With daycares, schools, and most places of employment being closed right now while many caregivers work from home, you may be wondering how to best support your children during this unusual time. This may be a particular concern if your child has autism, knowing that this abrupt change in routine may be even harder for them and may be more difficult for you to explain. Below are a few tips for supporting you and your child during this time.
Be aware of what you are talking about when your child is present. Children often pick up on more than we realize and have a harder time expressing their worries. It is important to model calm in front of them as much as possible and keep any explanations about the current situation as concrete, honest, and short-term-focused as possible. For example, you may choose to tell them that we are staying home while people who are sick are getting help from doctors so that we don’t get sick or accidentally make them sicker. You can then tell them that leaders will let us know when it is best to go back to school and work and then focus on what you are doing that you do have control over during this time.
All children benefit from structure, especially children with autism. However, it may not be realistic to keep your ideal schedule during this time or to keep as schedule that is as strict as your child might follow at daycare or school. There are a few key pieces to prioritize in scheduling your day that will help decrease your child’s worry and increase predictability. First, keep a consistent daily wake time and morning routine that involves getting out of the bedroom, changing clothes, and getting ready for the day. Second, use a visual schedule to let your child know the main activities that will be occurring. This can be very general and may not include things like time on it in order to make sure you can realistically follow it. Third, be aware of how you balance the activities in the day by having more preferred activities than non-preferred activities and allowing an outlet for physical play. Embed choices, like which cup to use and which clothes to wear, throughout the day to give your child a little control over their environment during this uncertain time. Fourth, keep a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine that prepares their body for good sleep.
Don’t be surprised if your child seems a little more irritable or emotional than usual. Consider decreasing unnecessary demands and provide a little extra support with activities your child may normally do independently. Take care of yourself, too. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take a shower or go into another room for a short break.
Most importantly, give yourself grace during this time. This is a new experience for all of us, and any amount of structure and love you provide your child during this time will go a long way, even if it isn’t the perfect way you envisioned it. And, when all else fails, just breathe!
Whitney Loring, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist, TRIAD Director of Training, and assistant professor of Pediatrics and Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences.