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Adjusting to COVID-19 for Children with Autism

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At-Home Learning: PBS SoCal and KCET, in partnership with LAUSD and in collaboration with California PBS stations, are offering broadcast programming with digital resources that adhere to California’s state curriculum. Download this week’s schedule.

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A young child uses a tablet. | PBS SoCal

As any parent or caregiver knows, disruptions to a routine are hard on a child, and they’re especially difficult for children with Autism or special needs. Thankfully, you know your child, you know their routine, and you know how to best support them. And even when the world is changing pretty rapidly, the one constant is that you are looking out for their best interests. So, thank you. You’re making the best of an incredibly difficult situation with really limited support, and you’re doing a great job.

Many pieces of your child’s day-to-day routine over the coming weeks are going to change — they can’t see friends in person, get their daily high-fives from teachers at school, or play with neighbors, for example. Change is hard, but making the best of the new situation shouldn’t be, especially when your child has you as a guide.

We spoke with experts — parents and professionals — to find out what’s changing in their homes through the Covid-19 school closures, and what’s staying the same.

"As a family and parenting guy, I am actually very pleased to see (through social media) so many families rediscovering how much fun they can have together,” said Jason Baker, Ph.D., associate professor of child development at Cal State Fullerton, co-director and co-founder of the Cal State Fullerton Center for Autism, and a parent.

The tips below on helping children with Autism deal with change in a time of stress are just a primer. For more information and to find resources that are available to you and your children, we recommend checking out Autism Speaks and Autism Society of America.

Create Structure


  • Structure gives children a sense of security and consistency. If possible, stick to your “old normal” as close as you can.
  • If your child’s school is supporting virtual learning, match the daily routine to the school’s schedule.
  • Utilize teleconferencing services, as available, to work with a behavior analyst, speech pathologist or any other service providers your child sees regularly.
  • Keep “active times” the same; move with your child’s typical rhythms for the day.

Keep in touch with familiar faces


  • Have phone calls with friends.
  • Browse through photos of familiar friends together on Facebook or other photo websites.
  • Have video calls with family.
  • Use teleconferencing for group activities, such as a virtual storytime or parallel arts and crafts.

Communicate the changes to your child


  • Stay consistent with your messaging.
  • Everyone understands being sick and missing out on things because they or someone else is sick. Explaining what’s happening through that lens is a helpful tool.
  • Be careful with the language you use when talking about returning to school. If your child is okay with uncertainty, “We don’t know, but maybe in April” could work. If uncertainty is difficult for your child, try avoiding language including “not yet” or “not now.”
  • Approach this time just like any other transition or adjustment. Be honest and give information that is developmentally appropriate and not overwhelming.
  • Be clear about the adjustment, but assure them their needs will be met and that they are safe.

Reinforce the changes


  • Pair consistent language with a visual guide to support the message.
  • You can make a book, or utilize this helpful socialization guide from Autism Speaks.
  • Institute reminders at night time, to prepare for what they’re going to do the next day.
  • Communicate the information in a calm manner. When a child feels their parents are calm and confident, they usually feel the same.

Visual support tips for the new routine


  • Incorporate choices into the schedule. If possible, work with your local behavior analyst to schedule blocks of activities that vary by color, then have your child choose an activity within that color block. For example, tell your child, “It’s time to pick a yellow activity, do you want to a or b?” For older children, create a checklist of activities for the day.
  • Make it clear what days are learning days and what days are family days. It’s important to balance the goals and keep the days of the week consistent. It will help when students transition back to their normal daily routine.

Fun activities to add in and supplement your routine


  • Go outside! Decorate your entryway with sidewalk chalk, go for walks around your neighborhood and point out things together. Incorporate outdoors physical activities if possible, such as gardening together, kicking the ball around or whatever works for your family.
  • Include screen time with videos or video games they enjoy, depending on the child’s needs and age. Use screen time as a reward. Especially during a challenging time, some fun downtime is definitely appropriate.
  • For indoor activities, try cooking together and trying new things in the kitchen. Put on some music and dance around (Go Noodle is a reocurring favorite). Try yoga, or other activities that get you up and moving.
  • Attempt fun art or science experiments. PBS KIDS is sharing a daily newsletter with activities for families.

"In these challenging times, just know what you are doing is enough," said Tracy Guiou, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and vice president of operations at Kadiant, which is an applied behavior analysis (ABA) therapy program.

Creating and maintaining a new schedule, especially in such an uncertain time is really difficult — give yourself and your family the leeway to be flexible. Make sure to take care of yourself as well. Try mindfulness meditation apps, online yoga or other activities that spark joy for you. Call friends or your support system to check in, and make sure to sleep, exercise and be kind to yourself.

 

A special thank you to our experts for contributing to this guide: Jolene Elconin, a parent; Tracy Guiou, Board Certified Behavior Analyst and vice president of operations at Kadiant; and Jason Baker, Ph.D., associate professor at Cal State Fullerton, co-director and co-founder of the Cal State Fullerton Center for Autism, and a parent.

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