As told to HuffPost Canada Parents editor Valerie Howes.
When school shutdowns were announced at the start the COVID-19 outbreak, we knew it would be especially hard for our son.
My husband, George, and I have two kids, Poppy, 7, and Atlas 10. Atlas is on the autism spectrum. Under normal circumstances, he attends our local school, where he has the support of an educational assistant and of his service dog, and he thrives on a highly predictable classroom schedule.
Whenever there’s any disruption to Atlas’ routine, say a sick day or a professional development day, we’ve learned to anticipate regressions. That might mean he loses some of his communication skills, struggles at bedtime or forgets how to do some of his self-care tasks.
Obviously, we’ve never had to deal with anything on the scale of a global pandemic. It has taken us some trial and error to figure out how to handle the disruption this outbreak has brought to every aspect of our lives.
But in some ways, our experiences as a family whose lives are shaped by autism have helped prepare us. The exceptional does not faze us. Since Atlas was diagnosed with ASD, we’ve spent the past decade learning how to adapt, go with the flow, and look for ways to balance structure and routines with creativity and fun, so we can thrive.
Watch: Doctor’s tips for homeschooling special needs kids. Story continues below.
Every family has their own unique set of circumstances to figure out in these uncertain and restrictive times. What’s universal to parents is that we’re all winging it right now, raising our kids at home 24/7 in an unprecedented situation. We all have to cut ourselves some slack on the most challenging days. I hope that some of the strategies that raising a child on the spectrum have taught me will be helpful to you and your family too. Here’s what has helped us figure out our new normal:
1. Accept that what’s happening now is temporary
The single most important thing I’ve learned from raising a child on the spectrum is to keep my expectations appropriate ― or throw them out the window, if they’re just not helping.
Fixating on lost skills, at times when our son’s routine takes a hit, is never helpful. And it’s not worth getting stressed or shocked when he goes through regressions. From past experience, I know that Atlas always gets back on track, and in the greater scheme of things, it’s most important right now to make sure our kids feel safe and loved, as they adjust to life under social distancing rules.
2. Go with the flow
A routine is so important for kids on the spectrum: knowing what’s coming next helps them to feel grounded. In fact, for most kids, a structured day and a predictable routine sets them up for success.
But, in these extraordinary times, when the whole family is finding their groove, it’s good to get comfortable with the fact that what worked for your children yesterday might not work today.
If your kid is having a bad day in the midst of all of this disruption, please don’t take it personally. Kids can lash out or throw tantrums, when they’re dealing with change and picking up on other people’s stress, especially when their verbal communication is limited. Atlas has been incredibly grumpy at times. But I expect that, so I find it easier not to let it get to me in the moment. I remind myself that these moments always pass.
Parenting a kid with autism is good training for riding the wave. I have a Type A personality, but Atlas has taught me how to check myself, take a breath and roll with things.
“It’s most important right now to make sure our kids feel safe and loved, as they adjust to life under social distancing rules.”
3. Notice how screens affect your kid and use them wisely
Kids with ASD are very drawn to technology, and giving them extra screen time can seem like an easy way to appease them ― and very tempting, when you’re running out of steam.
I’ve found it doesn’t serve Atlas to be on a screen too long: he’s more prone to getting upset and frustrated if we get loose about time limits. After the first few days of the quarantine, I figured out the best way to manage screen time was giving him a sense of control in managing it.
I let Atlas set a timer for 20 minutes, then I told him that once the timer rang, it would be time to stop. He’s a rule follower, and he accepts the law of the timer!
4. Use visual schedules to make life more predictable
Knowing what’s coming up next helps Atlas feel more relaxed. Visual schedules, with pictures to symbolize tasks, have helped him since the start of his time in daycare.
We haven’t done it at home before now, but as we introduce more time doing schoolwork at the table, we’re finding it helps. This is a great way to help anxious kids and younger kids relax and settle into their new routine too, and you can even make it in checklist form, so they have the satisfaction of checking off tasks completed throughout the day.
5. Make pandemic rules new habits
Atlas doesn’t really understand what’s happening, in terms of the virus, but the why is not so important. What matters is that he’s following the health and safety guidelines.
We’ve really been increasing the number of times he is introduced to the sink to wash his hands every day. And we made the new routine for hand washing that we count to 20.
He was pretty good at sneezing or coughing into his arm anyway, and I don’t need to explain social distancing to him because there’s no opportunity to visit anyone anyway, and he never was fond of being physically close to other people outside our family anyway.
Every kid is different though, including kids on the spectrum, so it’s a case of figuring out what quarantine rules your kid needs to learn and really drilling them in, so they’ll happen whether you’re watching or not.
Watch: Baby Shark has a new song about handwashing. Story continues below.
6. Find safe ways to be social and have fun outdoors
We’re doing family walks in costume every day when it’s nice out. We dress up in old Halloween costumes to get silly and spread some joy in our community. It’s important for us all to get outside of the house for fresh air and for Atlas to leave his comfort zone, so he doesn’t end up retreating.
Atlas doesn’t love dressing up, but he does love spaceships and NASA, so he usually wears a hoodie that looks like a space suit and some white sweat pants. I ordered the same costume for George and inflatable spacesuits for Poppy and me too, so we could surprise Atlas, by joining him in his world.
Year round, we slowly desensitize him in these ways, to things he doesn’t usually do, such as practicing putting on and taking off winter gear before the cold weather starts. All this extra practice for Halloween right now means that he’ll be able to join in more easily in October, when his peers are out trick-or-treating. Nudging Atlas out of his comfort zone means we can do lots of things together as a family.
When we’re out, waving at passing vehicles in our town we get smiles and honks. We see people in cars pointing and getting their kids to look out the window.
Atlas joins for the walk, which he’s starting to enjoy more and more, then my husband takes him home or they take a break, sitting in the car, while Poppy and I play music from a little portable speaker and dance at the end of a few of our friends’ driveways. Recently he has even chosen to join us for the dancing part.
People have told us that seeing us through the window is the highlight of their day. And this silly little parade in costume has put the spring back in my step, while I’m adjusting to the new normal of parenting two kids with very different needs in isolation.
Of course, the costumes are optional (although I promise you, it’s fun), but as parents we do all need to find what works for us. Now more than ever, we need to stay connected with our loved ones and support system. You might even inspire another family to send good vibes from the bottom of your driveway too.
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