Children with autism and COVID-19
tips for establishing a daily routine during the coronavirus epidemic
There is an ongoing pandemic of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Since there is still no cure or vaccine for this disease, it is important to take preventative measures.
These measures are the same for all people, including people with autism. However, we should have it in mind that children with autism may also have some specific needs for support due to the difficulties in social communication, stereotyped behaviour patterns, and other specificities that come with autism.
Children with autism may exhibit strong resistance to change. Closures of kindergartens, schools and other facilities that children with autism attend on a daily basis can create additional tension.
For a child with autism to relax, it is necessary to introduce new daily routines. Every step of the daily routine should be predictable. We use visual schedules for this purpose.
A child with autism should be taught how to behave during the epidemic before they hear such information from other sources. Social stories are a good way to help the child understand what's happening and what they should do. You can find an example of a social story here.
Give the child with autism some time to “process” the information you told them. Some children will need to roleplay and constantly ask questions in order to eliminate the stress caused by this new situation.
A child may be “overwhelmed” with what they hear, so they will stereotypically keep asking the same questions, although they have already heard the same answer several times before.
If this happens, introduce a rule. For example, questions about coronavirus can be asked after each meal for five minutes. Try answering their questions honestly, in a manner appropriate to their abilities, without causing fear. Ignore stereotyped questions outside the allotted time.
If your child incorporates coronavirus-related content into their play routine, allow them to do so. This is their way of coping with trauma.
Control the access to content on the internet that displays catastrophic scenarios, even if the content is fictional.
One of the best ways of prevention is hand hygiene. It may be unusual for a child with autism to wash their hands a little more often and in a slightly different way.
Wash your own hands in the way recommended by experts and try to record every step of this activity. Make a list of all the steps and start teaching them from the first.
When told “Wash your hands”, the child should turn on the tap. If they are not doing it, help them. In the beginning, you can help them physically – put your hand over your child's hand and turn on the tap together. Make sure to help them less and less over time. If the child reaches for the tap but doesn’t turn it on, move their elbow gently towards the tap.
In later stages of reducing the help, point to the part of the tap they should move. Successful activities should be rewarded. It’s best to use social rewards (“Great”, “Well done”...).
If the child does not respond to social rewards, you can reward them in another way. Try to reduce the rewards over time. When the child has mastered the first step in washing their hands, move on to the next step, that you will conquer in the same way as the first. When the first two steps are connected, we move on to the third, etc.
Since hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds, help your child understand how long that time period is. For this purpose, we can use hourglasses, liquid timers, counting, singing or reciting a verse of appropriate duration, and similar.
You can help children with autism by showing them how to wash their hands and accompanying your activity with words. This technique is called live modelling. If your child is interested in videos, you can show them video materials.
You can record your own video material (video modelling). Some children learn more successfully by watching themselves on video recordings. If this is the case, record them successfully completing sequences of individual activities and edit them into a single video. Then, show them how they are washing their hands (video self-modelling).
Caregivers of children with autism can help the most by staying healthy. That’s why it is important that they take all the protective measures. Make a list of individuals and services that can help you in case you get sick.
If you need support for preserving mental health during the epidemic, use the hotlines available on the website covid19.rs
Article prepared by:
Prof. Dr. Nenad Glumbić
Doc. Dr. Mirjana Đorđević