstream class, because—his one-to-one aide was, of course, not in her living room, or even on-line. This mother was home alone with her son, save for an elderly grandparent for whom she was caregiver. For this young man, what might I suggest his mother do? As I was thinking, his mother told me she was 8-and-a-half months pregnant. What else could she do?Nothing, really. Give him the iPad, and take that nap you are longing to have. Yes, guilt can be a motivator to change behavior for the better (we’ll get to that in a minute), but not in every case, not in this case. I give this example because it is going to be near impossible for any parent of a child with autism to feel they are doing as much as they could be doing if they compare home life under shelter-in-place to a school week packed with routines, classes and therapies. “Adjust your own face mask before attempting to help others.”

The ugly. Children with all sorts of neurodevelopmental disorders are at higher risk for abuse and neglect because parents may struggle to understand their child, the child may struggle to be understood, and miscommunication can be seen as non-compliance or defiance. The media frequently has covered the risk of increased domestic violence during COVID. The same goes for child abuse. If you see something, say something.

fizkes/ShutterstockThe good. My key impetus for this blogpost is the benefit I see accruing to some autistic children as they sheltering at home with their parents. Families can’t come to our center-based parent training program right now, so we are reaching them through telehealth: Picture a therapist Zooming a parent on how to get their child to make eye contact before getting a favorite toy. The parent must follow the therapist’s directions (instead of first watching her do it several times as we do in our clinic). With no alternative than to ‘just do it,’ parents experience success at teaching their child new useful skills themselves, and at home. Cool! The therapist’s “secret sauce” is “poured” directly onto the child by the parent—so, well done Mom and Dad! From these very young children to the oldest, parents of children with autism are having to take teaching into their own hands. This sometimes means cobbling together what they have read, what they saw on YouTube, what they have seen a teacher or therapist do, or what they somehow believed could only be done by a 22-year-old “registered behavior therapist.”

Many sheltering parents without autistic children are faced with being their child’s main teacher for the first time, too. Many of these parents also are getting a chance to learn a thing or two about teaching, and to use that knowledge to help their child grow, also cool. But, knowing how to teach your child with autism is especially critical for their parents, as being able to create ‘teachable moments’ has always marked the dividing line between autistic children with good outcomes, and those with even better outcomes. So, sheltering in place is not easy on anyone, but, there is no better time to reinforce getting your child to do what he or she can do (maybe with a little tele-help from your friends).

References

  • Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services. March 12, 2020. Department releases COVID-19, IDEA-related Q-and-A ,https://sites.ed.gov/idea/department-releases-covid-19-idea-related-q/
  • Reinberg, S (2020). COVID-19 Lockdown Increase Child Abuse Risk, https://www.webmd.com/lung/news/20200512/covid19-lockdown-increases-child-abuse-risk

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