COVID-19 is beyond anything we imagined or prepared for as a community. We’re all pretty much winging it, trying to follow the rules and making up how we manage. It can be helpful to have insight into how it affects our neurodiverse children.
All of us are experiencing anxiety. For our children with autism, the anxiety is compounded by the changes in routine and the demands of our changed lives. Our children may tend to isolate themselves in their rooms, doing preferred activities. We might assume they prefer to be alone.
This isn’t necessarily the case. Children’s rooms and their activities (usually screens) are an escape to somewhere safe and predictable. “Invitations to join” are often experienced as demands—we tell them to come downstairs to dinner, or that they should be spending more time with the family. Because children don’t react positively, we assume they don’t want to be connected. It’s easy to feel somewhat rejected.
Actually, often that’s not true. Our children connect in different ways. How often do we come in and ask to watch them play their game, or show an interest in it? When we don’t connect to them in the way that works for them, they can also feel rejected. It’s ironic, but parents and children can both feel unaccepted. Our children actually need the comfort of the familiarity of the family at these times, even if they express it differently. If we connect, upstairs isn’t alone.
We need to be thoughtful of the sensory overload and social demands that “everyone at home” creates. The house tends to be noisy with activities, and more people than usual are around at once. The casual “let’s watch a movie” may seem relaxing and not stressful, but the expectation of spontaneity and togetherness can be overwhelming. It’s a time when even children who are comfortable with family time may need alone time to decompress, perhaps using noise-canceling headphones, sensory tools, or whatever works for them.
Our autistic children are exquisitely sensitive to our anxiety and respond with anxiety themselves. We need to attend to what diminishes anxiety for them. We know they thrive on routine and familiarity. We must understand this need for creating structure, even if it interferes with what we might want to plan.
Even this structure is novel and a transition, but it can help. Whatever is usually calming for the individual child helps. Offering solutions might not help. What works for one person may be someone else’s anxiety trigger.
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Of course, families need to take the usual precautions recommended. They must wash hands frequently, stay six feet away from people outside the home, and be careful of touching faces. It’s important to limit exposure to the 24/7 news (for them and ourselves). Families will get through this. Understanding and compassion will go a long way.
If you found this article helpful, please consider sharing it on social media or linking to it from your website to help other parents. You may also want to check out our other resources on coping strategies for autism and COVID-19.