Back on March 13, 2020, a realization started to settle over this country as to what the actual impact COVID-19 (coronavirus) was going to have on all our communities. Since that time, people have been practicing “social distancing.”
Schools have shut down, the expectations of the family unit have changed (especially those with children in school), the economy has fallen, food and household goods are in high demand, and our anxiety over “what’s next” and “when will this be over” continues to rise. This situation has been especially tough on people on the autism spectrum who experience increased anxiety when there is a change in daily routine and environment.
If there is to be any type of silver lining from this pandemic, it is that in this day and age, mental health providers, teachers, and medical professionals are forced to think about alternative ways to stay in touch with clients and students. In the field of mental health services, Telehealth has been around for years, however, it has not always been utilized to its fullest advantage.
In a day when we cannot access our community and school providers like we did just a week ago, Telehealth can save one’s emotional well-being, as it allows a person to connect with another trusted and respected adult. For children, especially those with autism, they must continue to have some type of connection with those that helped bring them routine and structure before that day in March. And families must continue to be a part of the therapeutic process.
What is Telehealth?
Telehealth is a HIPAA-approved online video conference option for clients to use in place of traditional, in-person counseling. Even in this crazy, ever-changing time, Telehealth allows clinicians to continue building their clients’ and families’ skills and competencies and address other impending factors (anxiety, depression, etc.) while operating remotely.
As of March 17, 2020, educators, mental health providers, and healthcare workers are allowed to use other means of computer/phone-based platforms (e.g., Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom, Facetime, etc.) to connect with families so they may continue to deliver mental health support. This allowance was game-changing, as it allowed mental health providers the means to access more individuals who need continued counseling.
Who benefits the most from Telehealth?
Although there are no clear guidelines on this either from the American Counseling Association (ACA) or in my state, the Connecticut Counseling Association (CCA), from our professional practice it has been most beneficial for older clients (middle school/high school and older) who can attend to and still participate in the counseling process while on a computer.
This does not mean Teletherapy can’t or shouldn’t be done with younger clients; we have seen that for those younger clients whose attention spans and motivation for the therapy process are high, this means of mental health support can at times be more effective. In all, it is important to understand that this platform won’t be for everyone and that both the clinician and the family will have to assess how to best use Telehealth to meet the needs of the clients and family.
Telehealth and younger children
For younger clients (ages 5-10), Telehealth can be an amazing platform to help parents stay connected with the counselor. These sessions can be used to help to solve current situations at home, keep your son/daughter on a schedule, decrease his/her anxiety, etc. These sessions can also be used to talk about the family’s anxiety over the changing routine and expectations as they pertain to the child.
As a parent, you may find these sessions are more based on establishing a therapeutic partnership as opposed to competency/direct skill building with your son/daughter. Some sessions may run the full 50 minutes, and some may not. We have found splitting up the sessions (30 minutes two times per week) is helpful when working with a family with a younger child. This is to ensure the client is getting the most out of the therapeutic time with the clinician.
I encourage all clinicians to continue to set goals and expectations with the family (parents and client) and possibly have a scheduled email check-in with the family during the week. If, at any time, you or the clinician feel that the Telehealth option is NOT working for your son/daughter, a conversation should be had about other alternatives.
Why is it vital to keep talking?
We are all living in a new day and age where we are filled with uncertainty and this natural feeling of being “uncomfortable.” This brings about higher than usual forms of anxiety, depressive symptoms, and behavioral shifts that will impact those around us. We as adults have to prepare ourselves and our kids for being comfortable with the uncomfortable.
This is a social concept I, and others in the field of social development, have been talking about for years with our clients, and now it stretches that concept even further. We all are feeling uncomfortable today. We all are feeling levels of anxiety and depressive states as we try to navigate things like homeschooling, the economy and paying our bills, and protecting the physical health of our loved ones. It’s okay that we as parents talk about how we are feeling. Our kids need to hear us talk about “why” we are feeling or acting a certain way.
If we as adults cannot talk about our own emotions (in a developmentally appropriate way) to our kids, we leave it to them to “guess” why. For many on the autism spectrum, that guessing part does not work. Accessing mental health services through Telehealth can save lives, improve our mental/emotional states, and provide our children with some continuity, routine, and assurance that those people who they used to see once a week, or in their schools, are still there for them.
For more information and thoughts on Telehealth, please check out our short online video at https://www.facebook.com/SocialLearningCenter/videos/876947199400454/
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.