With schools switching to remote learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents are struggling to coordinate their children’s schedules, assignments and online meetings.
The added stress can be even worse for parents caring for children with autism, who often experience extreme anxiety when their normal routines are disrupted.
Anacani Fonseca, M.D., a pediatrician with Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, has tips for parents caring for children with autism in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Fonseca’s clinical expertise includes autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, academic difficulties and behavior concerns.
“For some kids with autism, routines are essential for the world to make sense to them,” Dr. Fonseca said. “Therefore, disruptions can be very challenging. Every child will cope differently; there are social stories available online for younger kids to help explain change. Anticipating certain challenges and trying to come up with alternatives can help. These are hard times for all of us – give your child space to cope and grieve this new normal.”
There are many activities that can be done virtually to help maintain consistent routines for children, Dr. Fonseca said. Doctor visits and some therapy services can be conducted through telehealth, and parents can set up playdates and family get-togethers through Zoom, FaceTime or Skype.
The month of April also happens to be National Autism Awareness Month, and in that spirit, Dr. Fonseca offers the following advice for parents:
The most important thing to remember is: “Do your best.” With this in mind, parents can help children who may be struggling with change by:
- Establishing new routines and schedules, ones that work for your new reality and for your family – the routines don’t have to be “perfect.”
- Reaching out to your support system: applied behavioral (ABA) analysis therapists, speech or occupational therapists, teachers, family and your physician.
- Setting realistic expectations.
- Understanding that your child’s behavior may become challenging.
- Using props (toys or child-friendly household objects) that support your child’s participation in day-to-day activities.
- Using “social stories” to help your child understand new situations.
- Setting a time for your own self-care, because “caregiver burnout” is real! (This is a good time to download apps about mindfulness.)
Dr. Fonseca said parents should know that Texas Medicaid will cover ABA (Applied Behavioral Analysis) services for children with autism beginning in September 2020. ABA is considered an evidence-based intervention.
Locally, for children under three years, there is Pathways, an early intervention program for children considered at risk for autism. This program is offered through the Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program at the Paso del Norte Children’s Development Center.
Free online webinars and teaching sessions also are available for parents. Autism Certification Center and Autism Speaks have teamed up to provide “ASD Strategies in Action” at no cost for the autism community. The goal is to provide families and communities access to evidence-based educational material, providing real-life strategies that can be applied now and into the future.
More information and strategies for coping during the pandemic are available on the Autism Speaks website.