How to help children with autism understand COVID-19

With schools and many businesses closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and kids are spending more time at home — and away from others — to help stop the spread of the virus. Adjusting to a new routine is stressful for parents and kids alike — but especially for children with autism who have trouble with change.

How can you help your child with autism understand what’s going on and what to expect from day-to-day? Pediatric psychologist Dr. Jina Jang offers tips for parents on helping their child adjust during this uncertain time.

What should I tell my child about coronavirus?

Kids with autism may not know what is going on, or they might not be able to express their fears and frustrations.

So it’s important to talk to your child about coronavirus in a way that’s simple to understand. Be clear, direct and honest. For example, “Coronavirus is a germ. It can make people very sick. We have to stay away from others right now to stay healthy.”

Go over important rules, and help your child to:
~ Wash hands well, for at least 20 seconds, and was them often. Here’s a pediatrician’s guide to proper hand-washing.
~ Try not to touch their nose, mouth, and eyes. Practice social distancing, keeping at least 6 feet away from other people. Wear a mask in public places.

Give your child space and time for questions, but don’t offer more detail than it takes to address their questions. For example, if your child asks about people who are sick, answer the question. But don’t bring up the topic if it doesn’t come up.

How can I help my child with autism understand COVID-19?

Kids with autism may need extra support to understand what’s going on around them, and what’s expected of them in some situations.

Social stories are stories that teach kids what happens in some situations and explain what kids should do in those situations. Several social stories about COVID-19 have been developed; reading the stories to or with kids may help them better understand COVID-19 and their feedings and offer assurance.

Visual supports may be helpful to break down the steps of the new “rules” around specific behaviors:
~ greeting people (e.g., no more handshakes, high fives)
~ washing hands often
~ social distancing
~ distance learning
~ new routines at home

You know how your child learns best, so use learning methods that have worked in the past.

How can I help my child adjust to changes brought on by COVID-19?

Routines are comforting for all kids, but especially for kids with autism, so do your best to keep as many of your normal routines as you can. Stick to regular bed and wake-up times, meal and snack times, screen time, chores and other household routines. But build in new routines to include schoolwork, breaks and exercise.

When possible, help your child take control by giving a couple of choices. For example, you could let your child choose what to eat for lunch. When doing schoolwork, you can ask what your child would like to do next.

Visual schedules and to-do lists can help kids know what to expect, while timers and 2-minute warnings can help with transitions.

Having a set routine and clear expectations will help lower the anxiety that can happen when things change.

Here’s more tips for establishing structure and routine while kids are home during COVID-19.

How can I help my child stay calm?

Kids with autism who feel frustrated, worried, or scared may have more repetitive behaviors (like hand flapping or rocking), tantrums, and other challenging behaviors.

Find ways for your child to express feelings. To help kids work through strong emotions, try:
~ talking together
~ doing crafts
~ writing
~ playing or acting out fears
~ for kids who are nonverbal, using augmented (or alternative) communication devices

Parents can also try calming activities, such as deep breathing, music, or watching a favorite video throughout the day. Exercise also can help ease anxious feelings.

While caring for your child, be sure that you take breaks and recharge too. Here’s a pediatrician’s advice for how parents can deal with stress during COVID-19.

Resources for parents with autism

Your child’s healthcare provider, teacher, or behavior or learning specialist can offer more tips to help your child during this time.

Talk to your provider if you notice changes in your child’s sleeping or eating habits, or if your child seems more worried or upset than usual. These may be signs of anxiety or depression.

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