COVID-19 Coping Strategies for Autism Families

Without question, the COVID-19 pandemic has presented everyone with unprecedented disruptions in what we used to take for granted as everyday life. And, all of us are trying to figure out how to make life work, now that it has been turned upside down.

COVID-19 Coping Strategies for Autism Families

Some describe us as being in a war on the coronavirus pandemic, so what is the battle plan for families with children or young adults on the autism spectrum?  In this article, Charles Houff from the College Internship Program (CIP) offers his advice. 

Basic readiness

In many ways, the basic plan is the same, whether you are on the spectrum (AS) or neurotypical (NT). So, let’s examine this plan through the lens of the three pillars of well-being: body, mind, and spirit. 

Pillar One: Body

To engage in warfare, we need to be in the best physical condition possible. We need to take good care of our body. Generally accepted recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include:

  • Diet: eat healthy foods, limit junk food, drink eight glasses of water
  • Exercise: the American Heart Association ideal is 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week. Start where you can, and build
  • Sleep: eight hours sleep per night, best between 10pm and 8am
  • Safe practices: wear a mask, practice social distancing, wash your hands often, and periodically disinfect living areas

Some young people with autism really value good health and choose to live by these guidelines. Young children often practice the health standards set by their parents. Unfortunately, some struggle to follow CDC guidelines and may need ongoing guidance and strong encouragement from their support team.

This may include coaches, peers, and role models, while parents are the primary support of the children. No matter what their age, a tangible incentive/reward system may be the added element to encourage adoption of more healthy lifestyle habits.

Pillar Two: Mind

The mind functions as our “operations center” in coping with COVID-19. Having a clear mind puts us in the best shape to cope. The mind includes:

  • Conscious functions: namely, thinking and reasoning
  • Subconscious resources: such as, our beliefs and attitudes, our feelings and emotions, our memories.
  • Executive functions: choosing what we do, with whom we do it, where, how, and why we do whatever it is we wind up doing

In our current COVID reality, our mind is bombarded by stress and daunting challenges. Some challenges children with autism may experience include:

  • Fears: of becoming infected or of political upheaval. These often lead to significantly heightened anxieties
  • Restrictions: periods of quarantine, CDC safe practices, parents’ discontinued work, school closures, remote learning, social isolation, severely limited activity options, changes to routine.  These often produce intense frustration, and sometimes a sense of boredom
  • Uncertainties: How long will this last? What else is going to happen? Accompanied by a reduced sense of control, partly caused by new routines, and of personal security
  • Actual losses: For some, illness or death of friends or family members/loss of individual freedom. These experiences often produce a deep sense of sadness, of grief, and sometimes of anger

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Each of these challenges can take a toll on the mind. The cumulative effect can be quite debilitating, especially for our children and young adults with autism. So, how do we counter these factors? Some tips include:

  • For anxiety: A very effective antidote is to restrict your child’s consumption of news. By design or by chance, much of today’s news (via TV or internet or social media) seems packed with contentious conflict. Limiting exposure can greatly reduce his/her daily dose of anxiety. An additional approach has been helpful at CIP. We work with students to create their own personal “stress strategy plan”, listing: 1) calming practices (like deep breathing, meditation, or mindfulness exercises); also, 2) pleasant alternatives (like listening to music or reading or working on a hobby); and, 3) who to talk to about your concerns (like your therapist or a trusted friend). Then, you put the list on your phone so you can refer to it easily and quickly when you feel anxiety building. These techniques work for children as well, especially if they see their parents practicing them.
  • For frustration, or boredom: Have a list of go-to activities your child can enjoy by himself/herself. Deliberately choose one that will bring pleasure, rather than mindlessly gravitating to a time filler. Try to limit screen-time. If you choose to play a video game, make it an active choice and set a time limit
  • For reduced sense of control and/or security: Train your family to think in shorter, more manageable timeframes (day-by-day or one week at a time). Make it a habit to celebrate successes, large and small. You could keep a “Gratitude Journal” in which you and your child list a few things for which you’re grateful, even if you have to work hard to come up with one. It’ll get easier and you’ll feel better
  • For sadness, grief, or anger: Try to ascertain your child’s feelings – and your own – and write them down so you can talk about them with your therapist
  • For this whole challenging time: Reward yourself and your family for persevering, let others know ways you are doing well

The above list is a broad representation of possible challenges individuals with autism and their families may be dealing with, and many ways of coping with these challenges.

This process may seem daunting at first, but your best plan is to select a few coping actions to begin with, practice them frequently, master them, and then add more of them to your total coping toolbox. Parents may need to help their children design a plan that works best for them.

Pillar Three: Spirit

Our spirit is our energy, our zest, our drive, our passion, our hope. A strong spirit is a potent force in coping with the challenges of COVID-19. So we ask: What causes us to become “dispirited”? How can we reduce this obstacle? 

Our spirit struggles in the face of our everyday coronavirus reality: disheartening news, a restricted lifestyle, fear and anxiety, uncertainty are all dispiriting elements, things we can’t control. The antidote is a three-step process:

  • Limit our exposure to disquieting sources
  • Accept the negatives as temporary inconveniences
  • Focus on positives that we can do to bring a brighter spirit into our lives

Some of these positives have been listed earlier, including simple everyday practices, like:

  • daily adherence to healthy diet, exercise, and sleep routines
  • constant following of CDC safety measures
  • limiting our intake of negative information
  • choosing our most effective stress strategies and using them as needed

When we actively think of these practices as doing our part in the war against COVID-19, they also help boost our spirit. A parent’s direction, encouragement, and acknowledgement can be greatly effective in helping children to make these practices part of their new life routine.

Here are some additional practices that can uplift and strengthen our spirit. For example, we can develop daily habits of:

  • performing random acts of kindness
  • noticing something good about someone and complimenting them
  • being gentle and forgiving of ourselves and others
  • practicing deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, or yoga
  • You can also add a special positive practice that fits you

These simple practices are all spirit builders. They strengthen our spirit by letting us feel good about ourselves, and our impact on family, friends, and strangers. They combine to empower us and brighten our outlook.

Conclusion

This broad approach to coping with COVID-19 includes a wide array of strategies and practices that strengthen us in our war against the coronavirus. The ideas here work well for children and young adults with autism but are not limited to ASD individuals.

They can be used by any of us and by all of us. The more we join forces with each other in this war, the better our prospects of finding our way through this challenging period and ultimately emerging victoriously.  Stay calm and keep on coping!

Charles Houff

Charles Houff

Charles Houff, MS, LMHC is the Head Therapist at the College Internship Program (CIP) headquartered in Lee, Massachusetts. CIP is a comprehensive transition program that has specialized in the educational needs of teens and young adults with autism and learning differences, offering year-round and summer transition programs across the US since 1984.

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