Changes to familiar activities, places or people can make us all feel anxious, however autistic children and teenagers can find these things particularly stressful. So, with the current Coronavirus pandemic closing schools in the United Kingdom; we have highlighted several ways this could impact on autistic children and young people should they not be able to attend school, together with top tips to help you deal with this new situation.
Impact to routine/structure:
This school closure throughout the UK may have a significant impact an autistic individual’s routine and structure. The unexpected change in the daily life of an autistic individual could exacerbate anxieties surrounding a loss of structure. Another element of this break in structure is the potential inability for parents to offer a routine at home. Parents/carers may struggle to take an extended period off from work, meaning that the care and support of their children would likely be shared between multiple people, again compromising structure and routine.
Take the unfamiliar and make it familiar. Introduce a routine that broadly mirrors your child’s School routine. Keep the same wake up time and lunchtime and use these regular breaks in the day to structure a routine. If possible, try to incorporate a variety of activities such as baking, reading and arts and crafts, develop a visual weekly routine so that your child knows precisely what they are going to be doing across the week. Within this plan identify who will be looking after your child and “running” the activities. This may include getting them involved in making the timetable of activities each day, so they have some choice and understand about what is happening.
For a lot of autistic pupils, coming to school is one of the biggest social opportunities that they regularly experience. With schools closing for an extended period of time, their social contact may be limited.
Use visual and audio devices to help keep in touch with significant family members and friends. This may include other parents who you have regular contact with and children who your children see regularly. You may wish to incorporate these into your daily/weekly timetable. This may include making items/ writing letters for them. Letters can be read out rather than sending and handmade items can be described or shown remotely and saved until they can be shared directly.
Loss of access to professionals:
Some autistic children access professional input (such as occupational therapists), which often occurs weekly. Schools closing for an extended period could have a significant impact on students who are perhaps in the middle of a series of OT sessions. It is unlikely that most services would be able to send professionals out to the homes of students.
Request from professionals any information about activities that can be carried on at home for a time. This could be included in the new timetable. Arrange where possible some remote catch up time with specialist. Even email updates can be helpful, and any difficulties, concerns or changes can be flagged up.
This extended School closure could also lead to heightened anxiety for autistic students. This could be generated by not knowing when school will reopen. The “day by day” stance to planning taken by the government does not help autistic individuals to create a routine and leads to further anxiety. Autistic students might well be worried about fellow pupils due to not being able to see them daily. Some individuals may also struggle with understanding why school is closed, unanswered questions and uncertainty will again heighten anxiety. Using a clear and concise ‘social story’ may help and be used to reinforce the changes in a more meaningful way.
Honesty is the best policy when it comes to talking to your child about Covid-19. Explain why measures are being put in place, how this will help to conquer the spread of the virus and what small steps they can do to ensure they are less risk. Download our Washing your Hands social story, or explain that you must cover your mouth when you cough and your nose when you sneeze, but ensure you tell your child not to cover their mouth or nose with their hands, instead, use a tissue. Explain all of this in the most appropriate language for your child and include an update on the situation in your daily routines.
Providing a visual weekly plan for your child may help to curb anxiety as they become aware of what activities are coming up. Depending on their profile of autism, routine may be key, so providing a routine within the unfamiliar may help your child to lower their anxiety level.
Impact to family:
The closing of Schools across the UK might not only impact on the students, there would be wider implications for the family. Parents, if possible, would need to take time off work, which would impact the family’s income and heighten the stress a tightened income would have. Those who cannot get time off work would need to arrange other support for their children, which has a cost implication if they chose to buy in support. Many families however will rely on grandparents and older relatives to provide support, which would heighten the risk of the virus spreading to this susceptible group.
Wherever possible discuss with your employer as soon as possible the implications that this will have for you and your family. Covid-19 affects everyone so chances are they will already be making contingency plans for their business. Look at creative ways to work. Even if you are fortunate enough to have the flexibility to work from home this could be more difficult if you have children at home with you. You may need shorter periods to work; work at later or earlier times for a short while. Don’t feel that you shouldn’t ask for help if you need it. Some communities are already mobilising volunteers to assist with shopping/ dog walking etc so look out what is happening where you live.
Finally, do seek support from others in similar situations. In lieu of our Family Support Hubs meeting in person we are running regular virtual catch up meetings for parents so we can support each other – please email firstname.lastname@example.org for further details of these