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At Texas Children’s, we are prepared to tackle the challenges COVID-19 has created for all of us, but we also understand it has created additional challenges for families of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and related special needs. Many children with ASD rely on a schedule and have difficulty with even minor changes in their routines. They may no longer have access to therapies or services and they may not have access to their preferred activities.
As a result, specialists at Texas Children’s Autism Center have created the following tips and suggestions to support families of children with ASD during COVID-19:
1. Create a new schedule with/for your child. Children like knowing what to expect and what is expected of them. Creating a structure allows your child to feel control in a seemingly uncontrollable environment. If your child’s schedule has changed, work with him or her to develop a new one and talk about it together. Post the schedule somewhere visible so your child can refer to it easily. Some children are fine with a written schedule; others may benefit from black and white icons or from actual pictures. Families can take their own pictures, use Google images, or visit do2learn.com to find picture icons. The schedule doesn’t need to be complicated or even time-based. It just needs to be easy enough for your child to understand and it should help create predictability.
2. Use social stories. Along with your schedule, it may be helpful to include social stories that describe – in words and pictures – new activities. You may be able to find some social stories online that are ready to use, including some to help explain COVID-19. Or, you can make your own social stories using drawings, photos or pictures cut out of magazines.
3. Use visual or auditory reminders. Reminders help your child know how long an activity should last, how long a caregiver needs to do work or when an activity is about to end. You can use a visual timer, the timer on your microwave, a timer on your phone and/or a transitional warning. For example, “In 5 minutes, it will be time to wash your hands, so you have 5 more minutes to play.”
4. Go on “virtual” outings. Some places offer online experiences and webcams to tour their spaces, such as the Houston Museum of Natural Science and the Houston Zoo. These afford opportunities for your child to see and learn about some of their favorite things (e.g., dinosaurs, animals) from a distance. This can also be a helpful way to prepare your child for in-person trips in the future.
5. Enjoy being outdoors. Take a family walk or bike ride around the neighborhood. Kick a ball, play with your pet or have a picnic in the back yard. Take a drive and look for bluebonnets. Fresh air and sunshine are important for staying healthy!
6. Read books online. In lieu of going to the library, check out online options for accessing books, such as Epic!. Accounts can be tailored for multiple children in the family and the program can read some books to children or they can read them themselves.
7. Keep preferred foods/snacks on hand. Some children with ASD may have particular diets or limit the variety of foods they will eat. Try to keep these foods in supply. Although continuing to offer and encourage new foods is important, ensuring that the preferred foods or snacks are on hand will be one less stressor.
8. Sign up for MyChart. If you haven’t already, sign up for MyChart. This may be a valuable way to communicate with your child’s doctors in non-urgent situations or when in-person visits are not possible.
9. Consider participating in ASD research. Some studies can collect important information from families online or remotely. One such study is called SPARK (Simons Foundation Powering Autism Research), which has partnered with leading clinical sites across the country, including Texas Children’s. Research can be a good resource for families and a way for them to share their voice. To learn about other autism study opportunities, sign up for Research PALs.
10. Practice self-care. Remember it is just as important to take care of yourself as it is to take care of your child. Be sure to take a few minutes out of the day to engage in a relaxation technique like deep breathing, listening to soothing music or imagining one of your favorite peaceful places. Try not to overwhelm yourself by attempting to recreate all of the services your child usually receives from teachers and therapists. Do the best you can with what you have. Children are resilient and will be ok.
As always, Texas Children’s is here for you. Please join our newsletter list to receive helpful updates and new information from The Autism Center and The Meyer Center for Developmental Pediatrics.