Guide: Adjusting to Coronavirus & Autism
The coronavirus (COVID-19) has changed almost every part of modern life. Most of us are quarantined in our homes where we live, work, exercise, and learn.
We’re surrounded by news that is contradictory and scary. And we worry about the people we love.
Those with ASD also thrive on routine and consistency, and those things are hard to find amid the COVID-19 crisis. Families can help. The discussions you hold about the coronavirus and the choices you make as you plot out each day can help everyone manage the situation a bit better.
If your child isn’t coping or you just feel like you need extra help, that’s available. Telemedicine techniques bring doctors and other specialists to your house, where you are. You then get the care you need while preserving social distancing.
Special Risks to Consider
COVID-19 is a viral infection that’s often compared to the flu, though it is more damaging and more contagious.
Some people have mild symptoms, such as a slight fever or chills. Some carriers of the virus may be asymptomatic, showing no signs of sickness at all.
Others spike significant temperatures, and they may struggle to breathe. Those severe symptoms can prompt people to enter the hospital for care.
COVID-19 is a novel virus. It is new, and researchers haven’t had enough time to map it completely. But experts from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say people of any age with an underlying health condition face a higher risk of severe illness.
Some people with ASD have significant underlying health conditions, such as:
- Asthma. Researchers debate the connection between ASD and asthma. Some studies found no link. Others have tied the two together. Lung constriction caused by asthma makes fending off upper respiratory complications challenging.
- Heart disease. People born with heart disease are 33% more likely to have ASD too, researchers say. The heart and the lungs work together as one unit, and when one part is ailing, the other can fail.
- Digestive issues. Obesity is linked to enhanced COVID-19 complications. If ASD causes weight gain, that puts a child at risk.
The medical challenges are real, and mental health issues compound them. Autism Speaks says anxiety disorders are present in 42% of people with ASD.
COVID-19 concerns can make anyone anxious. Those with an underlying disorder may feel that upset acutely.
Given these risks, it’s reasonable to keep family members at home during the coronavirus pandemic. ABA therapy, the most commonly used therapy to treat autism, is usually done at home, with technicians visiting the house for sessions. Providers have implemented additional measures to ensure the safety of families during this time.
Registered behavior technicians (RBTs) can wear masks and gloves during sessions. They can maintain social distancing protocols, staying six feet away from your child and other family members at all times. If closer proximity is needed, parents can fill that role during sessions.
Talk With Your Child About the Coronavirus
The current situation is too big to hide from your child. It’s hard to miss disrupted routines. Kids are quick to notice a skipped day of school or a neglected family outing. These same kids may hear snippets from the news that set their minds whirling with concern and fear.
Parents know their children better than anyone, and they’re in the best position to choose a communication style. Families might:
- Use images. Bring difficult concepts like “social distancing” to life with photographs or props.
- Be brief. Young children don’t need to know all the ins and outs of the coronavirus. Keep the talk short, and cover essential points only.
- Answer questions. Older children may know quite a lot about COVID-19 already. Open up a conversation by offering to clarify things that are unclear.
- Limit media reports. While kids don’t need to be shielded from talk about the virus completely, nonstop news reports filled with doom and gloom can weigh on adolescents heavily.
- Remain technical. Some people with autism prefer facts and figures. Try to answer questions with hard data when you can.
Discussions like this are stressful. Autism Speaks recommends watching children closely when the talk is through.
Some kids need to act out their fears or repeat key points as they process information. Reassure when you can, and add more information if required. Make sure your kids know you are available to answer any questions they have or just to talk whenever they want.
Surround Your Family With Healthy Routines
Amid the COVID-19 crisis, many families are forced to stay home and tackle all common tasks where they are.
Kitchen tables become desks. Floors become yoga studios. And backyards become science labs. It’s a new reality for children, but you can make the transition a smooth one.
Tackle your family’s new reality by:
- Incorporating exercise. You have lessons to conduct, work to do, and bills to pay. It’s tempting to plop your children down in chairs for long periods of focused work.
- Instead, says Autism Speaks, sprinkle exercise throughout the day. Take a walk outside or head to YouTube for an at-home workout. There are plenty of options for kids available for free.
- Reminding your child of what stays the same. Emphasize the things you did before the coronavirus that you still do now, experts say. You still wake up, brush teeth, eat meals, read books, head to bed, and more.
- Write up a list of all of the soothing activities you always do, whether there’s a pandemic or not. Keep a schedule as much as possible, so kids know what they can rely on every day.
- Offering choices. Give your child options, when possible. Provide two types of sandwiches, for example, or let your child choose which lesson comes next. This gives your child a sense of control, Nemours says, and that can be helpful for kids with autism.
- Taking care of yourself. You’re distanced from your child’s teachers, peers, and support system. You also face your own set of stresses.
- Find space for yourself each day, even for just a few minutes. Drink a cup of tea, sit with your face in the sun, or pop on headphones and listen to a song. Give yourself the mental space you need to reset.
- Focusing on the positive. Some people with autism enjoy distance learning, experts say. They don’t feel pressured to read nonverbal signals, and they can replay the lessons as needed to process at their own speed. Look for bright spots when you can and emphasize them.
No family is perfect, and there is no rulebook for surviving a pandemic. Work together as a family to push through this challenging time. And offer grace, to yourself and others, when things don’t go as planned.
Watch for Troublesome Changes
Everyone will change and grow as we move through the COVID-19 crisis. Some changes will be positive, and others might be less so. Watch for signs of danger in your child, so you can step in and offer support when needed.
Experts say a child struggling with concerns about the coronavirus might engage in reassurance seeking. A child like this might ask the same questions repeatedly. Despite your answers, the child does not feel comforted.
A child with autism may also show specific signs of distress, such as:
- Changing eating habits.
- Surges in repetitive behaviors.
- Increased agitation.
- Decreased interest in self-care.
A child like this can benefit from talking with a professional. Telemedicine techniques can connect your child to an expert via a video chat. This way, you maintain social distancing protocols while getting your child the help they need.
In therapy, your child can process fears and concerns. Sessions provide a safe space where they can work through stress. And therapy appointments, especially when they happen at the same time on the same day, give your child something to plan for and look forward to each day.
If your child is experiencing distress, and you’re not sure how to help, engaging in therapy can be a smart strategy. Reach out for help from a professional.
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- Coronavirus (COVID-19): Helping Kids With Autism Cope. (April 2020). Nemours.
- COVID-19: A New Normal for Those on the Autistic Spectrum? (April 2020). Psychology Today.
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