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Helping Children on the Spectrum Cope with COVID-19

Sable Leicher - Educational Psychologist


The COVID-19 pandemic has brought changes for us all, with the lockdown meaning disruptions to our usual lives. For all children, this is challenging to manage, but for children on the spectrum, it may feel even more difficult. Some of the features which characterise Autism Spectrum Disorder include repetitive behaviours, insistence on sameness and routine, difficulty with non-verbal communication, difficulty with social relationships and sensory difficulties. These features may make it difficult to cope with the changes of lockdown. Keeping your child’s unique personality, as well as their position on the Autism Spectrum in mind will assist in helping them cope in COVID-19 times.

All children rely on stability and reliability, and routine provides this. However, for children on the spectrum, a sense of “sameness” and stability is often essential. Children who fall on the spectrum may have an extremely hard time adjusting to being at home, trying to learn online and socialise in new ways. Work with your child to try and find ways to bring stability and routine into your home. For some children, a concrete and physical reminder of day-to-day routine may assist them in feeling a sense of mastery and control over their environment. Writing down a “schedule” for the day may assist at calming anxieties around routine changes and what to expect from the day. As far as possible, try to keep your routines in line with what they were pre-lockdown. For example, keeping meal-times, bed-time and bath-time consistent may provide children with a sense of “sameness” and help them feel like there is some predictability to their days.

Going out with the current restrictions may provide new challenges for children on the spectrum. Children with sensory difficulties may find that wearing a mask is overwhelming and difficult to manage. Try and explain the necessity of the mask to your children, but also be open to trying other options. Perhaps a clear face screen may be easier for your child to manage than a cloth mask. While you must prioritise your children’s safety, remember that masks can be overwhelming, especially in a public space that already offers an increase in sensory inputs. Your child may struggle with activities that they had previously mastered, such as grocery shopping. Difficulties with communication may intensify, as children adjust to communicating via video chat, or with individuals wearing masks. Both video communication and masks prevent us from being able to see and interpret valuable communication cues, such as facial expressions and body language, and a lag in internet connectivity may lead to speech disruptions as well. These factors may make it difficult for children on the spectrum to engage with others. Try to be patient and assist your child in the adjustment to online communication as much as you can.

Although children on the spectrum may communicate and socialise differently, social engagement is still an important part of development. They may miss their classmates and teachers, and might respond to a video call more positively than expected. Often, individuals on the spectrum may appear introverted and quiet, but this does not mean that they don’t value interactions – they might just prefer to do it in another way. Speak to your child about what they miss about their social life, and try be creative with helping them engage with others during this time. For example, children on the spectrum may need some structure to assist their video chats, and may enjoy playing a card game like Uno with their friends. Keep in mind that you know your child best and you know what they may enjoy. Contact your child’s teacher or classmate’s parents to talk through ways of socialising that feel manageable for all involved.

Finally, you may notice an increase in repetitive “self-stimming” behaviours during this time. The world is facing a mass trauma, and all individuals, both on and off the spectrum are engaging in activities that help them feel calm. If your child’s self-stimming behaviours are harmful, such as scratching themselves or head-banging, you will need to intervene for their wellbeing. However, if your child engages in self-stimming and soothing behaviours such as humming or spinning an object in their hands, it might be fine to let them continue. Self-stimming behaviours are a common response to overwhelming emotions such as stress, anxiety or even excitement, Try to acknowledge the emotion and talk to your child about their feelings as much as you can, and work together with your child to find safe and manageable ways to cope with the emotions.

Above all, try to take one day at a time. In such uncertain times, it can feel overwhelming and there will be difficult days. As a parent, all you can do is your best, focus on helping your child through each day to the best of your ability. Each child is unique, and each family is unique. You know your own child and your family best, and as a parent you can provide your child with the most valuable thing – a home that feels understanding, warm and safe, even in times when the outside world feels unsafe.

If you would like more information or assistance, please contact the following organisations for more information:

· Autism South Africa:

011 484 9909

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