Dr. Christina Lee Roberts of specialized QF school Renad Academy says keeping a routine, staying virtually connected to teachers, and supporting understanding of coronavirus can be helpful for children with Autism.
Abrupt changes in routines, loss of connections with teachers and friends, unexpected school closures, and the possibility of contracting the virus – all of these factors can heighten the anxiety level of children with Autism amid the global coronavirus pandemic.
According to Dr. Christina Lee Roberts, the School Psychologist at Renad Academy – a specialized school for children diagnosed with Autism, under Qatar Foundation’s Pre-University Education – children with Autism and their families require supportive strategies to cope with this uncertain time.
“Children with Autism may face additional challenges, including difficulty understanding what is happening, inability to express their anxiety, and the need to have a constant routine, all of which may exacerbate their anxiety during this stressful period,” she explained.
“This is why parents are encouraged to use supportive strategies that they have adopted in the past to build and sustain their child’s emotional health and wellbeing.”
According to Dr. Roberts: “Keeping routines in place is vital, as children with Autism thrive in a structured environment.
“Parents may want to ensure their child gets up, eats, and goes to bed at a specified time. They can be adopt similar routines to those the child has established at school – for example different school tasks and preferred activities can be interspersed between , which, in turn, allows each activity to be carried out at a predictable time.
“Having a routine is also beneficial as it allows your child to know when a task begins and ends, which is likely to reduce concerns relating to transitioning. A consistent routine also provides the student with a clear expectation of what is required from them.”
Another way to assist students in adapting and adjusting to the current situation is creativity. “Parents may want to consider incorporating students’ daily routine as part of family time together,” said Dr. Roberts, “including completing a craft activity, making a simple pizza, doing yoga, camping together in the garden or having a family game in the evening.
“Such activities can promote family bonding and create a sense of positive connectivity, which, in turn, contributes to keeping everyone’s emotional wellbeing and health. Simple exercise such as jumping on a trampoline, for example, allows children to burn off energy and make sure that everyone stays active.”
Young children with Autism might seem oblivious to the current situation, but they may still feel unsettled by the changes in routine and able to sense that people around them are upset and worried.
Dr. Roberts emphasized the importance of children with Autism staying virtually connected with their teachers throughout school closures. “Parents should support their child to keep in touch with his or her teacher,” she said.
“There are several free apps that parents can download, including ClassDojo, Zoom, and Facetime, to support their child in staying connected with their teachers, school friends, and extended family members such as cousins and grandparents.
“Young children with Autism might seem oblivious to the current situation, but they may still feel unsettled by the changes in routine and able to sense that people around them are upset and worried. Parents are encouraged to provide a simple and clear explanation of why they need to stay at home. It is also important that parents of children with Autism check on them and provide them with the opportunity to process any concerns they may be having.”
During this uncertain and stressful time, Dr. Roberts says children with Autism may display a greater level of outbursts, non-compliance, aggression, and other inappropriate behaviors, due to abrupt changes to daily life.
“Parents can support their children by responding in a calm, consistent, and comforting manner to reduce their stress and anxiety,” she said. “They also need to watch out for other changes, such as in eating or sleeping patterns, as this may be an indicator that their child needs additional support to cope with the situation.
“It’s of the utmost importance that children with Autism are allowed to be part of decision-making within the family where possible, and have the chance to process and express their emotions in this uncertain period.”
Dr. Roberts also says there are many websites developed specifically to support children with Autism in understanding COVID-19. For example, online resources – such as social stories that parents can read to their children – can be found at Nationalautismassociation.org