While COVID-19 has upended the routines of all families, the fear and uncertainty caused by the pandemic can make life especially hard for children with developmental disabilities such as autism spectrum disorder.
Children with ASD often face social, behavioral and learning challenges daily, and the changes caused by COVID-19 exacerbate these challenges, says Sarah Mire, a professor of school psychology at the University of Houston College of Education.
To help families of children with ASD during this time, Mire and her research team have created a resource guide pointing to information about schooling, maintaining therapy, addressing behavioral challenges, finding support and more.
“Any changes to daily life can impact a child with autism spectrum disorder,” said Mire, who directs the UH School Psychology Autism Research Collaboration. “There are so many changes for all of us right now, and there’s also great information coming from professionals and organizations all over the country. But it’s hard to keep up with it all. My hope for the resource guide my team put together is that it helps families find information that is most useful for them and their children.”
About 1 in 54 children in the U.S. are diagnosed with ASD, according to 2020 estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Mire, a licensed psychologist in Texas and nationally certified school psychologist, offers several suggestions to help families of children with ASD:
- Use concrete language to talk with your child about what coronavirus is and how it affects our lives right now (e.g., more handwashing, covering our mouths and noses, and limiting outings). Talk in a way that matches their age and developmental level. A conversation with you is much better for your child than them consuming news coverage of the pandemic.
- Listen to your child and look for signs of distress. If your child is able to verbally express concerns, hear them out and provide honesty and reassurance. For all children with ASD, whether they are verbally expressive or not, attend to significant behavioral changes that could signal depression or anxiety, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help.
- Make and stick to daily routines at home. This helps children with ASD, who often find comfort in predictability. An added benefit is that having regular routines is also an important way for all members of a family to take care of themselves during a time when their typical schedules are off.
- Look for or create opportunities to connect with others, even from afar. Daily video calls with family members and friends are a way to practice social skills even during times of physical distancing.
- Limit screen time to fit within certain times in the day, for specific amounts of time, and as a reward for completing other tasks first. Look for ways to encourage activities that don’t rely on electronics. Create or have your child create a list of alternate fun activities they enjoy and can do at home.
- Stay in communication with your child’s teacher. Schools throughout the country have shifted to online platforms for the rest of the academic year, which is challenging for students, teachers and families — especially families whose children have Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs. Having contact with the teacher can help you identify priorities for your child’s schooling during this time. It also can help you keep the school updated on your child’s progress.
- Take care of yourself. On a plane, the flight crew instructs adults to put on our own mask before helping others. Your own self-care may be your last priority as you balance parenting, homeschooling, another job, financial pressures, relationships and myriad other demands. This takes an enormous toll. Prayer or meditation, a brisk early morning walk, a phone call with a loved one — these are simple activities that have demonstrated positive effects on mood and stress. Planned pleasant activities, even if you can only give them five minutes a day, can make a difference for your own well-being. And you are the most important person in your child’s life.
-Article written by Ericka Mellon, director of Communications, UH College of Education